Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and the Feminist Struggle
It is the demand by which our nature ends and our struggle begins because just to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.
To ask for wages for housework will by itself undermine the expectations that society has of us, since these expectations—the essence of our socialization—are all functional to our ageless condition in the home. (19)
To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking. At the same time, it shows that we have cooked, smiled, fucked throughout the years not because it was easier for us than for anybody else, but because we did not have any other choice. Our faces have become distorted from so much smiling, our feelings have got lost from so much loving, our oversexualization has left us completely desexualized.
Wages for housework is only the beginning, but its message is clear: from now on, they have to pay us because as women we do not guarantee anything any longer. We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create our sexuality, which we have never known. And from the viewpoint of work, we can ask not only one wage but many wages, because we have been forced into many jobs at once. We are housemaids, prostitutes, nurses, shrinks; this is the essence of the “heroic” spouse who is celebrated on “Mother’s Day.” We say: stop celebrating our exploitation, our supposed heroism. From now on we want money for each moment of it, so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it. In this respect nothing can be more effective than to show that our female virtues have already a calculable money value: until today only for capital, increased in the measure that we were defeated, from now on, against capital, for us, in the measure that we organize our power. (19—20)
Unfortunately, many women — particularly single women — are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and they do not want to realize that they are housewives too. This is precisely our weakness, as our enslavement is maintained and perpetuated through this lack of self-identification. We want and must say that we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes, and we are all gay, because as long as we accept these divisions, we accept the logic of the master.
This is why, whether we are skinny or plump, long or short nosed, tall or small, we all hate our bodies. We hate it because we are accustomed to looking at it from the outside, with the eyes of the men we meet, and with the body-market in mind. We hate it because we are used to thinking of it as something to sell, something that has become alienated from us and is always on the counter. (26)
But to not see women’s work in the home is to be blind to the work and struggles of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population that is wageless. It is to ignore that American capital was built on slave labor as well as waged labor and, up to this day, it thrives on the unwaged labor of millions of women and men in the fields, kitchens, and prisons of the United States and throughout the world. (31)
It remains to be clarified that by saying that the work we perform in the homes is capitalist production, we are not expressing a wish to be legitimated as part of the “productive forces,” in other words, it is not a resort to moralism. Only from a capitalist viewpoint being productive is a moral virtue, if not a moral imperative. From the viewpoint of the working class, being productive simply means being exploited. As Marx recognized, “to be a productive laborer is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.” Thus we derive little “self-esteem” from it. But when we say that housework is a moment of capitalist production we clarify our specific function in the capitalist division of labor and the specific forms that our revolt against it must take. Ultimately, when we say that we produce capital, we say that we can and want to destroy it, rather than engage in a losing battle to move from one form and degree of exploitation to another. (32)
The family is essentially the institutionalization of our unwaged labor, of our wageless dependence on men, and, consequently, the institutionalization of an unequal division of power that has disciplined us as well as men. (33)
But ultimately the social weakness of the wageless has been and is the weakness of the entire working class with respect to capital. As the history of the “runaway shop” demonstrates, the availability of unwaged labor, both in the “underdeveloped” countries and in the metropolis, has allowed capital to leave those areas where labor had made itself too expensive, thus undermining the power that workers there had reached. Whenever capital could not run to the “Third World,” it opened the gates of the factories to women, blacks, and youth in the metropolis or to migrants from the “Third World.” Thus it is no accident that while capitalism is presumably based on waged labor, more than half of the world’s population is unwaged. Wagelessness and underdevelopment are essential elements of capitalist planning, nationally and internationally. They are powerful means to make workers compete on the national and international labor market, and make us believe that our interests are different and contradictory. (36)
OUR STRUGGLE FOR THE WAGE OPENS FOR THE WAGED AND THE UNWAGED ALIKE THE QUESTION OF THE REAL LENGTH OF THE WORKING DAY. UP TO NOW THE WORKING CLASS, MALE AND FEMALE, HAD ITS WORKING DAY DEFINED BY CAPITAL &MDASH; FROM PUNCHING IN TO PUNCHING OUT. THAT DEFINED THE TIME WE BELONGED TO CAPITAL AND THE TIME WE BELONGED TO OURSELVES. BUT WE HAVE NEVER BELONGED TO OURSELVES, WE HAVE ALWAYS BELONGED TO CAPITAL EVERY MOMENT OF OUR LIVES AND IT IS TIME THAT WE MAKE CAPITAL PAY FOR EVERY MOMENT OF IT. IN CLASS TERMS THIS IS TO DEMAND A WAGE FOR EVERY MOMENT WE LIVE AT THE SERVICE OF CAPITAL. (38)
Our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to become “uneconomic.” (39)
Though the “utopian” moment was never completely lost, increasingly, feminism has operated in a framework in which the system — its goals, its priorities, its productivity deals — is not questioned and sexual discrimination can appear as the malfunctioning of otherwise perfectible institutions. Feminism has become equated with gaining equal opportunity in the labor market, from the factory to the corporate room, gaining equal status with men, and transforming our lives and personalities to fit our new productive tasks. That “leaving the home” and “going to work” is a precondition for our liberation is something few feminists, already in the early ’70s, ever questioned. For liberals the job was coated in the glamour of the career, for the socialists it meant that women would “join the class struggle” and benefit from the experience of performing “socially useful, productive labor.” In both cases, what for women was an economical necessity was elevated into a strategy whereby work itself seemed to become a path to liberation. The strategic important attributed to women’s “entering the workplace” can be measured by the widespread opposition to our campaign for wages for housework, which was accused of being economistic and institutionalizing women in the homes. Yet, the demand for wages for housework was crucial from many viewpoints. First it recognized that housework is work — the work of producing and reproducing the workforce — and in this way it exposed the enormous amount of unpaid labor that goes on unchallenged and unseen in this society. It also recognized that housework is the one problem all of us have in common, thus providing the possibility of uniting women around a common objective and fighting on the terrain where our forces are strongest. Finally it seemed to us that posing “getting a job” as the main condition for becoming independent of men would alienate those women who do not want to work outside the homes, because they work hard enough taking care of their families, and if they “go to work” they do it because they need the money and not because they consider it a liberating experience, particularly since having a job never frees you from housework. (57)
The women’s movement must realize that work is not liberation. Work in a capitalist system is exploitation and there is no pleasure, pride, or creativity in being exploited. Even the “career” is an illusion as far as self-fulfillment is concerned. What is rarely acknowledged is that most career-type jobs require that you exert power over other people, often other women, and this deepens the divisions between us. We try to escape blue collar or clerical ghettos in order to have more time and more satisfaction only to discover that the price we pay for advancing is the distance that intervenes between us and other women. However there is no discipline we impose on others that we do not at the same time impose on ourselves, which means that in performing these jobs we actually undermine our own struggles. (59)
Capitalist development has always been unsustainable because of its human impact. To understand this point, all we need to do is to take the viewpoint of those who have been and continue to be killed by it. A presupposition of capitalism’s birth was the sacrifice of a large part of humanity — mass extermination, the production of hunger and misery, slavery, violence and terror. Its continuation requires the same presuppositions. &mdash Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “Capitalism and Reproduction,” 1995. (65)
There is also a tendency to view the problems women face internationally as a matter of “human rights” and privilege legal reform as the primary means of governmental intervention. This approach however fails to challenge the international economic order that is the root cause of the new forms of exploitation to which women are subject. Also the campaign against violence against women, that has taken off in recent years, has centered on rape and domestic violence, along the lines set by the United Nations. It has ignored the violence inherent in the process of capitalist accumulation that, through the ’80s and ’90s, have cleared the way to economic globalization. (66)
Endless wars, massacres, entire populations in flight from their lands and turned into refugees, famines: these are not only the consequences of a dramatic impoverishment that intensifies ethnic, political, and religious conflicts, as the media want us to believe. They are the necessary complements of the privatization of land relations and the attempt to create a world in which nothing escapes the logic of profit. They are the ultimate means to expropriate populations who, until recently, had access to land and natural resources, which now are taken over by multinational corporations. (69)
First came the foreign bankers eager to lend at extortionate rates; then the financial controllers to see that the interest was paid; then the thousands of foreign advisors taking their cut. Finally, when the country was bankrupt and helpless, it was time for the foreign troops to “rescue” the ruler from his “rebellious” people. One last gulp and the country had gone. — Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa(76)
From the mass expulsions of immigrants and religious riots in Nigeria in the early and mid-1980s, to the “clan” wars in Somalia in the early 1990s, to the bloody wars between the state and the fundamentalists in Algeria, in the background of most contemporary African conflicts there have been the world Bank’s and the IMF’s “conditionalities,” that have wrecked peoples’ lives and undermined the conditions for social solidarity. (78)
So questionable has food assistance been in its effects, so dubious its ability to guarantee people’s livelihood (which would have been better served by the distribution of agricultural tools and seeds, and above all by the end of hostilities), that one has to ask whether the true purpose of this initiative was not the phasing out of subsistence farming, and the creation of a long-term dependence on imported food — both being center-pieces of World Bank reform, and conditions for the “integration” of African countries into the global economy. (80)
The difference is that, in Africa, the right of the United States/United Nations to send troops has generally been justified in the name of “peacekeeping,” “peacemaking” and humanitarian intervention,” possibly because under any other condition, a landing of the marines (of the type we have seen in Panama and Grenada), would not have been internationally accepted. These interventions, however, are the new faces of colonialism, and not in Africa alone. This is a colonialism that aims at controlling policies and resources rather than gaining territorial possession. In political terms, it is a “philanthropic,” “humanitarian,” “footloose” colonialism that aims at “governance” rather than “government,” for the latter involves a commitment to a specific institutional and economic set up, whereas modern-day free enterprise imperialism wants to maintain its freedom to always choose the institutional set up, the economic forms, and the locations best suited to its needs. However, as in the colonialism of old, soldiers and merchants are not far apart, as the marriage of “food aid” distributions and military intervention today demonstrates. (83)
By contrast, today, millions of Africans are dying every year because of the consequences of structural adjustment but no one is held responsible for it. On the contrary, the social causes of death in Africa are increasingly becoming as invisible as the “invisible hand” of the capitalist market.
Finally, we have to realize that we cannot mobilize against the bombings alone, nor demand that bombing stops and call that “peace.” We know from the postwar scenario in Iraq, that the destruction of a country’s infrastructure produces more deaths than the bombs themselves. What we need to learn is that death, hunger, disease, and destruction are currently a daily reality for most people across the planet. More than that, structural adjustment — the most universal program in the world today, the one that, in all its forms (including the African Growth and Opportunity Act), represents the contemporary face of capitalism and colonialism — is war. Thus, the program of the anti-war movement must include the elimination of structural adjustment in all of its many forms and, most crucially, the construction of a world no longer built upon the logic of capitalist accumulation, if war and the imperialistic project it embodies are to come to an end. (84)
Globalization aims to give corporate capital total control over labor and natural resources. Thus it must expropriate workers from any means of subsistence that may enable them to resist a more intense exploitation. As such it cannot succeed except through a systematic attack on the material conditions of social reproduction and on the main subjects of this work, which in most countries are women. (86)
What are the implications of this situation for the international feminist movements? The immediate answer ist hat feminists should not only support the cancellation of the “Third World debt” but engage in a campaign for a policy of reparations, returning to communities devastated by “adjustment” the resources taken away from them. In the long run, feminists must recognize that we cannot expect any betterment of our lives from capitalism. For we have seen that, as soon as the anticolonial, the civil rights, and the feminist movements forced the system to make concessions, it reacted with the equivalent of a nuclear war. (89)
For the image of the uniformed woman, gaining equality with men through the right to kill, is the image of what globalization can offer to us, which is the right to survive at the expense of other women and their children, whose countries and resources corporate capital needs to exploit. (90)
By destroying subsistence economies, by separating produces from the means of subsistence and making millions dependent on monetary incomes, even when unable to access waged employment, the capitalist class has relaunched the accumulation process and cut the cost of labor-production. Two billion people have been added to the world labor market demonstrating the fallacy of theories arguing that capitalism no longer requires massive amounts of living labor, because it presumably relies on the increasing automation of work. (101)
…the New World Order is best described as a process of recolonization. Far from flattening the world into a network if interdependent circuits, it has reconstructed it as a pyramidal structure, increasing inequalities and social/economic polarization, and deepening the hierarchies that have historically characterized the sexual and international division of labor, which the anticolonial and the women’s liberation movements had undermined. (102)
Neither the reorganization of reproductive work on a market basis, nor the “globalization of care,” much less the technologization of reproductive work, have ” liberated women” or eliminated the exploitation inherent to reproductive work in its present form. If we take a global perspective we see that not only do women still do most of the unpaid domestic work in every country, but due to cuts in social services and the decentralization of industrial production, the amount of domestic work, paid and unpaid, that women perform may have actually increased, even when they have had an extradomestic job. (108)
Other examples of violence traceable to the globalization process have been on the rise of dowry murder in India, the increase in trafficking and other forms of coerced sex work, and the sheer increase in the number of women murdered or disappeared. Hundreds of young women, mostly maquila workers, have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez and other Mexican towns in the borderlands with the United States, apparently victims of rape or criminal networks producing pornography and “snuff.” A ghastly increase in the number of women murder victims has also been registered in Mexico and Guatemala. But it is above all institutional violence that has escalated. This is the violence of absolute pauperization, of inhuman work conditions, of migration in clandestine conditions. That migration can also be viewed as a struggle for increased autonomy and self-determination through flight, as a search for more favorable power relations, cannot obliterate this fact.
Several conclusions are to be drawn from this analysis. First, fighting for waged work or fighting to “join the working class in the work place,” as some Marxist feminist liked to put it, cannot be a path to liberation. Wage employment may be a necessity but it cannot be a coherent political strategy. As long as reproductive work is devalued, as long as it is considered a private matter and women’s responsibility, women will always confront capital and the state with less power than men, and in conditions of extreme social and economic vulnerability. (110)
What is needed is the reopening of a collective struggle over reproduction, reclaiming control over the material conditions of our reproduction and creating new forms of cooperation around this work outside of the logic of capital and the market. This is not a utopia, but a process already under way in many parts of the world and likely to expand in the face of a collapse of the world financial system. Governments are not attempting to use the crisis to impose stiff austerity regimes on us for years to come. But through land takeovers, urban farming, community-supported agriculture, through squats, the creation of various forms of barter, mutual aid, alternative forms of healthcare — to name some of the terrains on which this reorganization of reproduction is more developed — a new economy is beginning to emerge that may turn reproductive work from a stifling, discriminating activity into the most liberating and creative ground of experimentation in human relations. (111)
What this task entails is powerfully expressed by Maria Mies when she points out that the production of commons requires first a profound transformation in our everyday life, in order to recombine what the social division of labor in capitalism has separated. For the distancing of production from reproduction and consumption leads us to ignore the conditions under which what we eat or wear, or work with, have been produced, their social and environmental cost, and the fate of the population on whom the waste we produce is unloaded.
In other words, we need to overcome the state of constant denial and irresponsibility, concerning the consequences of our actions, resulting from the destructive ways in which the social division of labor is organized in capitalism; short of that, the production of our life inevitably becomes a production of death for others. As Mies points out, globalization worsens this crisis, widening the distances between what is produced and what is consumed, thereby intensifying, despite the appearance of an increased global interconnectedness, our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the computers with which we communicate. (144–145)
For centuries the reproduction of human beings has been a collective process. It has been the work of extended families and communities, on which people could rely, especially in proletarian neighborhoods, even when they lived alone, so that old age was not accompanied by the desolate loneliness and dependence that so many of our elderly experience. It is only with the advent of capitalism that reproduction has been completely privatized, a process that is now carried to a degree that it destroys our lives. This we need to change if we are to put an end to the steady devaluation and fragementaiton of our lives. (146)