Reproduction of the worker, capitalism and patriarchy

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adarcar
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Jul 30 2009 10:41
Reproduction of the worker, capitalism and patriarchy

Hey all,

I mostly just lurk on these boards, but continue to find lots of valuable discussions on them. I hope some members might be able to help me with some problems concerning marx & workers reproduction that I'm workin on.

Marx at some point in Capital Vol. 1 says that the capitalist need not worry about the day to day reproduction of the worker as their natural inclinations and instincts will take care of it (or something to that effect). Obviously this is quite simplistic, but afaik it's pretty much the only treatment of workers' reproduction in the 'private sphere' in his work.

I guess we all agree that there is an enormous amount of labour involved in this reproduction (e.g. cooking, washing, cleaning, maintenance, care-work etc.), which Marx doesn't really discuss or take into account.
I'm aware that many Marxist feminists have in the past written about this (mainly Fortunati in The Arcane of Reproduction, Dalla Costa & James's The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community). I disagree with their treatment of the topic however given that both of them seem to argue for somehow including domestic labour in the category of wage-labour (however indirectly).

I believe that reproductive labour is unpaid and hence lies outside of the direct sphere of production mediated by value (wage-labour+fixed capital -> profit). It is not wage-labour and the people (largely women) doing it are not 'productive' or 'unproductive' workers. They are however part of the working class.

Maybe with this clarified I can move to the specifics of the problems:

1) Marx argues that the proce of labour is the cost of its means of subsistence. This is an enormously elastic term however: the cost of reproduction is dependent on the historical, geographical, cultural and class (and probably other factors) position of the worker(s) in question. In addition, even for the simple acts of eating and cleaning there are different methods with different costs available. For instance, ready meals vs. home made fresh food. There are factors such as economy of scale involved in this, but in general I would claim the following pattern: the more unpaid labour provided by the worker or their partner in the sphere of reproduction, the lower the cost of reproduction of labour in terms of "raw materials" needed to be bought for that reproduction (i.e. home prepared food is cheaper than ready-made food). Given that the labour in the private sphere is unpaid, "raw materials" are, it seems to me, pretty much the only thing to be take into account in the cost of reproduction.
This might be a factor in the maintenance of the vast 'reserve army of labour' in the third world, where heavily subsistence based patriarchal models domestic reproduction still exist, thus enabling their hyper-exploitation by capital: they need very little to reproduce themselves because most of their reproductive acitivity is carried out as unpaid labour (see Maria Mies's Patriarchy and Exploitation on a World-Scale).
This would suggest that rather than the price of wage-labour being objectively determined, it is much more determined by the militancy of the working class and it's ability to negotiate enough pay for it to have to invest less unpaid labour in the sphere of reproduction.
This might then be rationalised or justified as the cost of the means of subsistence, but actually it is largely down to the militancy of the working class and its ability to have its demands met.

2) If the above is largely correct, then there is an obviously intricate and complex relationship between patriarchy (here minimally defined as women doing the unpaid reproductive labour, which is still largely the case) and captialism. Patriarchy, or the distribution of unpaid reproductive labour forms a vital ingredient in the continued existence of capitalism.

3) What's more, there is a question as to whether capitalism would be able to reproduce itself without there being this unpaid sphere of reproduction (this is possibly where I'm straying close to Fortunati's argument): what would happen if workers were to demand enough money to be able to buy all the labour needed to reproduce themselves (e.g. hire a nanny, cleaners etc. This is obviously a thought experiment because there are definite 'moments of work' that help to reproduce a psychologically stable worker in maintaining a romantic relationship that seems difficult to commodify: it is not just the work of a prostitut or a psychologist, although both probably cover some of it). Would capitalists still be able to make a profit?
If not, this might point to some form of patriarchal crisis of capitalism (theoretically at least).

4) There is an additional question here as to the relation between the reconstitution of a more pronounced patriarchy when capitalism hits a crisis. On the one hand, historical statistics show that women are statistically the first and the worst to be hit by capitalism in crisis (first redundancies, cuts to grants and subsidies, cuts to vital services etc.). But on the other hand, what happens if wages are cut and hence less money is available for buying finished reproductive products? It seems to me that a reimposition of the traditional division of labour is likely: woman at home (and probably also in a low paid job) and men at work.

Anyway, I realise these are not really questions. I'm hoping maybe people could point to mistakes in my reasoning, necessary clarifications, further reading or any other thoughts about this.

At some point in the future I'm hoping to assemble this into a longer article/blog post in a polished and finished form, but it'd be interesting to see what people think about this vital parts of that possible article.

Cheers for any responses!
adarcar

PS: sorry for such a long opening post

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Joseph Kay
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Jul 31 2009 17:43

i'm in general agreement with the framework you set out, and i think it provides a materialist basis to understand gender roles and dynamics in capitalist society. however, just a few comments.

adarcar wrote:
2) If the above is largely correct, then there is an obviously intricate and complex relationship between patriarchy (here minimally defined as women doing the unpaid reproductive labour, which is still largely the case) and captialism. Patriarchy, or the distribution of unpaid reproductive labour forms a vital ingredient in the continued existence of capitalism.

while this would certainly appear to be the case, is it necessarily so? such a gendered division of labour rests on what dalla costa/james called 'the patriarchy of the wage' - the payment of the value of the reproduction of the family unit to the male breadwinner. insofar as the workforce has become less (but by no means completely) male-dominated, the material basis for such patriarchy is undermined. of course it's not that simple, although i'm not sure 'cultural lag' would be sufficient to explain the persistance of female-predomination in the unwaged sphere.

so it would seem that in principle non-patriarchal forms could take the place of patriarchy. say there was a mass rejection by women of unpaid domestic labour (or at least a disproportion of it), that doesn't necessarily cause a crisis for capital insofar as male workers can be made to shoulder a more equal part of the burden. this would in effect extend the unwaged portion of the working day for men, reducing it for women. bourgeois equality if you like. so i would argue patriarchy isn't the necessary form of unwaged reproductive labour, but it is a ready-made one which capital makes full use of (since it is reproduced largely autonomously amongst the working class). of course by positing patriartchy as (in principle) non-essential to capital, i'm not relegating the importance of struggles against it, only stressing the potential for capital to accomodate novel forms of the organisation of reproductive labour if womens' struggles against a patriarchal division of labour are successful.

adarcar wrote:
4) There is an additional question here as to the relation between the reconstitution of a more pronounced patriarchy when capitalism hits a crisis. On the one hand, historical statistics show that women are statistically the first and the worst to be hit by capitalism in crisis (first redundancies, cuts to grants and subsidies, cuts to vital services etc.). But on the other hand, what happens if wages are cut and hence less money is available for buying finished reproductive products? It seems to me that a reimposition of the traditional division of labour is likely: woman at home (and probably also in a low paid job) and men at work.

notwithstanding the above, i think this is probably pretty accurate. in the absence of struggles to the contrary, the reconstitution of a traditional gendered division of labour seems more likely than the emergence of more novel forms.

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Khawaga
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Jul 31 2009 18:16

Good post ardarcar.

ardarcar wrote:
3) What's more, there is a question as to whether capitalism would be able to reproduce itself without there being this unpaid sphere of reproduction (this is possibly where I'm straying close to Fortunati's argument): what would happen if workers were to demand enough money to be able to buy all the labour needed to reproduce themselves (e.g. hire a nanny, cleaners etc. This is obviously a thought experiment because there are definite 'moments of work' that help to reproduce a psychologically stable worker in maintaining a romantic relationship that seems difficult to commodify: it is not just the work of a prostitut or a psychologist, although both probably cover some of it). Would capitalists still be able to make a profit?
If not, this might point to some form of patriarchal crisis of capitalism (theoretically at least).

I think that capitalism would be perfectly able to reproduce itself without the unpaid sphere of production. It just depends on how the wage would be imposed on domestic labour. Wages for housework is the classic demand and would most likely come from the state, probably as a form of tax that the working class would pay (most likely).

But the other situation that you describe is not just hypothetical. If workers managed to demand money in order to pay for reproductive work this would just go into the bundle of means of subsistence. Capital could organize reproductive work to produce surplus value, for example through temp agencies and the like (which is happening some places). Through competition the price of buying the "housework" commodity could go down. This might just mean that profit would be distributed from some branches of production to others.

adarcar
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Aug 3 2009 11:10

Hey,

Thanks for your responses. I definitely want to respond to them, but knowing myself it might take a little while. I'll probably respond to each post in a separate post as they deal with different aspects of my post.

cheers,

Adarcar