This article is the first in a two-part series from Comrade Stella B., exploring women’s gendered role in the capitalist economy and the development of the revolutionary mass line. This first installment explores class, value, production, and reproduction. The second installment will more deeply explore the question of the revolutionary feminist mass line. All authors and their works cited in this article are linked within a Bibliography that appears at the end of the online version of this article at ri-ir.org.
This is a theoretically dense piece, so those not very familiar with Marxist economics will want to consult the helpful Comrade Stella B.’s “Women and Super-Exploitation: An Illustration Through Basic Marxist Economics” and her “Glossary of Terms”.
-R.I. Editorial Note.
by Comrade Stella B.
-Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “The power of women and the subversion of the community”
The difficulty I’ve had in expressing to revolutionary women how participation in Revolutionary Initiative can sharpen their mass work has precipitated this articulation of my revolutionary feminist analysis. My intention is to take a step towards addressing the lack of visible theorizing on the contradictions and challenges women face under capitalism taking place within our organization.
It is imperative that we explode the practice where “women’s issues” are narrowed to reproduction and sexuality; this happens when revolutionaries study the economics of capitalism one day and the oppression of women the next; when we praise the ability of prostituted women to organize as workers without analyzing the historical, political, and ideological role of the sexual commodification and exploitation of women and the impacts on women’s super-exploitation on a global level. The theoretical separation of production and reproduction perpetuates the tired position that they constitute two discreet entities and pushes our organizational theoretical development back to the 1970s, negating the struggles and contributions of feminists in recent decades that we should be building from. The exploitation of women under capitalism as a transnational system of flexible, cheap, and deskilled labour force is exacerbated by the ongoing reliance of capitalists (and capitalism) on the un-valued and concealed exploitation of women in homes, in communities, and in micro-production across the globe. This double-burden of exploitation has been termed super-exploitation; it is a concept that by definition links direct exploitation and concealed exploitation into a unified whole. The mystification of women’s special role within the capitalist economy has led women’s struggles for liberation down blind alleys where cultural and political critiques of amorphous patriarchy have truncated our leadership in class struggle. When we identify the economic roots of women’s exploitation and acknowledge the interweaving of economic exploitation and our material, cultural, and ideological oppression under patriarchy it crystallizes the unavoidable fact that women’s liberation is bound to total social transformation right down to the very mode of production. Developing women’s leadership with the theoretical and organizational weight to address patriarchy, national oppression, and class exploitation is critical to the success of revolutionary movements. With concerted effort our organization has the potential to make a significant contribution to revolutionary Marxist theory, and in turn take a qualitative political and organizational leap in mass organizing and class struggle relevant to super-exploited working class women.
I. Is Patriarchy as a Stand-Alone System? Locating the Contradictions Women Face
Feminists have long confronted the question of what constitutes the primary contradiction for working class women. What is the greatest source of oppression and exploitation for women, and what is the best approach to achieve women’s genuine liberation? There are three trends in feminist struggles: liberal (bourgeois), radical, and socialist. Protagonists of these schools of feminist theory struggle over the question of whether we find women’s primary contradiction within patriarchy or capitalism, or both. For proletarian revolutionaries this must be a central ideological struggle because women play an integral role – perhaps the decisive role – in liberation struggles. Revolutionary communist women have in many ways moved beyond the confines of socialist feminism, discussing how women straddle the social and the interpersonal, the productive and reproductive realms, and made significant contributions towards synthesizing production, reproduction, mode of production, and super-structure. Further, our own analysis of patriarchy and our class analysis relevant to women can make or break our ability to organize women, in particular revolutionary women.
Is Patriarchy a Stand Alone System?
Liberal and radical feminists identify their primary contradiction within patriarchy: rooted in social and economic inequities in wages and access to bourgeois privilege; sexual domination, exploitation, and patriarchal male violence; and the isolation and drudgery of reproductive labour. The corollary of this is that liberation of women lies in smashing patriarchy. Feminist demands to end patriarchy include significant alterations to the legal, political, and social infrastructure, the redistribution of public resources, and significant changes in interpersonal relations in the community and the family; demands which arguably could be accomplished within the existing capitalist mode of production. The demands of liberal and radical feminists do not fundamentally alter the basic mechanisms of capitalism or the control of the political, legal, and ideological superstructure.
Although it is true that women have been oppressed in many societies prior to the development of capitalism, the form their oppression takes is deeply interconnected with current mode of production. The long transition from feudalism to capitalism gradually increased the divide between social production and alienated reproductive labour, drove women further away from the social and political infrastructure of society and into the home, and guaranteed that political and ideological power would be wielded by those who ultimately held economic control over social production.
Drilling down through the ideological and political superstructures of society to the root mechanisms of women’s subjugation will always strike the base of the economic mode of production. Patriarchy today contains no distinct material base independent from the current economic mode of production in the imperialist world system. Ultimately it is the private ownership of productive property, the subsequent division of society into social classes of capitalists and workers, and the consolidation of political and ideological control in the hands of the bourgeoisie, that form the material basis of the subjugation of women under capitalism.
Two positions distinguish socialist feminists from bourgeois and radical feminists: (1) the mode of production must be transformed from exploitative social relations to reciprocal relations of collaboration under socialism in order to address the liberation of oppressed nations and women; (2) the nature of how we view production must change to consolidate use and exchange values so that productive labour and reproductive labour are no longer separated into two discreet economic spheres: one public and one private. Different ‘camps’ of feminists have approached these issues from differing perspectives (see below for discussions on value and production). Yet all socialist feminists agree that capitalism and its constituent elements form a primary mechanism of women’s oppression and exploitation and that women’s liberation can only be genuinely achieved through the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production, public ownership of the means of production, and working class control of the legal, political, and public economic superstructure.
This is not to say that the struggle for women’s liberation ends with the introduction of reciprocal economic relations under socialism; we are dialectical in our understanding of the interconnection of base and superstructure. Genuine liberation requires changes in ideas, culture, interpersonal relations between men and women, and within women themselves. This dialectical process is beautifully illustrated by Hsu Kwangii and Comrade Parvatiii in their contributions on the role of women in the proletarian revolution. Yet, in the final analysis seizing state control and re-appropriating private property from the bourgeoisie is a necessary step that cannot be bypassed on the road to genuine liberation for all oppressed and exploited women. If this reality is not palatable to some feminists, then the class line will be drawn, and our friends sorted from our enemies.
The concept of women as a caste
Placing patriarchy as the primary contradiction in which all women are caught unites all women into a caste. This conceals the exploitation of one class of women by another. It is true that all women are impacted in some form by the exploitation and oppression of women under capitalism, just as interpersonal racism exists in a symbiotic relationship with national oppression and structural racism within capitalism.
Ultimately, however, women do not form a caste, and many women directly benefit from the global capitalist exploitation of millions of women. As revolutionaries guided by Marxist, particularly Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM), thought and practice we necessarily organize on the basis of class in order to achieve genuine liberation for women. This means being exacting in our class analysis in order to ensure that our mass line reflects the highest expression of a liberatory vision for all women. Three central features of the capitalist mode of production privilege some women over others: i) the ownership of private property; ii) exploitative social relations between classes; and iii) control of the political, legal, and ideological infrastructure and social economic resources.
A more nuanced class analysis
As MLM revolutionaries we must tackle the myth of women as a caste, yet we can and must also simultaneously develop a more gender-nuanced analysis of class.
Bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women
The result of the economic mechanism of capitalism is that those who own the means of production control sums of ‘capital’ that can be invested to control means of production, or are in some managerial position such that they are living off the profits extracted from workers – live directly off of the exploitation of the working class. This means that bourgeois women exploit both working class men and women. Women who live in legal family relationships with bourgeois men might not own or control the means of production in appearance, but in essence live in a parasitic relationship with the working class. Many bourgeois women have legal and social access to and control over private property. Many bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women directly control the working conditions of domestic and other personal servants within the home. Finally, historically bourgeois women have exerted great political and ideological influences under capitalism.
Despite the above, as an organization, we must pay considerable attention to the unequal gendered nature of the ownership of the means of production. In Canada 79.5% of the top 1% of income earners are men, and the very wealthiest (“the billionaires club”) are all meniii. This gives us a glimpse into the patriarchal nature of capitalism and who benefits from and who pays the price for the super-exploitation of women in the workplace and in private homes. This division of wealth places staggering economic, political, and ideological control in the hands of men. Further, with the growing neoliberal retrenchment – the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ – many women who had achieved a comfortable ‘middle class’ existence, particularly within the public service, face increasing economic insecurity. This growing pool of downwardly mobile and mostly white ‘middle class’ women poses a challenge to mass organizing, as a large number of recently proletarianized women carry ‘middle class’ consciousness. But this is also an opportunity if we can organize such women into organizations that uphold the primacy of working-class women’s struggles, that is, where proletarian interests are hegemonic (and in Canada, that would certainly have to entail the struggles of women from the Third World and Indigenous women).
Another critical nuance to a proper class analysis is the interrelationships of patriarchy and national oppression internationally. In many places in the world women have fundamentally different relationships to private property than do men; this includes patriarchal marriage and property laws. The result is many petty-bourgeois women have precarious class status, reliant on men in patriarchal relationships for their access to the material necessities of life. National oppression and structural racism play integral roles in drawing the class line and in maintaining white supremacy and national chauvinism. Migration to the imperialist countries is a declassing process for many women as they lose professional status and access to control over private property abroad by the racist nature of immigration laws and the gate-keeping nature of access to professional associations in Canada and other imperialist countries.
Working class women
Historically, women’s liberation struggles have criticized ‘the Left’ for defining a woman’s class by whether or not she is waged, and if not, by that of her husband. This patriarchal assumption of a lack of economic independence for married and unwaged working class women was, and remains, a narrow view and an obfuscation of women’s exploitation under capitalism.
What questions do we ask to determine class status, as opposed to income or material comfort?
- Does she have ownership or significant legal or economic access to means of social production or private property?
- Does she have specialized professional skill sets and access to self-regulating professional status (i.e. legal, medical) and economic or ideological resources (i.e. tenured academia) that locate her among the petty-bourgeoisie as a ‘lieutenants of capital’?
- Does she sell her labour power in exchange for a wage?
- Does she exploit others for her living? Or is she exploited?
The slow transition from feudalism to capitalism was an international process; a process of trade that deeply connected colonization, slavery, national oppression, and the development of, and accumulation for, the European bourgeoisie. The imposition of the capitalist mode of production and subsequent class restructuring on colonized nations was a process of both national oppression and economic exploitation. This historical process must be seriously studied and accurately reflected in our current class analysis.
This means that racialized women from historically-oppressed and still oppressed nations are both disproportionately overrepresented in the working class, and simultaneously have a relationship to capital that is fundamentally different from working class women of European ancestry, especially African women. Further, while exploited Indigenous women might not identify as working class, we must seek common ground in our mutual exploitation by capital, and seriously consider how to connect struggles for decolonization with struggles to overthrow capitalism and build together a mode of production based on reciprocal relations of collaboration for our common good.
II. Women and the Capitalist Economy: Value, Exploitation, and Super-Exploitation
Improving our organizing efforts towards women’s liberation requires significantly deeper discussion of the historical and current role of women within the capitalist mode of production. I propose to start this discussion by examining what has become known as Marx’s labour theory of value and historical feminist responses to shortcomings in Marx’s theory. I make an attempt to synthesize this critique into a coherent overview of the process of super-exploitation which reveals the concealed and double-nature of women’s exploitation under capitalism and facilitates the sharpening revolutionary feminist theory as a weapon in the class struggle and our mass line.
Value, production, and exploitation
In writing his theories of value (value, surplus value, use value, and exchange value) Marx adapted existing bourgeois theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo to argue that the value of commodities is determined by the total value of the abstracted labour power contained within each commodity.
When workers sell their labour power they engage in productive work producing commodities for capitalists. Productive work is defined as that which produces commodities that have exchange value on the market and generate profit for capitalists. ‘Commodities’ are distinct from ‘goods’ in that they have exchange value, as opposed to just use value. Productive work is a social relation meaning that by necessity it is a relation between classes. Workers sell their labour power to capitalists in exchange for a wage. Following this, the exchange value of labour power (wage) consists of what the capitalists determine is the base economic rate that workers require to reproduce themselves on a daily basis. Concealed within this wage form are the multitudes of tasks which comprise the work required to reproduce the working class as a class.
Marx’s most significant contribution to existing theories of value was to illuminate the nature of a worker’s exploitation through the extraction of surplus value in the differential between the value given to his labour power (in the form of the wage) and the total exchange value of the commodities produced. Exploitation results from unequal exchange in social relations under capitalism. Workers sell their labour power for an hourly wage, yet the exchange value of commodities produced is greater than the sum total of wages paid to the worker; exploitation is that surplus value that is extracted by the bourgeoisie in the form of profits. This is a parasitic process writ large whereby the ruling class maintains their opulent and conspicuous consumption off of surplus produced by workers.
An equation for the determination of total commodity value would look like this:
v + c + s
The c represents constant capital, the term used to describe “raw material, auxiliary material and the instruments of labour”; inputs to the productive process whose value remains stable. The v represents the variable capital which refers to labour power whose value is determined by the exchange value of labour, or wages: this represents paid labour. It is through the contributions of the labour of the working class that the constant capital is increased in value. The s represents surplus value, the value of the commodity which is unpaid – extracted from the labour power of the working class and not remunerated, but rather appropriated by the capitalists as profits (see Marx’s Capital Volume 1, Chapter 8).
Marx made important theoretical departures from bourgeois economic theory. First, Marx theorized that it is only the contribution of worker’s labour that allows the capitalist to add surplus value onto a commodity through the productive process; workers take constant capital inputs and transform them into commodities whose exchange value includes an added surplus, also called profits. Further, Marx extrapolated the additive nature of exploitation under capitalism. Each of the constant capital inputs (raw materials, tools, machines) required for production also require and contain appropriated surplus, as workers have transformed them to some degree into productive inputs. Ultimately the additive nature of surplus value means that the further up the production chain a commodity moves, the greater the exploitation contained within it.iv
This is an important theoretical departure from bourgeois economic theories, yet arguably the most significant contribution Marx makes to the labour theory of value is that of the social nature of production under capitalism and how this very process of socialization exacerbates the contradiction between the ruling class and the exploited working class. Marx’s theorizing on the social nature of labour power was the key to unlocking the need for class struggle in order to liberate workers from exploitative social relations under the capitalist mode of production.
But Marx adopts several male chauvinist theoretical errors from his bourgeois predecessors, and despite making an attempt to theorize women as an important component of class struggle, fails to provide the theoretical impetus for this unique form of class struggle.
Issues with Marx’s labour theory of value lie in:
1. By failing to adapt a theory of value that included use-values, Marx’s ideas left concealed the nature of women’s exploitation in the home and the community. According to classical Marxist theory what women provide through their work (as opposed to labour) in the home are use-values, with no exchange value. Accordingly no exploitation occurs in the production either of use-values or in the process of ‘domestic’ labour.
2. By failing to adapt a theory of exploitation that includes the production of use-values, Marx left concealed the nature of women’s class struggle. Classical Marxism dictates that commodities for exchange are produced by workers and surplus is extracted by the ruling class; this is an unequal social relation. But goods with use-value are produced in private domiciles, and are an interpersonal relation between man and wife, within families, or communities. This locates the oppression of the majority of women in an interpersonal as opposed to a social relation: this is a process which mystifies women`s exploitation and results in feminists pointing to patriarchy rather than class as the primary contradiction facing women. This distinction between social relations and interpersonal relations has waylaid women`s struggle for genuine liberation.
3. The final shortcoming follows from the first two and results in the appearance of contradiction between employed and unemployed workers. Marx inadequately theorized the centrality of use-values for the functioning of capitalism and the ability of the workers to sell their labour power. The failure to expand on a theory of use-values is a major oversight which has led to decades of tension between workers and unemployed female surplus labour, including women in the home, considered by many feminists as the ultimate reserve army of labour; unpaid but still greatly contributing unrecognized value to capitalism
. Major working class struggles have occurred over state funding for the production of use values in the home and in the community through economically redistributive measures through state social programs. Battles over the social wage and cutbacks under neoliberalism have been critical sites of struggle over the last three decades. These types of ‘community-based’ struggles require constant class struggle. Due to the ‘personal’ nature of the demands for services such as childcare women are disproportionately represented in these types of ‘community-based’ struggles, multiplying the burden borne by women. Further, our defeats on these fronts are placing an ever-increasing burden on working class families.
Socialist feminist attempts to resolve these weaknesses
Various socialist feminists have tried to resolve this apparent contradiction either through economic or ideological-political theory.
In the early 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg articulated an expansion of the labour theory of value to include the mystification of use-value in the production of commodities. Luxemburg’s contribution was theoretically significant in that she argued that both within the constant capital (c) and within the variable capital (v) there existed concealed exploitation of women through the production of use values necessary as a precursor to social production of commodities for exchange. So her equation could look something like this:
v (+ uv) + c (+ uv) + s
Where uv = the sum total of all unpaid use-value inputs required for production.
The two most obvious shortcomings of Luxemburg’s theory are: (a) it puts too great a focus on women’s contribution to labour power and production and not nearly enough emphasis on the actual lived conditions and experiences of women at home and in the community; and (b) as an extension of Luxemburg’s over-emphasis on production, the decisive role that women can play in class struggle is lost. In general, although the German socialist feminists achieved a historically significant qualitative leap in women’s participation in socialist parties, Luxemburg and the first wave socialist feminists over-emphasized women as a labour force in socialized production, and missed the opportunity to expand women’s decisive role in class struggle overall; decisive particularly because it is women who straddle the realms of public and private, production and reproduction, base and superstructure.
The next major theoretical leap occurred during second wave feminism.v Patriarchy as a concept was theorized in the lead up to second wave of feminism, and as a response to shortcomings of previous struggles. During second wave feminism, ‘dual-systems’ theorists among the socialist feminists maintained that patriarchy constitutes its own ‘system’ of oppression and requires ‘special’ demands in order to break down. Dual systems theorists responded to the criticisms of radical feminists that (a) we can’t wait until after a socialist revolution in order to address the grave oppression (and special exploitation) of women under capitalism and (b) Marxism has serious theoretical limitations in addressing the material realities of women under capitalism, in particular how Marxists conceive of value, exploitation, and the position of women within the mode of production. Single system theorists have since swung the other way and demanded full focus on the role of economic production in maintaining the subjugation of women, perhaps in reaction to an imagined attack on the power of the Marxist analysis, the incredible successes for working class women achieved through socialist revolutions, and the very real threat of watering down class struggle into liberal, cultural and interpersonal critiques which have and continue to way-lay women’s struggles in the imperialist countries or direct them into dead-end reformist channels.
Two very strong positions which contribute to resolving some of the aforementioned tensions have been put forward by socialist feminists that deserve serious study and advancement through the social investigation and class analysis (SICA) and further theoretical development by us Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionaries.
In her 1972 seminal work Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community Italian socialist feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa advanced the position that Marxists have failed to see the socially productive component of women’s supposedly ‘private / interpersonal’ reproductive labour. Dalla Costa argued that capitalists rely on a steady source of commodified labour in order to extract surplus value in the form of profits. Workers are commodified as they must sell their labour power in order to receive sustenance in the form of wages: their labour power is exchanged in the market as is any other commodity. The unique nature of labour power is, however, that it relies on the un-waged and un-valued work of women in private households in order for its reproduction. Following this logic Dalla Costa argued that what is viewed by Marxists as non-productive labour (reproductive labour) actually does produce exchange-values, and women are therefore (a) providing unwaged labour power and experiencing concealed exploitation in the fact that their labour power is (b) ultimately productive labour and yet not recognized by the capitalists nor remunerated. It is from this sharp critique of and contribution to the Marxist labour theory of value and the demand that elements of reproductive labour be viewed as socially productive that gives rise to the ‘wages for housework’ demand.
Dalla Costa also discussed the nature of women’s labour power as alienated labour through the process of “profound estrangement” (Dalla Costa, p. 22) in that although women`s labour power produces exchange value and is socially productive, this labour is provided in isolated homes separated from the socialization that Marx and Engels argued would contribute to the development of working class consciousness and ultimately result in class struggle. This is a major weakness of the `wages for housework` demand; it alienates women in the home and maintains their separation from public life. This is a key point which revolutionary communist / Maoist women have identifiedvi. However, the revelation of this profound estrangement identifies a site where revolutionary communists can intervene within and organize women in the class struggle (discussed in the next section).
Other shortcomings in Dalla Costa’s analysis stem from the lack of attention to the fact that since the transition from the feudal mode of production to capitalism, many working class women actually engaged in productive labour out of financial necessity, and that it was only a subset of predominantly white working class women whose husbands earned enough to have a wife not working for wages. Criticisms of ‘wages for housework’ included the fact that this demand was blind to the close interplay of national oppression and class oppression and the fact that women of colour were grossly disproportionately located in the working class. Dalla Costa also failed to account for the fact that the reproductive labour necessary for productive labour is not self-perpetuating in the way that productive labour is; the contradictions contained within reproductive labour are directly connected to the contradiction between classes, and therefore the inner-drive of reproductive labour is the capitalist mode of production.1 Finally, ‘wages for housework’ lacked an international perspective on the forced migration of Third World women from periphery to centre as a source of commodified reproductive labour: that capitalism had already socialized most aspects of reproductive labour for women of the upper classes in the form of migrant women providing cheap labour in slave-like conditions within upper class households.
Socialize reproductive labour
Angela Davis takes another tack, and argues that we should bring women’s isolated and non-productive labour into the productive realm and transform what are currently interpersonal relations into social relations. She articulates a strong position that working class women have always had to work and therefore bear a double burden: in particular women of colour are facing an additional burden of working for free doing their own reproductive labour in the home and then their paid work is flexible, cheap, domestic drudgery for privileged majority white women. Davis advances a fantastic anti-racist response to the `wages for housework` demand that addresses some of the inherent shortcomings of the demand and poses an alternative that includes the socialization of reproductive labour.
Yet, complete socialization of all reproductive labour is neither possible nor desirable. Reproductive labour crosses the boundary of family and community life and intimate human connections; many women experience profound love and deep satisfaction bearing and birthing children and caring for the young. Many families experience human connection and important cultural continuity caring for the elderly. Not all of this work may be appropriate for socialization; the extent of desirable socialization is contextual and dependent upon broader social relations and the organization of community and the economy. Davis also fails to tackle the inherent weakness in Marxism of ignoring the fundamental role of the use-value: we cannot simply give exchange value to all use-values and bring all of reproduction into the marketplace. We need a significantly sharper analysis of the practicalities of reproductive labour.
Reproductive labour borne onto women can generally be divided into five categories: i) the management of the household including financial, culinary, janitorial, and maintenance duties; ii) the care of the young, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly; iii) the sexual satisfaction of men; iv) the preparation of materials as inputs into production and unwaged family labour; and v) the reproduction of the human species and the future generation of workers. Reproductive labour is partially socialized in our society, but only for bourgeois and petty-bourgeois families who employ reproductive workers within the home; and for working class families where subsidized state services exist in the form of childcare, community kitchens, and the like. Yet the vast majority of reproductive labour remains an interpersonal relationship within families and communities. While some gains have been made in re-distribution of reproductive labour between men and women within the family, as men are increasing their share of category ‘i’ above the management of the household, Stats Canada analysis reveals that women are still vastly disproportionality represented in unpaid childcare and elder care and in unpaid ‘community service’.
The concept of super-exploitation prompts us to synthesize our thinking about productive and reproductive labour under capitalism, facilitates a more nuanced gendered class analysis, and creates the ideological basis for advancing the revolutionary leadership of women in the class struggle. It is super-exploited working class women who most keenly know the need for transforming the capitalist mode of production.
Many Marxists define super-exploitation as that which is over and above the general rate of exploitation of labour power. In 1977 Marlene Dixonvii advanced an analysis of women’s super-exploitation which took account of the unpaid production of use-values within the family as a necessary precursor to social production and the extraction of surplus value under capitalism. Dixon contributed to a leap in our comprehension of the role of the unpaid production of necessary use-values as imperative to capitalism, and the role of women as a reserve army of labour. However, Dixon’s account, as with ‘wages for housework’, placed far too great an emphasis of the concealment of women’s exploitation within the wage system as unwaged workers within the home; a view readily criticized for its focus on predominantly white women married to working class men in secure jobs within the imperialist countries.
A more accurate and comprehensive definition of super-exploitation starts from the understanding that women are exploited as workers within production, and in addition experience concealed exploitation in that we produce necessary goods and services for free (use-values). Super-exploitation isn’t just a rate of exploitationviii over and above the usual rate; rather super-exploitation occurs because a sizeable portion of women’s labour is not considered by capitalism to have any value at all (use-values), is not compensated in the form of wages, and is therefore concealed and not recognized as exploitation despite the fact that capitalism could not function without it. Capitalism is constantly driving to extract more unpaid use-values as a means of expanding its own exchange-values. For example, encouraging the expansion of the Live-in Caregiver Program to ‘import’ more and more Live-in Caregivers in Canada every year. These are predominantly super-exploited Filipinas living and working in modern-day slavery conditions, often paid less than $2/hour, forced to live in their employers home, subject to physical and sexual abuse. This gross form of super-exploitation assists with the reproduction of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois families and frees up the need for the state to provide state-subsidized programming. The lack of state-subsidized programs translates into greater exploitation for working-class women who bear even more of the burden of reproducing their own families. Another example is how the retrenchment of social programming in the current phase of capitalism is placing greater burden on women in their homes and communities by withdrawing resources that alleviate some of women’s reproductive labour. These resources, among other things, free up resources for state for subsidizing monopoly capital, either directly or by cutting corporate taxes. Therefore, women’s unpaid labour does indeed translate into the production of exchange value for capitalists.
The vast majority of working class women globally are super-exploited to some degree in this way. This occurs in several ways. To start with, women’s general rate of exploitation as labour power is already greater than that of our male counterparts in that we earn less than 75% of what men earn for similar work. Furthermore, women, in particular migrant and racialized women, are segregated into cheap, flexible, and deskilled domestic and caregiving work, often working both waged and unwaged hours at work; super-exploitation occurs in the development of labour categories for women: precarious, cheap, deskilled, mobile, and ‘flexible’. Further, women perform a ‘double-duty’ in waged labour and reproductive labour. As the production of use-values goes unrecognized by capitalism the vast majority of the time, there exists a grand mystification surrounding women’s unpaid work. Finally, women are responsible for reproducing capitalist social relations on a grand scale.
In analyzing super-exploitation we must draw attention to two potential misconceptions. Firstly, not all use-values are produced in the home. In fact, in Canada, many use-values are produced in the form of volunteerism and community service. Increasingly neoliberal reforms and roll-backs in the social wage force communities to take up the slack so that women in the communities pick up unwaged work as a contribution to the overall well-being of their communities. Secondly, super-exploitation is a global process of extraction of maximum surplus values. It is predominantly women who pay the price of the extraction of Third World resources both in the loss of land and in the contributions to the processing and preparation of raw goods and materials as inputs into capitalist production internationallyix.
Finally, this economic and social synthesis of production and reproduction into a coherent whole as super-exploitation unites waged and unwaged women as a significant force in the class struggle, and for the transformation of exploitative social relations into reciprocal relations of collaboration under a socialist mode of production. Hsu Kwang, a Chinese revolutionary feminist leader and Vice-Director of the Peking Women’s Federation, concisely paraphrases Mao’s position on women and class struggle: “The economic status of working women and the fact of their being specially oppressed prove not only that women urgently need revolution but also that they are a decisive force in the success or failure of the revolution”.
Developing a more accurate theory of value and a deeper understanding of reproductive labour
Fundamentally transforming the mode of production from capitalism (exploitative social relations) to socialism (reciprocal relations of collaboration and collective ownership over production by a socialist state) will allow us to both fundamentally transform both our social relations and the way we allocate value as a society. We can and must unite use-value and exchange-value in a process of social (re)production that eliminates useless, wasteful, environmentally and socially-destructive production for exchange and gives significant priority to useful, socially beneficial production which advances human health and the realization of full human potential.
As revolutionary communists we must both deeply consider how we understand what has social value, and what demands we develop regarding the socialization of reproductive labour. We must both analyze the content of reproductive labour, and what form we would want this labour to take under reciprocal relations of collaboration. Beyond demanding ‘wages for housework’ or the complete socialization of reproductive labour, we must carry out substantial social investigation and class analysis. Where does reproductive labour occur, and who is doing it? What aspects are drudgery and what provide pleasure and fulfillment for families? What aspects of reproductive labour have been, or could be, socialized, and how would working class women want this socialization process to look? How we understand reproductive labour now will profoundly impact the programmes we put forward. Our collective theorizing on reproductive labour and super-exploitation currently directs how we develop our revolutionary mass work.
Base and Superstructure
The process of super-exploitation encompasses exploitation and oppression in both the economic base of the mode of production and in the political, ideological, and social superstructure of capitalist society. It’s not all about the economics! The revolutionary process of social transformation occurs at all levels of society, within classes, in interpersonal relations, and within us as revolutionaries seeking to build a new society, new social relations, new interpersonal relations, and new human beings liberated from the yoke of oppression and exploitation.
III. The Way Forward
We cannot say in precise terms what our future social relations under socialism will look like. We can, however, commit ourselves to shaping what those look like through a unified approach where the material (base) and ideological (superstructure) and production (social) and reproduction (interpersonal) form a coherent whole.
The lessons contained within the writings of the women revolutionaries of the First Communist International are instructive; there exists a fine line between autonomous women’s organizing and bourgeois or radical feminism. Yet, when the Party (which we are not yet) emphasizes the advancement of women’s leadership and puts resources, both political and economic, towards developing unique methods of communist work which correspond well with the particular material conditions of working class women, then the Party (which we’d like to become) has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds.
This is neither an argument for or against autonomous women’s organizing; it would be more accurate to say that, in this case, ‘one divides into two’ applies very well. We must work to unite the working class as whole and overcome internal contradictions, including the super-exploitation of women. In order to do that, we must, as revolutionary women have forums to discuss issues that pertain to the devastating impacts of capitalism and patriarchy on women, as well as to strategize how to deal with the subsequent impacts we experience within the revolutionary Left and in interpersonal relationships with working class men who are our comrades. But attempts to organize women autonomously fall prey to being separated from the revolutionary organization and the working class as a whole. We must do our revolutionary feminist work supported by the organization, in a dialectical fashion that facilitates revolutionary feminist theory that advances the interests of the entire working class, that pushes ahead not only the development of women cadres, but of all cadres.
We must have no illusions that patriarchy is simply cultural or ideological, as patriarchy is interconnected with the economic mode of production; but that said, we must struggle as a revolutionary communist organization to overcome challenges in our interpersonal relations as we struggle to ultimately destroy the exploitative social relation of capitalism.
IV. How do MLM Revolutionaries approach liberal and radical feminists?
We interplay with each other
The grounded working-class articulation of suffrage demands by Clara Zetkin
and Rosa Luxemburg form an important and engaging historical perspective on the interplay of bourgeois and socialist feminist demands. Women’s liberation movements articulate issues of relevance to women, and it is up to revolutionary communists guided by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to filter these expressions of oppression through class analysis and articulate a mass line which addresses women’s super-exploitation under capitalism and directs women into confrontation with capitalism.
We must also pay attention to the important role that liberal and radical feminists play in women’s consciousness-raising which has moved many working class women into collective struggle. Stemming from this process, growing class consciousness and working class allegiance has led many déclassé women into revolutionary struggle throughout history.
Revolutionary communist women do not rely on moral arguments of oppression to dictate the course of our revolutionary future. But those who adopt these positions may be swayed to become class allies rather than class enemies – we see this in the united fronts of revolutionary movements globally. Church movements and other groups that contain seeds of both progressive and reactionary ideologies are being challenged to take up the mantle of social transformation and to correct their political and ideological orientation. There are class allies among liberal and radical feminists, as Rosa Luxemburg describes in her passionate and renowned polemic on bourgeois vs working class struggles for suffrage:
Injustice itself is certainly not an argument with which to overthrow reactionary institutions. If, however, there is a feeling of injustice in large segments of society… it is always a sure sign that the economic bases of the society have shifted considerably, that the present conditions contradict the march of development.
While radical and liberal feminists might be uneasy allies, in the final analysis we must clarify our friends from our enemies, and seek to build relationships with those who fundamentally oppose the exploitation of the masses. In engaging our allies where mass line conflicts exist, seek to educate; engage in tireless debate and criticism and self-criticism; and seek opportunities to plant the seeds of ideological change.
V. Revolutionary feminist mass work
It is our responsibility as revolutionaries to advance a mass line which reflects and deep and meaningful social investigation amongst all sectors of working class women, represents the highest articulation of our shared class analysis, and moves women into class struggle. The best mass lines tackle the private ownership of the means of production, exploitative social relations between classes and the super-exploitation of women, and working class control over ideological, political and economic resources. We must ensure that our mass line does not contribute harm towards the working class or reflect a patriarchal or narrow male-chauvinist interest, just as we would insist on struggling over racist or national-chauvinist lines.
Our mass line should seek to socialize elements of reproductive labour and allocate social and economic value to that labour which produces use-values for our communities. Our demands must unite the reproductive and productive realms through our mass line by meeting the needs of women as a super-exploited work force providing both cheap labour and free labour within the home and the community. Finally, our conception of struggle must reunite the social and the interpersonal; we can look to examples from revolutionary struggles historically and globally, from China to Venezuela. With women at the forefront of leadership, there is no end to what we can achieve. In the words of Selma James,
“Power to the sisters, and therefore to the class”.
1Because there is no direct surplus extracted from reproductive labour, and no private property involved, there exists no drive to expand in the same way there is with capital. Unless exchanged as a commodity on the market, as in privately-owned childcare or nursing corporations, there is no capital invested in reproductive labour. The money put towards reproductive labour is all public tax dollars, and not capital, because it isn’t seen as an input into the value of commodities or as necessary to the production of surplus. Reproductive labour is, according to capitalism, voluntary. As such, it is by necessity dependant on the economic base.
i. Hsu Kwang, “Women’s Liberation is a Component Part of the Proletarian Revolution”
ii. Comrade Parvati, “Women’s Leadership and Revolution in Nepal”.
iv. For a much more coherent explanation of this point, see Chapter 4 of Peter Custers (2012). Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labour in Asian Economies (2nd edition). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
v. I do not address third-wave feminism, post-modernism, or cultural theories in this article. I do, however, wish to say that we should not shy away from ‘meta-theory’ or fear the ‘single story’ as post-modern theorists do, and we should not adopt an additive approach to ‘oppressions’ as do the identity-based schools of ‘intersectionality’. Third wave feminism has descended into cultural critiques devoid of any class analysis or economic struggle. As Anurhada Ghandy puts it:
“They believe that no fixed category exists, in this case, woman. The self is fragmented by various identities – by sex, class, caste, ethnic community and race. These various identities have value in themselves. Thus, this becomes one form of cultural relativism. Hence, for example, in reality, no such category of ‘women’ exists. Women can be one of the identities of the self, but there are others, too. There will be a Dalit woman, a Dalit woman prostitute, an upper caste woman, and such like. Since each identity has a value in itself, no significance is given to values towards which all can strive. Looked at in this way there is no scope to find common ground for collective political activity. The concept of woman helped to bring together and active collectively. But this kind of identity politics divides more than it unites. The unity is on the narrowest basis.”
-see “Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement”, p. 195.
vi Both Comrade Parvati and Hsu Kwang discuss the inner-struggle that revolutionary women face.
vii Marlene Dixon, “On the Super-Exploitation of Women”.
viii The differential between wages and the total value of commodities produced.
ix Silvia Federici poses a different conception of the expropriation of women’s reproductive labour and capacities as a process of primitive accumulation which is an ongoing requirement of capitalist expansion. This is quite a different approach which I’m still considering. This approach does have a distinctly international perspective, and an appeal in linking body and property, sexual and economic domination. However, I can also see potential shortcomings in engaging in class struggle and contributing to a socialist vision of transformation.
References / Background Readings
- Jayati Ghosh. (2012). Women, Labor, and Capital Accumulation in Asia. Monthly Review 63(8). Available on-line: http://monthlyreview.org/2012/01/01/women-labor-and-capital-accumulation-in-asia
- Comrade Parvati. (2003). Women’s Leadership and Revolution in Nepal. Available on-line: http://monthlyreview.org/commentary/womens-leadership-and-the-revolution-in-nepal
- Teltumbde, A. & Sen, S. (Eds). (2011). Scripting the Change: Selected writings of Anuradha Ghandy. Gazipur, Delhi: Daanish Books. In particular, see Philosophical Trends in the Feminist Movement (pp. 145-209) – click to download.
- Hsu Kwang. (1974). Women’s Liberation is a Component Part of the Proletarian Revolution. Available on-line: http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1974/PR1974-10b.htm
- Angela Davis. (1981). The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective. Available on-line: https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/davis-angela/housework.htm
- Rosa Luxemburg. (1912). Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle. Available on-line: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1912/05/12.htm
- Alexandra Kollontai. (1919). Women Workers Struggle for their Rights. Available on-line: http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1919/women-workers/index.htm
- Peter Custers (2012). Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labour in Asian Economies (2nd edition). New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
- Mariarosa Dalla Costa & Selma James. (1972). “The power of women and the subversion of the community”. Available on-line: http://radicaljournal.com/books/maria_dalla_costa_power/
- Joan Hinton. (1997). How Can Socialism Ensure the Full Liberation of Women. Available on-line: http://anakbayanph.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/joan-hintons-how-can-socialism-ensure-the-full-liberation-of-women/
- Marlene Dixon. (1977). On the Super-Exploitation of Women. Available on-line: http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/dixon-marlene/super-exploitation.htm