By Robert Hyers
When I think about my students’ struggles, the ones they share both in my office and in their class writing, it saddens and angers me. I have had students share memories of living in the family van for periods as a child, adult students living out of their cars before attending college, students living in their cars and using our showers while in college, students hiding in fear from abusive relatives, hungry students, students with mental health issues who had limited or no access to the medication they needed, students who were forced to watch undocumented relatives slowly die because they had no legal right to healthcare, students who missed blocks of class from working a tremendous amount of hours to pay household bills because their parents are undocumented and therefore underpaid, student-mothers who could not finish my classes because their childcare changed suddenly mid-semester, students being kicked out of their family homes. I know you all have had similar student experiences shared with you. All of these issues happening outside of our classrooms can take our students away from their academics inside the classroom. What can we as instructors do to help our students in crisis? In order to begin formulating strategies which are not performative and would therefore actually help our students rather than simply help us feel less sadness and anger, we need to explore a few different areas. Because most of these student struggles live within the realm of the family and home, and because the family and home have traditionally been sites of struggle for women, we need to start our exploration with feminism.
Bourgeois Feminism vs Marxist Feminism
The feminism that most of us have grown up with (and consequently then teach) is, in fact, bourgeois feminism. And while bourgeois feminism is only one kind of feminism, it is thought of as the definitive feminism because its dominance or its understanding as “common sense,”1 serves the purposes of capital. Bourgeois feminism believes in gender equality while also believing in the validity of meritocracy under capitalism. Therefore, while gender relations should be challenged, the political economy those gender relations are formed within does not need to be challenged. Put simply, once gender relations have been equalized, the fight has been won. If women are educated and free to compete for work in the same way men are, then the most talented women will be freed to rise to the top or, at the very least, possess the resources to purchase whatever they want and/or need on the private market. And while this vision has been freeing for small sections of women (mostly white and middle class), because it lacks any critique of the racist, ableist, and heterosexist forces capitalism disciplines for its own survival, it leaves many women out of its vision,2 many of whom are our students: Black women, women of color, women with disabilities, trans folx, just to name a few.
Marxist feminism is interested in gender equality as well, but because it is based in the Marxist critique of capitalism, it comes to different conclusions about where the areas of struggle are and what to do about them. Marx argued that capitalism was a struggle between two factions, the working class (workers) and the bourgeoisie (owners). The bourgeoisie is always looking to make a profit by taking new value added to the system (surplus value) and the only way to do this is to pay workers less than their work (labor power) is worth and pocket the difference. Workers are always trying to maximize the price of their labor power but have little power, especially individually, to do so because they do not own the materials they work with (means of production) and they are coerced through the threat of starvation and houselessness to continue participating in this exploitative system. (In other words, every job will exploit my labor power, but I have to have a job because I need a paycheck to pay for the things I need to live, like food and housing.) This then means that most of the surplus value which the working class has created with their labor power within capitalism is captured (or stolen) by the bourgeoisie. This is how you then get individual millionaires and billionaires, individuals with more money than they could spend in their lifetimes, while large swaths of the working class suffer in poverty. 3
While Marx’s analysis was focused on what happens at work, he did acknowledge that certain processes were necessary outside of work to make sure that the worker could show up to work again the next day. Labor power in some ways is like a battery; it has to be recharged. The worker has to eat; has to have a place to rest, to relax; has to be able to raise children to replace the worker when they are too old to work. This is called “social reproduction,” what Marxist feminists focus on. Although housing, feeding, clothing, and caring for workers (including children who will be workers and the elderly who can no longer work) is not seen as work in the same way a job with a paycheck is, it is still work. It takes time; it takes labor; it costs money. And capital gets to use it for free4 because caretakers within each family structure (who are still predominantly women5) have to find the time outside of their paid jobs to perform this uncompensated work and the family structure itself is left with the cost of any care services that must be purchased on the private market, such as daycare, assisted living, and healthcare to name a few. The stresses of performing this work have been felt more acutely as a whole on the working class since the 1980s because of our current brand of capitalism, neoliberalism. While the economic theory of the early to mid-twentieth century understood that some of the costs of social reproduction needed to be borne by the bourgeoisie through taxation and the family wage, (an understanding which was sexist and racist), neoliberalism rejects that idea. Each family is on its own to provide for itself. And as the spending power of the working class has diminished in the last few decades, it has become harder for each family to provide for itself.6 And we are seeing those extreme struggles play out with our students.
In addition, some who study social reproduction have also turned their attention to two areas previously overlooked: environmentalism and the prison industrial complex.
Within bourgeois thinking, environmentalism has always been framed as individual sacrifices the working class must make in order to bring us to sustainability while the bourgeoisie continues with business as usual. This is reflected in such initiatives as water and power usage restrictions, fuel taxes, and congestion pricing. (The results of this contradiction are being felt by our working-class students whose families are being forced to restrict their water use7 while a private equity firm continues to steal water from Strawberry Creek in order to sell it back to all of us in bottles labeled Arrowhead8, and, in a more extreme example, working-class families in Central Valley whose household well water has dried up because, for the last hundred years, their agribusiness neighbors have been allowed to siphon as much groundwater as they wanted.9) And although some extreme mitigation measures, such as getting off of gas and coal, is necessary to avoid our near-term future destruction, this thinking is always doomed to fail in the long term because it does not actually target the problem which is causing the destruction of the planet. Rather than a fictional over-indulgent working class, the problem results from capitalism itself. As Marx pointed out, the bourgeoisie is always looking to make as much money as possible, in as little time as possible, in a consistent manner (accumulation). This means that the system must always be expanding and expand at a higher rate than the environment can tolerate.10 In addition, the negative effects of this accumulation, namely pollution, are most acutely felt by the most marginalized of the working class because of the way the system allocates housing to those who can afford it. Quite simply, it is cheaper to live in a more polluted area; this, along with classist and racist zoning, is why our students live in diesel death zones.11
The working class’s interactions with the police and prison system are also framed as individual; each working-class member’s experience with the law is unique and dependent on that individual’s behavior. But Marxism sees it differently. As capitalism naturally moves to automate jobs (technological change) in order to increase profits (relative surplus value), it throws more and more people out of work. As the costs of social reproduction are now borne by each individual family unit under neoliberalism, these “excessed” populations must figure out how to survive. This increases crime and violence which then must be managed by police, the courts, and prison.12 The state violence necessary for this management is felt most acutely by our students, who are forced to deal with the Riverside Police Department who ranks sixth in the nation for the most taxpayer money paid for police misconduct (the majority for excessive force), only outdone by locales with much higher population densities like L.A.13
The answer to these problems for Marxist feminists then lies not in teaching girls to use their girlboss power to break any glass ceilings or infiltrate the men’s only clubs, but to (1) help workers survive the current conditions of social reproduction under neoliberalism and (2) work towards a socialist future in which the working class can own the means of production and use surplus value to help one another thrive. While bourgeois feminism does not recognize these kinds of connections, Marxist feminism does. For example, let’s look at the IE. There is a strong connection between the fact that our students, living in the one of the poorest regions in the country, struggle with providing housing, childcare, and healthcare for their families, while Jeff Bezos, the founder of the largest private employer in the IE,14 Amazon, has the money to shoot himself and William Shatner out into space.15 Imagine if that money that our students made for Bezos using their labor power was democratically harnessed to help our students, to pay for educational resources, for universal housing, universal food programs, universal healthcare, universal child and elder care, all initiatives which would decrease our overall need for police and prisons. And imagine if our students only worked to provide for each other rather than for the ever increasing and insatiable demand for profit by the bourgeoisie, which would reduce pollution levels. This is the vision of Marxist feminists.
Human Capital vs Social Reproduction
Using this Marxist feminist lens, how do we as college instructors help our students within these areas of social reproduction in which they struggle? For the first part, helping our students survive right now, the answer is simple: direct them to the many campus resources RCC has. In addition, we can also connect them to local direct-action groups in which they can not only get help but also feel empowered by helping others. A list of all of these resources is at the end of this post. But what about that second part, helping our students (and ourselves) move towards a future where we have captured the resources necessary to fully take care of one another? This one is much more complex because, before we can strategize on how to do that, we must first understand our role as educators in social reproduction.
Social reproduction is not just about reproducing the worker in a material sense, but also reproducing the ideology of the society the worker is within. This then means that education is an area of social reproduction just as much as housing, food, and healthcare are. But education stands out in this way: our students have a right to education in a way that they do not have for every other area of social reproduction. Take college for example: even if they do not have the financial means at that moment, they can take out loans for their schooling. But if they do not make three times the required rent for an apartment, they are unhoused. Why is this? It is because, on a fundamental level, capital needs education to teach future workers their inferior place in the system and that, even if they don’t like it, it’s the best system they’re going to get. As educators, our job is to force our students to reconcile the contradiction of living as the working class under bourgeois liberalism—of being forced to serve the authoritarian needs of capital which demand total access to their bodies, minds, and souls when it is profitable while also believing they are free individuals participating in a full democracy.16 A salient example of this would be our current economic moment in which the Fed is restricting the money supply to raise interest rates—in effect, making money more expensive—because the common sense of bourgeois economic thought cannot imagine how to tame inflation outside of reliving the horrors of the Volcker shock.17 This exercise disproportionately harms the most marginalized portions of the working class,18 our students, by keeping them out of work for longer and driving down wages when they do find work, thereby driving down their potential lifetime earnings. Despite this economic moment being completely out of our students’ control, the common sense of our profession dictates that I continue this dangerous game of pretend in the classroom which my students have participated in since grade school, in which we both reinforce the belief that their fortunes are wholly controlled by each student’s individual behaviors and attitudes towards schooling, something which is contrary to what our students are actually experiencing right now outside of the classroom.
Of course, if we take the example I used about the student taking out a loan for their college education, this makes sense because of the “epochal unit” (to borrow a term from Freire) we find ourselves in: the human capital epochal unit. Human capital is a theory fleshed out in the 1960s by the neoliberal economist Gary Becker, who argued that we should all view ourselves like companies. Just as companies make capital investments in order to grow their profits, individuals should invest in their human capital through schooling which will then allow them access to jobs with specialized knowledge and, because of that specialized knowledge, higher wages.19 And while human capital has always had serious criticism as a viable economic theory as well as a functional social policy,20 it quickly rose into common sense to the point where, in the 1990s, I remember being told in high school that I had to go to college if I wanted a decent life. Every semester I ask my students when they were told they had to go to college. Most say middle school; one student recently told me grammar school.
I want to focus on the relationship between the dominance of the human capital theory and our students’ struggles within the areas of social reproduction. Teaching our students that their only route to a better life is through investing in their human capital by attending college may keep us in business but it does nothing to help our students fundamentally transform their struggles within social reproduction. This is for two reasons: (1) It pushes the solutions for any present problems into the future; if our students can survive college, once they are credentialed and their labor power can demand a higher wage, they will be able to reliably purchase the things they are struggling with now, such as housing and food. It offers no possibilities for empowering solutions right now; it offers no room for collective action with their working-class comrades in the forms of groupings such as labor and tenant unions or mutual aid which have the potential to actually transform the forces currently oppressing them. (2) Human capital’s only solution to these struggles is for our exploited students to then exploit others in order to reliably meet their needs in social reproduction; this transformation is what we label as success. For example, I am now a tenured professor and therefore a success using the human capital theory. Before this, I was at times both an adjunct professor and a retail worker. As a tenured professor, I now benefit from the super-exploitation of my adjunct comrades. And as a member of the Professional Managerial Class,21 I benefit from the low pay and erratic schedules of my retail comrades (some of whom are my students) who now are part of my service class. I am supposed to believe that because I have moved from exploited to exploiter, I am a success. But this is a false consciousness. If we are actually looking to help our students transform society, how we define success must change and our classroom is the place to begin that change.
Limit-Situations vs Untested Feasibility
While a lot of this post may sound like gloom and doom—don’t despair! While we as educators are embedded within a system designed to replicate inequality, as educators we have a certain amount of freedom within this system to push back against it.22 While there a more than a few roadmaps to help us with this, the one I return to the most often is Paulo Freire’s classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.23
And while the most popular discussion of this text has traditionally been with narration sickness versus problem-posing education, here I want to work through concepts later in the text, namely where Freire focuses on limit-situations versus untested feasibility.
Freire argues that students bring “limit-situations” into our classrooms. These limit-situations could be many different things (and he argues for creating “generative themes” for classroom discussion by asking students about their limit-situations) but for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that our students’ limit-situations are limited to the areas of social reproduction discussed. If we as instructors are truly dedicated to our students’ (and our own) liberation, our interactions with our students must open up new possibilities for the future, rather than close them down. This is why it is so important for us to fully understand our role as educators within the social reproduction process of education, of the ways in which we reproduce the ideologies which then reproduce inequality. Only by using the same techniques Freire argues for in the classroom with each other as educators before we walk into our classrooms, naming the world through dialogue, can we identify the problems within our own profession to then work on how to solve them. These dialogues will then help us when orchestrating problem-posing education in our classrooms and reduce the likelihood that our classroom discussions, while appearing as liberatory, will continue to oppress our students.
Our goal then with problem-posing education is to move our students towards “limit-acts,” which are concrete actions students can take to begin surpassing their limit-situations into “untested feasibility” or reorganizations of social relations which would help our working-class students in concrete ways but threaten the functionality of capitalism, social relations which we as educators are supposed to teach our students are impossible and off-limits in order to ensure capital can live another day. How might this process specifically work in the classroom? Let’s take housing as an example.
Housing is one of the most pressing issues for our students. The most productive thing we could do as a society at this point would be to make housing a human right and guarantee it to everyone regardless of income. But this would wipe out the coffers of the rentier class (made up of both corporate and “mom and pop” landlords) within the bourgeoisie and threaten the inflated market values of single-family homes still owned by individual members of the PMC, so we are normally taught (and, in turn, teach our students) that this is pie-in-the-sky thinking if the idea is brought up at all. And if we look at the current epochal unit of neoliberalism, we are moving in the wrong direction. The California legislature worked with the neoliberal think-tank American Enterprise Institute and, with Newsom’s signature, made the “Light Touch Density” program law24 (an idea Riverside adopted two years earlier25) which encourages homeowners to create Accessory Dwelling Units, which would be new apartments the homeowner could rent out or sell on their existing property in order to make housing more affordable by increasing the overall local supply. Using AEI’s own “success stories,”26 not only would this program be unable to help the most marginalized of the working class including most of our students whose incomes are so low they qualify for the California College Promise Grant, it is moving us as a society away from liberation. By making homeowners a new miniature rentier class, we are continuing the viciousness of the human capital mythology: telling our students that the only path to success, the only way they can escape exploitation, is to become exploiters themselves.
Like all untested feasibility in the classroom, we need to approach with caution and meet our students where they are at. In general, the private market as a solution to all of society’s ills is part of our identity as Americans, especially since American neoliberalism is so closely aligned with American liberalism.27 Charging into class, firing on all cylinders, and attacking our students’ identity will not end up in the “dialogical relations” necessary to move us towards limit-acts. And we do not know what our students’ home lives are like. While we may have some students who are currently unhoused or have experienced houselessness, we may have other students who are landlords, perhaps students whose homeowner parents are currently building ADUs. And other students who have never had to worry about housing and therefore, have never thought about this before in a meaningful way. As instructors we need to move slowly and purposefully, introducing the limit-situation, allowing our students to write about it, discuss it, and then moving onto possible solutions. Private market solutions will be presented first because they are currently common sense. Let that conversation happen. At some point the limit-situations of that proposal will present themselves and then you can direct those students towards limit-acts and then to untested feasibility. These discussions can be facilitated by various media (listed later) of activist groups working on housing as well as historical instances where universal housing adjacent ideas have been proposed or attempted. Finally, each student can begin drafting an essay that explores whatever limit-situation versus untested feasibility on this continuum that interests them the most, even if those are private market solutions. And no matter what area the student explores, encouraging introspection in the drafting is crucial; this process of limit-situation versus untested feasibility does not stop at any given point; each movement into untested feasibility creates a new limit-situation which needs new limit-acts to overcome into a new area of untested feasibility which then presents a new limit-situation and so on.
Ultimately, continuing the tradition of gaslighting that our students have endured inside the classroom since middle school, in which they are told to grin and bear their struggles outside the classroom for now to focus on investing in their human capital because it will save them and their families one anonymous day in the future when they will move from exploited to exploiter, will not help them, or any of us in the working class. Instead, using the bourgeois resources we have at our disposal right now to help our students survive, directing our students to local community action and mutual aid groups where they can not only have their needs met but become empowered in the process, and using our classrooms to further empower our students with the knowledge that a socialist future is available and worth struggling towards now, will help them. While the fact of our students living in one of the poorest regions in the country may feel overwhelming, that fact also holds a multitude of possibilities. As the environmental justice activist Andres Garcia observes: “One thing about people in the Inland Empire is that, like, the material conditions here will make an organizer or activist out of just about anybody.”28
Question for Practice
Identify a class assignment in which students explore problems within one or more areas of social reproduction. Are they given the space and direction to imagine solutions which are not tied to the human capital theory? Does the scaffolding structure of the assignment allow for an interplay between limit-situations and untested feasibility? If not, how might the assignment be modified to allow for these?
RCC Campus Resources
Local Community Direct-Action Groups/Resources (Kind of Alphabetized)
While this list can be given to, and utilized by, our students, I have also compiled this list for our adjunct comrades who, because of the super-exploitation of their labor power, may be struggling in the same areas of social reproduction as our students. In addition, I do not have an opinion on any of these groups; they are all working in their own ways to improve life in the IE. For anyone who uses this list, they will need to do their own research on whichever group(s)/resource(s) interest them.
Media For Classroom Discussion
Resources for Further Inquiry
- “Common Sense: The ‘folklore of philosophy’”
- Angela Davis Criticizes “Mainstream” Feminism/Bourgeois Feminism
- Capital Vol 1
- “Marx and Feminism”
- “Women Still Handle Main Household Tasks in the US”
- “Social Reproduction Part 1”
- Water Use Efficiency Standards | SBMWD, CA
- Waters turn turbulent; Firm that’s tapping a national forest to fill its bottles is fighting California over rights and proposal to set limits
- “Limits on water use are shaking up California agriculture : NPR”
- Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe
- “Seeking Environmental Justice in California’s ‘Diesel Death Zones’”
- Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
- “Riverside County paid $77M in settlements for police misconduct: report”
- “Amazon Is the Largest Employer in California’s Inland Empire. Workers There Want a Union.” (jacobin.com)
- “Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully launches crew with William Shatner to space and back”
- Schooling in Capitalist America
- Inflation Politics with Tim Barker · The Dig (thedigradio.com)
- Buckle up, America: The Fed plans to sharply boost unemployment – CBS News
- Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education
- “The Problem with Human Capital Theory- A Marxian Critique”
- “On the Origins of the Professional Managerial Class-An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich”
- This is a small sampling:
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed
- “California Rolls Out a Daring New Housing Policy to Combat High Home Prices and Increase Supply”
- PowerPoint Presentation (aei.org)
- The Birth of Biopolitics
- “Fighting for Air” | Earth Focus | Season 4, Episode 3 | KCET – YouTube