In June, a colloquium called ‘capital accumulation: Strategies of Profit and Dispossessive Policies’ was organised for the 50th anniversary of the University of Paris Dauphine. The colloquium provided a snapshot of the current debates and concepts within the field of Marxism. The discussion between the main key Marxist speakers – David Harvey and Nancy Fraser– revolved around conceptualising various challenges that capitalism is facing. The different conceptual mapping of the crises provides different paths to emancipatory changes.
Capitalism is facing many heterogenous ills: Economic, financial, environmental and care deficits. Harvey analyses these ills under the single umbrella of economic crisis that found its origin in the contradictions that the capitalist system carries. Basically (and we all know the drill), capitalism is a process of circulation. Capitalists put some money to buy labour power and means of production, make them work together under a given technology and organisation to produce a commodity that will be sold on the market for a value. In this process, workers are not being paid according to the value they have produced but rather are being paid wages that barely cover the socially necessary costs of their own reproduction. The difference between waged labour and the real value produced by the workers fuels capitalist profit. Given that the capitalist system is a process, a part of that profit has to be capitalised and put again into circulation to extract more profit. The quest for more profit compels capitalists to promote endless growth rates.
In David Harvey’s view, the two classes’ social relations of exploitation are at the crux of the accumulation process of capitalism, overaccumulation and consequent crisis. Overaccumulation as a crisis is defined as surpluses of labour and capital which cannot get together in a profitable enterprise. In this understanding, social reproduction of labour and nature are what Harvey calls free gifts for the capitalist system and are not conceptualised as independent mechanisms of accumulation.
The economic crisis or overaccumulation gets temporarily solved through spatio-temporal fixes or what Harvey also calls accumulation by dispossession. The crises of capitalism are being temporarily tamed by geographical expansion and restructuring. Indeed, capitalist accumulation works within a fixed space where there are built environments such as transport, factories, roads etc. leading to dispossession of the local population to produce profit. The process of capitalism destroys the space as it needs to increase profit through growth. Once the space is destroyed, at a later point, capitalism re-creates a new space to reproduce the capitalist system of overaccumulation. So, this process of creation and destruction is at the very core of globalisation and understanding the geographical principles of globalisation will help to find a path for emancipatory changes.
While Fraser agrees that the crux of accumulation lies in the two classes’ social relations, she thinks that this view is too narrow as it focuses only on social processes and social relations that are accorded value in the capitalist system by the capitalists and that the capitalists themselves define as having economic value. It does not integrate the non-economic phenomena of global warming, care deficits and the hollowing out of public power. Rather, Fraser believes that currently, capitalism is having two crises: the economic and the non-economic crisis. While the economic crisis is the one described by Harvey, the non-economic crisis is coming from activities which are not recognised by the capitalist system. The non-economic activities are the borders of the capitalist economy. These activities are for instance the non-wage labour of social reproduction which provides the supply of labour but also activities such as social bounds, solidarity and forms of trust. There are other spaces than the private home where activities of social reproduction and its associated care activities are occurring. For instance, public education and health care systems as well as leisure facilities are all part of the activities of care. Slavery and immigration are the two most common ways capital has replaced labour. The separation between social reproduction and production enables capitalist forms of women’s subordination while being the indispensable background precondition for the possibility of capitalist production (Fraser, 2014).
Particularly, Fraser focused on the crisis of the activities of social reproduction. The division between social reproduction and production have shifted overtime. In the 20th century there has been mutations of social reproduction activities within the state. After the Second World War, some aspects of the social reproduction moved from the realm of the private home to the realm of public services and public good while in the Neoliberal era, social reproduction and care mutated from the realm of public services to the realm of the market forces.
The last mutation has accentuated care extractivism and hence the crisis of care. The concept of care extractivism as development by Wichterich is an analogy to the concept of resource extractivism and posits the increasing reliance of the extraction of care, through commodification and, economisation in the market forces . For instance, this concept can be used for transnational reproductive networks where the Global North recruits through the free market care workers from the Global South to provide care activities. This process creates a deficit of care in the family of the care worker of the global south. In other words, care workers who work in a family in the Global North do not have as much time for their own families in the Global South. As Wichterich argues, the neoliberalisation of care ‘depletes care as commons in societies and families of the Global South’. Moreover, the extraction of care workers in the Global South are not the only source of crisis.
The neoliberal mutation has led to a deficit – crisis – of care in other domains. It has led to a deficit of teachers and care givers because the state abandoned supporting these public good services. It also has led to a deficit of the quality of care as the persistent drive for growth and expansion while focus on profit has pushed capitalism to intensify efficiency to reduce costs. As Witchery points out, in many domains such as industrial process, efficiency can lead to quality. However, care is different. For instance, it is not possible to increase efficiency and productivity of feeding a baby or a dement person. It means that the emphasis of efficiency to cut on cost will impede the quality of the care provided.
Last, the privatisation of care has reconfigured the gender and race order as these activities are mostly carried out by cheap workers constructed along social hierarchies of gender, class, race and North South and, post-colonial division. By looking at social reproduction and care extractivism, Marxist theory opens up then to feminism, and colonialism while still acknowledging class struggles.
Mapping social reproduction is at the core of Marxist discussions. While traditional Marxists such as Harvey places it at the point of production and value, others such as Fraser wants to go at the border of the capitalist activities and consider social and care activities that occur outside and inside the private home. It also recognises social resistances outside class struggle such as movement for free education or free childcare. Finally, the points of resistances at the border of the capitalist system can be seen as sources of emancipatory changes.
 David Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register 40 (2004): 63–87.
 Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72.
About the author:
Maryse Helbert is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the ISS. Prior to that, she was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She has been an advocate for women’s rights for decades, having worked for AWID (Association for Women in Development), DIPD (Danish Institute for Parties and Democracies), and she is a gender-based violence research expert to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for the United Nations Development Programme. Taking an ecofeminist approach, her PhD looked at oil industry and its economic, social and environmental impacts on women in three countries. In her latest work, she takes on the lessons learnt from the fossil fuels industry to explore the challenges of a post-carbon society.