It is often claimed that Marxism is too narrow to represent a pathway to liberation. It supposedly focuses on the workplace or the economy to the exclusion of not only race, gender, and other forms of oppression, but also issues of community empowerment and non-worker struggles. Marxism apparently leaves no room for discussions of service work, unpaid home labor, and other forms that go beyond the factory. In this essay, I want to use social reproduction theory to argue that the working class extends far beyond the assembly line. Capitalism’s sway over humanity appears to be a totalizing one. Capitalism not only controls the spaces in which it makes profits (our workplaces) but seeks to alter our entire lived experience from our body image to the practices by which we bring up our children. Capitalism must do this in order to ensure the continued flow of profits. I will argue that Marxism has the potential to describe forms of work that take place beyond the factory and, in so doing, reassert its usefulness as a revolutionary theory.
We must reconsider our visualization of the global working class. I am not attempting a concrete summation of who constitutes the working class today. I am proposing a theoretical restoration of the working class as the subject and object of history. Secondly, I argue in favor of a broader understanding of the working class than those employed as wage labor or factory production (the two conditions most closely associated with the term proletariat) at any given moment.
Only a narrow understanding of capitalism imagines its reach to be limited to the point of production. The centrality of wage labor is, in actuality, “a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and social relations and modifies their particularity” . This is a quote from Marx himself. In analyzing wage labor and the system of factory production under capitalism, Marx hoped to bring to light certain contradictions in capitalist society as a whole. He was not a reductionist as is often claimed. I am going to deal here with how Marx actually conceives of capitalist production, or ‘the economy,’ and why it is important that we look to this understanding for today’s struggles against neoliberal capitalism.
We must begin with the incorrect implications of the term ‘economy.’ The allegations against Marxism as “reductionist” and “economistic” are only true if one understands the economy in one of the following two ways. The first is in the neoclassical sense, where neutral market forces determine the fate of humans by chance. The second is in the sense of a union boss whose understanding of the worker is restricted to the wage earner in a single branch of trade. These two concepts are connected are actually connected in important ways, and I will examine them in more detail later.
First, I want to explain why this restrictive view of the economic is something that Marx actually critiqued. The oft-quoted passage which supposedly proves that Marx is an economic reductionist is in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he claims, “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general” . In the common sense reading of this phrase, the “mode of production of material life” is understood to be the economy or economic processes. This, on the face of it, is correct. Marx did mean that the economic base of a society (the process by which we produce the necessities of life) played a very significant role in determining politics, art, and other forms of activity. However, Marx did not conceive of economic processes in the narrow sense of production in the workplace. What, then, did Marx really mean by economic processes? In order to answer this question, it is important to recall that Marx wants us to forget everything we are told about what the economy is by the newspapers and standard economists. Instead of merely describing the surface workings of the economy as these outlets do, Marx is writing about capitalism in a revelatory mode. He is sharing its secrets with us. He stresses that capitalism is not what it seems. By economy, he cannot mean simply “that which goes on in the workplace and market squares” because this is how capitalist economists themselves say we should conceive of it. The view of the economic process as being confined to the workplace is the view, as Lenin said, of the “trade union secretary” . To pretend that Marx also held this view is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his project.
Marx wants to construct a new picture of the economy. He will expose for us how capitalism actually reproduces itself, rather than how it appears to do so. This involves examination of labor outside the workplace. Marx writes that capitalism reproduces itself in part “behind the back of its direct producers” . He will make us “take leave of this noisy sphere where everything takes place on the surface and in the view of all men” . Marx will lead us “into the hidden abode of production”  where “we shall see not only how capital produces but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit-making” . It is clear, then, that Marx could not have focused solely on the production process. The entire point of his work was to show the ways in which capital exists not only because of, but beyond formalized labor.
If what we currently understand as the economy is merely surface, as Marx posits, what is the secret that capital has fought to keep hidden from us? The answer is simple: the animating force is not the movement of products charted by graphs, but human labor. As soon as we, following Marx, restore labor as the source of all wealth and as the very social life of humanity, we restore to the economic process its messy, unruly, gendered, and raced component: living human beings capable of following orders as well as disobeying them. The economy, then, is not merely a static set of relations: worker and machine, boss and employee, et cetera. Rather, it is constantly in motion. It is the actions of human beings, engaging in labor, that determine the nature of the economic process.
The secret source of all profits is exploitation. I have written about this in some detail here (Marx’s Theory of Exploitation ) but it is worth going over the concept again. Although the worker produces all the wealth, capital does not pay her for the full value of what they actually produce. Workers are only paid for the cost of their own reproduction as workers. The additional value produced during the working day is appropriated by capital as surplus value or profit. The wage is nothing but the value necessary to reproduce the worker’s labor power. The value produced by the worker beyond this is essentially stolen. In order to explain how this theft occurs every day without the constant use of direct military force, Marx introduces the concepts of necessary and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is that portion of the workday in which the direct producers make value equivalent to what is needed to sustain them so that they can continue laboring. Surplus labor time, meanwhile, is all the remaining workday where workers make value for capital.
The line between these two concepts is not always clear. There is no bell that rings when workers transition from necessary labor time to surplus labor time. Further, there is no set definition of what the worker needs for their own reproduction. Marx expands upon this fuzziness, writing,
If the owner of labor power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be enough to maintain him in his normal state as a laboring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing, vary according to the…physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called “necessary wants” as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development and depend therefore to a great extent on the…conditions under which, and consequently the habits, and degree of comfort, to which the class of free laborers has been formed .
Here, we sense that the content of Marx’s critique is inadequate to his form. In simple terms, he is not going deep enough. Is it enough for Marx to say that the so-called natural wants, such as food and clothing, are historically contingent? (That is, they are not static and unchanging, but determined by the society in which they exist). No, it is not.
Marxists must examine the labor expended to prepare the food, to wash and iron the clothing. This is labor that is performed outside the production of commodities. While Marx himself did not spend a great deal of time on this, the centrality of the labor process that is the core of Marxism compels us to do so.
One of the most important Marxists to take up this task was the feminist Lise Vogel. Marx, Vogel rightly argues, did not discuss a second component of necessary labor. Vogel calls this the domestic component. This includes the labor performed at home to make the worker ready for the next day, so cooking, cleaning, and so on. It also includes the biological replacement of labor through childbirth. As we know, the lion’s share of the processes by which individual workers renew themselves away from the site of surplus labor production falls on women of the working class . The domestic component of the labor process, then, is yet another hidden (or secret) element of production. If the aim of Marxist economic analysis is to uncover the secret ways in which capitalism produces itself, then Marxists must take up the question of the domestic component of labor.
Looking closely at Marx’s Capital, Vogel and others argue that the key to the system, our labor power, is actually itself produced and reproduced outside of capitalist production, in a “kin-based” site called the family. In an excellent passage, Vogel explains clearly the connection between class struggle and women’s oppression:
Class struggle over conditions of production represents the central dynamic of social development in societies characterized by exploitation. In these societies, surplus labor is appropriated by a dominant class, and an essential condition for production is the…renewal of a subordinated class of direct producers committed to the labor process. Ordinarily, generational replacement provides most of the new workers needed to replenish this class, and women’s capacity to bear children therefore plays a critical role in class society….In propertied classes…women’s oppression flows from their role in the maintenance and inheritance of property…In subordinate classes…female oppression…derives from women’s involvement in processes that renew direct producers, as well as their involvement in production .
This is essentially the main argument of what Vogel and these other later Marxists call “social reproduction theory.” Social reproduction theory shows how the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process,” as Meg Luxton has put it . If the formal economy is the production site for goods and services, the people who produce such things are themselves produced outside the ambit of the formal economy at very little cost for capital. In short, the working class doesn’t only work in its workplace. A woman worker also sleeps in her home, her children play in the public park and go to the local school, and sometimes she asks her retired mother to help out with the cooking. In other words, the major functions of reproducing the working class take place outside the workplace.
This is why capitalism attacks social reproduction viciously in order to win the battle at the point of production. This is why it attacks public services, pushes the burden of care onto individual families, cuts social care–in order to make the entire working class vulnerable and less able to resist its attacks on the workplace.
Domestic labor does two things: it reproduces humans-thus labor power-and it prepares workers to go to work daily. Canada estimated in 1994 that the value of housework, if it were paid, would be $318 billion . The variety of jobs you must do when you look after home and children are endless: cook, maid, launderer, health-care provider, mediator, teacher, counselor, secretary, transporter of children and household supplies, and so on. All this work-which is necessary for the reproduction of labor power and hence the production of commodities-goes on quietly, unheroically. Many women who toil away for no pay are ground into an early grave through the physical exertion of bearing and raising children while struggling against squalor, disease and poverty.
These activities, which form the very basis of capitalism in that they reproduce the worker, are done completely free of charge for the system by women and men within the household and the community. In the United States, women still carry a disproportionate share of this domestic labor. The relation between (usually women’s) domestic labor and the system of wage exploitation led to the once-fashionable leftist notion that household labor is exploited like factory labor. But the proletarian wife, in her household role, does not produce value and surplus value—and therefore is not exploited by capital. Nor is she exploited by her husband (although she may be oppressed by him). She is responsible for reproducing the labor-power commodity, but not under conditions directly governed by the law of value. (For example, even if there is an excess of the labor power commodity on the market, she must still work to reproduce her family’s labor power so that they survive.) What the working-class housewife does is produce use values in the home. But removal from a direct role in value production in a society where value is the end-all and be-all ensures the subordination of women.
Engels called the position of the proletarian housewife “open or concealed domestic slavery” . Like a slave, the domestic laborer is tied to a particular household and family; she cannot move freely about between “employers”; and like chattel slaves in the capitalist era, she is subordinated to the relations between labor power and capital. But unlike a slave, no particular capitalist ruler directly provides for her welfare or even appears as her master. Rather she depends on the relationship between wage-labor and capital to receive her share of the family wage, an indirect payment from the capitalist class for the maintenance and production of labor power. Although domestic laborers are not exploited by capital directly, the root of their position is caused by capital. Domestic laborers are not strictly proletarian, but they still possess objective revolutionary potential as laborers.
Capitalism’s exploitation of the wage laborer is all the more insidious because it is concealed under the pretension of the “equal exchange” of wages for labor power. Likewise with the oppression of women: the “equal exchange of love” as the foundation of a freely chosen marriage conceals the underlying economic compulsion. Of course, the proletarian woman often faces the double burden of wage and domestic labor. Capitalism takes full advantage of the ideology that woman’s “primary” role is in the home to keep down her wages and rights as a worker.
Despite the above analysis, we probably think of ourselves as workers only when we work outside of home. This was evident during an interview conducted by the historian Susan Stasser for her book Never Done. Stasser said an 88 year-old woman told her she could not believe that her unpaid work (as opposed to her “jobs”) could have any importance to a historian .
One of the first women to challenge the view that domestic labor was not productive work was Maria-Rosa Dalla Costa, who wrote from Italy in 1972 that the housewife and her labor are the basis of capital accumulation. Capital commands the unpaid labor of the housewife as well as the paid laborer. Dalla Costa saw the family as a colony dominated by capital and state. She rejected the artificially created division between waged and unwaged labor and said that you could not understand exploitation of waged labor until you understood the exploitation of unpaid labor .
Other feminist writers have criticized this viewpoint because it does not acknowledge that men directly benefit from having women work in the home. Heidi Hartmann writes in Women & Revolution that white union men early in the 19th century wanted women, children, and non-whites out of the work force because their presence lowered wages. They asked for a wage for men high enough so that their wives could afford to stay home and tend to the house and children. Hartmann sees this as a collusion between workers and capitalists. In this way, white men kept women home for their own personal benefit, and bosses-who realized that housewives produced and maintained healthier workers and future workers-got more docile workers. So the family wage cemented the partnership between patriarchy and capitalism .
This is why Marx and Engels considered the family to be the major economic unit in capitalist societies . At the start of industrialization, men were being thrown out of their craft jobs as mechanization made it easier and cheaper to employ women and children. When the factory system began to employ three children and a woman in place of a man: “now four times as many workers’ lives are used up in order to gain a livelihood for one workers’ family” . The value of labor power decreased, since now it took four wage-earners to earn what had been the norm for one. In this scenario the unemployed male worker became dependent on his wife and children. It meant a type of family wage, but it did not last. The brutality of early industrialization threatened to destroy the working class altogether by killing off women and children at a high rate.
This super-exploitation of the family was opposed by women as well as men. But the domination of the struggle by labor-aristocratic leaders convinced many male unionists that their jobs were directly threatened by female employment; they failed to see-and indeed could not see-that capitalism’s process of bringing women into new lower paid jobs was an attack on the entire class. Women’s employment was seen as the problem, and the establishment of the traditional family wage was posed as the solution . The struggles also won important working-class gains such as child labor regulations and other protective labor laws to benefit women.
Thus the achievement of a family wage was a temporary gain for sections of the class. But it also suited capitalism’s needs. Capitalism maintains itself by reinforcing divisions and backwardness within the proletariat. Workers are often forced to accept what the boss wants because “I have to feed my family.” Women’s family role—above all the inherent conservatism of laboring in isolation rather than collectively—also weakens the ability of the proletariat as a whole to fight the class struggle.
The fact that the family is propertyless is all the more reason it is needed. The male worker is taught to identify with at least one element of bourgeois consciousness, sexism. He doesn’t own productive property, but he can imagine that he controls the family funds and is master of the house, even though in reality he is still only a wage slave. This is what Lenin meant when he wrote,
Present-day capitalist society conceals within itself numerous cases of poverty and oppression which do not immediately strike the eye. At the best of times, the scattered families of poor townspeople, artisans, workers, employees and petty officials live in incredible difficulties, barely managing to make both ends meet. Millions upon millions of women in such families live (or, rather, exist) as “domestic slaves”, striving to feed and clothe their family on pennies, at the cost of desperate daily effort and “saving” on everything—except their own labour .
The family as economic unit not only fills the capitalists’ fundamental need for the reproduction of labor power, but the family-based division of labor also enables capitalism to keep down the social wage: public services like child care, education and health care. To the degree that workers accept the myth of the family as a private refuge from their jobs and dealings with their bosses, no matter how bad things really get in reality, they are restrained from making demands on the state for social needs. Whatever needs are not met at home become the failure of the individual family, especially the wife, rather than the bosses.
The direct wage is also reduced. Capitalism fundamentally depends on a reserve army of labor as an important underpinning of the system. Women are used chiefly as part of what Marx defined as the “floating” section of this reserve. Women still must give priority to home and child-care duties and are therefore willing to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. (In the U.S., a quarter of all working women held part-time jobs in 1986 compared with 9 percent of men) . The bosses use the classic divide-and-conquer strategy to lower men’s wages as well; men are forced to “compete” by accepting lower wages or else risk replacement by women workers willing to work for less. Of course, all women are not wives and mothers. But the family rationale—that woman’s income is supplementary and optional—is used to keep wages down for all.
The tradition of women working for free in the home, and men working for household wages out, has changed. Most men do not get paid enough to support a family. Most women now have paid employment. But, as Ruth Schwartz Cowen notes in her book, More Work for Mother, while the tasks that women do in the home have changed, the time spent on domestic labor has not . This is partly because domestic workers today are held to higher standards of cleanliness, have more cleaning appliances, spend more time as consumers (approximately 8 hours a week buying and transporting goods that were previously delivered), face greater pressure to provide enriching experiences for their children, have less help from adult relatives, and not nearly enough help from male partners. When both male and female household partners have full-time jobs, the woman still does significantly more housework than the man-15 more hours per week, totaling an extra month of 24-hour days each year .
According to a 2012 survey, U.S. women put in 25.9 hours a week of unpaid domestic labor in 2010, while men put in 16.8, a difference of more than nine hours. The survey includes indexable tasks such as child care, cooking, shopping, housework, odd jobs, gardening and others .
According to Forbes magazine, if unpaid domestic work was included in the measuring the GDP, “it would have raised it by 26 percent in 2010.” But, of course, we also have to add to this already formidable list the additional non-indexable tasks such as providing psychic care and support to both the employed and non-worker(s) within the household. Anyone who has had to soothe a child after a hard day at her own workplace, or figure out care for an ageing parent after a grueling shift knows how important such apparently non-material tasks can be . We see yet again that domestic labor plays an incredibly important part in the economy. Although it does not produce value in the Marxist sense, it provides the preconditions for value production. Without domestic labor, productive labor could not function. Since productive labor is what generates all wealth under capitalism, it follows that capitalism itself could not survive without domestic labor.
In this sense, people who engage in labor that does not result in the production of commodities, but rather in the reproduction of the laborer, are oppressed by capital. Capital relies on these reproductive laborers just as much as those who actually produce commodities. It is vital that Marxists broaden their conception of the proletariat or working classes to include these reproductive laborers. This complicates the narrow definition of the economy or production that we began with. Beyond the two-dimensional image of the direct producers locked in wage labor, we see emerge myriad branches of social relations that extend between workplaces, homes, schools, and hospitals. There is a wider social whole sustained and co-produced by human labor that does not end with the factory. The working class is not just those who actually produce commodities, it is also those who perform the labor necessary for the continuation of this production. This includes not only educators and healthcare workers, who reproduce the proletariat in a literal sense (through training the future workforce and keeping them in healthy enough conditions to work), but also those who engage in unpaid home labor. Only in asserting-but more importantly struggling for-this unity can we hope to make a revolution that not only succeeds, but improves the lives of all the laboring people, as Marx wished.
- K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.
- Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 129, emphasis mine
- Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism, 2006
- Strasser, Susan May. Never done: the ideology and technology of household work, 1850-1930. Ann Arbor, MI: U Microfilms International, p 4
- Heidi Hartmann, Women and the Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, 1981. p. 60