Towards a Feminist Theory of the Economic: An Interview with Mariko Adachi

Mariko Adachi is Professor Emeritus and the former Director of the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, Japan. She is the author of dozens of works in Marxist theory, feminist thought, and political economy, and has long been one of the most prominent Marxist-feminist critics and economists in contemporary Japan.  

The following interview was conducted via email in Japanese and translated into English by Gavin Walker.

Mariko Adachi is Professor Emeritus and the former Director of the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, Japan. She is the author of dozens of works in Marxist theory, feminist thought, and political economy, and has long been one of the most prominent Marxist-feminist critics and economists in contemporary Japan.  

The following interview was conducted via email in Japanese and translated into English by Gavin Walker.

GW: Could you tell us a little bit about your background, your educational and political formation, and how you came to the intersection of Marxism, economics, and feminist thought? What were the main influences on your thought as it began to take shape?

AM: I was born in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan. I was in my late teens and twenties in the late 1960s and mid 1970s, at the high point of the global social movements. My father was an economist, my mother a painter, and both of my parents had the experience of living abroad before the Second World War. As a precocious high school student, I read the early writings of Marx that my parents kept in the study of our family home, such as the 1844 Manuscripts and The German Ideology and at the same time, as I attended a high school adjacent to the chaotic and sordid urban space of Shinjuku, I was exposed to various aspects of the city. I would walk to school through Shinjuku Station, which still reeked of the burning smell of the previous night’s clashes between anti-Vietnam War protesters and the riot police, and on my way home I would attend underground theatre performances in the public space of Hanazono Shrine. One of my major influences at the time was the Chinese literature scholar and critic Takeuchi Yoshimi, then in his late years, and I would often attend the reading group he held at his office. These experiences led me to reflect on ‘Asia’, on the concept of the ‘periphery’, on ‘rural and survival economies’ and on the question of ‘modernity for Asia’. Throughout this period political-economic thought remained for me a consistent basis, but in the mid-1970s, with the emergence of second-wave feminist thought in Japan, I began to question fundamentally the ‘nature of the subject’. This point in turn led me to the subsequent chain of questions that characterize feminist thought as a fundamental critique of the modern system of knowledge.

GW: Your work has dealt with many fundamental questions of Marxist theory, especially questions of care-work, reproduction, crisis, and commodification. How do you situate yourself in relation to the trends of contemporary Marxism? How did you come to be interested in ‘sexual difference’ seen in a Marxian perspective?

AM: I studied Marxian political economy within the so-called Uno School (or “Uno Theory”), a school of Marxian economics developed independently by Uno Kozo, who specialized in economic theory in the Department of Economics at the University of Tokyo. There are various points that characterize Uno’s theoretical work, but one of the most important is the following: based on Marx’s Capital, to which he added his own unique interpretations, Uno’s work constitutes a kind of ‘becoming-theoretical of history’, treating the historical process of capitalism through the theoretical process of development of commodity-money-capital. Uno’s theory takes the formation of a “doubly-free labor power”, which is different from all other commodities in general, and the commodification of this labor power, as the historical preconditions for the establishment of capitalism, and at the same time constructs the highly original concept of the “impossibility of the commodification of labor power”, which expresses immanently the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. This concept of “impossibility” (muri) can be interpreted in a quite multilayered way. From the use of labor power in the direct labor process to the reproduction of labor power in areas other than the direct labor process, he tried to grasp all of these facets from the broad sense of this concept of impossibility. If we consider this concept of “impossibility” in relation to the commodification of labor power and its reproduction, we can understand that we cannot set up a problem of “dualism” or “unification”, as it were, in which the reproduction of labor power is merely “external”, or in which it can be ultimately embedded in the capitalist business cycle process. The impossibility is that the structural reproduction of capitalism is not automatically reproducible, but rather structurally unreproducible, and that the core of capitalism as a dynamic of expanding value lies in how it “pushes through” this impossibility, in its endless attempts to postpone the impossible resolution of its contradictions. It is in this that we understand capitalism’s core as the dynamics of the expansion of value.

Uno’s theory has two main streams within it, the theory of pure capitalism and the theory of world capitalism, but in both cases, he often uses what we might call a ‘gender-blind’ procedure, undertaking this theoretical construction by black-boxing those areas or regions of analysis that cannot be directly organized by the movement of capital. A typical example of this is the ‘family’, which is treated as irrelevant no matter how its interior is constituted. The reason for this is that, theoretically, the question is whether not the “family members” can collectively bring together their individual interests and function as a “representative singular”. In other words, the question here is whether or not this group which uses the name “family” can be replaced by and treated as a “representative singular” within the overall theoretical architectonic. And this substitution for the representative singular is not really the same thing as the question of sexual difference. The question of substitution into the “representative singular” has nothing to do with what the sex/gender/sexuality structure is within a group, and in this sense, in such an optic, sexual difference itself does not emerge as a question as such.

It is important to note that the point I’m making here is not a banal criticism of the gender-blindness of this theoretical use of the concept of the “family” group, but rather the question of whether or not compulsory heterosexuality is inherently necessary for capitalism. The late Kazuko Takemura, who was a wonderful translator of Judith Butler’s work into Japanese – she was a colleague of mine at Ochanomizu University – and I often discussed the issue of compulsory heterosexuality in capitalism in various places, including in some published dialogues between us. She saw compulsory heterosexuality as an originary, primal mechanism of the violence of capitalism. However, I believe that capitalism no longer needs the coercion that characterizes compulsory heterosexuality as a practical effect anymore. In particular, in the historical phase of contemporary global capitalism, it does not create any intrinsic limits to the exploitation of surplus value. Therefore, it is certainly violent, but in the opposite sense, I emphasized, as an ideological mechanism. It is the most violent ideological mechanism by which the structural reproduction of capitalism operates as self-evident, but as an intrinsic contradiction for capital as the motor of value that expands and that is forced to expand surplus-value, this mechanism is already replaceable within capital’s depths. Takemura replied that this was not the case, that rather in her view the contradiction of our time is whether capital can manage to replace forms of community, solidarity and so on with a type of ‘collective representativity’ that is compatible for capital, instead of having to manage its encounters with the specific labor power of individuals. This dialogue was interrupted by her sad and untimely death, but I think it is a discussion that we should be continue to develop.

GW: Today, a renewed focus on the concept of ‘social-reproduction’ has become widespread within left-wing feminism, but what important ways are there to think about this relation of Marxism and feminism beyond a focus solely on the category of ‘reproduction’? Your own work extensively theorized this term, going back to Rosa Luxemburg’s work in The Accumulation of Capital, many years before the new explosion of interest in ‘social reproduction theory’ – can you talk a little bit about how you see the new trends from your perspective?

AM: As for the recent ‘social reproduction theory’ (SRT), it has been translated into Japanese and has received a certain amount of attention. In Japan, I would say that it seems to be influencing not the first generation of second-wave feminists, but particularly the second or even third generation of feminists. However, the nature of Japanese feminism since the 1980s has been strongly dualistic, bifurcated between a focus on either the patriarchal system or capitalism itself, so a theoretical framework like SRT, which aims at a kind of synthetic or unified theory, is unfamiliar to me. In a sense, this is a problem that Marxist-feminism in Japan has left behind.

As for my opinion of SRT, first of all, the concept of social reproduction, as Federici has also pointed out, started from the grasp of Quesnay and the Physiocrats, and was inherited and developed by the classical school. In Japan, Marxian economics has been dominant enough to have taken on its own form of traditional authority, taught in university lectures and so on, and thus the mere use of the term ‘social reproduction’ has been rather shunned. This is because it has its own history of ignoring and excluding topics particularly problematized by feminist thought, such as the forms of gender discrimination created by the social structure, as not being important issues. Dualist thinking has flourished in Japan because there has been a sense of escape and liberation from dogmatic Marxist frameworks, such as class reductionism. But it should also be acknowledged that in doing so it dropped some important questions. In other words, I think there is a criticism that we specialized in the theory of care, in the theory of reproductive labor, and that this ultra-specialization may have caused us to lose our vision of economic society as a whole, thus becoming an element of the neoliberal trend, unable to criticize capitalism as such. However, these theories are in my view not so much labor-theories of value stemming from the debates over the character of domestic labor, but rather, as in Diane Elson’s conception of a ‘value-theory of labor’ in which is recognized the existence of non-market labor, in the sense that there is no exchange between surplus value – profit-making – and money as a means of payment, I think there remains a need for a clear answer to the question of the relationship between “unpaid work” and capitalism. And it can’t be some some half-hearted, compromised answer like “domestic work does not create exchange value, but it does create use values.”

In terms of how to consider and theorize this point, I think it is important to note the argument made by Rosa Luxemburg that in any given period, capitalism requires the presence of non-capitalist social strata. The Japanese translation of Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital was first published in 1937 and was deeply studied in Japan at the time, and ever since. The reason for this has much to do with the character of Japanese capitalism before the Second World War. That is to say, in Japan, the most crucial task was to elucidate the relationship between capital accumulation and the non-capitalist strata of society internal to capitalism which, despite being devastated by the Depression, remained/persisted in the rural and subsistence sectors rather than being transformed into wage labor. This leads us to Veronica Beechy’s discussion of the similarities between the smallholding peasantry and women as forms of the industrial reserve army. I believe that we need a new theory of social class, not solely limited to the two major class relations of capital and wage labor, but one derived from the third category of the development of the theory of rent and property, focused on the smallholder patriarch form of rent in the patriarchal-smallholding family and the gender-system form of rent produced by the male breadwinner model. I think that a new class theory is needed. I think it is important to consider how rent and property relates to the exploitation of surplus value and the formation of profit, and what kind of power is exercised therein. In the systematic exposition of Marx’s Capital this would correspond to the discussion of the concept of ‘false social value’ in the sections on ‘differential rent’ in Volume 3, Part 6, “The Transformation of Surplus Profit into Ground-Rent.”

GW: You have also worked extensively on the contemporary situation, that is, the Marxist theorization of financialization in the wake of the 2008 ‘Lehmann Shock’ and its relation to the politics of gender and migration in Asia. What can a focus on this situation provide for us in terms of thinking the relation of Marxism and feminism on a global scale today?

AM: In Asia, I believe that analyzing the characteristics of globalization in terms of the international movement and transfer of capital, and the international movement of labor is not meaningful without a gender analysis. The non-clerical labor power of young women in developing countries and “part-time housewife” labor in developed countries in the New International Division of Labor (NIDL) represent the most efficient ways for global capital to reduce the costs of the reproduction of labor power and to transfer its cost-compression effects to the side of capital accumulation, allowing for the full achievement of the neoliberal capital cycle. In other words, the globalization of the sphere of production, which is the outsourcing of production processes and the international division of labor within companies, and the globalization of the sphere of reproduction, which is responsible for the day-to-day reproduction of life, labor power and human life as a whole, establish two broad tendencies: 1) the international migration of reproductive labor, including sex work, domestic work, care work and university-teaching work; 2) an international division of labor into a center – semi-periphery – periphery hierarchy.

On the one hand, the globalization of these two spheres of production and reproduction is a prerequisite for the implementation of the globalization of the financial sphere and the transformation-conversion of M – M’ as the expansion of something identical to itself, the realization of the ultimate, final desire – that of the father who directly gives birth to the son – the precondition for the “neutralization” or “annihilation,” so to speak, of all spatial and temporal discrepancies.

The 2008 Lehman shock was a crisis of the expansionary movement of global capital. The most important thing here is that conventional financial crises were caused up until this point by either an excess of capital and or an excess of commodities in relation to the production process. The global financial crisis of 2008, on the other hand, appeared as a crisis of the financial and reproductive spheres, that is to say, the penetration of credit relations, or financialization, into the everyday life of human beings. It has triggered the financial subsumption of areas of financial exclusion, regions of economic life not previously taken by finance as an object or target. This phenomenon is precisely a key aspect of what the crisis of contemporary globalization is all about: the financialization of the household and finally, the financialization of labor power itself, the induction of financial over-subsumption. In other words, we need to clearly understand that the financial sphere is not just about simple exclusion or inclusion, but about the occurrence of a form of movement in the extreme range from exclusion towards over-subsumption, or excess-inclusion.

GW: One of the important directions that your work has gone in is specific to economics and to what you call ‘feminist economics’. In what ways is this an independent mode of inquiry from Marxist theory today, taken in its broadest sense, politically or even culturally? Is a ‘feminist economics’ necessarily Marxist? What would be its main tasks and how does it relate to the broader study of ‘care work’?

AM: I started my research on “feminist economics” in Japan in the early 90s, at a time when probably no one else had ever heard this phrase. Since then, I have organized the Japan Association for Feminist Economics (JJAFFE) and other organizations in Japan, as well as continuing my work teaching in graduate school. From its earliest days, feminist economics was consciously composed of various trends formed out of the critique of neoclassical economics, and thus it speaks in a very mixed voice. Therefore, if you ask me whether “feminist economics” is necessarily Marxian, I would say that it comes from an economics based on various schools, Keynesian, post-Keynesian, neo-institutional, ‘radical economics’, etc., but that what joins these tendencies together is that it tries to solve problems of feminism as internal questions of economics, rather than leaving them to other disciplines. Within feminist economics, there is an area specifically called ‘feminist political economy’, which is clearly in the vein of Marxist feminism, and which deals with capital-forms – the circulating categories of commodity-capital, productive capital and money capital, and with the concept of social reproduction, meaning structural reproduction, which is of course also a term that derives its methodology from Marx. However, in the case of a broader understanding of “care work”, the question of how the bearers of this care work are specifically determined and deployed in global politics, not only at the macro-level but also at the meso/micro level, raises various issues that cannot be dealt with solely within economics. This is where it becomes necessary to cross the inherited disciplinary boundaries of academic and intellectual work and to proceed in an interdisciplinary manner, a crucial situation that brings up numerous fascinating issues.

GW: What groups and projects have you been working on recently, particularly in Asia? Any final comments on the theme of ‘rethinking Marxist feminism today’?

AM: Our conjunctural analysis in recent years has been focused on financialization and gender in Asia – the politics of exclusion and over-subsumption – but more straightforwardly, we believe that the relationship between information technology business process outsourcing (IT/BPO) and financialization, which has been relocated to Asia, also needs to be analyzed in terms of the present conjuncture. The theme of reconsidering the present state of Marxist-feminism is a very important one today, and I believe that above all, we need to deepen the debates that took place up until the early 1980s, with a view towards the phenomena of globalization and the rise of a new Cold War system, that is, the present trend of movement from de-nationalization towards re-nationalization.