With the rise of the feminist movement and the struggle against women’s oppression, sections of both the left and the very same feminist movement have revived the idea of “wages for housewives”. They classify housework carried out by women as “unpaid” work, claiming that capitalists cut costs by relying on this unpaid labour. Where does Marxism stand on this issue?
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Silvia Federici, a renowned feminist and one of the most fervent defenders of wages for housewives, supports this demand on the following basis:
“This wage would be a way of changing the nature of care work and emphasising that, in and of itself, it is a job. Housework must be considered as a paid activity, since it “contributes to the production of labour and produces capital, thus making any other form of production possible.” (Quoted here)
We may summarise the views of this section of the left and of the feminist movement as follows: in the family home, the worker’s children are produced, fed and raised and will become the workers of tomorrow. The capitalists get this labour for free. They do not contribute anything to the raising of the workers who are ready to be exploited in their companies when they enter the labour market. Moreover, the “creator” of this “reproductive labour” (i.e. who reproduces the workforce) is the housewife, who does not receive a penny for this. Her “labour” is regarded as unskilled and of little value by capitalism, which only appreciates the man’s labour outside the family home. In conclusion: if the “man” receives pay for work considered to be productive, “reproductive labour” – which is vitally important to raise new generations of workers – must have the same level of importance as the former, and the housewife should consequently receive a salary. This would also allow her to gain independence within the family unit.
Theoretical questions require rigorously defined principles otherwise we quickly become confused. The Marxist position on this issue is based on two aspects. The first is a scientific point of view, based on Marx's labour theory of value and, more specifically, with regards to the composition of the value of labour power (i.e., the composition of the wage). The second is a political, socialist point of view which conforms with the general interests of the working class, and of working women specifically, in their struggle for social liberation, for socialism and to overcome the patriarchal family.
We shall analyse housework carried out by the housewife based on these two perspectives. This is based on an understanding of the laws of capitalism, which determine what wages are. If we have a false understanding of these laws, no amount of moralistic justification of wages for housework will resolve the problem of sexual inequality and poverty. To simplify our analysis, we shall take the most basic example as our starting point: a working family where the male partner, the man, works away from home, while the woman fulfils the role of the housewife at home.
What are wages?
First, we should start by defining what the value of labour power – that is, wages – is and how it is determined. Labour power is a collection of physical and intellectual abilities that allow a worker to perform labour for a company, an entity or an individual, which is remunerated with a wage.
The value of labour power, expressed in wages, is determined in the same way as that of any other commodity: by the socially necessary labour time required to produce it; that is, by the amount of necessary means of subsistence, in the given social conditions of each epoch, which will ensure the reproduction of the worker. Thus, with his wages, the worker can acquire the necessary means of subsistence so that he will be able to continue his work on a daily basis: food, housing, clothing, education, transportation, etc.
The reproduction of the worker through wages is of a twofold character: reproducing the worker’s own labour power for them to perform labour every day and – the crux of the matter at hand – to allow them to start a family, which would ensure the sexual reproduction of future workers in order that the capitalist mode of production may, as a result, continue operating when the worn-out workforce withdraws from the production process.
Marx and Engels on wages and domestic labour
Marx and Engels based themselves on the aforementioned definition of wages in all of their economic writings. According to Marx:
“What, then, is the value of labouring power? Like that of every other commodity, its value is determined by the quantity of labour necessary to produce it. The labouring power of a man exists only in his living individuality. A certain mass of necessaries must be consumed by a man to grow up and maintain his life. But the man, like the machine, will wear out, and must be replaced by another man. Beside the mass of necessaries required for his own maintenance, he wants another amount of necessaries to bring up a certain quota of children that are to replace him on the labour market and to perpetuate the race of labourers. Moreover, to develop his labouring power, and acquire a given skill, another amount of values must be spent.” (Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit, 1865)
In the same work, Marx emphasises the following:
“Its ultimate limit [that of the wages] is determined by the physical element, that is to say, to maintain and reproduce itself, to perpetuate its physical existence, the working class must receive the necessaries absolutely indispensable for living and multiplying. The value of those indispensable necessaries forms, therefore, the ultimate limit of the value of labour.” (Karl Marx, K. Value, Price and Profit, 1865, my emphasis)
It is important to note that Marx unambiguously stresses that wages are not only obtained as a means to sustain the individual worker, but rather to sustain their family, which includes the housewife and the children. As Marx explains in Das Kapital:
“The value of labour-power was determined, not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult labourer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1. Section 3. Chapter 15 ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’, 1867, My emphasis.)
“The owner of labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous conversion of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself, ‘in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation.’ The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market. (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1., Chapter 6 ‘The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power’. Section 3., 1867 )
Engels is also clear on the matter. In his well-known review of Das Kapital, he explains the following:
“What is the value of labour-power? The value of every commodity is measured by the labour required for its production. Labour-power exists in the form of the living worker who requires a definite amount of means of subsistence for his existence as well as for the maintenance of his family, which ensures the continuance of labour-power also after his death. The labour-time necessary for producing these means of subsistence represents, therefore, the value of the labour-power. The capitalist pays for it weekly and purchases thereby the use of one week's labour of the worker. So far messieurs the economists will be pretty well in agreement with us as to the value of labour-power.” (Frederick Engels, Review of Volume One of Capital for the Demokratisches Wochenblatt, 1868, all italics my own)
Marx’s observations on the expenses of training and education for the worker, which are also included in the wage, are interesting:
“In order to modify the human organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education or training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or less amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production.” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1, Section 3, Chapter 6 ‘The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power’, 1867)
The central issue is this: as Marx and Engels explain, the worker’s wage covers the labour time necessary to sustain the worker within given social conditions in order for the worker to return to his job each day, and for the reproduction of the workforce; i.e., to have a family and leave a descendant. In short, so-called “reproductive labour”, as a section of the feminist movement defines domestic labour, is already paid for by the wage earned by the worker.
From the point of view of the laws of capitalism,there is no economic injustice in not paying the housewife directly for the labour that she performs in the home. The supposed wages she is owed – that is, her necessary means of subsistence – are already included within the wage or wages of a member or members of the family unit working away from home. What we are looking at is not an injustice of capitalist exploitation, but rather a situation of oppression and domestic slavery under the capitalist mode of production where the housewife is condemned to play the role of maidservant for her husband and children, and to completely depend on the former for her subsistence. For this reason, the demands of that section of the feminist movement for a wage for housewives is a utopia which cannot be fulfilled. It is also reactionary, as we will explain in due course, and has no basis in scientific economics.
Are capitalists such obliging people?
Let us approach the matter from a different angle. If the woman performs productive labour, which consists of contributing to the manufacture of waged workers in the form of her children and husband (she prepares their food, bathes her children, cares for them when they get sick, dresses them, cleans and maintains the home etc.), the woman would have to be considered as a worker who, just like her husband, should have a price-wage consisting of the means of livelihood for daily subsistence. But, of course, she does not receive pay directly from any particular capitalist and would therefore be condemned to starve to death, but this is not the case. Where, then, do the means of livelihood for the housewife’s subsistence come from? Where does the money owed to the mother to pay for her children’s upbringing and healthcare, or to pay for the home she lives in, come from if she does not receive a penny as a housewife? No matter how much thought goes into it, the answer is clear as day. All the necessary means of livelihood for the wife and for her children (food, accommodation, clothes, education, health, electricity etc.) can only come – as is the case – from the husband’s wage. That being said, if the husband’s wage were only to include the means of livelihood for his subsistence, there would be nothing at all for his wife or his children. Or perhaps capitalists are so obliging as to pay the worker a wage through which many people can (barely) subsist? This is, in essence, the situation.
If capitalists were to pay attention to the reasoning of those such as Federici, they would say: “What you propose sounds good to us. The woman must be paid for her labour and, inasmuch as more than one person can live on the wage that we pay the worker, we shall reduce the wage of the worker to the bare minimum for him to get by, as if he lived alone (in order not to violate Marx’s labour theory of value, which we have been breaching for two centuries without even realising, as these advisors on the left tell us) and we shall give the housewife the share she is owed so she can live by her own means”. In other words, the employers would hand over each week two wage packets: one for his employee and another for the employee's wife.
Securing a wage for the housewife would be a great victory for the feminist cause, although it would have been achieved at the cost of reducing her husband’s wage by half. In the end, nothing would have changed; combining both wages would result in the same wage the husband had before. The capitalist would by no means give more than what they gave before. So, what would that prove? It would prove that the husband’s wage included the means of livelihood for his wife and children’s subsistence, which was what we wanted to demonstrate and what Marx and Engels had already explained and shown a century and a half ago.
The depreciation of the family wage
The reality of the nature of the family’s wage and welfare is confirmed in many ways on a day-to-day basis.
In a backward capitalist country like Spain, the large-scale incorporation of women into productive labour took place later than in Western Europe and North America. Consequently, today it is very common for older people to state that 40 or 50 years ago, a family supported itself with a single wage (that of the husband, we may add), but now, each spouse has to work, and even then they can barely make ends meet. How does this affect Marx’s theory on wage composition in the working family? The change that has been brought about is that the mass absorption of women into the labour market has created the conditions where capital tends to reduce the general average wage since, insofar as the woman works, the husband no longer needs to support his wife and the rest of the family with an “extra” allowance.
This had already been explained beforehand by Marx when he explained the effect of machinery on the working family, not only with the incorporation of women into work away from home but also that of the children living in the very heart of the family:
“Machinery, by throwing every member of that family on to the labour-market, spreads the value of the man’s labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may, perhaps, cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days’ labour takes the place of one, and their price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus labour of four over the surplus labour of one. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expend surplus labour for the capitalist. Thus we see that machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.” (Karl Marx, Section 3. Chapter 15 ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’. Das Kapital, Vol. 1., 1867).
In other words, the wage that allows a family to support itself is depreciated individually as more members of the family living within the household are incorporated into the labour market, which in turn confirms that each individual salary includes a proportional share which allows the family to support itself as a whole.
Of course, as occurs in other aspects of capitalist economics (prices, profit rates, rates of surplus value, etc.), it is not the case that every capitalist adjusts the wage of their workers one by one, carefully weighing up each individual situation, but rather that the average wage is set according to the given conditions in each branch of production and geographic area with regard to the average family type in said geographic area and in keeping with the average cost of basic goods in said area.
Marx discusses the implications for the working family of the woman engaging in labour outside of the home at great length and says the following in one of the footnotes of Das Kapital:
“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.” (Karl Marx, Note 39. Section 3. Chapter 15 ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’. Das Kapital, Vol. 1., 1867)
Simply put, no matter how much the family wage increases with the incorporation of women into productive labour, this is counterbalanced by the increased maintenance costs for the family, whether this be due to the increased consumption of staples that were not needed previously (clothes, etc.) or due to the need to be gainfully employed to take care of the children, clean the house etc.
Are children an “exchange value” produced by the housewife?
One final aspect to analyse is the claim made by the theorists of this new feminist tendency that housewives are workers and their function is to make their children into “workforce” commodities, new wage earners, who bear an “exchange value”, a production cost. As we discussed above, they claim housewives do not receive any pay for labour this whatsoever. Although this has largely been dealt with already in our earlier analysis, it is worth expanding on this point to reach new conclusions.
In their book Reproductive and Domestic Labour, Isabel Larrañaga, Begoña Arregui and Jesús Arpal state that:
“The eclipse of reproductive labour by productive labour stems from the differentiation between use value and exchange value supported by economic theory. By this differentiation, labour aimed at meeting certain needs is recognised as use value, whilst products destined to be exchanged on the market are recognised as exchange value. Commerce, which only gives value to goods that can provide an exchange value, strips reproductive labour of its social relevance and in so doing relegates it to the domestic domain, as its economic benefit cannot be measured. The logic of capital has confounded labour and employment and has imposed a narrow and biased understanding of economic activity.” (Larrañaga, I., Arregui, B. and Arpal, J. Reproductive and Domestic Labour)
We come across the same confusion between use value and exchange value, as well as the same misunderstanding of the concept of wages, in another prominent champion of the domestic wages, Iñaki Gil de San Vicente:
“If we were to incorporate into the paid workforce the value invested in the domestic or reproductive field, wage levels would be much higher than they currently are, however, this is not the case… As there is no mechanism to recognise reproductive labour, the value that it generates is expropriated by the capitalist. Therefore, it is in the interest of the capitalist system to conceal reproductive labour, mainly expended by women. If we were to disclose this unpaid labour or to renumerate it, the rate of profit and of capital accumulation would fall.” (de San Vicente, I. G. (2000) Capitalism and the National and Social Emancipation of Gender. Cited here)
This entire line of argument, which presents itself ostensibly as being Marxist, is completely wrong. Firstly, part of the argument is contradicted by the fact that children’s education – an essential part of their training process as future waged workers – takes place outside of the home: in nursery school, primary school, secondary school, college, and at university, without the mother (nor the father’s) direct involvement. Secondly, we have seen that this expense is already included in the husband’s wage, who pays for these services through taxes or fees. Similarly, we have already seen that maintenance costs for the child, mother, and other expenses for the upkeep of the family home are included in the husband’s salary.
The problem with Federici, Gil de San Vicente and their company is that they fail to explain to us why, if the mother (and father) supposedly create commodities out of their children in the form of “wage workers”, they do not receive a penny from the capitalist even though they buy said commodities to be employed in their company? From whom does the capitalist buy the commodity? Not from the mother, or the father, but from the "labour power" commodity itself; that is, from the children themselves. Young workers earn a wage – their “exchange value”, for expending productive labour in the capitalist's business – a wage that belongs to them and only to them. With this wage, these young workers acquire the means of subsistence to support themselves daily, which includes their proportional share of the family home expenses. They may even go on and live on their own.
This brings us to the following conclusion. An object, whatever its use value, becomes a commodity endowed with “exchange value”, when it is exchanged, when it enters the market and is traded for money. It is not simply a question of the human labour that is expended in its production. I can manufacture a pair of shoes, but if they are for personal use then they consist simply of use value, objects produced by human labour to satisfy a specific need. Only when I take the shoes to the market to sell them do they become goods with an exchange value, and I can sell them in exchange for their monetary value. What characterises wage labour, in distinction with slave labour, is that its owner is the worker, who is free (to sell it to this or that capitalist). Slave labour, on the other hand, is owned not by the slave (who is not free to shop around for different slave owners), but by the slave owner. Labour power is only a commodity when it enters the labour market, not before, and it is brought to market by its owner, ie by workers when they seek employment.
So, the housewife’s labour is not to produce commodities to be sold on the market, whether these “commodities” are her children or something else entirely. So-called domestic labour involves the upkeep of the home and the family, in the spirit of the house slaves of ancient Rome. The difference is that the woman under capitalism is, legally speaking, a “free citizen”.
The woman, as in ancient peasant homes, produces use values for family consumption. Childcare within the family falls under this category of use values and not commodities for sale. Evidently, when the children become workers, their labour power becomes a commodity, and takes on an exchange value, which reflects the socially necessary labour time involved in their production. However, the fact that the children “might” potentially enter the labour market in the future does not give them “exchange value”, it does not turn their future labour power into a commodity in the present. Partners do not procreate with the stated objective of supplying capitalists with workers, but essentially are moved to procreate by human emotion. Procreation and parenting are outside of the circuit of the capitalist economy. Only when children decide to seek out their means of subsistence for themselves will they be able to become part of the “workforce” by selling their labour power to others for survival. Only then would their labour power become a commodity with an exchange value, ready to sign up for waged slavery.
The argument is not in contradiction with the fact that capitalists, driven by the need to renew the workforce due to the exhaustion, old age or death of their employees, are obliged to pay the workers with a wage that allows them to procreate and rear their children, who will later replace them on the shop floor. The capitalist pays for this, but it is not at all guaranteed that this will come to pass: the couple may not have children, they may pass away before adulthood, or they may simply find their means of subsistence outside the realm of waged labour. But the capitalist has no choice but to do so for a very mundane reason. Namely, in a society such as ours, where the system of waged labour reigns supreme, if a family cannot feed their children, then they do not have children, and therefore the system of waged labour would be doomed to collapse from its very foundations because of the lack of human beings available to work for others for a wage. Without workers, there is no capitalist production.
Reproductive labour or domestic slavery?
Our opposition to wages for housework and to women carrying out domestic labour in general, from a socialist, political point of view, is no less firm than it is from the point of view of economic science. We dealt with this issue already in some detail elsewhere, but here we shall summarise the main points.
We have already shown that the position of the housewife is very similar to that of the domestic slaves of ancient Rome. They are fed, dressed and cared for by their masters. The woman is thus chained to her husband’s salary and his supreme will. There is a well-known quote pertinent to this issue from Marx: “wife and children are the slaves of the husband”. Engels, in his classic work on the origin of the family quotes Marx and states that:
“The modern family contains in germ not only slavery (servitus), but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state.” (Engels, F. (1884) Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State)
Now, ex-Marxists such as Silvia Federici try to push social science back 150 years with regards to the position of women in society; repositioning the working-class housewife, without an education or employment, and amidst pots and pans, nappies and mops and stultifying soap operas.
Federica claims the following:
“The demand for a wage for care work can be really liberating for the woman, since it implies that women understand that what they do is a job: not natural, but socially constructed.” (Federici, S. Quoted here)
What we have here is a moralistic theory (“How can the labour of the housewife at home not be productive?! Why is it that only the man’s work is valued economically?!”), which has no scientific value, as we have just explained.
Payment for the housewife’s “reproductive labour” in the house, i.e. for domestic slavery, in addition to keeping the working family’s standard of living the same, and consequently the level of the housewife’s freedom on the same level as before, is something that would serve to perpetuate the idea of the housewife as the beast of burden that bears on her back all the social pressure exerted on working-class homes (including psychological and physical abuse). It would keep her away from social life, imprisoned within the four walls of her house, making her numb with chores that mangle her body and dull her mind. She is then made easier to manipulate in favour of the status quo, which encourage the housewife to adopt a conservative attitude towards her husband and children’s political and trade union activism and so on.
Even the majority of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ‘70s understood this. To their credit, at the time and consistent with Marxism, they completely condemned the domestic slavery of women. Particularly in Spain, due to the revolutionary and class character that the struggle against the Franco dictatorship took on, anyone who championed wages for housework in the 1970s in a feminist or left-wing meeting would have been kicked out with no remorse, and rightfully so.
Unfortunately, today a host of “theorists” within the feminist movement and the left have risen up, peddling the idea that domestic labour in their own home is emancipatory, which capitalism spares itself of and which must be paid for, perpetuating domestic slavery disguised as a state subsidy or as a compensation from the capitalist.
The change in opinion since the 1970s of Federici and other feminists who define themselves as Marxists has an explanation. They continue to claim they are Marxists, as without this label they would lose their anti-establishment glamour and would not be able to sell as many books or be invited to as many conferences, but they have foregone any attempt to ground themselves in Marxist theory or bring about a socialist transformation in society. They pose as “pragmatic” and "realistic" in order to adapt to capitalism.
More evidence of their accommodation to capitalism comes in the way of the statements below from an interview from a few years ago, where Silvia Federici declared:
“In the 1970s, when strategic decisions had to be made in the United States as well as in Europe, the feminist movement completely abandoned the reproductive field and almost exclusively focused on work outside the home. The objective was to win equality through labour. However, men were disgruntled in the workplace, and achieving equality just to be equally as disgruntled and oppressed as them is no strategy at all.” (Cited here)
What is Federici proposing? Housework is bad, but work in a company is also bad. Moreover, we then have a “second shift” at home with child rearing, cleaning, etc. So, since we see no other alternative, it would be better to go back to the home that enslaves us, but we demand a wage in exchange.
This is the wonderful prospect that radical feminists such as Federici have to offer millions of oppressed, poor and working women: a prospect far removed indeed from the very world in which Federici and the other feminists of this tendency live – of this we are certain.
Undeniably, the world of work under capitalism is dehumanising and exploitative for the man and the woman. And it is true that the woman is forced to work a “double shift” in the company and at home. Of course, working away from home does not free the woman per se, but it gives her the chance to free herself from her partner. Achieving a “domestic wage” under capitalism is an illusion, especially in the current context of economic crisis and prolonged austerity. Our alternative, as we will see in a moment, is to link the demands to socialise housework with the fight for socialism. This is the only way to root out women’s oppression instead of being satisfied with the crumbs, with the lesser evil or with the agitation of impossible or frankly reactionary demands within capitalism.
Wagedlabour in the home
Professional wage labour in the care sector – caring for children, the elderly and the disabled, house cleaning, preparing food, etc – is completely different in nature to the work carried out by the housewife in her own home. Only blockheads would not be able to see the difference.
The paid nature of “care” work – to use the tasteless euphemism the liberal and left-wing progressives use to dub domestic work and the care of children and the elderly – introduces a qualitative social change to these tasks. It certainly is exhausting work, which continues to be badly paid. However, unlike the common housewife, those who work in this sector are not personally invested in the work that they do. It has nothing to do with them. The housewife is working in her own home, while the waged worker only does care work in a home for four, six or eight hours and in exchange for a wage. Without a wage, there is no work. Simply leaving her home, and taking charge of her social life – which involves travelling to her place of work, talking and sharing experiences with workers in her field or otherwise, or being taken on by a company for that kind of work and, as a result, seeing the common class interests that tie her to the other company workers – helps a woman worker to understand the nature of class society and its inner workings. For her to be able to become a member of a trade union and claim certain rights under the law, to understand the need for a political struggle for her interests, etc. introduces a political level and a level of consciousness and self-worth into the psychology of the waged “care” worker. This is not comparable to what the common housewife achieves imprisoned in her home. The alienation the waged worker suffers is the same suffered by any employed worker, whether they be a metallurgist, clerk or day labourer: it is the alienation of a worker and not of a slave. For the housewife, her home is her world; for the care worker, their world is outside, in social life, and in the defence of their interests as workers and of thousands of people like her.
Turning domestic work, childcare and care for the elderly into wage labour prepares the conditions for the future liberation of the woman and the family from domestic slavery through the socialisation of housework, after the overthrow of capitalism, that is, under socialism. As we indicated earlier, it is a question of removing the oppressive chores in the home that burden the family (washing clothes, preparing food, caring for children and the elderly). In addition to well-equipped nurseries in the local neighbourhoods and in the workplaces, socialism will build leisure and play centres for children and teenagers in every neighbourhood, all well cared for, fit for use and instructive. Nursing homes will not be the gloomy, dirty, badly cared for and expensive places we are currently used to seeing, but they would be on the level of high-quality hotels, which would be free or at low cost and with adjoining fully equipped healthcare facilities.
Workers in this sector would not have to endure long, physically exhausting shifts. Their workday would be four or five hours long or even shorter. The most advanced technology would be used in order to reduce to a minimum the amount of physical effort required to deal with disabled, old or sick people. All technology would be dedicated to minimising labour in every task, especially those which require great physical effort.
As Engels brilliantly puts it:
“We can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit of the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends towards ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.” (Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884)
For a socialist alternative to domestic slavery
Marxists defend the socialisation of child rearing, and of care for the elderly and the disabled. Society as a whole would take on these tasks and free the working family from them, especially the housewife. In fact, capitalist development has already brought about the socialisation of some aspects of family and community life, either through public management systems or licenses to private conglomerates (although only partially and inadequately). These include education, healthcare, transport, telecommunications, electricity, waste management etc. For some time now, we have been seeing a similar trend in the care of the elderly and the disabled, in the so-called care services.
Nevertheless, under capitalism these steps towards the socialisation of domestic work have their limits. Capitalists fight tooth and nail to avoid handing over more of the surplus value they extract from workers (the source of their profits) over to society to be used to finance a generalised socialisation of domestic work.
With that in mind, should a housewife receive a wage in order to depend on herself alone, independent of her husband? Of course she should, but not because of her position as a housewife, from which she must free herself. We demand that all the unemployed be given a fixed, decent and well-paid job, and while they are unemployed they should receive unemployment benefits equal to the national minimum wage. We therefore demand that housewives, like the unemployed, receive these benefits, but we also demand good quality, well paid jobs for all, and we encourage them to find work that allows them to earn a living for themselves. We urge them to broaden their horizons to include a more varied social life outside of the family home and to get involved in the conscious struggle of other workers for a transitional programme towards socialism with the following demands: free public nurseries, free public canteens, free public laundrettes and leave “care” work to be conducted by paid workers. The state must also provide food and basic clothing to all children and adolescents up to 18 years of age. To sum up, we want to reduce or eliminate so-called “household chores”, which up until now were the tasks of the housewife, get her out of the house and turn her into a person who is economically independent from her partner.
We must explain to the working class, and the housewife in particular, that only under a socialist system, where the commanding heights of the economy are transferred to collective ownership and run democratically by workers will we be able to achieve a generalised socialisation of housework.
As Engels explains:
“With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair…” (Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884)
Thus, by combining the advances of a planned socialist economy – working collectively and suppressing the profit motive in every human activity, truly loving one’s neighbour without religious hypocrisy or self-interest, along with the most advanced technology and science – a socialist society would eradicate every vestige of domestic slavery and the submission of woman to man, for her to be able to rise to her true potential, something denied to her by class society for thousands of years.