A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise
“What is the future of reproductive labor in an increasingly automated society which questions the meaning of work itself?”
In A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise productivity is for robots; children belong to themselves; to work is to reproduce; and everyone is a surrogate (Figure 1). In this post-capitalist world, productive labor has been automated, and the work left for humans to perform is solely reproductive. The social sphere is a stage for leisure and reproduction – the robots handle the rest. Human labor is no longer about productivity, but about maintaining the social and physical infrastructures that have stalled with the dissolution of capitalism. Architecture is in a state of limbo, and in constant need of repair and maintenance. Inspired by non-biological forms of kinship, the family as we know it is extinct, and everyone is a substitute for each other.
In this world, the meaning of work has been transformed; to work is to reproduce, to care, to maintain, to fix, to rebuild, and to be a substitute. The audio-visual essay is a creative response to research on the following topics: the contemporary care crisis, the devaluation of reproductive labor from theoretical and historical contexts, discussions of reproductive labor as an intersectional issue, and post-work theories. The narrative is a series of provocations; the ambiguous tone of the piece is deliberate. While it is true the state must provide more support for the ‘care’ of its citizens, this is almost too obvious of a statement to make; it is not a provocation, but a practical response to a policy-driven necessity, and to the moral obligations of the state. A lot of people in the industrialized west already have the privilege of state-run care programs, and talk of universal child care programs is not new to a place like New York City. Rather than providing answers to the care crisis, the project requires the audience to engage in a dialogue and to consider alternatives to the now and the familiar.
At its core, A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise is a critique of the asymmetrical relationship between ‘productive’ labor which sustains economies, and ‘reproductive’ labor which sustains individuals. The care crisis that we experience today, in all of its complexities and contradictions, has roots in this asymmetry. The production and caring of people do not produce profit; therefore this type of work is devalued. Despite the actual increase in demand for workers to perform reproductive work, its wages remain stagnant, and its workers live in social and economic precarity.
This paper will discuss how this audio-visual essay engages in an ongoing dialogue with theories that explain the value asymmetry between reproductive and productive work, by providing a summary of the research collected during the course of this project. Early motivations for the project stem from discussions of the contemporary care crisis, and from the work of Marxist-feminists like Silvia Federici who argued for the recognition of reproductive labor as the foundation of all labor. While Marxist-feminist ideas provide a framework from which to view the nature of this work as work, their focus on the experience of white middle class women is ultimately an abstracted and incomplete view of reproductive labor and its complexities. Informed by more contemporary perspectives, this project attempts to present reproductive labor as an issue which involves the interlocking relationship between race, gender and class, and situates this idea in the context of a ‘post-work’ society.
The Contemporary Care Crisis
In developed countries like the United States and South Korea, women who are employed in the private sector must wait a few months, or in some cases years, to have access to their employee benefits or maternity leave. By financing the beginning stages of the workers’ family life with the completion of a ‘trial period’, the company gains some control over the planning of families and the timing of pregnancies. This is further complicated for poor women who do not have a fixed relationship to space, nor the same access to company run maternity benefits and child care services as more well off, middle class women.
Currently, there are multiple pregnancy tracking apps in the market that millions of women use to document their experience of childbirth. The data collected from the users of such health tracking apps has been bought by employers to surveil their employees.  In one instance, Diana Diller, a woman from Los Angeles, was paid $1 a day in gift cards by her employer to use a pregnancy tracking app called “Ovia”; she was not aware that they would have access to the intimate details of her life. Employers will promote the use of these apps as ‘corporate wellness’, and incentivize them with monetary benefits. Meanwhile, the apps are simultaneously being weaponized to monitor high risk pregnancies, predict when the new mothers will return to work, and in effect increase control over the lives and family planning of female workers.
Most parents with young children work the “second shift” when they return home from their jobs. For low income families, this is the third or fourth shift. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, 63% of all families with children (under the age of 18) had both parents employed. Families and individuals are left to bear all of the financial, physical, and emotional burdens of care, while also participating in wage labor. While affordable state-run child care exists in some countries like France and Germany, the U.S. government does not provide adequate support for the care of its citizens, and private care is generally unaffordable.
“If reproductive labor is in such high demand and affects every day Americans all over the country, then why are its wages so low and sometimes non-existent?”
The Asymmetrical Relationship Between Productive and Reproductive Labor
One of the main goals of this project has been to challenge the asymmetrical relationship between productive and reproductive labor – a distinction that has been made from an engagement with theoretical and historical discussions on gendered labor. These ideas reveal the ways in which the codification of ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ work, and the allocation of human reproduction as a ‘natural’ phenomena, separate from the production process by capital, have caused devaluation of reproductive labor in both our collective consciousness, and in the market. The focus on this imbalance between ‘reproductive’ and ‘productive’ labor, and on ways to challenge this asymmetry, are the core tenets of this project; they are the conceptual motivations for the vision of a future society which values reproductive labor as work.
The Marxist theory of labor provides some insight into the capitalist devaluation of reproductive labor, with an analytical distinction between the labor which creates value as part of the production process and labor that does not. According to Marx, value is produced when labor is “abstracted from its concrete manifestation” and is available on the market for exchange. Marx considers “value-producing labor” as abstract labor. According to this thought, reproductive work is considered a non-value creating form of ‘immaterial’ work because it has no ‘use value’; it is not a form of abstract labor that creates value in the market.
According to Silvia Federici, domestic labor “had to be transformed into a natural attribute rather than be recognized as a social contract because from the beginning of capital’s scheme for women this work was destined to be unwaged.” Under capitalism, the production of people has no value because humans themselves do not produce profit. Because individuals can only present themselves in relation to their capacity to produce, their capacity to reproduce individuals as labor power is self-appropriative because capital does not pay for it. Capital sees the reproduction of individuals as a natural occurrence; therefore it is unwaged.
In 1972, Federici, along with Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, started Wages for Housework, a global feminist group which argued for the recognition of reproductive labor as the foundation of all labor, and demanded wages for the invisible and unpaid work of housewives. For them, wage was not just about getting paid; it was the “fundamental expression of power relation between capital and the working class.” They argue that “the left has accepted the wage as the dividing line between work and non-work, production and parasitism, potential power and absolute powerlessness.” Thus, the unpaid reproductive labor of women which reproduces and sustains capital has “escaped their analysis and strategy.” This Marxist-feminist perspective argues that traditional Marxism presumes unpaid workers as politically and technologically “underdeveloped” in comparison to their waged “real working class” counterparts.
Reproductive Labor and the Intersectional Relationship Between Race, Class and Gender
Historically, reproductive labor has been considered a woman’s work. But to assume the patriarchy as the overarching issue is to exacerbate the problematic notion that this work is uniquely female, and that the patriarchy has primacy over class relations. In today’s socio-economic climate, neoliberalism benefits from the de-gendering of work as it decreases wages and expands the size of the labor force. The benefits of degraded working conditions for lower class workers — of either gender — are shared by ruling-class men and women. More and more men work in the care industry, yet wages have not increased and the work is still devalued; the work is becoming less gendered, yet it is still performed by the poverty class.
According to Mignon Duffy, “impacts of race, class and other aspects of inequality are obscured when gender is considered in isolation.” While the work of the early Marxist feminists signals an important moment for women’s rights, it suggests that all women – regardless of class and race – are defined by their private domestic responsibilities. With the essentialist assumption that wages will liberate women from oppression, they neglect the voices of immigrant women, poor women, and women of color who have been engaged in waged reproductive work for centuries and remain marginalized to this day.
While there is no doubt that women represent a majority in care professions, it is worthwhile to examine the increasing presence of men in these jobs. This discussion is vital if we want to begin to reject the notion that reproductive labor – or any occupation for that matter – is uniquely and naturally ‘female’. In 2015, 40% of unpaid family caregivers were men.  In California until 1880 and Hawaii until 1920, the majority of domestic workers were Chinese and Japanese men, as a result of an uneven sex ratio of Asian immigrants. The consideration of gender in isolation is not only unreliable, but detrimental to understanding the true nature of reproductive labor.
A contemporary examination of the gender composition of care professions shows that men are entering this field in increasing numbers. From 2014 to 2017, the percentage of men in personal care aide jobs increased from 15.6% to 16.1%. In nurse practitioner jobs, male presence increased from 8.3% to 10.3%. While these numbers are low in comparison to the percentage of women who occupy these jobs, the gradual balancing of gender is decisive when considering today’s demographics and socio-economic climate. With the exponential demand for home health aides and the projected decline in manufacturing employment of 550,000 jobs by 2022, it is reasonable to conclude that more men will continue to work alongside women in care professions.
A Brief Historical Analysis of the Sexual Division of Reproductive Labor
Cinzia Arruzza argues that, “gender oppression in capitalist societies is rooted in the subordination of social reproduction to production for profit.” The biological reproduction of human beings is allocated to the sexual organs of women’s bodies. But the sexual division of reproductive labor and women’s oppression are by-products of the complex relationship between industrialized capitalism, race, and class; it is not biologically determined, but a result of the transition from the private home economy to an industrialized economy and the prominence of mass-produced commodities with exchange value.
Friedrich Engels, in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, argues that women’s oppression began with the emergence of private property. In pre-capitalist societies, labor was still divided by gender, but this division was not hierarchical; it was complementary. During the pre-industrial era in North America, women were producers of products such as soap, butter, candles, and textiles that were essential to the sustenance of domestic life; they were considered “full-fledged and accomplished workers within the home-based economy.” Their economic status extended beyond the private sphere – reaching outside of the home. Women often ran sawmills, slaughterhouses, taverns, and dry-goods stores.
With advanced industrialization and the transition of economic production from the domestic sphere to the factory, women’s economic status began to decline as their ‘productive’ labor was replaced by industrialized mass production. The ‘housewife’ is the “ideological by-product” of this socio-economic transformation. But this redefinition of women’s status was not universal; it was rather a “partial reality” reflecting women of the emerging middle class. Immigrant women and freed black women whose survival depended on waged work were “wage earners first and only secondary housewives.” As such, large numbers of women faced the double burden of waged and reproductive labor. They also faced discrimination from their male counterparts and labor unions for stepping outside the domestic sphere into the “masculine world of the public economy.”
The mid- to late-19th century saw the expansion of middle-class women’s reproductive responsibilities, with increased standards of cleanliness and the “sentimentalization of the home” as a haven for moral qualities. During this time, nearly all middle and upper-class families employed at least one domestic servant; housewives could relieve some of the dirtier work to recent immigrants or working class women. At its peak in the 1870’s, there was an average of one servant for every 8 families in the United States. Ninety percent of these workers were women, representing half of all employed women until 1870.
Women of color were swayed into domestic work as a result of “economic need, restricted opportunities, and educational and employment tracking mechanisms.” From the mid 19th century to the end of World War I, nearly all domestic servants in the Northeast were European immigrant women, mostly of Irish and German descent. Mexican women occupied these roles in the Southwest, and African American women in the South. While men initially occupied these roles in California and Hawaii, nearly half of all Japanese American women in the Bay Area and in Honolulu were employed as domestic servants during the years before World War II. By 1930, three out of five employed black women in the United States were domestic servants. Institutional programs to coerce minorities into domestic service, such as the urban school system in the Southwest targeting Mexican women, were also established as early as the 1880’s.
The stratification of minority women – in comparison to white women – is especially visible when examining the racial division of labor in nursing professions. Historically, nursing schools in the South excluded blacks, while schools in the North adopted strict quotas for non-whites. In 2017, 83.5% of nurse practitioners in the United States were white, and the average annual salary was $96,112. In nursing aide professions, 50% were white, and the average salary was $24,144. This socially constructed asymmetry between the experience of white women and women of color was – as is now – defined by the interlocking relationship between gender, class, and race.
This body of research argues that reproductive labor is an intersectional issue, and that women are not biologically destined to perform this work, but have been forced into this role as a result of ideology and capitalism. The lack of socio-economic diversity in people who occupy these jobs only reinforce its invisibility and devaluation. Informed by these ideas, A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise speculates on what the future of reproductive labor looks like, if ‘productive’ labor were out of the equation. Reproductive work is no longer a role assigned to women or people who already live along the margins, but a job which transcends class, race, and gender. It becomes the driver of human activity, involving the participation of everyone, not just the poverty class and their elite employers. To work is to reproduce (Figures 2-7).
Post-Work Future: Rentism Plus Communism
In Four Futures, Peter Frase presents four theories of post-capitalist futures: communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. Frase’s interpretations of Marxist theory provide a lens through which to imagine four distinct post-capitalist futures. These four visions, which detail the consequences of such extremes, are sources of inspiration for the project’s post-work context.
Communism is a society marked by equality and abundance. The combination of a universal basic income and automated labor dissolves the distinction between labor and leisure; people no longer work as a means for survival, but for pleasure and are freed from what Marx calls “the realm of necessity” to “the realm of freedom.” It assumes that advancements in technology have mitigated the climate crisis, and people no longer fear the threats of environmental collapse and scarcity.
Frase defines rentism as a society determined by abundance and hierarchy. The ruling class consists of an elite group of people who own and control information, and the reproduction of patterns. Rentism is an extension of surveillance capitalism, with corporate giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google accumulating immense wealth through the extraction of data.
According to Marx, when communism and modernity have reached their peak there will be no distinction between ‘work’ and leisure. To work will no longer be a means for survival, but a road to self-development, and pleasure. But reproductive labor is not a leisure activity, and to equate the two is problematic. Most people don’t view or value this work as work, and conflating reproduction and leisure would only increase their vulnerability to this miscalculation. That is why within the renter’s paradise, work is redefined as reproduction, not as leisure.
Many post-capitalist narratives exist at the extremes. In the case of Four Futures, there is only communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism – no space for the gray areas in between. Informed by the theories behind Frase’s post-capitalist futures, the renter’s paradise combines communism and rentism. Like the replacement of agricultural labor with industrial labor, productive labor is replaced by reproduction. The rentiers, who control the rights to information, also own the land and the machines that engage with production. They extract data from the city dwellers who in return live rent-free lives. Full automation and a renter’s paradise are made possible with this surplus of data. Productivity is for robots (Figure 8).
Within the renter’s paradise, communist ideals are manifested in the social dynamics of the renter class and the ‘freeing up’ of surrogacy. Reflecting Marxist critiques of the family structure and inspired by non-biological forms of kinship based on reciprocity, this world exists without the institution of the family as we know it today. The post-work universe makes reference to non-capitalist family structures that exist outside the dominant institution of the nuclear family. During the European Middle Ages, “in every family the child was wet-nursed by a stranger… parents reared other people’s children for adult life.” A more contemporary example can be found in the Oneida Community: a Utopian Socialist community in upstate New York which lasted from 1848 to 1881. Reproductive labor is collectivized and children belong to themselves (Figure 9).
What if Everyone were a Surrogate?
To be a surrogate simply means to be a substitute for someone else. In the context of reproduction, surrogacy is a contested issue. It is a $2 billion industry which enables individuals with financial means to contract women to perform gestational labor on their behalf. According to Sophie Lewis, “gestating is an unconsciously destructive business” that is not dissimilar to the effects of cancer on human bodies. In the United States alone, nearly 1,000 women die per year giving birth, and another 65,000 have near-death experiences. Still, thousands of women risk their lives every day to give birth for a wage. The stigmatization and illegalization of surrogacy in some countries have only exacerbated conditions for these working women. Clinicians will move surrogate mothers across borders, depending on the stage of their pregnancy to avoid legal ramifications, exposing them to greater risks.
Sophie Lewis argues that we must not side with the anti-surrogacy movement, which further jeopardizes the security and dignity of surrogate mothers. Rather, we must work towards the “dream of surrogates running surrogacy”, subverting the very meaning of the word “surrogate” to be a relationship based on collectivity and horizontality, not on subjugation. She asks, how can we redefine surrogacy to refer to the idealized fact that “we are the makers of one another”, and promote the “proliferation of relations rather than a continuation of a logic, Surrogacy ™?” A clear solution is that everyone becomes a surrogate; everyone is a surrogate (Figure 10).
The theories, ideas and facts discussed in this essay are the origins of four provocations within the narrative that provide glimpses into the renter’s paradise: “productivity is for robots”; “to work is to reproduce”; “children belong to themselves”; and “everyone is a surrogate.” The narrative also includes a series of metaphors which summarize and respond to the research. The first three lines of the script refer to the value asymmetry between productive and reproductive labor:
“Before history reset itself, there was work, then there was reproduction. People were once a natural resource, like fish. Our creation, and re-creation were valueless – an externality.”
The line, “Labor replaced labor, replaced labor, until it couldn’t,” encapsulates the two technological revolutions that we have so far experienced, and the emergence of the present third technological era. “Motherhood, womanhood, and housewife are not biological systems – they are ideology” refers to the ideology of femininity that has appropriated reproductive work as natural phenomena.
Aesthetically and conceptually, A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise sits in the gray area between reality and unreality. The conceptual and aesthetic inspiration comes from the work of Fiona Raby, Anthony Dunne, Hito Steyerl and Sputniko!. The project employs visual metaphors: scaffolding to represent a society in a state of repair, and conveyor belts to symbolize the production networks of the third industrial revolution (Figures 11-15). Contrasted with these seemingly familiar environmental conditions are scenes that are out of the ordinary. The purpose of the aesthetic choice is to not be didactic and representational, but expressive, ambiguous and gestural. By dissociating productive labor from people, and presenting a new social reality which revolves around reproduction, the project attempts to make visible the “social process and human relations that produce the conditions of existence.”
Through an engagement with historical and theoretical discourse, A Post-Work Renter’s Paradise is not only a piece of creative expression, but a lens through which one can question and critique the underlying forces that dictate our current existence. The provocative statements and imagery are not intended to provide ‘answers’ to solving the care crisis, nor are they dystopian or utopian visions of what a post-work future may look like. Rather, they are thresholds for viewers to enter, to think outside of capitalist realism – or this state of inertia that is best described by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Upon engaging with the work, viewers will hopefully begin to see that there are alternatives to capitalism – whether they like it or not. Maybe not now, maybe not in a hundred years, but maybe in a few hundred years there will be a new history of the world – starting with the end of capitalism.
She can be reached at email@example.com, and (no longer) found somewhere in Queens, stewing meats, and watching PBS documentaries.