COVID-19 as catalyst? Contradictions and opportunities

SEI Doctoral Fellow Anna Sturman draws upon themes from her thesis to ask: what might we learn from the present COVID-19 crisis that can help us to respond to the unfolding climate crisis?

Working from home with a young child. Image via Unsplash by Charles Deluvio.

Social reproduction and the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many assumptions about work have shifted as what we consider ‘normal’ has responded to changing conditions. The aspect of this broader change that I will focus on here is the paid and unpaid socially reproductive labour, which broadly refers to labour which has, as its first priority, the social reproduction of people rather than the production of profits.1 While sometimes difficult to set clear boundaries around, socially reproductive labour can often be detected by the degree of adverse reaction a human being has towards said labour being mechanised. Care of the elderly and small children are common examples.

At a high level we can see decision-making about strategy for COVID-19 as responding to a direct, society-level contradiction between the requirements for protecting people from a pandemic as an element of social reproduction, and the needs of capital, which cannot stand still but requires ongoing growth and thus the productive economy to be opened up. At a more localised level, we can observe some of the contradictions thrown up by COVID-19 in households where many (now remote) workers with caring responsibilities now must perform both roles simultaneously, while sacrificing neither.

The difficulties of combining these two worlds of productive and socially reproductive labour with reduced ability to share the load of the latter has emerged as a prevalent theme in meditations on COVID-19. This makes perfect sense when one considers that socially reproductive labour, under- or entirely unvalued within the formal economy, is both the basis of the productive economy’s ability to function and largely incompatible with expectations of workers in the formal workplace. Yet COVID-19 has forced the spatial and temporal convergence of these roles for many workers.

I suggest this contradiction and others similar to it thrown up by COVID-19 may have utility for environmental activists.

Materialist ecofeminism and explaining appropriation

This moment is a chance to consider the deep contradictions between not only the timeframes of ecological reproduction and the expanding demands that capitalist production makes upon non-human nature with an imperative for constant growth; but also between the escalating demands upon humans as situated within these ecologies (socio-ecologies).

The capitalist economy relies upon appropriation of the ‘free gifts’ of socially reproductive labour and ecological reproduction.2 Because it is systematically impelled to do so, the costs of reproducing us and our environments are pushed into the ‘naturalised’ realms of nature and nurture.3 These reproductive systems may be drawn into the productive sector – as care workers and carbon sinks – but even here they remain systematically devalued and kept as cheap as possible, often subsidised through the state. The conditions in which many essential workers have operated during COVID-19 demonstrates this neatly.

‘Filiarchy’4 describes what materialist ecofeminists call the disembedding and disembodiment of some humans from the ecological and biological rhythms which dictate the limits of viable socio-ecological reproduction. The tradition suggests that ‘filiarchy’ rather than ‘patriarchy’ more aptly captures the reality of capitalism’s parasitic reliance on human and non-human natures: those able to disengage from performing care work (for both humans and non-human natures) and rely upon those reproductive cycles to provide them with care are those able to make the most money in our current economies. Wall Street bankers and Tech bros still have to exist on earth. They do so through the labours of others.

That is, the productive economy can only exist in its present form by running up unsustainable social and ecological debts which fall due in the forms of crisis tendencies. These are perhaps momentarily displaceable in space (onto the most marginalised) and time (future generations), but they are unable to be extinguished. COVID-19 has imposed biological restraints upon the freedom of movement and association which enables the disembedded and disembodied individual to run amok. The compression of socially reproductive and productive labour into affluent two-earner households has demonstrated this.

Crises are inevitable, but their resolution is open

The potential utility of this crisis, which cannot be displaced in space nor time, is in the realisation that nothing is inevitable in the resolution of crisis tendencies: we can push problems onto individuals, who are more or less able to manage them (often based on access to resources) or we can solve issues collectively. We can demand that people live the irreconcilable contradictions, or we can collectively set up frameworks to help us navigate crises in humane, caring ways.

Far more options are on the table than our tired brains could have contemplated prior to COVID-19’s wrecking ball effect on business as usual. Perhaps harder to shake will be the tendency to appeal to politicians and decision-makers to ‘do the right thing’ rather than organising for material power – but that is a discussion for another day.

Pointing to the current unsustainability and ultimately fungible structural conditions that many have taken for granted as permanent and unchangeable is a vital tool for activists and advocates for progressive change, including action on climate change. It is in demonstrating the variety of ways in which crises are resolved – and in favour of which interests – that the present crisis provides opportunities for climate activists to perhaps galvanise embodied and embedded social forces toward futures not characterised by ongoing defaults on socio-ecological debts.

1. Ferguson, S.(2020). Women and work: feminism, labour, and social reproduction. Pluto Press.
2. Mellor, M. (1997). Feminism & Ecology. New York University Press.
3. Rudy, A. (2019). ‘On Misunderstanding the Second Contradiction Thesis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30(4): 17-35.
4. Mellor, as above.

Anna Sturman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and a SEI Doctoral Fellow. Her research interests include the political economy of climate change, the role of agriculture in programmatic socio-ecological transformations, materialist ecofeminist approaches to economics and theories of the state.