Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor

Late last year, Society & Space (affiliated with Antipode Journal) published an essay I wrote on Kalindi Vora’s book Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). It is archived here at Radical Antipode. (My thanks to the excellent editor Andy Kent.)

Kalindi Vora, Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780816693948 (cloth); ISBN: 9780816693962 (paper).


The last two paragraphs of my essay:

“How is a fetus produced?” (p.41)–and how should it be? Babies, insofar as they take the form of commodities, do not command the same political freight as isolated organs, or computer programming, or the affects of personal telephonic support. Yet the practice of transferring embryos and entire pregnancies to settings where “life” is cheap (the better to nurture the lives that are extracted there) forces us to reckon with a workplace politics of gestation which necessarily points beyond surrogacy as an “exception”, towards the work of so-called natural gestation (see Lewis 2015). Meanwhile, to come at denaturalizing the matter from a different angle: the development of methods of mitochondrial splicing now promises the possibility of increasing, beyond two, the number of a baby’s direct genetic parents. It is more pertinent than ever before, then, to further weaponize gene biologist’s Richard Lewontin’s already political claims that “DNA is not self-reproducing…it makes nothing…and organisms are not determined by it” (quoted on p.41).

Within this struggle for a liberatory mode of reproduction, it may not always be strategic to argue that care-based livelihoods are comprised of “labour” rather than something else (“vital energy”, “biology”) in order to win victories. In surrogacy, gestators may develop their challenges to “the assumption that the end product is a form of contract-protected property belonging to the originators of intention and DNA” (p.41) in different vocabularies. The Indian open-source programmers in Chapter 3 of Life Support had a collective notion of authorship at the same time as “the desire to keep the fruits of their labour ‘at home’” (p.101); as such, it would be interesting to inquire into possible analogous desires on the part of Indian gestational surrogates vis-à-vis the newborns they hand away; desires that may already have helped shape the 2015 ruling against private transnational “outsourcing” in their domain. What is “home”? How can we remake this world as a life-support for all its inhabitants? Might a demand to keep the strange fruits of hi-tech gestational labour “at home” articulate favourably with Haraway’s (2015) call to “make kin, not babies”?

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(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future

Source: (Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future


Head’s up: the excellent blog The Disorder of Things is currently hosting a symposium on the new book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future.

I co-wrote (with the wonderful David M Bell from the University of Nottingham) an essay that responds to the book:

“(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future”.

While you’re there, definitely also read the other, prior post that the symposium posted, which focuses on the ecological angle more exclusively. (“Postcapitalist Ecology: a comment on Inventing the Future“.) It is from a fellow member of the Out of the Woods writing collective (Joseph Kay) and it is fantastic.

Oh, and finally, weigh in – and watch this space. Conversations are happening on social media about the strengths and limits of ‘automationist’ anti-work. Out of the Woods will be posting a separate head’s-up and introduction to the two perspectives it helped produce on the type of analysis Srnicek and Williams offer.


Demanding the future: beyond marriage; and reproductive justice for all

Plan C Manchester has been compiling a tumblr of radical demands – most of them formulated by ‘guests’ or fellow-travellers – imagining a liveable future. With my Feminist Fightback hat on, I helped to contribute to Demand No. 21Reproductive Justice for All! – and also wrote another one by collaborating with @takkaria, namely, Demand No. 23 – Stop allocating social resources on the basis of marital status. The latter in particular is merely a sort of sketch of a call for experimenting with more conviction, as communists, in materially otherwise forms of social reproduction, by building nurturing alternatives to the couple-form somehow, some sort of anti-families. Whatever you may think (I’m ambivalent myself) about the meaning of formulating demands in the relative absence of a corresponding social struggle, you can check these respective (differently styled) texts out, here and here, along with the entirety of the excellent Demanding the Future project/experiment, which (incidentally) will be written up thoughtfully by my Manchester comrades in short order.

Demand #21: Reproductive Justice For All!

Guest demand by Feminist Fightback

Reproductive justice consists of the social conditions necessary for people to enjoy the freedom to “have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments” (SisterSong). As UK-based intersectional anticapitalist feminists in solidarity with the SisterSong Women of Colour Reproductive Justice collective in the USA, we in Feminist Fightback demand: reproductive justice for all.

There has recently been a significant increase in the number of anti-choice pickets occurring outside abortion clinics, with picketers becoming increasingly aggressive.  Earlier this week, Lord Bates, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, suggested that immigration needed to be decreased, as migrant women were having ‘too many’ babies. In London, a group of single women with children, the Focus E15 Mothers, are defending their right to stay in social housing near their friends and support networks, as Newham council wants to ‘re-house’ some of them as far away as Sunderland.

When we speak about reproductive rights in the UK, we generally talk about a woman’s right to ‘choose’.  But while access to abortion on the NHS is still clearly very important, ‘the right to choose’ is inadequate to address the situation of migrant women subjected to racist and sexist attacks by the government, or low-income single mothers fighting to stay in their communities. What women (and other people who can bear children, but may not identify as women) need is reproductive justice.

While the phrase “reproductive justice” itself is relatively new, dating from the 1990s, in both theUS and UK, racialized women, low-income women, disabled women, and their allies have long supported the need to legalise abortion while also challenging the limitations of focusing exclusively on the ‘right to choose’. Reproductive justice places the ‘right to choose’ within the wider social context in which choices are being made. It asks us to think about the conditions necessary for genuine reproductive autonomy, and the intersecting systems of oppression that pervade our lives, preventing these conditions from being realised.  It asks us to consider why some women have more options than others, and why some babies are seen as more ‘valuable’.

Conditions necessary for reproductive justice might include (but are not limited to):

●     Free abortion on demand for anyone, without the need for doctors’ signatures, everywhere in the UK, including Northern Ireland.

●     Access to contraception, abortion and ante-natal, peri-natal and post-natal care for ALL people, regardless of immigration status.

●     A welfare state that provides adequate financial support for all parents and children, with extra support provided for children and parents with special needs.

●     A fully public and well-funded NHS to ensure free, excellent, reproductive health care for all.

●     An end to immigration detention, which is especially difficult and detrimental for children and pregnant women

●     Adequate training for all medical personnel on the reproductive health needs of trans* people, intersex people, and any other non-binary people.

●     An end to all ideologies and policies that paint some children and parents as ‘less valuable’ or less capable of making ‘good choices’ than others; obvious examples would be capitalism, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, trans*phobia, and xenophobia.

These are by no means the only conditions. What would you add?

March 31, 2015.


Demand #23: Stop allocating social resources and privileges on the basis of marital status

This demand has been put forward, on the basis of a provocation by Laura Kipnis in the polemicAgainstLove, by members of Plan C Manchester andFeminist Fightback North: @takkaria and @lasophielle.


We demand that societies stop allocating social resources and privileges on the basis of marital status. By ‘marital status’ we are referring to whether people are publicly recognised as a couple, the couple form being, to quote Hannah Black, that “thing or experience or lifestyle or belief” that, despite the many and storied joys it brings, is nevertheless “the most reductive, exclusionary and precarious imaginable method of meeting the probably universal need to feel close to and recognized by others.”

Everywhere, the state promotes and gives recognition to various kinds of couples, the most infamous such measures being, perhaps, the provision of tax breaks and joint benefits to couples. Universal Credit also promises to glue poorer couples together financially in a gruesome recapitulation of 1960s middle-class life, making one benefit payment, once a month, to one person – despite the obvious potential for abuse this opens up. As such, the state also encourages society to treat people in couples as a unit, and their relationship as the basis of a household with special legitimacy. When you get a divorce in this country, still today, you are pleading with the Crown that your life “has become intolerable”. It is this state of affairs, to us, that is intolerable.

And while this unit (the basis for “family values”) undergirds what we call public, interactions between its constituent parts are private, creating an environment ripe for abuse – the brunt of which is borne by women. Those of us outside the unit are reluctant to intervene: what happens in the family is private and, after all, ‘we don’t really know what’s going on’. Legally, too, marriages have been the place where, rich or poor, one is least protected from the violence of rape by one particular person (incidentally, places where marital rape is still legal are largely using penal codes devised by ex-imperial powers, but that’s a story for another time).  Despite this, gaining and maintaining marital status remains synonymous with good citizenship: we must do it because we must – ethically, economically – ‘think of the children’, whether or not they have been created yet.

We demand a less precarious system of social reproduction, and a far wider horizon for our legitimate desires, than the couple form. We are wondering, as Kipnis puts it: “What if luring people into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desires were actually functional for society? … Note that the conditions of marital stasis are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate.”

We acknowledge that marriage has historically been sought, in particular, by members of a socio-economically vulnerable sex class, to whom it offered certain protections, even though the institution originally managed their exchange as reproductive chattel. We acknowledge that a great many people flourish in marriage. But this is no basis for predicating the allocation of social resources on this institution. Nowadays, especially for the poor, marriage is supposedly a ‘soft’, aspiration-forming mode of social ordering, yet it often takes on a coercive and punitive function.

Individual parents (overwhelmingly women) who try to leave abusive situations with their kids find their benefits sanctioned; immigration rights are, barbarically, tied to marital status; and even sleeping over at your boyfriend’s dis-entitles you to certain single person’s benefits. As such,Mumsnet is full of stories detailing ways one can snitch on neighbours who might be faking their couple-form, or failing to declare lifestyles that ought to be legally and economically coupled, given our era’s prevailing logic of austerity. “Who needs a policeman on every corner,” asks Laura Kipnis, “when we’re all so willing to police ourselves and those we love, and call it upholding our vows?”

So let’s abolish the apparatus that makes marriage, both gay and straight, a quasi-imperative (as well as every girl’s ultimate dream). Let’s have uncivil partnerships instead. Let’s stop policing ourselves, confusing commitment with property logic. Let’s stop letting the state police our intimate domain. We can decide for ourselves what a family is, and what resources it needs.

2nd April 2015

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (at The Occupied Times)

Earlier this year The Occupied Times (which is consistently excellent) published a second – different – piece I wrote on gestational workplaces. Flagging this here so you can check it out. 

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (Sophie Lewis)


The stark and ugly two-tier geography of surrogacy—boutique and mass, transparent and opaque, North and South, voluntaristic and desperate—can be mystified through the telling of new age spiritual stories, and the blogging of miracles, that pretend there is no difference. Infertility having become subject to wholesale pathologisation, a surrogate’s final pay-day (parturition) inevitably becomes the happiest day of a long-thwarted would-be procreator’s life. Women helping women: it’s beautiful – that’s the way the optimistic contingent of the pro-natalist liberal-feminist establishment would like to frame it. Curiously, there are few voices to be found from the garment factory slums of, for example, Bangalore – where surrogates are recruited – that chime with the breathless descriptions of unforgettable journeys, bonds, unlikely comings-together, and incredible reciprocal transformations, which the industry (and Oprah) likes to platform. As is doubtless palpable to those workers, in many ways the outsourcing of gestation is typical of post-Fordist labour trends. A growing suite of reproductive and intimate domestic ‘goods’ now enter the international market in services, marked by precarisation and casualisation and characterised notably by a rearrangement of risk (typical surrogacy contracts read like litanies of risk disclaimers). Indeed, to zoom in on this small subsection of twenty-first century work is not to argue that it is qualitatively unique.

Rather, the challenge for surrogates, the value of whose labour is literally embedded in their bodies as living things, is to generalise their struggle. The experience of bodily unity with a child destined for an ‘other’ family seems like a very good place from which to instigate a politics of reproductive freedom. It springs from the same subversive mediational subject-position occupied throughout history by wet nurses, governesses, ayahs, sex-workers and nannies. Surrogate struggle by no means demands a technophobic attitude against assisted reproductive technologies, which should surely rather be reimagined – made to realise collective needs and desires. Actually, those who work as surrogates are the technology profitably controlled by others; they embody not only the form-giving fire but the partially conscious primary components. And the woman who stood up to her boss, with whom this article began, points the way to a revolution that begins simply with naming the labour of surrogacy as labour; naming the not-fully-conscious, not-fully-human, body, in which the commissioned baby resides, as synonymous with the labourer herself. We might imagine this struggle as one aiming to overthrow all conditions of life that stratify and impede the flourishing and re-growing of already-existing humans. Starting, certainly, with global markets in reproductive tourism as they currently exist, intensifying patterns of neocolonial inequality. But doubtless also including the nuclear family, based, as it is, on genetic heredity, inheritance, and oppressive divisions of work that prop up the tangled relations of nation, gender and race. Surrogacy, in short, has the potential to make palpable to us how co-produced, worldly and interdependent our bodies are. In the years to come, a form of radical cyborg militancy is to be expected in the gestational workplaces of the world.

Cash and Carry: the surrogacy industry shows how difficult it will be to make new reproductive technologies benefit all.

I published a thing. It’s increasingly clear commercial gestational surrogacy is my ‘beat’ at the moment. So, if you will, please go to Jacobin Magazine and >>read my article<<

It’s called “Cash & Carry“, which I didn’t come up with personally but which I like, because it’s funny and more than mildly crass, in relation to gestational labour (but that crassness is kind o the point). In this article, I survey Assisted Reproductive Technology and surrogacy in particular, somewhat historically, in order to talk about how we could be imagining a communist repro-techno-utopia and embracing unnaturalness, to that end. Here’s an excerpt:

A vast number of women gestate babies for free; those few women whose pregnancies are waged, much like paid caregivers and sex workers, occupy a position that speaks to millions of potential allies. Though many Marxists didn’t think of it, being in labor is labor. Mounting a “wages against pregnancy” campaign could thus refuse the difference between surrogate and normal pregnancies as a jumping-off point for questioning and denaturalizing the prevalent mode of social reproduction more broadly.

What else might this politics look like? The only documented case of the collective bargaining power of surrogates being put to the test is one where a worker was denied leave to visit her dying father, on which she and others threatened to “drop” — willfully miscarry — their babies.

Grim and unpalatable as it may be, most of all for them, this kind of leverage is essentially what the striking workforces of embodied labor have at their disposal. As workers in the field of reproductive vitality, mothers on strike can only really bargain with their ability to extinguish life — a prerogative we must support, as with struggles over abortion access.

At the same time, struggles for reproductive justice from below are incomplete if they fail to speak to the other side of the relation: to the thwarted desire to be a parent. In particular, advancing queer and trans people’s access to the pro-family medical and legal benefits and services of the (admittedly dwindling) welfare state is vital to re-envisioning reproduction. But striving beyond the state for our reproductive justice also entails the freedom to not reproduce at all, and raises all-too-often buried questions: not just “how to reproduce,” but “why”?

As Nina Power puts the problem: “What would it mean to refuse to perpetuate the ongoing processes that constitute and maintain capitalism while refusing to give up on care and other human relations that sustain us? Is it possible to separate the two adequately or at all?”

Klein vs Klein

I’ve recently joined the Out of the Woods writing collective so I’m flagging our review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. We called it “Klein vs. Klein” and published it at the excellent The New Inquiry (@thenewinquiry) and re-posted it on OOTW’s home Libcom, where you should also check out the @out_woods offerings for @occupiedtimes on disaster communism and other eco-revolutionary themes.


A taster of what we had to say:

Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.

Out of the Woods's picture Out of the Woods

A collaborative blog investigating capitalism and climate change.

Behind this blog is a loose collective. We don’t have any agreed positions or perspectives, beyond thinking that climate change is a vital area of investigation. Some of us are scientifically trained, but none of us are experts in climate science or environmental policy. We are learning as we go.


The Appropriation Game

(Seasons greetings. Just hitting up my mostly dormant blog, prompted by my pal @iycrtyl on Twitter, to just mark down something about the spectacle of Benedict Cumberbatch incarnating Alan Turing for the world.)

You may remember that Alan Turing was queer. As the final info-slides in what I’m going to call the Heteronormative Establishment’s Appropriation Game (IMDB) note, he was given a “choice” around the age of forty between cure and carceral penance — hormonal injections and prison — for the crime of his homosexuality, which, unsurprisingly, resulted swiftly in his suicide. The Queen apparently pardoned him posthumously last year, although not the many thousands of others who remain in his position and are still alive. Anyhow, now we can all gloss over the fact that he was destroyed by the state and a homophobic culture by celebrating a blockbuster that’s essentially yet another Keira Knightley heteromance. I got nothing against Knightley really; it’s ace that she’s got blue stockings on, and wildly out-acts Cumberbatch, and whacks him in the face for breaking off their engagement. I can’t debate the verisimilitude of the Alan-and-Joan relationship or indeed any of the lurid spy matters I gather might have been straightforwardly made up. All I know is that the movie is not a good tribute to Alan Turing in the sense that is a structurally anti-queer movie. My evidence for this is simple and unoriginal. Lots of people have been saying it. It’s that no embodied queerness confronts the viewer. It’s not just Cumberbatch’s straightness that hurts one’s eyes, it’s the whole screenplay’s. Excepting (genuinely heartrending) glances between the child-actor and his schoolmate in the flashback sequences, all references to queer desire in this Turing biopic are discursive. Visually, there is literally nothing in-your-face in it. Nothing remotely Brokeback Mountain. Turing’s confessor is the state. The words “touch my penis” (which, Cumberbatch protests, is evidence that the film is “pretty explicit”) are spoken in front of a cop. Structurally, we sit in the cop chair to interrogate the relevance of Turing’s queerness to history in order to discover and judge ourselves to be tolerant. Then, as cop, we have our minds blown by an expert explanation of Possible Knowledge and Science. We can all emerge more enlightened from our session in the police station. Woahhh. This queer here does a great imitation of a valuable human, you gotta see it. Let’s give him a royal pardon. What a guy.

By all means, download the movie if, like me, you take pleasure in lush wallpaper and a bit of 1930s/’40s steampunk. But the ideological struggles determining the meaning of the Turing centenary surely revolve around the past and present policing of deviant and un(re)productive bodies.Britain has lately made a concession around gay marriage, but in doing so it has also engineered a deal around it. Nice productive integrated bourgeois gays might have become officially establishment-adaptable, fine; but this also works to turn desiring mobs into an aseptic miasma of pink pounds. A consensus now emerges that they should put away their visible queer physicality, please, along with their rage against the state (so unnecessary now). Meanwhile, last year the same state demanded, on threat of arrest, DNA samples from men who were convicted decades ago, like Turing, of consensual ‘gross indecency’. British buggery may only have been decriminalised eleven years ago, but we’d all “defend gay rights to the death” these days – as long as we don’t have to watch gay sex. A very tame institutional concession (by the way, more accurately, it’s still ‘separate’, not ‘equal’ marriage – and anyway, who cares) now functions perfectly together with UKIP and Tory bluster about excessive visibility and publicity: overdemanding B&B patrons in court, unreasonable classroom agenda-pushers and Church of England spoilsports. This is the same racialized and classed hierarchy of phobic tolerance that enables society to turn a blind eye as the British border agency detains asylum-seeking queers for years at a time, and then frequently deports them to their deaths. It’s the same hierarchy of phobic tolerance that enables a new anti-obscenity law to be passed (who could it possibly affect? not our new friends, the good gays). So, this is the context in which to hear Cumberbatch et al assessing as unnecessary and unsubtle any actual visual representation of the erotic acts that brought Turing to his unjust and premature end. Mainstream movies can’t just arbitrarily sex up ostensibly historical plots, you know! His sexuality was only “one part of his character”, we are told. The Imitation Game, they say, is “subtle storytelling”.

On subtlety, then. Three times in The Imitation Game, we have to hear the mawkish ideological dictum in full (I may not have got it quite right, but this is basically it): “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” Three times, I tell you. “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”; in full. Like most people (I imagine) I cringed the first time, guffawed in disbelief the second time, and heaved in the face of the third. Quite apart from the content of the refrain, paying £6 to have my intellect treated this way really is a form of self-degradation perfected. Well, so, OK, Hollywood is a synonym for hebetudinous. But maybe it’s worth noticing what it’s doing here. Hooray for us for going hip-hip-hooray for a gay man who beat the Nazis! Too bad he apparently died at the hands of the good old Allies in a bit of text on a slide you might miss right before the end-credits. This is a particularly virulent example of born-this-way-ism being deployed to jingoistic ends.

The reason it’s okay to be a homosexual and a jerk is, pace the Imitation Game, the fact that you successfully and ingeniously served king and country, plus science and humanity. Whether or not king and country thought you were a spy or a fraud along the way. And, it’s okay that you’re gay despite (or maybe because of) the fact that you don’t have “that sort of” relationship with Keira Knightley, to whom a vast proportion of the film, like all films with Keira Knighley in them, is dedicated.


Except …. remember? It was not okay that Turing was gay. Not according to the society he lived in, the society the Queen only exited a few months ago.

“Chemical castration” and off-stage suicide take up about one and a half minutes at the end of the movie. The suicide happens narratively right after Keira, married to someone else, walks into his disorderly and lonely post-war flat, witnesses his physical and mental suffering, and vindicates him with the words (you guessed it) “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Sometimes weird gay boys, working hard to imitate normality, surprise us all.

Queer suicide shouldn’t strictly speaking come as such a big surprise, given that in our society, half of queers consider it. Pardon my gallows humour. But actually, if what’s meant by “the things no one can imagine” is the feat of cracking the Nazi Enigma and inventing the ‘Turing machine’, thereby saving millions of lives at the time and giving us all the computers we cherish today? Unfortunately, no, the state destroyed all that knowledge so that it wouldn’t help the Russians. Yay, the state!

It’s literally an obscene travesty. So, I say, fuck using Alan Turing for nationalism. Fuck that a thousand times. And to all the self-styled Cumberbitches, incidentally, I also say fuck you.