by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman
Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B’Al Sk’a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle. We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women’s liberation.
The scope of Eve’s response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign. Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.
What may at first sight appear in Nat’s response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.
In Nat’s comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of “reproduction” here which we’ll expound further down). The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object. This is done through a dualistic reading of “economics” and “politics,” or, to use the terms Marx employed in the “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, “base” and “superstructure.” But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories. The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.
We’d like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx’s conception of labor and unity of subject-object. Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.
Marx’s conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.
Marx’s early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as “labor.” In “Estranged Labour,” Marx writes,
“For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.” (76)
Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production. Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs. Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.
But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process. Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves. Later in “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes,
“It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” (77)
Here Marx’s conception of the subject-object becomes clear. The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).
Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German “materialist” Ludwig Feuerbach. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that sensuousness is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated. It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world. Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor. This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.
While the subject-object dialectic is universal–meaning it exists in all modes of production–under capitalism, this process is interrupted. Our self-activity is no longer unified with our conscious will, and the subjectivity of our self-activity is turned against us. We do not produce for use, and do not have access to our multi-sided needs and corresponding activity; the world we have created is not our own but alien to us, or estranged from us. In contrast, communism is the movement toward uniting the subject and object, or the completely free state of conscious self-activity in which we produce for use; as Marx states in “Estranged Labour,” we make our life-activity itself the object of our will and consciousness (76). A lot more can be said about this. For more elaboration, see the Unity and Struggle post, “The Communist Theory of Marx.”
Politics and economics, a duality or a totality?
The base/superstructure concept adapted by orthodox Marxism has reified the subject-object split. It sees the “base,” or economy, in a structuralist/sociological manner that exists independently of human initiative and which determines all activity and thinking. So capital, wages, and money are mere objects. On the other hand, “superstructure,” or politics, is understood as subjective and confined to ideas or an abstract kind of activity that isn’t metabolic with nature but divorced from it and determined by the base.
Marx never had a dualistic understanding of these categories and posited quite conversely that “economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production.” (Poverty of Philosophy, MECW 6, 165) For Marx, capital, wages and money are the various phenomenological forms of alienated labor; they are subjective and objective social relations in disguise, not ahistoric things as political economy conceives. The economy and politics, or capital, wages and money can only be separated logically because concretely and in the real world they exist as a social and dialectical whole.
The splitting of the intrinsic unity of the subject-object and the dualistic reading of base/superstructure creates a dynamic where struggles around work are seen as narrow and economistic.
Struggles that emerge broadly around the wage, and which are not always simply about getting higher wages for a small group of workers, are not automatically economistic. And struggles that take place outside workplaces are not automatically political. For example, it was precisely the “economist” types who sought women’s liberation through selling their labor-power during second wave feminism. Such a strategy was predicated on capital’s fundamental social relations and confined gendered alienation to a question of receiving “equal wages for equal work.”
This economism is typified precisely by a disconnect between the struggle to maintain access to abortion and the struggle against the gendered division of labor. This typically looks like mass protests that emerge to keep abortion legal without consideration not only for what sections of the class have access to sexual/reproductive healthcare but why there’s a contradiction between many white women who are oftentimes coerced into keeping children and black women who face forced sterilization.
Economism refuses to challenge the racial and other important divisions within the class and which allow it to be recuperated by the movement’s “official” leaders, by capital, the State, and the value-form. This also implicates various problematic forms to combat the encroaching hand of the State over women’s bodies whether it be by petitioning, lobbying, symbolic protests, etc. Demands against the State are just as easily absorbed by the ruling class into new forms of rationality as demands for higher wages directed to employers, and many forms wind up acquiescing the fight before one actually begins.
When we enter the factory gate, or the domicile kitchen, we don’t leave the political world behind us. Likewise, when we exit, we don’t leave the realm of economics. There are manifold “political” dynamics that manifest at work, that implicate race and gender, from the wage scale, to the division of labor, to sexual harassment. Such factors not only undercut the specific, local, or sectoral interests of workers engaged in that workplace but become generalized features of class life institutionalized by the State. Similarly, outside of work, in the streets where women are fighting to maintain access to abortion have all kinds of economic implications.
Given this, the abstractions “economics” and “politics” cannot be separated. Our sense is that it is partly the job of communists to tease out the political implications of various spontaneous struggles that emerge, whether they take form at work or in the streets.
Marxist-Feminism, production and reproduction, labor and capital: finite or universal?
The methodology of orthodox Marxism, whereby the subject and object are split into a determining base (object) and a determined superstructure (subject), necessarily has consequences for how the content of women’s liberation is to be understood. And this framework is exactly why reproductive labor and reproductive freedom are counterposed. For Nat,
“women’s liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common.”
“women’s liberation [is]…far beyond a discussion about waged and unwaged labor and an economic struggle for wages for housework.”
If, then, women’s liberation goes beyond labor, what we are dealing with is a framework that is ahistorical. Patriarchy is not something that statically exists separate from the mode of production; under capitalism patriarchy takes the form of gendered alienation, the gendered division of labor, etc. We cannot understand patriarchy without a critique of political economy and vice-versa. Furthermore, the form of reproductive labor under capitalism, which is gendered, exists in a unity with controlling our bodies as a means of production, and determining what kind of labor-power capital needs. This coincides with a racial division of labor which we’ve discussed above.
There can be no “reproductive freedom” if reproductive workers aren’t freed from the gendered division of labor, i.e. unless there is a coordinated attack against the multifarious forms of alienated labor. Under the capitalist gendered division of labor, women’s uteri and women’s bodies are both means of production of labor-power that they are radically separated from. This condition is reinforced by the State in many forms, from limiting women’s access to abortion and forced sterilization, to austerity measures that force women to increasingly bear the burden of caring for young, elderly, and disabled members of the class.
In relegating the gendered division of labor into an objective “base,” and similarly assigning reproductive freedom to subjective “superstructure,” Nat sets up a false dichotomy that can have devastating practical consequences. According to Nat,
“There has been an aversion to [the fight over reproductive freedom] in Marxist Feminism, perhaps because it is not a strictly ‘working class’ struggle. But this to me is a rigid type of Marxism which narrows everything down to the relation between labor and capital. To me this is a mistake. A revolution isn’t a narrow economic act, it is a complex struggle involving real world alignments, consciousness, and political struggles. When we ignore real politics we stay isolated.”
Again, labor/self-activity/production is posed as either objective economics on the one hand or subjective politics on the other. Further, this rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s conception of “labor.” In contrast to this dualistic framework, we can return to Wages for Housework and the Marxist-Feminist methodology.
Wages for Housework emerged out of very real struggles of women in the post-war period and departed from the theory of the role of reproductive labor as a whole, struggles that find their historic origin in the split between productive and reproductive labor. The split of these two was necessary toward the development of the capitalist division of labor (which had a visible gendered content). In previous modes of production, reproductive labor was not so distinct, and individuals were not radically separated from the means of production and confined to a single sphere of work. This passage from Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s and Selma James’ “The Power Women and the Subversion of the Community” is not only illuminating but quite emphatic:
“In the same way as women are robbed of the possibility of developing their creative capacity, they are robbed of their sexual life which has been transformed into a function for reproducing labor power: the same observations which we made on the technological level of domestic services apply to birth control (and, by the way, to the whole field of gynaecology), research into which until recently has been continually neglected, while women have been forced to have children and were forbidden the right to have abortions when, as was to be expected, the most primitive techniques of birth control failed.” (30)
Here, Dalla Costa and James confirm that labor and capital aren’t narrow, they are universal categories. Certainly they’ve been narrowed in the orthodox Marxist tradition from Kautsky to Althusser, both in their theoretical scope and in their practical conclusions. But labor isn’t just wage labor and capital isn’t just factories. Labor and capital express the universal antagonistic movement between living labor and dead labor which is capital. This dynamic is one where things control us rather than us controlling things, between monotonous, one-sided work in the division of labor and the social relations between things we make. This is the picture Marx gives us from “Estranged Labour” to the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” and nowhere does he see labor and capital as reductive by any stretch.
Reproduction constitutes all those various labors that are essential to maintaining human beings and which are also historically developed; where the “nature” of humans change as they deepen their consciousness and many-sided labors, as opposed to a narrow naturalist and fixed conception of reproduction (babymaking).
We are told by Nat that “the discussion was suffocated in its scope because of its confinement within in a certain ‘workerist’ conception of how to look at women, sexuality, reproduction, and liberation.” Nat counterposes and unnecessarily polarizes defending abortion versus struggles over reproductive labor and this is done precisely with the dualistic understanding of “base” and “superstructure” rooted, again, in the split of the subject-object. This also has bodily implications: where a woman’ hands are concerned, it is economic, where it concerns her uterus, it is political.
Nat points out that Wages for Housework was not relevant in the 60s and 70s (and is still not relevant today) because it has never had popular currency with women engaged in struggle. Nat writes:
“Ultimately I think that women’s liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common.
To do that there needs to be a break away from the traditional role of women, namely traditional roles of giving birth to and raising children and other domestic roles.
Now due to the development of global capitalism since the 1970s, but also due to the fight of women at that time against traditional relations, there has been a break away from tradition.
The Wages for Housework tendency was correct in stating that a break from the home in and of itself would not liberate women or destroy capitalism. However, it was wrong politically to not unite with what was correct. We need to recognize the necessity of such a demand when placed within an overall communist vision of women’s liberation.”
We agree with Nat that women needed to break the isolation of the home in order to develop their communist potential, and that Wages for Housework never caught on. We also agree that revolutionaries should develop a strategy that both understands the current conditions and is informed by the self-activity of the class. But our approach is distinguished specifically by Marx’s subject-object dialectic.
The Marxist Feminists understood the relationship between the objective conditions of society and the subjective self-activity of the class. They used this understanding to develop a programmatic strategy that would resolve contradictions within the class in favor of revolution (and abolition of gendered value relations):
This was a time in which capitalism was in crisis, and needed a strategy to overcome crisis (which later materialized in strategic shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism). Entering into the workforce and receiving higher wages there would only allow capital to subsume increased labor-power, which would solve the crisis in the interest of capital. Wages for Housework would have caused increased devastation to capital by forcing capital to concede profits for unwaged domestic labor. In other words, the Marxist-Feminists argued that equality politics would add labor to women’s plates instead of forcing capital to relinquish profits for work already being done. On top of this, Wages for Housework would have broken the isolation of the home and the patriarchy of the wage. Again, this strategy is based on the subject-object dialectic.
In contrast, Nat’s arguments against Wages for Housework (and for engaging in reproductive rights struggles) is based on the assumption that when a programmatic strategy is not popular, it is not relevant and should be abandoned: “In fact, the ideas of Marxist Feminism have never caught on among large sections of women outside activist circles.”
Are things valid only to the extent that masses of people say they are? Is Marxist-Feminism invalid because it has not been a banner waived or slogan employed by millions of women? We don’t think Nat is implying this, but in its logical extension are found a host of problems, including working within the various trade union bureaucracies or the Democratic Party, or that revolutionaries should fight for all sorts of things just because they are popular. In any case, it seems that here Nat is conflating the subject and object, arguing that the current activity of the class, whatever the form, is the objective conditions of capitalism. The practical implications of this methodology is to “meet the class where they are at…and leave them there,” meaning the current activity of the class dictates the program, strategies and tactics, instead of dialectically informing them.
Marxist-Feminism, like Marxism itself, is the distillation of the experiences of working class women. Where else does theory come from but those experiences? What was Marxism if not the logical content of the working class movement considered in its totality?
Programmatic strategies for women’s liberation today
As stated in “Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time”, there is no problem in asking if Wages for Housework is relevant today. However, this must be done through grappling with the subject-object dialectic.
On the one hand, we must look at the objective conditions of capitalism and how that manifests in a gendered way today. One side of this Nat explains, including recent legislative and right-wing attacks against women’s access to abortion. In the comments to Nat’s post, commenter Liam Wright adds to this to include street harassment, rape and gendered assault. To this we would add super-exploitation in feminized workplaces, from nonprofits and schools to street sex work/prostitution and maquiladoras. We have explained above how these issues are at once both economic and political.
We would also include unwaged reproductive labor in the home (the majority of housework is still done by women in the home). However, the character of labor in the home is different today than it was in the 60s and 70s. A contradictory result of second wave feminism was that many of the things that women traditionally did in the home have been broadened out and entered into the circulation of capital. For example, the introduction and expansion of the fast food industry has on the one hand offered some relief to women but on the other, established a new sector of highly exploitative workplaces. This is both a win and a loss for women and therefore the class. It is also relevant that many more women are in the workforce these days; according the the U.S. Census, in 1960, only 15% of women worked full time, and in 2010 this number was up to 43%. This is not to say that struggles around unwaged, reproductive labor are irrelevant, but that workplace issues are far more relevant for women today.
The other side of the subject-object dialectic includes looking at the subjective activity of the class. Nat points toward mobilizations to defend abortion/women’s health clinics. While these struggles are absolutely worth paying attention to, they are simply not representative of a generalized activity of the class. A large majority of the class is not mobilized at this time.
These expressions in content are a small sector of the class engaging in liberal methods to stop anti-abortion bills and restore funding to nonprofits. This strategy does not illuminate the State’s interest in capital and patriarchy. Instead, it relies on the State to be women’s protector, and ensures women’s exploitation and eroded communist potential through protecting women’s “right” to sell labor-power in nonprofits.
In the comments, Liam Wright points to Slut Walk as another strata of women’s self-activity. While Slut Walk was a bit more broad, it was a series of permitted marches that culminated in open mics where people shared stories about being raped, sexually assaulted, stalked etc. There was no confrontation with the State or capital. In some ways, Slut Walk sought to break down the public/private split (women’s bodies and sexuality is reserved for the private reproductive sphere), yet it did so only to rebuild women and reaffirm their subjectivity. This is important work that is necessary in building up women’s ability to stand up to patriarchy and in developing a social fabric woven from the objective conditions of gendered alienation. This consciousness-raising activity, a historical carryover from the strategies of the 60s and 70s, is a hugely important aspect of our work as organizers and revolutionaries. However, consciousness-raising does not substitute for direct confrontation with patriarchy, and therefore capital and the State.
To be clear, we are not arguing for political abstention from liberal or reformist struggles, or consciousness-raising circles, when they are expressions of the self-activity of the class. However, a principled intervention would not be to participate in legislative reform but to argue for a strategies that would seek to damage capital, break down gendered antagonisms within the class, and forefront the demands of women. This is precisely what the Marxist-Feminists did during second wave feminism.
This gets back to Nat’s fundamental question: what forms of activity should we practically engage in today?
Based on the analysis above, we would argue that Wages for Housework does not seem like a relevant strategy today. Instead, here are some examples of concrete areas of struggle that speak to the objective experience of women in the U.S. today:
- Grassroots clinic defense takeovers and/or nonprofit worker committees/unions that build solidarity across worker-“client” lines. This model would build on the work of the Jane Collective, socializing the skills women need to control their own bodies while taking advantage of the de-skilled advances of capital (for example, in general everyone who works in an abortion clinic, right up to the front desk girl, knows how to perform a manual abortion and there are no specialized skills needed for a large majority of medical abortions). This model could be broadened out to things like hormone therapy, HIV and STI treatment, and health care in general for the class.
- Neighborhood groups engaged in tenant struggles with the capacity to deal directly with violence against women in the community.
- Parent, teacher, and student alliances that struggle against school closures/privatization and for transforming schools to more accurately reflect the needs of children and parents, for example on-site childcare, directly democratic classrooms and districts, smaller class sizes, etc.
- Sex worker collectives that protect women from abusive Johns and other community members, and build democratically women- and queer-run brothels with safe working conditions.
- Workplace organizations in feminized workplaces like nonprofits, the service industry, pink collar manufacturing, etc., or worker centers that specialize in feminized workplaces and take up issues and challenges specific to women.
Having said all of this, we want to stress again that any strategies we call for are premature, given the lack of generalized movement among working class women today. Of course, it is still important to struggle in ways that we see as best given the circumstances. However, it is impossible to know whether these activities are the best strategy for today without collective self-activity in opposition to gendered value relations. We raise this to say that it is actually possible that wages for housework is a relevant demand. Only the self-activity of the class will clarify this for us. It is not the task of communists, as Marx once famously said, to write recipes for the cookshops of the future.