Privacy, Finance Capitalism, and the Question of Reproductive Futurity

By Tom Syverson

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a religious fundamentalist counter-revolution has taken power. The  regime of Gilead has instituted a regressive order of rigid gender roles and bizarre mating rituals. As Wives, Marthas, Jezebels, and Handmaids, women in Gilead are forced into degrading, servile roles that neatly embody the social, domestic, sexual, and reproductive pivots of female subordination in patriarchy.

But the regime’s religious underpinnings merely provide cover for what amounts to a political formation in response to a biological crisis. Severe declines in the birth rate and widespread sterility have created a social condition of scarce reproductive resources. Beneath the murmuring prayers and ceremony fetish, in Gilead there lies a struggle not merely over tradition or personal identity, but over the question of distributing the powers and burdens of reproducing society itself.

To risk oversimplification, one might say that Atwood’s book stands for the idea that public encroachment into reproductive privacy is a bad thing. Public participation in something entails politicization of that thing, and politics always ends up being about who controls what. Traditionally, the conflict over reproductive control has been resolved in men’s favor, with social policies that objectify and instrumentalize the female body. Atwood’s dystopia is precisely what we are afraid of when the public eye turns its gaze on reproductive privacy.

But alongside Atwood’s book, consider another work of feminist science fiction, which offers a more optimistic attitude toward the future of reproduction. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time was published in 1976, about a decade before Atwood’s book and during the heyday of second-wave feminism. Whereas Atwood imagines a regressive dystopia of sexual subjugation, Piercy offers a feminist futurism that is androgynous, egalitarian, and technologically liberated.

Piercy’s future is characterized by social reconfigurations flowing from artificial reproduction. Human embryos are gestated in synthetic placenta, women no longer give live birth, and communal childrearing has replaced the nuclear family. Piercy identifies artificial reproduction as not only the key to women’s liberation, but also as the necessary precondition for a just and caring society. Piercy challenges us to imagine a society in which “we all became mothers.” [1]

In Piercy’s view, the uneven character of reproductive biology forms the underlying paradigm for all power relations. By erasing both male control and female power over reproduction, Piercy’s society was able to solve derivative power asymmetries like racism, classism, and homophobia. In stark contrast to Atwood’s more distrustful depiction, Piercy’s novel reveals the potential benefit of social intervention in reproductive privacy.

As the feminist scholar Rosemarie Tong has argued, these two novels represent competing perspectives on motherhood and reproduction within the radical-feminist tradition. Tong writes, “Whereas radical-liber[ationist] feminists believe women should substitute artificial for natural modes of reproduction, radical-cultural feminists believe it is in women’s best interest to procreate naturally.” [2] Atwood depicts gestational surrogacy as an exploitative and alienating process, and in so doing reflects skepticism or even hostility toward social intervention in reproduction via politics and technology. Atwood suggests a vision of social reproduction that remains grounded in biological privacy. Meanwhile, Piercy sees reproduction as a necessarily social project. And particularly because the transition to artificial reproduction would require substantial public support and prioritization, Piercy seems to view reproduction as a social determinant that is subject to the same political and technological processes as any other aspect of society.


The Feminist Question of Biological Motherhood

L0038225 Stages in pregnancy as represented by the growth of the womb

For feminist theory, the disagreement boils down to a simple, but very difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, question: for women, is biological reproduction a source of oppression, or a means of empowerment? Further, what does that choice mean for social reproduction as a whole?

In its most concrete form, the radical-feminist disagreement over motherhood concerns the role of reproductive technology—including in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, gestational surrogacy, and ex utero gestation—and whether those capabilities are a venue for feminist emancipation, or instead backdoor methods of consolidated patriarchal control.

The theorist and activist Shulamith Firestone embodies the radical-liberationist perspective. A formidable figure in second-wave feminism, Firestone argued strenuously that female reproductive biology was a shackle, and that motherhood was patriarchy’s oldest and fondest ally. In her radical manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, she put the matter bluntly: “Pregnancy is barbaric.” [3]

For Firestone, women could not be free without abolishing the nuclear family and relinquishing natural childbearing. This meant that those goals were synonymous with the feminist project as such:  “feminism is the inevitable female response to the development of a technology capable of freeing women from the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles—both the biological condition itself, and the sexual class system built up, and reinforcing, this biological condition.” [4] Consequently, Firestone put reproductive liberation at the center of her vision of feminist utopia, and “the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction” was her first revolutionary demand. [5]

Simone de Beauvoir came close to matching Firestone’s negative view of biological reproduction. A decade earlier, Beauvoir wrote extensively in The Second Sex about the social and psychological complexities of motherhood, but her squeamishness about the female reproductive body is hard to miss. Beauvoir, like Firestone, was frank about what she thought of having kids: “Notwithstanding all the respect that society surrounds it with, gestation inspires spontaneous repulsion.” [6] She characterized the female organism as a natural slave to breeding, and thought that human women had the worst lot of all: “woman is of all mammalian females at once the one who is most profoundly alienated . . . and the one who most violently resists this alienation; in no other is enslavement of the organism to reproduction more imperious or more unwillingly accepted.” [7]

Beauvoir acknowledged the potential for personal gratification through motherhood, but only fleetingly. Mainly, she seemed to view childbearing as an existentially dubious practice, and one that was deeply embedded in patriarchy. Having children was forgivable and maybe tolerable, but it certainly wasn’t the key to feminist salvation. “It is a mystification to maintain that woman becomes man’s equal through motherhood . . . There has been an enormous amount of talk about the sacred rights of women, but being a mother is not how women gained the right to vote; the unwed mother is still scorned; it is only in marriage that motherhood is glorified—in other words, as long as she is subordinate to the husband.” [8] For Beauvoir, motherhood was still institutionally tied to marriage, and marriage was still the cornerstone of patriarchy.

Firestone and Beauvoir both made rigorous cases against biological reproduction, but radical-cultural feminists saw things differently. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich sharply criticized Firestone for “discard[ing] biological motherhood from this shallow and unexamined point of view, without taking full account of what the experience of biological pregnancy might be in a wholly different political and emotional context.” [9] Rich argued that motherhood has to be understood as a complex interrelationship of power and powerlessness, and so viewing reproduction as exclusively oppressive was small-minded. Rich noted, “if female biology was ever a source of power, it need not remain what it has since become: a root of powerlessness.” [10] For Rich, biological motherhood was not inherently negative, but instead had been warped and degraded by patriarchy. One of feminism’s crucial goals was to rediscover and reshape maternal power, in its most positive and progressive sense.

Andrea Dworkin, perhaps the most notorious of radical-cultural theorists, took a characteristically dark view of where reproduction was headed. She saw reproductive technology as “the misogyny of the future” and a harbinger of “the coming gynocide.” [11] According to Dworkin, artificial reproduction would not liberate women from patriarchy because in spite of those innovations, “male control of reproduction will stay what it is; the hatred of women will stay what it is; what will change will be the means.”  [12] If women were to allow reproduction to become fully co-opted by patriarchal reproductive technology, then “reproduction will become the kind of commodity that sex is now.” [13]

But reproductive commodification would be only the beginning. For Dworkin, giving up biological control over childbirth risks actual extermination: “Once women are biologically expendable on a grand scale, political women need not be tolerated on any scale.” [14] Dworkin’s visions of holocaust and annihilation are over the top, but beneath her morbid rhetoric she seems to be asking whether and how political femaleness can survive its own obsolescence in the face of reproductive technology, which is as likely to be degrading as it is liberating. She reminds us, with chilling simplicity, that when it comes to how women are treated, “we know what men can do.” [15]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that biological motherhood has been a major site of controversy within feminist theory. But in a broader sense, the disagreement comes back to the question of politics and privacy. The personal is political, the second-wave activists taught, but under patriarchal conditions the politicization of the personal can backfire. Writing in 2000, Kate Millett touched on this in her introduction to an updated edition of Sexual Politics. On the one hand, advances in reproductive science come at the perfect time; just as the feminist movement is achieving key political victories, medical technology has arrived to seal the deal. But as things currently stand, “control over [reproductive technology] is in the hands of a male scientific establishment increasingly driven by corporate profit and Western class interests. Why not wombs rented from the poor for the rich?”  she asked, [16] anticipating the commercial surrogacy that is already a reality for many poor women. [17] The question, then, has less to do with personal values than political ones. Millett asks, “What uses may be made of the new biology, by whom, and for what ends?” [18]

And so it seems that before technology can point the way toward a Firestone-Piercy utopia, the left must work to redefine traditional political coordinates associated with autonomy, privacy, choice, and reproduction. The American right and left are understood to disagree on the state’s role vis-à-vis reproduction, but the disagreement is more about how, not whether, the state should participate in regulating, controlling, and supporting reproduction. Both sides favor one type of state action while opposing others.

Conservatives fear state intervention in childrearing, spooked by images of gulag kindergartens and test-tube babies, but wield the state apparatus to obstruct and erode women’s access to abortion services and contraception. Progressives oppose governmental restrictions on individual reproductive autonomy, while simultaneously pushing for greater state investment in family planning, promoting the widespread availability of contraception, and social welfare programs designed to benefit single mothers and children.

Reading these commonplace positions against one another, we can see that the traditional public-private distinction does not hold up when it comes to the politics of reproduction; both right and left political orientations are happy to say what goes when it comes to reproduction, each promoting state regulation, support, and control, even as such intrusions stoke intense anxieties in the opposing political party.

Such striking ambivalence in American political culture forces us to confront the extent to which we are comfortable with politicization of the supposedly private sphere of family, and whether we are ready to adopt truly progressive attitudes toward social reproduction. In other words, the left should realize, remember, and emphasize that being pro-choice is a necessary condition for progress, but not a sufficient one. Ultimately, it might not be family values, but political economy, that will represent the biggest barrier to reforming social reproduction.


Finance Capitalism and Social Reproduction

Tailoresses at work, clothing factory, Christchurch, 1911

As defined by the critical theorist Nancy Fraser, social reproduction is that category of human activity responsible for forming, maintaining, and assuring the stability of core social functions. Sometimes called carework, social reproduction includes the physical, intellectual, and emotional labor involved in “birthing and raising children, caring for friends and family members, maintaining households and broader communities, and sustaining connections more generally.” In other words, social reproduction includes all of the work that goes into sustaining human society, other than that which is carried out as a matter of economic exchange.

In an essay for New Left Review last year called “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” Fraser explained that in all known forms of capitalism, social reproduction is cleaved from economic production. [19] This division has been a crucial feature of capitalism since its inception, and it also forms one of capitalism’s fundamental internal conflicts. “[C]apitalist societies separate social reproduction from economic production, associating the first with women, and obscuring its importance and value. Paradoxically, however, they make their official economies dependent on the very same processes of social reproduction whose value they disavow.” [20]

In other words, capitalism rejects or devalues social-reproductive labor and segregates it from the realm of economic production, but relies on it to sustain the economic status quo. Capitalist economic production cannot support itself autonomously, but rather survives only by exploiting and appropriating the surplus value generated by social-reproductive labor, most often carried out by women. Sexism enhances the division, which serves the purpose of widescale economic exploitation.

Fraser argues that this irrational attitude toward social reproduction—in which capitalism needs social-reproductive labor to survive, but structurally devalues it—is a contradiction at the heart of the capitalist system. This flaw generates social conflict, the pressure of which builds, and each major phase of capitalism has suppressed the conflict in different ways. In early liberal capitalism, the solution was to secure reproductive labor with gender-protective legislation and housewifization. In the state-managed capitalism of the twentieth century, the welfare state emerged alongside the family wage. Now, in the present stage of finance capitalism, a confluence of globalization and neoliberal deregulation have made the two-wage household a central condition of political economy; a reduction in real wages and disinvestment in social-welfare programs have made anything else impracticable for all but the richest families.

In certain ways, the two-wage household has a feminist shine to it. It goes hand-in-hand with women’s financial independence from men, which is a crucial feminist goal. But at the same time, the two-wage household has not been immune from the ongoing contradiction of capital and care. Like the social systems before it, it has had to find new ways of securing the social-reproductive labor necessary for profitable economic production.

According to Fraser, this is occurring in two main ways. First, we see the continuous outsourcing of social-reproductive labor further and further down the ladder of economic class, such that each economic class depends on the social-reproductive labor of the economic class below it to meet its own carework needs. This happens most directly when upper-class professionals hire migrant nannies and housekeepers in order to pursue careers, forming what Fraser calls “global care chains.” It also happens indirectly through the availability of low-priced household commodities, which are often produced by the sweatshop labor of women in developing countries. [21] This, in turn, has a detrimental effect on local social-reproductive capacities, and the labor is then carried out by poorer and poorer women in those countries, and so on.

Second, and particularly germane to the above discussion, Fraser points out that reproductive technologies are being designed and promoted precisely to neutralize the pressure inherent in the ongoing contradiction between capital and care. Fraser describes egg freezing, now a corporate fringe benefit, and high-end mechanical breast-milk pumps as examples of “the fix of choice in a country with a high-rate of female labor-force participation, no mandated paid maternity or paternal leave, and a love-affair with technology.” [22] Although these measures help women balance family and career in the short term, they are but band-aids on bullet-holes. High-end commodities cover up flaws in capitalist logic instead of working them out. As with other bedrock social problems, capitalism responds to this contradiction not by resolving it, but by profiting.

In n+1, Mark Grief has also written about the ongoing interrelationship between finance capitalism and babymaking. [23] Analyzing the unlikely conceptual relationship between the 2008 financial crisis and reproductive politics, Grief drew a parallel between the monetary black magic of the finance industry and the supernatural reproductive marvel of Nadya Suleman—better known as Octomom. Owing to social trends like sex equality, reproductive technology, and widening disparities in wealth concentration, Grief notes that babies have become luxury commodities for the upper-class and liabilities for the lower-class. As a result, “Americans have been brought into a system in which they make trade-offs among earning power, individual life chances, present fertility, biomedicine, and cash, in a way that mirrors ‘investment’ thinking, whether they are rich or poor.” [24] In this sense, reproduction in late capitalism, like so much else, has become economized, confirming Dworkin’s prediction in the 1980s that reproductive technology would only serve commodification, not liberation. In late capitalism, traditional class antagonisms have mutated into culture wars over reproduction, while still retaining the dynamics of political economy.

Read together, Fraser and Greif’s work suggest that even if Firestone and Piercy were right about the liberatory potential of reproductive technology, financialized capitalism is currently working to distort and appropriate that potential. This takes the form of a lucrative market in commodified reproductive technology, which generates revenue even as it secures and exploits the social-reproductive labor necessary to support endless capital accumulation.

We don’t need to wait for  Dworkin’s gynocide before coming to terms with the fact that a just, responsible approach to social reproduction is inconsistent with the basic demands of finance capitalism. The left should focus on how to resolve the contradiction in a meaningful and long-term sense, rather than to pay it meager lip service from the neoliberal center. The problem is immense, and only a committed union of feminist and socialist approaches will suffice to meet the dangers posed by the latest ideological mutations from the right, including masculinist and neo-reactionary misogynies that are themselves perverted responses to the same social contradictions identified by Fraser and Greif; Steve Bannon himself speaks of a “crisis of capitalism.” [25] As Fraser says, “this crisis [of social reproduction] will not be resolved by tinkering with social policy . . . [but] through deep structural transformation of the social order.” Whether that transformation will engender Piercy’s egalitarian paradise, or Atwood’s patriarchal hell, remains to be seen.

It bears emphasizing that there are as many attitudes toward motherhood as there are individual women. For reasons that should be obvious, control over the future of childbearing must mainly rest with women, both as free individuals and as a politically constituted social class, and not with men (whatever their motives). But for everyone the question of social reproduction must be taken seriously. That is the only way to ensure that we are all afforded the space and agency we need to work toward something new, to move together into a future that is not only female, but feminist.


Works Cited

[1] Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time, 98.

[2] Rosmarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (4th Ed.), 74.

[3] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 180.

[4] Id., 29.

[5] Id., 185.

[6] Simone de Beavoir, The Second Sex, 165.

[7] Id., 44.

[8] Id., 569.

[9] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 175.

[10] Id., 85.

[11] Andrea Dworkin, Right-Wing Women, 194.

[12] Id., 188.

[13] Id., 187.

[14] Id., 193.

[15] Id., 194.

[16] Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, xii.

[17] Sophie Lewis, “Gestational Labors: Care Politics and Surrogates’ Struggle,” .

[18] Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, xii.

[19] Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review (July-August 2016), .

[20] Id.

[21] “Feminists Against Sweatshops,” .

[22] Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care.”

[23] Mark Grief, “Octomom and the Market in Babies,” Against Everything: Essays.

[24] Id., 69.

[25] J. Lester Feder, “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” .

[25] Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care.”


Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be contacted and harassed on Twitter: @syvology


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