A discussion of gender distinction within capitalism by Roland Simon of Theorie Communiste.
Given the subject, I feel obliged to signal that throughout this text I have exempted myself from the task, irksome both to writing and reading, of feminising adjectives, nouns, pronouns and participles. When necessary, the reader will do this for her/himself.
Introduction: men, women and communisation
The revolution as communisation is borne by this cycle of struggles, which produces its characteristics; as such, however, it is predicated on the abolition of the gender distinction. There is no abolition of the division of labour, no abolition of exchange and of value, no abolition of work (the non-coincidence of individual activity and social activity), no abolition of the family, no immediacy of relations between individuals which define them in their singularity, without the abolition of men and women. There can be no self-transformation of proletarians into individuals living as singular individuals, without the abolition of sexual identities. All the measures of communisation will not succeed if they do not resolve this question by specifically attacking it and by abolishing its very terms.
As long as a relation between men and women exists, there cannot be an immediacy of relations between individuals defining them in their singularity; in fact a social construction will present itself as natural and a division in society which subsumes singular individuals will be taken for granted. As a result of this general, abstract division, which appears as a given, all other divisions will be preserved because this division is constructed by all the others, even if it does not as such define any relation of production nor any mode of production.
We have to be able to think of the social process through which we can arrive at a situation where the distinction between the sexes no longer has any social pertinence. That is the question. I will begin by the social construction of the group women, then I will study the economic dimension of the relation between men and women in the capitalist mode of production, and finally I will end on the question of the abolition of the gender distinction in programmatism and in the revolution as communisation.
I) The social construction of the group women
We have to understand how the relation between men and women is itself constructed in order to understand the abolition of its terms. In order to understand how this relation is constructed, we must not have as our starting-point (biological) reproduction and the specific place of women in this reproduction (Françoise Héritier), but rather what renders this place specific and gives it a social meaning: the modes of production up to today. The historically recurring character of the appropriation of women expresses the recurrence, in all modes of production up to today, of the augmentation of the population as the principal productive force, which is no more a natural relation than any other economic relation of production, and which is not found without the sundering of society into workers and non-workers.
The appropriation of this productive force implies the appropriation of the person who is its bearer. Appropriated as a person, she is not a socially recognised entity, able to be socially recognised as such, which implies the appropriation of the totality of her activity; here we see the creation of, and the passage to, the category of domestic labour (which stands in no necessary relation with any type of concrete activity). We don’t have as our starting-point a presupposed category, “women”, in order to explain why they are dominated, instead our starting-point is domination, a historical social relation, which produces “women”.
Women produce children, but there is nothing more natural about the way that this fact comes to define a “social entity” than any other characteristic or determination. If “making children” becomes the definition of a group of persons, women, then that is a pure social construction. The increase in the population as principal productive force allows us to consider biological differences in reproduction as something to which a social relation gives meaning; these differences are not waiting to be given a meaning, rather they are entirely socially constructed as difference. This construction implies the appropriation of women and their submission to this function.
It is this appropriation that we call “gender”. If gender didn’t exist, what we call sex would be denuded of meaning, and would not be considered important: it would only be a physical difference like the others. Gender is not a social construction erected on the basis of groups already constituted by nature. What is physical (and is not in doubt), is not the substratum of gender, it is gender which creates the sexes, or in other words, gives meaning to physical traits which no more possess an intrinsic meaning than the rest of the physical universe. But the constructed distinction (the physical traits) is pertinent for the distinction itself. Having established this, we must dismiss any “anthropology of origins”; the true starting-point for the understanding of this construction is the point where this question can appear because it does appear as a question – and this point is the capitalist mode of production: its contradictory relation to labour and to population (see below).
We cannot leave to one side as if unimportant the fact that the social definition of genders defines the sexes. When the social distinction introduces an anatomical distinction, that is to say when an anatomical distinction is constructed as a social distinction, when it makes sense, we have to treat it as such: an anatomical distinction which makes sense. The perception of humanity as divided between potential bearers of children and non-bearers is no “spontaneous perception”, it is a social construction, but once this social construction has been made effective, we can affirm that there are two sexes and only two. It is an objective social construction. The placing of reproductive logic in a structuring position, which is characteristic of all modes of production (and which is a social construction) reduces a complex ensemble of physical variables to a dichotomous classification, socially constructed and imposed if necessary.
If all societies until today rest on the increase in population as principal force of production, it is because they are class societies. The resulting social division between workers and non-workers is immediately coupled with another division which is internal to it, but whose terms do not correspond to this division: a gendered division of society. In fact, up until capital, including where the thing starts to get contradictory, the principal source of surplus-labour is of course labour which entails the increase in the population. The necessary appropriation of surplus-labour, which is a purely social phenomenon, (surplus-labour can not be attributed to any supposed surplus productivity of labour) creates genders and the social pertinence of their sexual distinction. It is surplus-labour which structures the two partitions: workers/non-workers and men/women. There aren’t two class systems because there aren’t two modes of production and because there is only one surplus-labour. In fact, there is no surplus-labour without a gendered division of humanity. The contradiction between workers and non-workers and the contradiction between men and women are corollaries, and are not superimposed upon each other. The second contradiction, while it does not define any specific mode of production, is no less a specific contradiction which can’t be reduced to the first. “Patriarchy” has never been a relation of production, nor a mode of production. The history of patriarchy is an optical illusion, just as much as, at a different level, the history of the State, of religion, of art… If there is no history of patriarchy, nor even a history of the relation between men and women, it’s because what we are dealing with is a relation which is specifically reproduced each time by each mode of production which is its condition. The relation between men and women is consubstantial with the very existence of exploitation and surplus labour. Surplus labour is the concept which structures the two divisions without confusing them (proletarians/capitalists and men/women). In the capitalist mode of production an error would be committed if one were to establish the succession of economic categories in the sequence in which they were historically decisive.
The appropriation of the principal force of production and the source of surplus labour is carried out by all men as a result of the simple gendered distinction in society. But not all men draw profit from this in an identical fashion (both in terms of quantity and quality) and to the same degree according to their place in the division between worker and non-worker.
II) The economic dimension of the relation between men and women in the capitalist mode of production
1) Domestic labour/necessary labour/surplus labour
The attachment of the female spouse (and children) to the class of the husband is theoretically and socially valid. In terms of this question, to remain within the definition of classes on the basis of the distribution of the means of production (Marx’s “first distribution”) is inadequate. The relation between classes is one which reproduces itself, presupposes itself; hence it is a relation which includes within itself all the conditions for its own renewal. Wages are the value of the reproduction of labour-power and of the “race of labourers” (Wages, Prices and Profit), and not the payment of the “value of labour” (an absurd expression). The relation of dependence (the relation of maintenance that women find themselves in) is the very product of the wage as reproduction of labour-power rather than as the “payment of labour”. The wage presupposes and reproduces on its own basis the family and its relations of dependence. This relation of dependence is not another relation of production because it has no autonomy and no principle of its own renewal (cf. Theories of Surplus-Value). If the male spouse does not return to work, he cannot renew the operation vis-à-vis his wife: his exploitation of his wife does not produce the conditions of its own renewal.
Only a non-programmatic theory of the class struggle and a theory of revolution as the abolition of all classes, as the abolition of the proletariat and the wage-form can take into account the internal antagonism included within the wage as reproduction of labour-power and, what’s more, consider that this internal antagonism is and will have to be a determining element in the abolition of the wage.
To say that the wage pays for the reproduction of labour-power and the “race of labourers” takes us across the threshold of “intimacy”. Even if there is not any free [gratuit] productive labour in the family-sphere, by the very nature of the wage, the family is the site of an economic exploitation, that of women, which benefits first the male spouse, that is to say men in general. We have here a relation of domination which flows from the nature of the wage: the domination and the provision of domestic labour depending in the first instance on the existence of surplus-labour and, secondly, on the very content of the wage relation.
We have to beware of something which seems obvious but which is false: “women carry out domestic labour”. No, it is rather the labour carried out by women which, because it is carried out by them, within a certain relation, is domestic labour. Thus domestic labour does not encompass a list of concrete labours which are defined prior to their assignation to women (at best men help – participate – in domestic labour). By definition domestic labour is sexed, it isn’t labour which is undertaken inside the “home”, but rather labour which is carried out by the person who, being in a relation of dependence, belongs to the “home” as a social structure. If the labour of women is in this sense domestic labour, this means that the fundamental definition of the group “women” by their appropriation as persons excludes their activity from the field of social relations. She who is appropriated as a person produces nothing which can be detached from her as object or activity as her property and enter into the general field of the economy. It is domestic labour, the work of women, and as such it is excluded from the economy. This labour can sometimes be undertaken by men, but it remains female labour; a society, simply because it is the reproduction of itself and thus “survives” the individuals which compose it, is a structure of positions and functions before being an ensemble of concrete individuals. Women carry out labour which, in a determinate mode of production and by virtue of the determinations of this mode of production, does not create value; it is not by chance that it is assigned to them. The appropriation of women, which is inherent to all modes of production including capitalism, generates domestic labour within the social structure of this appropriation: the family. This labour does not create value, and it is not productive labour.
Value is a social relation and abstract labour only exists as a general system of the exchange of commodities (Rubin). A product or a service which is neither bought nor exchanged (and which moreover, is not destined for exchange), is not value. If domestic labour created a certain type of value, it would have to be possible for us to talk of socially necessary abstract domestic labour. No social metabolism permits the determination of an hour of abstract domestic labour or the value of a woman’s hour in the household. To the extent that this labour is not mediated by the market, no social mechanism permits the estimation of the number of hours of domestic labour which are necessary on average to produce the food for a family and to tend to the upkeep of the home (the hourly cost of replacement labour-power cannot be a satisfactory mode of calculation, as the norms and rhythms of the carrying-out of labour and the concrete reality of the finished product being researched are difficult to compare).
But, it will be said, this labour produces a commodity: “it produces labour-power, a commodity which is then exchanged, therefore it produces value.” No. It is not productive of value because its own product, or its own services, which are instrumental to the production of labour-power, don’t themselves enter into any relation of exchange with the depositary of labour-power and cannot do so through their completion in the domestic sphere. We can lament this, we can combat this situation, we can demand that there be a relation of exchange, but for as long as this is not the case, this activity will never be productive of value. Domestic labour does not enter into the determination of the value of the labour-power which is reproduced, which effectively gives the capitalist a present to the capitalist who buys this labour-power at its value. This labour-time is useful, indispensable even for the reproduction of labour-power, and furthermore it has for the capitalist the immense advantage that it is expended within a social relation, the conjugal relation, such that it does not produce value.
There is another reason. The reproduction of the person, the female spouse, is included within the value of this labour-power; what is included is not the price of her labour (which doesn’t exist for anyone), but that of her reproduction, whatever form this remuneration (“maintenance”), and the relation of domination which corresponds to this remuneration, then takes in the family (and this is pre-determined). If there were to be any pretence of “paying her for her labour”, (“wages for housework”), she would only be paid, like everybody else, the cost of her reproduction and not her labour. What she received directly would have to be deducted from the value of the labour-power of her husband. The same thing cannot be paid for twice. This might be considered a sort of “progress” for her, but the real economic relation would not be modified by this (the husband could be assigned the task by the State or the enterprise of verifying the proper provision of the service for which the female spouse is directly remunerated; in the case of exchange-relations, the worst case scenario often applies).
Unlike any other commodity, labour-power “realises” its value by being bought only to the extent that it produces its equivalent in the production process. The worker has to produce the value that he receives for his reproduction, for his labour-power; it is in the capitalist production process that the worker produces the equivalent of the value of his labour-power. The commodity labour-power has to be sold and consumed as productive of value in order to realise its value. It has a value, but no counterpart to this value exists before the worker produces it. “In the household”, the worker consumes finished products as use-values and the labour of his spouse as a particular labour, as concrete labour. As far as the value of labour-power is concerned, it is in the process of production that he produces its equivalent. The labour of the female spouse does not immediately create the funds against which she is maintained, unlike the worker producing household electrical goods, who immediately (on condition of sale) creates the funds against which he is paid.
This peculiarity of the realisation of labour-power (whereby it only realises its value to the extent that it produces its equivalent) is only another way of conceiving capitalist circulation. Capitalist circulation implies that the transmission of the value of the products consumed by labour-power occurs without the modification of value. In other words, capitalist circulation defines as non-value creating the worker’s consumption and the acts which accompany it. This consumption appears in this circulation as a pure phenomenon of circulation between capitalists.
The modalities according to which the transformation of these goods into the reproduction of the value-producing machine is effected are the free gift that domestic labour constantly makes to the capitalist for the simple reason that one is the capitalist and the other the worker. Thus it is not in the simple framework of exchange and the production of value that we have to approach the question of domestic labour within capitalism, but rather in the framework of the wage, i.e. the relation between necessary and surplus labour. Domestic labour does not create value, but it increases the surplus value captured by the capitalist who exchanges the wage for labour-power. The wage pays the value of the commodities entering into the reproduction of labour-power, which neither includes the labour-time necessary for their further elaboration post-purchase (e.g. cooking or assembling IKEA furniture) nor the labour-time necessary for their maintenance to preserve them as use-values. It is only from the point of view of the capitalist who pays the wage that this labour-time is (cost-)free labour. It is a reduction of necessary labour-time corresponding to the worker’s consumption and reproduction. For the bearer and seller of labour-power, the labour of his spouse only creates “free time’. It does not create any additional value when compared to what the value of his labour-power would be if he himself take care of its reproduction.
At the time of the frantic introduction of women into industry with the development of mechanisation, capitalists quickly became aware, as women now found themselves unable to carry out domestic labour, that the latter reduced necessary labour and increased surplus-labour. The increase in surplus labour that capital absorbed by the multiplication of simultaneous working-days with the introduction of women into the production process also generated a counter-tendency: the increase in workers’ expenditure on their reproduction and thus the necessary labour-time for the reproduction of the labour-powers of the worker-family.
With the transformation of all the members of the family into exploitable labour-power, in the chapter of Volume one of Capital on large-scale industry, Marx writes:
Since certain family functions, such as nursing and suckling children, cannot be entirely suppressed, the mothers confiscated by capital, must try substitutes of some sort. Domestic work, such as sewing and mending, must be replaced by the purchase of ready-made articles. Hence, the diminished expenditure of labour in the house is accompanied by an increased expenditure of money. The cost of keeping the family increases, and balances the greater income. In addition to this, economy and judgment in the consumption and preparation of the means of subsistence becomes impossible. (Emphasis added).
All this, adds Marx, has been concealed by official Political Economy. In another note, he points out that “we see how capital, for the purposes of its self-expansion, has usurped the labour necessary in the home of the family.” (Emphasis added). Domestic labour diminishes the necessary labour-time and thus augments the part of the working-day which is composed of surplus labour.
Capital has at its disposal three ways of “usurping” this domestic labour-time, either by leaving it as it is as domestic labour (in this case it usurps it as a reduction in the part of the working day which composed of necessary labour), or by absorbing this time (i.e. by absorbing women), in which case necessary labour-time will increase in the long-term, or by combining the two, and looking to gain on both fronts. The third solution is of course the one held in highest regard by the capitalist. For more than 20 years, the “solution” has been part-time working, which has been imposed in the immense majority of cases.
To the extent that capital does not itself produce the norm of consumption, the commodities entering into workers’ consumption, and the way their life is framed according to social relations and techniques which reduce the value of this consumption, the massification of labour-power caused by machinery and large-scale industry brings with it, after an initial period of capitalist euphoria, the rising cost of the reproduction of labour-power. The essential accomplishment of Fordism is to overcome these rising costs, but now it is the family framework as the framework of reproduction which is undermined, it is now merely a mediating term between an individual labour-power which counts only as an aliquot part of the available social labour-power and this total available social labour-power itself. The state is initially the guarantor of the general reproduction of the total available social labour-power, before this reproduction acquires a form adequate to capital in becoming the business of individual capitals (e.g. insurance, training, collective agreements at the level of industries and enterprises, the distribution of coupons…). Currently the attack on all indirect forms of the wage, and on public services whose function in part is to substitute for certain domestic tasks, means that the burden of reproduction now has to be transferred on to a different (domestic?) social relation. The consequences of such a transferral are difficult to predict at the moment.
Women work too and the capitalist mode of production has to combine female labour in such a way that labour and domestic labour are articulated with each other so that each creates the conditions necessary to compel the other to be carried out. Even when the great majority of women work, we can still say that their relation to their reproduction remains that of “maintenance” (Delphy). The couple does not have the same objective sense for him and for her; the labour-market propels women into marriage: the most profitable career (even while working). The asymmetry precedes the association, and is the cause of the association. The female wage functions as “second wage” (this is possible because what is the determining factor is the wage as reproduction of the family’s labour-power) and through this women are reinscribed within the framework of domestic labour, through which the capitalist profits via the value of labour-power.
The labour-market is purely capitalist (and not “patriarchal” and capitalist), because the place of women assigned to domestic labour in addition to domestic labour is also purely capitalist. So purely capitalist is it that it is precisely the necessities of the valorisation of capital which modulate the entry and departure of women’s labour from its pure localisation within the domestic sphere, without ever giving them dispensation from it.
The appropriation of women as producers of the principal productive force (the increase in the population) implies the appropriation of the person who produces it and as a result the appropriation of all her activity insofar as the appropriation of her person excludes her from society. Domestic labour cannot be captured by the capitalist (via the value of labour-power) without a relation of domination which all men exercise. “Free time” and the sexed division of the labour-market are the reverse effects of the constraint by which alone domestic labour is carried out. This free time results from domination and not exploitation; exploitation occurs elsewhere even if it includes this domination as one of its moments (as the appropriation of the increase in the population as a force of production and the devaluation of labour-power). In the capitalist mode of production, the exclusion of women from the public realm is more radical than in preceding modes of production. Capitalism defines productive labour as absolutely separated from all the reproductive activities of the private sphere. The free labour-power which bears this productive labour is compelled to go and sell itself. The schism between production and reproduction, between abode and place of production is perfect, structural, and definitive of the mode of production founded on the free worker. The conjugal family is the family of the free worker, pace Engels (see below). The domestic space is defined socially as exclusion, as reclusion. At a certain moment women can enter into the labour-market, but only on the basis of this exclusion. Their entry into the labour-market, their participation in productive labour will always be defined as the labour of “those-who-exist-like-that-in-exclusion” and the value of whose labour-power is thus devalued.
2) Mode of production/surplus labour/men-women/relation of domination
The economic result of domestic labour is materialised in the division of the working-day. But the possibility of this decrease of necessary labour-time and the correlated rise in surplus labour is exterior to the labour-process itself. This increase in surplus labour cannot be confused on its own account with the labour-process, and this is why it needs something else other than the economic relation in order to exist. This relation of domination we can call “patriarchy” on the condition that we don’t fall into an anthropological illusion of a history of patriarchy. For this reason we have to quickly come back to the matrix of relations of production in a mode of production and to the question of how relations of domination can be developed on the basis of the capitalist relation.
The concept of relation of production designates the social relations that men maintain among each other in the process of production of their material conditions of existence. The coherent ensemble of these relations constitutes a mode of production. As mode of production, this coherent ensemble of relations of production includes the articulation of instances of domination and representation of the society as totality, i.e. the alienation of the individual from his community inherent in all the forms of exploitation (religion, the State, politics, kinship…). Taken historically (chronologically), the relations of production are prior, whereas theoretically, conceptually, the mode of production is prior. Even if historically the commodity, money, rent or credit exist prior to the capitalist mode of production, it is the capitalist mode of production which defines what the commodity, wage labour, capital, credit, rent etc are.
A mode of production is the result of the interplay of three elements: workers, non-workers, and conditions of production. The third element is divided into two: means of production, and means of subsistence. Between these three elements, there can exist three types of relations: property, possession and separation. Each combination can operate as process in two ways: the coincidence between the labour process and the extraction of surplus-labour, and non-coincidence. The modes of production founded on non-coincidence are those in which exploitation cannot be effective, cannot be realised, without being domination. These modes of production essentially operate through domination, exploitation includes domination. This isn’t the case with capitalism.
It is necessary to define the concepts of “domination” and “exploitation”. Exploitation is a strict concept: appropriation by the non-worker of an accumulable material surplus, reproducing and/or expanding the fund, thus permitting the renewal of the operation. Domination is a much more vague and polysemous. There is domination when the worker is a particular individual, i.e. whose belonging to a given community presupposes the carrying-out of his activity, which generally includes the (spatial or temporal) disjunction of labour-time into necessary labour-time and surplus labour-time. Domination is equally, for the same reasons, an ideological process. In fact if exploitation acquires a self-evident character in this situation, it is at the cost of the ideology which corresponds to the membership of the community.
However relations of domination can be redeveloped on the basis of capitalist exploitation. This occurs in two ways: firstly on the basis of, and in, exploitation itself, precisely in the way in which the three moments of exploitation are articulated (the face-off between labour-power and capital as potential capital; the subsumption of labour under capital; and the transformation of surplus-value into additional capital). Secondly, on the basis of existing disjunctions, in the capitalist mode of production itself, between the labour process and the increase in surplus-labour – i.e. on the basis which conceptually determines domination. The never finished character of the transformation of surplus-value into additional capital and the disjunctions between the labour process and the growth in surplus labour have the effect that capital reappears within the relation of exploitation as domination, as an exterior constraint on the individual.
On the one hand in exploitation we have the general possibility of a relation of domination, and on the other, the way in which we have defined the insertion of domestic labour into the relation between necessary and surplus labour means that it cannot increase surplus labour without being implicated within a relation of domination. The domestic relation is included within the salary which is the reproduction of labour-power and the “race of workers”. As a result of the very disjunction between the labour process in which labour-power is consumed productively and that modality of increasing surplus labour represented by domestic labour, its effect cannot be captured by the capitalist without a relation of domination. The relation between men and women is not reducible to the contradiction between classes; men don’t act as foremen on behalf of the true boss, the capitalist; rather, they act on their own behalf as men. Male domination does not mediate capitalist domination. If this domination increases surplus labour, it is because surplus labour and male domination, the appropriation of women and their activity are given at the same time and belong to the same concept of surplus labour. But it is exactly here that the capitalist mode of production has a problem with women.
3) The capitalist mode of production has a problem with women
The capitalist mode of production is the first mode of production which has a problem with labour and the increase in the population as the “principal force of production”.
It is a law of capital, as we saw, to create surplus labour, disposable time; it can do this only by setting necessary labour in motion – i.e. entering into exchange with the worker. It is its tendency, therefore, to create as much labour as possible; just as it is equally its tendency to reduce necessary labour to a minimum. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it. (Hence the correctness of the theory of surplus population and surplus capital.) […] (Capital) can leap over the natural limit formed by one individual’s living, working day, at a given stage in the development of the forces of production (and it does not in itself change anything that this stage is changing) only by positing another working day alongside the first at the same time – by the spatial addition of more simultaneous working days. […] This is why capital solicits the increase of population; and the very process by means of which necessary labour is reduced makes it possible to put new necessary labour (and hence surplus labour) to work.
This still without regard to the fact that the increase in population increases the productive force of labour, since it makes possible a greater division and combination of labour etc. The increase of population is a natural force of labour, for which nothing is paid. From this standpoint, we use the term natural force to refer to the social force. All natural forces of social labour are themselves historical products. […] Hence the tendency of capital simultaneously to increase the labouring population as well as to reduce constantly its necessary part (constantly to posit a part of it as reserve). And the increase of population itself the chief means for reducing the necessary part. At bottom this is only an application of the relation of the single working day. 1
As a result of the definition of the working population as productive force, the categories men and women are simultaneously always reproduced – they are absolutely not contingent (these are not “behavioural choices” – Butler); however, with the capitalist mode of production, these categories are no longer merely given, because it is the population as principal force of production which, with capital, is no longer merely given.
The conditions under which individuals have intercourse with each other, so long as the above-mentioned contradiction is absent, are conditions appertaining to their individuality, in no way external to them; conditions under which these definite individuals, living under definite relationships, can alone produce their material life and what is connected with it, are thus the conditions of their self-activity and are produced by this self-activity. The definite condition under which they produce, thus corresponds, as long as the contradiction has not yet appeared, to the reality of their conditioned nature, their one-sided existence, the one-sidedness of which only becomes evident when the contradiction enters on the scene and thus exists for the later individuals. Then this condition appears as an accidental fetter, and the consciousness that it is a fetter is imputed to the earlier age as well.2
With the capitalist mode of production, the contradiction “has appeared” (that of the population as the principal force of production), but it is impossible to escape this contradiction without abolishing this mode of production. This mode of production is preparing within its breast a class struggle which, in abolishing capital, will not be able to escape the question, for each of us, of “conditions inherent to our individuality”; this question is determined by the “appearance of this contradiction” which is to be surpassed, i.e. in this case being a “man” or a “woman”. The appearance as contradiction of the gendered reproduction of humanity is identical to the contradictory relation of capital and labour within the capitalist mode of production, i.e. it is identical to capital as contradiction in process 3 . It is for this reason that we should be looking to show that it is in female labour as it is currently that all the contradictions are bound up.
III) The abolition of the gender distinction
1) Programmatism loves women
The specific exploitation of women as such in the capitalist mode of production cannot be compared to racist modes of exploitation of labour-power insofar as the exploitation of women touches on the very nature of the capitalist mode of production in its relation to labour; it is linked to the definition of the value of labour-power – in its concept – and to the definition of surplus labour and the self-contradictory relation of capital to labour and the population. If Marxism and anarchism, and the workers’ movement in general, always had a problem with women, it’s because without a supersession of programmatism this specificity is simply impossible to formulate, it is invisible, outside the field of what is possible.
Only a non-programmatic theory of the class struggle and a theory of revolution as abolition of all classes, and thus of the proletariat and the wage-form, can take into account the internal antagonism included in the wage as reproduction of labour-power and, furthermore, consider that this internal antagonism is and will be a determining element of the abolition of the wage-form. It is necessary to develop a critique of the capitalist mode of production, and a non-programmatic theory of revolution, both of which do not consider labour and the increase of the population as the natural facts of all human production, in order to grasp that it is a social construction which makes the difference and gives the meaning to the differentiation of biological functions of reproduction. Programmatism makes this question into a pre-historical or pre-theoretical element (the natural division of labour); radical feminism (non-essentialist or differentialist) makes this into a naturalist theoretical taboo.
In its specificity, the female struggle is the condition sine qua non of the supersession of the programmatic class struggle. In the capitalist mode of production the common position of men vis-à-vis female labour defines the position of the waged worker (in terms of surplus labour and the wage as reproduction of labour-power). As long as the combat remains that of the wage-labourer or even the struggle for the liberation of labour, it will contain within it, within waged labour, the appropriation of women. The class struggle will only lead “by its very character” to the abolition of the proletariat in the abolition of capital through the revolutionary confrontation with the female struggle in its specificity. The nature of this specificity of the contradiction between men and women is the supersession of programmatism. If we were to look back at the specifically female struggles and strikes and at the specific characteristics of the activity of women in revolutionary struggles since the French Revolution or even the English Revolution, we would be surprised to discover, in acts, the contradictions and impasses of programmatism – up to and including the appearance of modern feminism in the 60s/70s. A meticulous study of revolutionary movements would certainly reveal that the activity of women in these movements is fully implicated in the impossibility of programmatism in its own terms, in its contradictions and its overcoming.
Some strikes and revolutions
Apart from the participation of women in the combat, which was rarer than a certain legend born precisely of the shocking character of this presence gives reason to believe, the Commune of 1871 confined women to their traditional social role (as canteen-workers, ambulance-drivers, employees in kilns and hospitals). It would be interesting to see if it is possible to contrast this situation with their role in the first days of the commune.
At the turn of the century, Emile Pataud and Emile Pouget, revolutionary syndicalists, wrote Comment nous avons fait la Révolution (“How we made the revolution”), published in error under the title Comment nous ferons la Révolution (“How we will make the revolution”) [Ed. Tallandier, no date], which presents itself as a description of communist society. In the guise of a conclusion, the first chapter has as its title “La libération de la femme” (“The liberation of women”). The “liberation of women” is the industrialisation of household tasks as if these were devolved to her by nature, as for the rest… In a society founded on the emancipation of labour, its redistribution and rational reorganisation, “women” are excluded: “In the new organisation, it was judged useless to prescribe for women – as had been done for men – the moral obligation to establish a determinate labour-time. It was considered that her high function of possible maternity liberated her from all other social duties. (op. cit., p. 292).
From the revolutionary syndicalist Pouget to Lenin the Bolshevik, the “liberation of women” is the rationalisation of productive labour by the female collectivisation of domestic tasks. At no moment are men concerned by or implicated in a redistribution of roles. The question of the gender distinction is not attacked at its base, and no revolutionary programme can achieve this.
It is Engels who laid down the theoretical bases for the way in which the question of the gender distinction is posed within the framework of programmatism: the disaggregation of the bourgeois family with the disappearance of its economic base; the renewal of the family after the revolution. An extract from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State summarises the matter. After having explained that in the bourgeois class, the concern for inheritance and match-making regulates marriage, Engels continues:
Sex-love in the relationship with a woman becomes, and can only become, the real rule among the oppressed classes, which means today among the proletariat-whether this relation is officially sanctioned or not. But here all the foundations of typical monogamy are cleared away. Here there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effective. […] And now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labor market and into the factory, and made her often the bread-winner of the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household – except, perhaps, for something of the brutality towards women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy. […] Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. 4
Women in the private sphere, men in the social sphere, the naturally female character of domestic tasks (”duties”): all this is presupposed in Engels’ problematic. The revolution is getting women into productive labour and the socialisation of domestic tasks in order to allow them this massive entry into productive labour. What Engels had before his eyes however didn’t influence his analysis in the slightest: proletarian women entered into the factory and had in addition to “carry out their family duties”, but, what’s more, it did not escape Marx or Engels that this entry into productive labour not only often provoked hostility from men, but it was also far from realising “equality” and in fact produced new differences (under-qualified jobs, wage differentials, more repetitive work…) , so much so that not only did the factory fail to alleviate domestic submission, but the factory and domestic submission actually reproduced and legitimised each other. Engels could write some pretty and resounding statements about “domestic slavery” and on women being “the proletarian class”, but by only linking the subservience of women to monogamy, and monogamy to inheritance, proletarian households were supposed to escape this situation. It is noticeable that even the facts that Engels or Marx are able to describe and analyse when it is a question of the economy or of describing a social reality pass beneath their theoretical radar when it is a question of the definition of and the relation between the sexes. It is “the social revolution” as it is for them and their epoch which produces this blindness.
The entire post-revolutionary evolution is, then, no more than a question of morals and mentalities, a terrain which Engels purposefully refuses to broach. It is here that, in the Russian Revolution, Kollantaï perceives that there is a problem that she only broaches from this angle of moral customs [mœurs] and mentalities. She can see, from experience, that this problematic of Engels (taken up by Bebel), does not lead, in the social revolution, to the emancipation of women, but it is on the very basis of the limit of this perspective that she seeks to surpass it. With the suppression of the economic base, which is considered to be monogamy in the framework of private property, the subsequent development is supposedly a question of moral customs [mœurs] and mentalities; this was the only way left open by the problematic itself in order to comprehend its own inadequacy when this became evident, both theoretically and practically, in the aftermath of the revolution.
In Spain, in the very process of the civil war and with the constitution of the anarcho-syndicalist group Mujeres Libres, things become more complicated. The first group of Mujeres Libres is formed in 1934. Though the founders believed that the civil war would put an end to their activities, it was at this very moment that the movement undergoes a real popular extension and exceeds the group of intellectuals who had founded it: they recognised that “the war has broken the walls of the age-old household”. There is a fundamental point here: if the contradiction contained in the relation between men and women has no resolution in the class struggle, it is however the latter which can put it on the table in a massive way. Even if the contradictions are not to be confused, their order and their dependence are determined by the relations at the heart of capitalist society.
Throughout their existence, the Mujeres Libres groups were subject to condescension if not hostility from the other components of the Movimiento Libertario (ML – Libertarian Movement). The latter, in October 1938, refused the movement membership of the ML for the following reason: “A female organisation would be an element of disunion and inequality for the movement and this would have negative consequences for the development of the interests of the working class”. However, if it’s not by its simple presence in the public sphere (therein lies the dynamic), Mujeres Libres only very marginally brings into question the social roles constituting the gender distinction. The declarations against the subservience of the household are very clear, but this is with the aim of putting the completion of tasks corresponding to the domestic household “at the service of the collectivity rather than of one single individual”. At issue is the furthering of “maternalising aptitudes” and “feminine values”: care for refugees, the injured, orphans, the creation of schools and clinics… “Women, as companions [compañeras] of men, as mothers, but also in developing their own personality, must influence the blossoming of the human being” (Mujeres Libres, December 1938). When the anarchist Emma Goldman sent a message of support to the movement, she wrote: “the female sex is the more important because it perpetuates the species”.
At issue here is the creation in the struggle of the social and cultural conditions for the supersession of “patriarchy”; the female struggle is destined to introduce “solidarity”, as feminine value, into the revolution as “social cement of the struggle”.
We can criticise all the limits of Mujeres Libres, and certain critiques were expounded at the time, however this revindication of “solidarity”, “feminine value”, as “social cement of the struggle” is inscribed, for Mujeres Libres, within a critique of the “linear revolution”. That is to say a critique of a revolutionary process separating its goal from the very modalities of its pursuit and realisation. In short, from its means. In this way a movement like Mujeres Libres destabilises programmatism from within, it manifests its internal contradictions and its impossibility in its own terms. Mujeres Libres, as we have seen, do not radically question gender distinction or sexual roles. If the revolution is the emancipation of labour, it preserves the proclamation of the population as the principal force of production (cf. Goldman and Kollontai). The production of this force has itself to be emancipated, rationalised, liberated, without being placed into question in its own right, which however cannot be avoided as a result of the content of this “emancipation”, and this “rationalisation”: the public appearance of women.
It was over questions of sex that the sending-back of women from the front and the re-establishing of the gender distinction, which had been overturned momentarily by its simple public appearance, was “immediately” accepted at the beginning of 1937. The liberation of labour signifies that the production of workers becomes the foundational act consciously recognised by society (cf. Emma Goldman). This means men, and women, who, as such, existing as women, are to be controlled by feelings, love, conjugality, they are to be preserved, as women, in the service of liberated labour. The refusal of the liberation of sexual relations in the revolution is not a question of morals and prejudices: sex produces (free) workers. It is, at root, an arse of a problem, a problem to do with rumpy-pumpy [un problème de cul].
We can pursue the adventures of women, men and the class struggle with the question of female strikes.
A workers’ strike is a strike. A female workers’ strike is a strike by women. The sexed character of the strike is undeniable, as much as a result of the way in which the female workers themselves pursue and comprehend their strike, as of the attitude of their adversaries: bosses, management, and sometimes male workers and unions. More often than not, the course of these strikes confirms and reproduces the female condition and the gender distinction much more than initiating any questioning of these. The condition of female spouse and mother of workers does not stop at the factory gate, even when there is a strike, as we saw recently with the hypermarkets’ strike.
Xavier Vigna dedicates an important chapter to female strikes in L’Insubordination ouvrière dans les années 68, Essai d’histoire politique des usines (Presses Universitaires de Rennes).
If all strikes break with the order of the factory and mark a transgression in this way, female strikes compound the offence. They clash with the order of the factory and the sexual division of roles which assign to women submission and the status of being dominated. These strikes set in train a multiple opposition with certain men. First of all, the management of an enterprise is always made up of male faces which crystallise the animosity of the strikers. […] What’s more, in textiles and the clothing industry in particular, the female striking workers often take action without and often against the male workers, cutters or machine operatives, who benefit from a higher status and thus higher wages. In the strikes of PIL in Cerizay, CIP in Haisnes, SCALPEN in Quimper in the Summer of 1976, only one man joined the female workers; again in Cerizay, it was men who violently ejected the strikers who had come to negotiate from the premises of the enterprise. In this way these female strikes kindle a male/female opposition, which often intersects with the opposition between skilled and semi-skilled workers within the group of workers in a particular enterprise. 5
Since the 19th Century, female strikes have engendered a discourse which questions the sexuality of the strikers and hurls opprobrium onto the latter. The transgression which the strike effects is, in this discourse, the proof of a deplorable morality, a dissolute sexuality.
Contrary to any commonplaces about the universality of the class struggle, the struggle of the female workers does not make their situation as women disappear, far from it. It is even possible to think that the subordination of the female condition is reinforced in and by their condition as female workers. It is “as female workers” that women will abolish their condition, but only against their condition as female workers.
2) Female labour in restructured capital
The inexorable rise in female labour followed, apparently paradoxically, the crisis at the end of the ‘60s and the restructuring which resulted from it. The development of female labour comes in the wake of the destruction of workers’ identity, the development of precarity and flexibility, whose first victims are female workers. Part-time work is above all a thing to do with female labour. We can’t speak of the increase in female labour without immediately considering its qualitative content in the restructured mode of production in the wake of the crisis. To speak of it in a simply absolute, quantitative way is to miss its meaning. In the restructured capitalist mode of production, the rise of female labour contributes to the porosity between unemployment and employment and to the division of the global mass of necessary labour between more people.
Women exist. They exist in the moment when the porosity between employment, precarity and unemployment becomes dominant and when the action of the proletariat can overthrow the order of the reciprocal definition between unemployment and employment with all the consequences that this can have for the revolutionary course of the class struggle. Up to the current period, they were either excluded from the institutional framework of the definition of waged employment and unemployment according to the sectors and modes of activity that were accorded to them in the social division of labour, or the traditional mode of regulation of female unemployment was still operational, or they were subordinated to the job of their spouse and their unemployment disappeared.
With the crisis female employment has not functioned as “reserve army”, on the contrary, it has increased rather than receding. Female labour accounts even in its specific characteristics for the general hue of the new modalities of employment which are established with the crisis and the restructuring. In any case, it is the very notion of reserve army which has become obsolete in these new modalities of the exploitation of living labour by capital.
What can be observed in an equally pronounced way is the tenacity of the mechanisms of discrimination, of the sexual division of labour, and also the appearance of new forms of inequality. If the crisis in employment has not expelled women from employment like in other periods, if it has not sent them back to the household, it has accentuated their vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the labour-market. So much so, that we can see differences being recreated, not merely perpetuated between men and women which completely go against the current of the irresistible rise in female activity. The feminisation of the labour-market has not been accompanied by gender diversity in the world of work. Feminised professions have continued to be feminised, male occupations have remained “male professions”, impregnable bastions. […] The concentration of women in a very small number of sectors of activity remains one of the dominant characteristics of the structure of employment. 6
And if these differences between men and women, far from going against the current of the “irresistible rise in female activity”, were in fact the principal reason for it? To ask the question is to answer it. Female labour epitomises the new modalities of employment to the very extent that it is these new modalities which make women remain in the labour-market and carry an increasing weight within it. Part-time work has become the modern shape of the sexual division of the labour-market. In France, women represent around 85 % of people working part-time.
It’s not surprising, then, that although they represent 45% of the active population, women still seem invisible. From major conferences on employment to the different negotiations of collective interprofessional agreements, one can look in vain for the slightest particular mention of women, if its not in relation to measures providing an incentive to part-time working, and even here they are not explicitly mentioned. This “forgetting” is ultimately the recognition of the generality of their “particular” position. In 1998, it was the historic overthrow of the reciprocal definition between unemployment and waged employment which was given its strategic importance in the class struggle by their massive presence in the struggle of the unemployed and the precarious.
We might say, parodying Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts: in this presence of women in the proletariat appears tangibly, reduced to a concrete fact, the degree to which its struggle as a class has become its own calling into question, or the extent to which its calling itself into question has become its existence as class. The degree to which the proletariat has become something contingent for itself, and grasps itself as such, is determined by the character of this presence; the relation of the situation of women to exploitation as the definition of the proletariat is the most “natural” relation of the proletariat to its own negation.
We have said that with the capitalist mode of production the contradiction “has appeared” (i.e. that of the population as principal productive force). This mode of production is gestating a class struggle which, in abolishing capital, will inescapably pose the question, for everybody, of “conditions inherent to their individuality”, a question which is determined by this contradiction which has appeared, and which is to be superseded. It is, perhaps, in the situation of female labour in restructured capital that the contradiction appears. Female labour is expressive of the general situation as female labour, i.e. all the contradictions of capitalist exploitation in its relation to labour through the specific domination of women resulting from the very relation of capital to labour (always necessary; always too much). It is, then, on the basis of the class struggle, at the level of exploitation, that the men-women relation can be superseded, because this relation contains the class struggle, and because all contradictions have been brought together in the way in which it contains the class struggle.
3) “Humanity doesn’t pose itself problems that it can resolve”, but to pose a question is not to resolve it.
The situation and the struggle of women against male domination objectively possesses a specific content and basis, it is simultaneously within and in relation with the contradiction between proletariat and capital (but never to be confused with it!). This basis is that of the struggle against their appropriation by all men which is constitutive of exploitation and without which the struggle against exploitation cannot go beyond the affirmation and the liberation of labour; the principal force of production would finally be recognised as such. This is a struggle which is not only specific but also definitive as soon as the perspective of the abolition of capital is that of the abolition of all classes, which itself only becomes the case with this specific struggle. In the specific struggle against male domination, it is the supersession of programmatism which exists or is at least at play. It is no mere coincidence that “second-wave feminism” appears at the end of the ‘60s and develops at the beginning of the ‘70s in relation to the limits of the failure of ‘68.
To say that there can be no revolution as communisation without the abolition of men and women doesn’t mean to say that because the revolution can no longer be anything other than communisation the question will be resolved as a result. This means that the revolution as communisation can end in failure. The revolution as communisation is the social process which allows us to arrive at the situation where the distinction between sexes no longer has any social pertinence, but we must not confuse the construction of the question in the revolution as communisation with the necessity of its resolution.
It is a totally sclerotic vision of the extension and deepening of a struggle to consider that the self-constitution of a group of women is necessarily identitarian and a limit of this struggle. This group does not invent the problem which constitutes it as a particular group vis-à-vis the general problem of the struggle, it is born of the question that the difference between the “sexes” has caused to appear in the course of the struggle. It is often good that the contradiction appears. Those who accuse this type of action of breaching the universalism of the proletariat forget that if this type of actions exists, it is precisely to combat the “essentialising” and/or hostile vision which can be developed in the very course of the struggle (cf. the piquetero movement and the long history of programmatism). Only a theory in which the revolution is the abolition of all classes can look address these problems head-on and not treat them as circumstantial or accidental impediments, just something to be gone beyond as quickly as possible.
We cannot act as if differences and segmentations didn’t exist and weren’t objective vis-à-vis the superior entity: the common situation of the exploited. Unity will not be achieved for the proletariat except in its abolition, which will not come to pass without internal conflicts which are given by its reproduction which is always implied by the reproduction of capital until its abolition. This will be a question in which revolution and counter-revolution are embroiled.
The domination of women occurs not only in the family but it also spans the whole of production and the reproduction of capitalism. Men draw all sorts of material benefits from this (in terms of lifestyles, the segmentation of the labour-market) which are internal to and defining of the existence as wage-labourers. As long as on a world-scale the working class (men and women) struggles for the defence of its condition or even for its emancipation (programmatism), the question of male domination is only posed marginally, at best in terms of the female revindication of equality which as such is doomed to fail; actions to this end only participate in the impossibility, in its own terms, of the programmatic revolution and of the emancipation of labour. We could consider female activity in revolutions as the marker of their failure.
The revolution as communisation puts the problem of the gender distinction as inherent to exploitation on the table in a practical way. However, even if male domination and capitalist exploitation are socially constructed in a coextensive manner (given by the nature of surplus labour and the wage relation), even if the abolition of one cannot occur without the abolition of the other, the contradictions which produce their supersession are not identical. The struggle of women against male domination is not dissolved within the struggle of the proletariat against capitalist exploitation. If we can say that the contradiction between proletariat and capital, in its revolutionary becoming as communisation, will put the gender distinction (which is necessarily a hierarchical one) on the table, it does not bear within it, as such, the supersession of this question on which its success is however predicated. The constitution of the group women as second humanity, as “second sex” is irreducible a priori to the contradiction between capital and proletariat. This latter carries within itself the supersession of all classes, the abolition of property, the division of labour, of exchange and of value, of work, of the economy i.e. the production of relations between individuals defining them in their singularity, but it does contain the means for the realisation of that which it carries within itself.
The appropriation of women, i.e. the contradiction which constructs and opposes men and women is inscribed within the very existence of surplus-labour, but the social groups which this appropriation constructs contradictorily are not identical to the classes (proletarians and bourgeois) which the contradiction founded on surplus-labour (i.e. exploitation) opposes. The question is singular, the abolition of surplus-labour, but the protagonists of its resolution are related to each other by different contradictions. The gendered distinction of humanity is implied, included in the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, but the latter, strictly as a contradiction between classes, does not carry within it the supersession of this distinction. This distinction defines a dominated “group”, women, whose domination is essential for exploitation but which is not a class in its own right and whose own object of struggle is male domination and the sexual partition of society. The fact that the constitution of this group is essentially linked to all the contradictions between classes means that its entry on to the stage of history is always linked to revolutionary periods, and that all women do not participate in the struggle of this group simply because they are women. The “bourgeois” woman might participate as a woman in the feminist struggle as long as the latter remains within the problematic of equality or differentialism, but in the female struggle itself a cleavage must appear if what is in question is the abolition of the gendered division of humanity itself, which is intrinsic to surplus-labour. The end of surplus-labour is the end of the gendered division of humanity and it will be this end only as end of this division.
The increase in the population as principal productive force, the foundation of all forms of surplus-labour, defines, in a class society, an antagonistic partition of society whose elements are not immediately those which are opposed in the extraction of this surplus-labour. It is in this regard that the contradiction which is exploitation necessarily puts the gender distinction on the table, but does not carry immediately within itself the means and the social forces to realise its abolition as communisation. Whichever way you look at it, communisation will be a revolution within a revolution.
- 4Emphasis added. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm
- 5 op. cit., pp. 117–118
- 6Margaret Maruani, Emploi des femmes: un tableau contrasté, in AC: Données et arguments, t.2, p. 106, Ed Syllepse