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Historical Materialism 24.2 (2016) 87–110
brill.com/hima

Reproduction and Resistance

An Anti-colonial Contribution to Social-Reproduction Feminism
Rebecca Jane Hall

Department of Political Science, York University
rebeccajanehall22@gmail.com

Abstract
In Northern Canada, Indigenous mixed economies persist alongside and in resistance
to capital accumulation. The day-to-day sites and processes of colonial struggle,
and, in particular, their gendered nature, are too often ignored. This piece takes an
anti-colonial materialist approach to the multiple labours of Indigenous women in
Canada, arguing that their social-reproductive labour is a primary site of struggle: a site
of violent capitalist accumulation and persistent decolonising resistance. In making
this argument, this piece draws on social-reproduction feminism, and anti-racist,
Indigenous and anti-colonial feminism, asking what it means to take an anti-colonial
approach to social-reproduction feminism. It presents an expanded conception
of production that encompasses not just the dialectic of capitalist production and
reproduction, but also non-capitalist, subsistence production. An anti-colonial
approach to social-reproduction feminism challenges one to think through questions
of non-capitalist labour and the way different forms of labour persist relationally,
reproducing and resisting capitalist modes of production.

Keywords
Indigenous feminism – colonialism – social reproduction – gender-based violence –
subsistence production

1 Introduction
There are multiple, often contradictory, stories told about Indigenous women
in Canada. State and industry sometimes laud Indigenous women as capitalist
success stories, better able than their male counterparts to integrate into
© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���6 | doi 10.1163/1569206X-12341473

88

Hall

the Canadian capitalist economy. Anti-colonial narratives counter this
claim, pointing to Indigenous women instead as protectors of Indigenous
communities, families, and ways of life.1 Feminists, both Indigenous and nonIndigenous, intervene in both these narratives by bringing attention to the
ways in which past and present structures of colonial violence play out in the
lives and upon the bodies of Indigenous women. In this piece, I take an anticolonial materialist approach to exploring the many labours of Indigenous
women in Canada and their social location in contemporary colonial struggle;
in other words, I ask what it means to take an anti-colonial approach to socialreproduction feminism, and endeavour to offer theoretical insights garnered
from an analysis grounded in Indigenous women’s labours, experiences and
understandings.
Grounding my analysis in the contemporary mixed economy of Northern
Canada, I argue that Indigenous women’s labour – and their labouring bodies –
is a primary site of colonial capitalist struggle. This is a site of violence and
resistance that is often obscured through Western, masculinised capitalist
ideological and material processes of separating different forms of noncapitalist labour. I take up the analytical contributions and tools of socialreproduction feminism and anti-colonial, Indigenous and anti-racist feminist
scholarship, asking what it means to take an anti-colonial approach to socialreproduction feminism. One of the great strengths of social-reproduction
feminism is that it makes visible, denaturalises and politicises processes of
care and unpaid labour. I argue that engaging in social-reproduction feminism
grounded in Indigenous women’s reproductive and productive activities –
labour that persists on the battleground of capitalist encroachment upon new
spaces of accumulation – is an important contribution both as a potential
way to elevate gendered operations in decolonising activities, spaces and
relationships, and as a way to sharpen some of the theoretical assumptions
underpinning social-reproduction feminism. I argue that an anti-colonial
approach to social-reproduction feminism challenges one to think through
questions of, arguably, non-capitalist labour and the way different forms
of labour persist relationally, reproducing and resisting capitalist modes of
production.
This analytic endeavour requires both an expansiveness in categories
of analysis and a precision: an expansiveness to account for modes of
reproduction and production that fall outside or between Western (both liberal
and socialist) categories of labour and a precision to account for the historical
and spatial specificity of labour performed by Indigenous people in Canada,
1  Lawrence 2003.

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89

both capitalist or otherwise. I contend that this specificity is a rich terrain
for understanding gendered modes of resistance to capitalism and, indeed,
the structural and corporeal violence of on-going capitalist colonisation. A
social-reproduction feminism framework grounded in Indigenous women’s
labour unhinges any unspoken orientation toward masculinised capitalist
production, and, in so doing, opens up space for further inquiry into the
relationship between subjectivity and capital; reproduction and other forms
of non-capitalist production; and reproduction as a site of resistance. Indeed,
the many attacks upon Indigenous structures of care and the outrageous
violence against Indigenous women in Canada are a reminder that Indigenous
social reproduction is a site of (colonial, gendered, and ‘raced’) capitalist
contestation; a site of violent accumulation and persistent resistance.
This theoretical discussion is guided by narratives shared with me by
Indigenous (Dene, Métis and Inuit) women in the Northwest Territories
(hereafter, NWT) of Canada,2 and grounded in an on-going commitment to
decolonising and anti-racist research practices.3 I draw on the insight these
women shared with a respect for Indigenous practices of storytelling as a
unique and irreducible form of knowledge-exchange and a commitment to the
on-going and reflexive practice of decolonising research. I recount the stories
with thanks for the debt of learning I owe, with an acknowledgment of the
inherent imperfection in re-telling, and with gratitude to the Dene, Inuit and
Métis communities and people who shared their knowledge.4
I begin with a discussion of social-reproduction feminism and its theoretical
lineage, focusing on different approaches to accounting for labour that is both
inside and outside of capitalism. Next, I draw on Indigenous and anti-racist
feminist theory and social-reproduction feminism theory to contribute to an
analytical framework for exploring social reproduction as a site of colonial
struggle. Taking up this analytical framework in relation to Indigenous
women’s labour in the NWT, I look to the ways in which social reproduction is

2  These interviews were part of a research project examining the impact of diamond mining
on women in the NWT. As part of our confidentiality agreement, all names and identifying
details have been changed.
3  Dei 2005.
4  Decolonising research is, in itself, a contradictory project. As noted by Linda Smith, ‘The
term “research” is inextricably linked to imperialism and colonialism. The word “research”
is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary.’ (Smith 1999.) As
such, I proceed with caution, guided by the Indigenous women who generously shared their
knowledge and mentored this project.

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Hall

a site of colonial struggle, a site of colonial violence, and a site of decolonising
resistance.
2

Social-Reproduction Feminism and Accounting for Non-capitalist
Labour

Because reproductive work, and its histories of struggle, are often obscured
or ignored, Marxist feminists, socialist feminists, and feminist political
economists have a long history of intervening in political economy, and critical
social theory, responding to inadequate theorisations of reproductive work
and women’s oppression within these traditions. I begin by locating these
theoretical discussions as they draw upon, build from, and respond to, Marx’s
categories of production. I then look to paths feminist Marxist theorists have
taken to incorporate reproductive labour into analysis and their implications
for an anti-colonial approach to social reproduction; focusing, first, on the
domestic-labour debates, and second, on contemporary social-reproduction
feminism theorising. In Capital, Volume I, Marx writes,
The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a
necessary condition for the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist
may safely leave this to the worker’s drive for self-preservation and
propagation. . . . From the standpoint of society, then, the working class,
even when it stands outside the direct labour process, is just as much an
appendage of capital as the lifeless instruments of labour are.5
This assertion encompasses both the strength and the weakness of Marx’s
analysis of the reproduction of labour-power. The strength is that Marx
conceptualises the production of capitalist value and the reproduction
of workers (specifically, workers’ labour-power) as indivisible elements of
the same process: the valorisation of capital. As Susan Ferguson and David
McNally write, ‘It was Marx’s great innovation to have grasped the ways in
which the production and reproduction of labour-power – and the histories of
dispossession and expropriation it implies – is the great secret to understand­
ing the totalizing processes of capital’.6 Indeed, in the above passage, Marx is
pointing to capitalist production’s dependence on the reproduction of labourpower that occurs outside of the capitalist workplace. This characterisation
5  Marx 1976, pp. 718–19.
6  McNally and Ferguson 2013, p. xl.

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holds important analytical and political weight for an understanding of
struggles in the so-called ‘domestic’ or ‘private’ realm; it presents a challenge
to theorists from various disciplines and politics who attempt to understand
reproductive and productive work discretely.7 It also makes space for criticism
of a framework that privileges ‘real’ (value-producing) workers’ struggles over
the struggles of those who perform unpaid work in their own home or work in
the homes of others, to be discussed below.
However, while Marx acknowledges the importance of reproductive labour,
he also naturalises its constitution. For Marx, structures of reproduction are
formed through the social relations upon which capitalism is grafted (that
is, the male-dominated nuclear family) and the imposition of the needs of
capitalist production; Marx naturalises the former and assumes the latter is
the historical agent, while reproductive labour is left rather benign. Indeed,
Marx writes, ‘The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it
is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. . . . In the ordinary run of things,
the worker can be left to the “natural laws of production” ’.8 It is notable that
Marx makes this comment in reference to the violent ways in which the social
conditions of labour naturalise the capitalist mode of production; certainly,
he is not arguing there is anything natural about reproduction for the needs
of capital. However, at the same time, once capitalism is fully developed
(though not before), Marx assumes that reproductive labour will accord to
the demands of capital, rather than approaching these processes as spaces of
agency, struggle and resistance.9
Marxist theorists – particularly Marxist feminists – have made significant
contributions since the mid-twentieth century to building an analysis of
reproductive labour under capitalism. This includes the domestic-labour
debates of the 1970s and 1980s. The domestic-labour debates began from
the premise of inserting ‘domestic labour’ – that is, unpaid labour in one’s
own home – into capitalist relations of production, the theoretical arm of a
political project to make women’s struggles in the home central to socialist
struggles.10 Theorists engaged in the domestic-labour debates were concerned
with whether or not ‘domestic labour’ could be conceptualised as productive
7  For an analysis of this debate, see Young 1980. Young engages with dual-systems feminist
theorists, ultimately arguing that a dual-systems analysis, one that separates reproduction
and production into separate spheres, reproduces the very patriarchal capitalist ideology
it seeks to challenge.
8  Marx 1976, p. 899.
9  Federici 2004, p. 63.
10  Federici 2012; Dalla Costa and James 1972.

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labour, in the Marxian sense. For Marx, productive labour is that which is
exploited and, thus, creates surplus-value. In Capital, Volume I, he writes,
Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is,
by its very essence, the production of surplus-value. The worker produces
not for himself, but for capital. It is no longer sufficient, therefore, for him
simply to produce. He must produce surplus-value. The only worker who
is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in
other words, contributes towards the self-valorization of capital.11
The above definition is consistent with Marx’s analysis in the Grundrisse,12 in
which he writes, quite simply, that productive labour is that which produces
capital. Using the example of a piano-maker, who is a productive labourer,
and a pianist, who is unproductive, Marx explains that productive labour has
nothing to do with its own utility; instead, ‘Labour is only productive so long as
it is producing its antithesis’.13
Marx’s definition of productive labour was politically and theoretically
central to the domestic-labour debates because of the analytic deployment
of the productive/unproductive labour divide as a way of determining class
position.14 Theorists engaged in the domestic-labour debate asked both
whether or not so-called ‘domestic labour’ constitutes productive labour, and
what this means for the role of people engaged in domestic labour (identified,
often, as ‘housewives’) in class struggle. Terry Fee, in providing an overview
of analysis around women’s domestic work and productive labour, with an
implicit emphasis on the middle-class housewife who performs unpaid work
in her own home, divides the arguments into three categories: first, those who
argued that housework is productive labour producing surplus-value; second,
those who argued that housework is necessary, but unproductive, and therefore
limited in its potential for anti-capitalist struggle; and, third, those who argued
that housework falls outside of the unproductive/productive divide.15
I argue that the theoretical precision of these historical debates (and the
critiques from both within and outside of these debates) makes explicit certain
limitations that must be overcome contemporaneously for an expansive
conception of social reproduction, in general, and for an anti-colonial
11  Marx 1976, p. 644.
12  Marx 1971.
13  Marx 1971, p. 79.
14  Fine and Harris 1976, p. 154.
15  Fee 1976, p. 2.

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approach to social reproduction, in particular. First, just as the theoretical
focus on productive labour and its relationship to material production and
class emanated from an over-emphasis on the male industrial worker, the
attempt to make the ‘housewife’ a productive labourer in the domesticlabour debates emanated from an over-emphasis on the (presumed white)
middle-class ‘housewife’ to the detriment of an analysis of those people –
primarily women and often women of colour – who work for a wage in other
people’s homes or whose homes do not fit into the Western, heteropatriarchal
normative assumptions of ‘home’.16 An attention to the way in which care work
is devalued and downgraded along gendered, colonial and racialised lines
and across borders is essential for understanding the forms of exploitation
that underpin the reproduction of contemporary capitalism. For example,
Claudia Jones17 consistently drew attention to the special role of the domestic
worker and the ‘Negro woman’ for anti-capitalist theorising and organising.18
And, while the ‘housewife’ orientation obscures the double exploitation of
women working in their own homes and the homes of others, it entirely denies
the labour of Indigenous women whose work exists outside (or, alternately,
partly outside or differently inside) the Western gendered divisions of labour
assumed to reproduce capitalist relations. To put it another way, a project that
has as its goal the inclusion of women’s labour as productive labour inherently
undermines people (both women and men) who determinedly persist in noncapitalist, and therefore unproductive, labour. This brings me to the second
limitation of the domestic-labour debates.
Terry Fee19 – writing in cognisance of the historic failures of socialist
movements to address women’s oppression – notes that, while the idea
of housework as productive is attractive in its implications for workingclass solidarity, ultimately, housework does not fit into Marx’s definition of
productive labour. I concur, and, rather than demonstrating the importance
of reproductive labour by fitting it into the categories of capitalist production,
aim to demonstrate that the ‘un-productive realm’ is a dynamic site of struggle
16  See, for example, Kim Anderson, for an Indigenous feminist analysis of the ways in
which non-Western, Indigenous structures of home and care have been attacked by the
Canadian State (Anderson 2003).
17  In Boyce Davies 2008.
18  In her analysis, Jones does not conflate ‘Negro women’ with domestic workers in America;
but she uses the terms rather interchangeably, or rather, uses the female domestic worker
as the economic expression of the Negro woman worker’s plight, as Negro women are
consistently relegated to the most ‘menial and underpaid’ jobs (Johnson 1985, p. 106).
19  Fee 1976.

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and resistance, both inside and outside of capitalism. Indeed, as I move to a
discussion of contemporary theories of social reproduction, in aiming to
contribute to an anti-colonial approach to social-reproduction feminism, I
make labour which crosses the boundaries between that which is capitalist
and that which is not – reproductive labour and non-capitalist, subsistence
labour – the centre of an analysis of new modes of capitalist exploitation and
anti-capitalist resistance.
Contemporaneously, social-reproduction feminism encompasses a diverse
set of theoretical approaches and subjects; however, social-reproduction
feminist theorists share the notion that the reproduction of labour can be
neither divorced from capitalist production nor exclusively determined by it,
and as such it underpins their research into social reproduction. As Leah Vosko
notes,20 social-reproduction theory emanates from the acknowledgment of the
necessity of reproduction for production and the interconnectedness between
the two. However, as Vosko and others21 argue, social reproduction is not a
concept that is deployed consistently. While divergence in social-reproduction
feminist conceptions is expected and potentially fruitful, there is also the
possibility of analytical cloudiness that could hamper the transformative
potential of this framework. Meg Luxton writes, ‘By itself, social reproduction
offers little more than a fancy term to describe the ordinary activities of daily
life. Too often, conventional feminist use of social reproduction still focuses
on women’s work in the home.’22 As Luxton notes, when the term social
reproduction slips into shorthand for women’s unpaid work in the home, it
loses the conceptual clarity required to challenge the erroneous separation of
reproduction from production. I argue it also has the potential of reproducing
an implicitly Eurocentric orientation that naturalises patriarchal nuclearhousehold arrangements.
How, then, does one articulate a theory that takes as its starting point the
indivisibility of reproduction and production – as two parts of a whole –
but also utilises precise categories of labour to explore different colonial,
racialised and gendered locations within a particular mode of production (in
this case, the NWT mixed economy)? The first step in addressing this issue is
ascertaining whether the term ‘reproduction’, as used in social-reproduction
feminism, refers to the social reproduction of the mode of production in its
totality, and all of the contradictions therein, or whether reproduction refers
20  Vosko 2002.
21  Ferguson 2008; Bezanson and Luxton (eds.) 2006.
22  Luxton 2006, p. 36.

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specifically to the work done to reproduce labour-power, with the cognisance
of its dialectical relationship with value-producing labour. I argue that either
formulation has the potential to foster the theoretical and political intent to
make visible the reproduction of labour-power and the gendered hierarchies
of labour relied upon in the reproduction of capital relations; however, the
slippage between the two can lead to inadvertent reproduction of the dualsystems model, or analytical incoherence more generally.
In an example of the former conception of social-reproduction feminism,
Susan Ferguson characterises social-reproduction theory as ‘the concept
of an expanded mode of production, whose essential unity lies in a broad
definition of labour. That definition . . . incorporates both the value-producing
labour associated with the waged economy and the domestic labour (typically
performed by women) required to give birth to, feed and raise the current
generation of workers and the children who will comprise the future workers’.23
In the introduction to their collection, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political
Economy Challenges Neo-liberalism, Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton articulate
a more narrow definition:
The concept of social reproduction refers to the processes involved
in maintaining and reproducing people, specifically the labouring
population, and their labour power on a daily and generational basis
(Laslett and Brenner 1989; Clarke 2000). It involves the provision of
food, clothing, shelter, basic safety, and health care, along with the
development and transmission of knowledge, social values, and cultural
practices and the construction of individual and collective identities
(Elson 1998; 1992).24
Defining social reproduction as the reproduction of the labouring population,
specifically, rather than the reproduction of the mode of production in totality,
is a choice that need only be one of semantics; what is necessary in either case
is the articulation and theorising of the relationship between the reproduction
of the labouring population to the reproduction of the mode of production,
as a whole. Thus, I use the term ‘expanded production’ to refer to a theory
that encompasses capitalist value-producing labour and non-value producing
labour – both reproductive labour, or social reproduction, and non-capitalist,
subsistence labour, to be discussed below – and approaches these different
23  Ferguson 2008, p. 44.
24  Bezanson and Luxton (eds.) 2006, p. 3.

Historical Materialism 24.2 (2016) 87–110


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