Housing Commodification Weakens Social Reproduction: The Undoing Of Cities?

woman washing dishes

Is social reproduction a suitable topic for an affordable housing web site? In the hands of David Madden, definitely.

The term ‘social reproduction’ incorporates the activities and the processes that go into creating a functioning society. Examples of the ‘social’ aspect include child and elder care, laundry and meal preparation. These obviously involve work and although it is often unpaid, it is essential to keeping society running. Social reproduction also includes essential activities like sleep, which doesn’t itself involve work, but does require a place for it to occur.

‘Reproduction’ speaks to the repetitive nature of the process. The activities aren’t permanent, yet society would ‘stop’ if they didn’t happen. Repeating the activities again and again reproduces the base conditions for society to operate.

Madden traces the origins of social reproduction to 18th century France. In the 19th century, the classical economist Karl Marx discussed social reproduction as the fundamental root of all of society’s labour and therefore essential for capitalism to create profit. Today, social reproduction is frequently linked to the field of gender relations, as a large amount of the labour is unpaid and done by women.

But what about the role of housing? It is one of the primary sites where social reproduction takes place. Madden argues that social reproduction is increasingly undermined by the private housing market, which has been more and more focussed on housing as an investment.

Gentrification is one example: tenants lose their homes when a landlord decides to renovate or replace aging units. If the people who lose their homes engage in work that is part of social reproduction (say in a grocery store or at a child care centre), the location of their new home may dictate whether they can continue that work. Gentrification, which replaces low cost housing with more expensive new units, may also make it difficult for the grocery store or child care centre to recruit new staff.

Madden also demonstrates how social reproduction links the situations of the majority renters and homeowners (with the exception of the very, very wealthy). This discussion will be of interest to advocates and decision makers who are interested in ideas that bring homeowners, tenants and people who are homeless together in the same tent.

Madden’s article is available at e-flux: Housing and the Crisis of Social Reproduction