THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF WOMEN'S OPPRESSION
We believe that the development of a concrete proletarian feminist line must be rooted in an analysis of the objective forces which motivate the oppression of women in the capitalist-imperialist context, from a clear picture of the actual oppression of women as a function of the specific demands of capitalist production, and the ideological superstructure which emerges from them. We will begin by examining the political economy of women’s oppression, followed by a discussion in a later document of the transmission of patriarchal ideology via the family form and its connection to the special oppression of gay and transgender people.
We take Engels’ historical work on the family-form as our point of departure:
[The monogamous family] was the first form of family not based on natural but on economic conditions, and concretely on the triumph of private property over spontaneously originated, common primitive property […] Therefore, monogamy in no way appears in history as a reconciliation between man and woman, and even less as a higher form of marriage. Quite the contrary, it enters the scene under the form of the enslavement of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of a war between the sexes, up to then unknown in prehistory.
For Engels, identifying the social-historical origins of patriarchy as a consequence of the development of private ownership is the key link. Whereas, according to Engels, the primitive communism of pre-history was often characterized by matrilineal relations and so-called “mother-right,” the emergence of private property marked the institutionalization of patriarchy via the family form. Hence, “the overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the house also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument of reproduction.”
Engels’ breakthrough on this point is remarkable for a number of reasons, but for our purposes two stand out;
- he provides historical materialism with a new analytical object (the ideology of the family) for understanding the operation of capitalist relations at the total social level, rigorously connecting changes in the superstructure to developments in the base;
- situating the birth of the monogamous family-form historically, Engels engages in an exceptional dialectical materialist move by smashing the metaphysical tendency to inscribe social relations with historical universality; the family becomes a sign for class society in its historical contingency.
We will return to this second point; for now, we should look to the family in the context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in order to understand the ways which the importation of patriarchy via the family-form has shaped the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and has been further instituted as a core component of capitalist exploitation.
The Marxist thesis regarding the variability of the condition of women is critical: if these historical forms are shaped by material forces (means of production – relations of production – state apparatus), then the role and position of women is neither natural nor arbitrary but instead correspond directly to the structure of a social formation understood as a whole. The family as an apparatus plays a role in the maintenance and transfer of property relations – as Engels explains, “monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual, a man, and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other” – and is deployed for this purpose through its own ideological reproduction, its rule maintained through mystification and ideological justification (for example, via theories of “deficient feminine nature” or their postmodern flipside in the assertion of “ontological sex difference” by so-called “third wave” feminists).
We can see this process at work in Engels’ description of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism; we quote extensively below:
In the vast majority of cases, therefore, marriage remained, up to the close of the middle ages, what it had been from the start – a matter which was not decided by the partners…And when, with the preponderance of private over communal property and the interest in its bequeathal, father-right and monogamy gained supremacy, the dependence of marriages on economic considerations became complete. The form of marriage by purchase disappears, the actual practice is steadily extended until not only the woman but also the man acquires a price – not according to his personal qualities, but according to his property. […]
Such was the state of things encountered by capitalist production when it began to prepare itself, after the epoch of geographical discoveries, to win world power by world trade and manufacture. One would suppose that this manner of marriage exactly suited it, and so it did. And yet – there are no limits to the irony of history – capitalist production itself was to make the decisive breach in it. By changing all things into commodities, it dissolved all inherited and traditional relationships, and, in place of time-honored custom and historic right, it set up purchase and sale, “free” contract. And the English jurist, H. S. Maine, thought he had made a tremendous discovery when he said that our whole progress in comparison with former epochs consisted in the fact that we had passed “from status to contract,” from inherited to freely contracted conditions – which, in so far as it is correct, was already in The Communist Manifesto [Chapter II].
But a contract requires people who can dispose freely of their persons, actions, and possessions, and meet each other on the footing of equal rights. To create these “free” and “equal” people was one of the main tasks of capitalist production…But how did this fit in with the hitherto existing practice in the arrangement of marriages? Marriage, according to the bourgeois conception, was a contract, a legal transaction, and the most important one of all, because it disposed of two human beings, body and mind, for life. Formally, it is true, the contract at that time was entered into voluntarily: without the assent of the persons concerned, nothing could be done. But everyone knew only too well how this assent was obtained and who were the real contracting parties in the marriage. But if real freedom of decision was required for all other contracts, then why not for this?
So it came about that the rising bourgeoisie, especially in Protestant countries, where existing conditions had been most severely shaken, increasingly recognized freedom of contract also in marriage, and carried it into effect in the manner described. Marriage remained class marriage, but within the class the partners were conceded a certain degree of freedom of choice…In short, the love marriage was proclaimed as a human right, and indeed not only as a droit de l’homme, one of the rights of man, but also, for once in a way, as droit de la femme, one of the rights of woman.
This human right, however, differed in one respect from all other so-called human rights. While the latter, in practice, remain restricted to the ruling class (the bourgeoisie), and are directly or indirectly curtailed for the oppressed class (the proletariat), in the case of the former the irony of history plays another of its tricks. The ruling class remains dominated by the familiar economic influences and therefore only in exceptional cases does it provide instances of really freely contracted marriages, while among the oppressed class, as we have seen, these marriages are the rule.
Here, Engels demonstrates that the development of the sex-love based, “contractual” marriage characteristic of the bourgeois family form occurred as an extension of the emergence of liberal ideology, itself dependent upon the process of capitalist subsumption and the sedimentation of its attendant social formation. But this passage was not merely an ideological one, for both the family form and the sex roles which it determines are, beyond their role in the maintenance and transfer of property relations, also tied directly to production relations, both in the feudal context and under capitalism.
Prior to its formal subsumption into the process of capital, the family form operated as a small-production unit unto itself; in the feudal mode of production, among the oppressed classes, women labored in the lands where their husbands toiled, or they served that family of landlords to which their husbands had been bonded, and engaged in ‘domestic’ production, always as an appendage to her husband. It was this patriarchal relation that mediated exploitation of her labor by the feudal classes, generally conceived as part of a unified process which included the “domestic” work – under feudalism involving both reproduction of the laboring class and small-scale production of household goods and artisan craftwork – and which, in connection with the above, secured a significant amount of unpaid labor from the subjugated women to the benefit of the ruling classes. The small-scale commodity production contained in embryonic form in this unit, and its concurrent ideological baggage, caused Lenin to remark that,
Despite the theories that have prevailed here during the past half-century, the Russian community peasantry are not antagonists of capitalism, but, on the contrary, are its deepest and most durable foundation. The deepest—because it is here, remote from all “artificial” influences, and in spite of the institutions which restrict the development of capitalism, that we see the constant formation of the elements of capitalism within the “community” itself. The most durable—because agriculture in general, and the peasantry in particular, are weighed down most heavily by the traditions of the distant past, the traditions of patriarchal life, as a consequence of which the transformative effects of capitalism (the development of the productive forces, the changing of all social relations, etc.) manifest themselves here most slowly and gradually.
The integration of the population into wage-labor and socialized production – the advent of the capitalist period – did not abolish those traditions, it merely gave them new forms. Women were proletarianized rather early, as in the emergent textile industry in Brittany, which employed between 60-75% of women workers in the 18th century, and remained a significant sector of the working class well into the industrial and then monopoly capitalist period. Marx observed that the introduction of women into the workforce was tied to technological developments, particularly in machining:
In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing laborers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labor of women and children was, therefore, the first cry of the capitalist application of machinery. That mighty substitute for labour and labourers was forthwith changed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling, under the direct sway of capital, every member of the woman’s family, without distinction of age or sex. Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of the children’s play, but also of free labour at home within moderate limits for the support of the family.
This subsumption was not only the death knell for small artisan production in the capitalist countries; the introduction of women into the workforce heralded the birth of industrial capitalism in its most robust sense. This brought certain drastic changes in women’s lives, drew them out of feudal bondage and transformed their world outlook; no longer treated as appendages of their husbands, as wage workers women achieved something like social independence, albeit in a strictly circumscribed sense. That is, while certain democratic rights were guarenteed to women (after being won through mass struggle), these changes to the conditions faced by women should not be construed as emancipation. On the contrary, the participation of women as a social labor force was structured along a new sexual division of labour, which determined the form of patriarchal oppression under capitalism.
Marx continues his description: “The value of labour-power was determined, not only by labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult laborer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family . Machinery, by throwing every member of that family on to the labour-market, spreads the values of the man’s labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labor-power…” The introduction of women into the capitalist production process was concurrent with changes to the technical composition of capital at the level of the whole system: the proportion of requisite variable capital investment for industry (the purchase of labor power, valued according to the cost of reproduction of the worker) decreased as more members of a workers’ family unit were able to sell their labor-power for a wage, driving wages down while increasing the overall rate of profit.
Looking at an 1866 report on the employment of women in the British collieries quoted by Marx we can see first-hand the reactions of male workers to this development, and which draws out both the friction between the residue of older iterations of patriarchal ideology (‘fair’ womanly nature) and the demands of capital; the following quotation is an interview between a bureaucrat of the British state apparatus and a coal worker:
“What is the feeling among the working miners as to the employment of women?” “I think they generally condemn it.” (n. 648.) “What objection do you see to it?” “I think it is degrading to the sex.” (n. 649.) “There is a peculiarity of dress?” “Yes … it is rather a man’s dress, and I believe in some cases, it drowns all sense of decency.” “Do the women smoke?” “Some do.” “And I suppose it is very dirty work?” “Very dirty.” “They get black and grimy?” “As black as those who are down the mines … I believe that a woman having children (and there are plenty on the banks that have) cannot do her duty to her children.” (ns. 650-654, 701.) …“What is the general feeling in the district … as to the employment of women?” “The feeling is that it is degrading; and we wish as miners to have more respect to the fair sex than to see them placed on the pit bank… Some part of the work is very hard; some of these girls have raised as much as 10 tons of stuff a day.” (ns. 1715,1717.) […] After some further crooked questions from these bourgeois, the secret of their “sympathy” for widows, poor families, &c., comes out at last. “The coal proprietor appoints certain gentlemen to take the oversight of the workings, and it is their policy, in order to receive approbation, to place things on the most economical basis they can, and these girls are employed at from 1s. up to 1s. 6d. a day, where a man at the rate of 2s. 6d. a day would have to be employed.” (n. 1816.)
Thus we see that not only are overall wages decreased by broadening the pool of available workers via the introduction of women (and children!) into the workforce, but, by also paying a reduced wage to a sector of workers (women) for the same kinds of work, the rate of surplus value for the capitalists is further increased.
This participation of women in capitalist production is not static, however; the employment of women in the labor force fluctuated according to the needs of capital and developments in the productive forces, and generally also according to a sexual division of labor (hence, in the contemporary period, the disproportionate employment of women in the garment industry, for example, which is typically explained via the “nimble fingers” of women). The early participation of women in wage labor via the initial introduction of machining was closed off by the mid-19th century, dropping off sharply by around 1850, due in part to legislation (for example, the various Factory Acts in England) as well as increased wages for men accompanying the intensification of colonial extraction during this period. But more significantly, this process can be connected to the overall increase in the organic composition of capital and labor productivity in general: Marx explains that “it follows of itself from the nature of the capitalist process of accumulation, which is but one facet of the capitalist production process, that the increased mass of means of production that is to be converted into capital always finds a correspondingly increased, even excessive, exploitable worker population.”
The periodic emergence of new industrial sectors always absorbs a fraction of this surplus-population in the labor process, as well as a varying portion of the overaccumulated capital, but the question of which sectors of the population are considered “surplus” vis-a-vis the main detachment of the working class can only be attended to at the level of the superstructure: in this case, women, in others, oppressed national minorities, etc.
The following table shows women’s participation in the labor force in England across the latter part of the 19th century, hovering between 35-40%:
The following two tables show similar statistics for women workers in the United States, with corresponding sectoral breakdowns:
This wide-scale retreat of women from wage labor, which continued until the first World War, corresponded to a consolidation of patriarchal ideology resulting from a renewed “dependence” on the wages of the husband to cover a larger portion of the cost of reproduction. The increasing sophistication of patriarchal ideology can be mapped directly to this period, and in particular to the ideological articulation of the nuclear family in its most fully developed sense.
Further research is necessary for drawing the ideological links between the position of women as a surplus-population determined at the level of both economic exploitation and superstructural oppression (in the sense described above) and their overrepresentation in the so-called “service” industries; for now, we can point to the slow-growth nature of non-manufacturing sectors and the comparatively higher necessary variable capital input as indicative of lower real wage levels to accommodate those higher labor costs, wages which workers excluded from other sectors (such as women) are often forced to accept.
The intensification of patriarchal ideology and the mass return of women to the “domestic” sphere meant a renewed emphasis on her role in social reproduction, that is, the process of reproduction of the worker and their family – the cost of which determines the value of labor-power and therefore informs the variable capital expenditure of the bourgeoisie in any given industry. While developments of the productive forces lead to lower costs of commodities necessary for the reproduction of labor (agricultural and domestic goods, etc.), further reducing investment in reproduction means a greater share of the working day goes to the production of surplus value for the capitalist. The bourgeoisie therefore benefits directly from the maintenance of patriarchal ideology insofar as it ensures the continued extraction of social-reproductive labor from women on a “voluntary” basis. The existence of unpaid domestic work (“women’s work”), in other words, figures concretely into the rate of surplus value for the capitalists through the organization of consumption at the level of the family unit and the extraction of reproductive labor.
It should come as no surprise, then, that, contrary to Engels’ prediction that the proletarianization of women would leave less time for domestic work, and would therefore lead to the socialization of reproductive labor via the state apparatus, we have seen the opposite: women continue to perform an immensely disproportionate share of the “domestic” work necessary for social reproduction, from housework to childcare, even after their mass return to the workforce during the 20th century. And while limited social-reproductive functions have been taken on by the state apparatus (live-in caregiver programs, disability insurance, state-sponsored childcare etc.; minor revindications won through struggle or adopted by the bourgeoisie to ameliorate class tensions and secure production relations), these programs are regularly contested by the austerity policies of neoliberalism. Where they do exist, such programs offer substandard care, and typically employ women from oppressed nations under abysmal conditions for extremely low pay.
We can now sketch a general outline of the oppression of women:
- Extraction of reproductive labor in the home; demarcation between productive – reproductive labor rendered as sexual division of labor through ideological expression of this economic subjugation (patriarchy: myth of ‘deficient’ female nature; male chauvinism);
- Participation of women in socialized production (wage labor), circumscribed by the role of patriarchal ideology (lower wages for the same work, division of labor within capitalist production along sexual lines);
It should be clear at this point that, as Engels described, “the state of affairs with respect to the equality of men and women is no better than their legal inequality, which we have inherited from prior social conditions, [and] is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of women.” The oppression of women has an economic basis, in the form of the extraction of reproductive labor in the domestic sphere, and an ideological expression (patriarchy) connected to legal and social repression.
This is only intensified in the contemporary conjuncture as the monopoly capitalist pursuit of superprofits and relentless expansive drive meets new barriers; the general tendency of the rate of profit to fall demands that the imperialist bourgeoisie open new fields for exploitation in order to constantly raise the rate of surplus value and stave off crises. They have found such an opportunity in the superexploitation of women in oppressed nations, relying on them for cheap labor both in social production in the third world countries and cheap reproductive labor in the imperialist countries.
It should be similarly clear that the oppression faced by women is not primarily the consequence of a women – men contradiction, which is only capable of rendering the ideological expression of this oppression at the most mechanistic and vacuous level; the oppression of women is a consequence of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. While any number of particular contradictions (with various levels of antagonism) do exist between women and men, these cohere only on the basis of the economic exploitation of women by the bourgeoisie, by the class struggle which gives them their content. We reject tout court the radical feminist theses regarding the primacy of the man-woman contradiction, as well as any “dual systems” theory which distracts from the main enemy of the women’s struggle: the bourgeois state apparatus and capitalism-imperialism.
The fundamental contradiction facing the women’s movement is the political contradiction between proletariat – bourgeoisie; the class struggle gives the oppression of women both its form and its content, and the liberation of women can only be realized if the proletarian revolution is carried through to the end. The contradiction women – patriarchy is a secondary contradiction which can only become principal in the context of socialist construction; patriarchy cannot be dismantled until its economic base is smashed and its ideological vestiges thoroughly rooted out, both of which will only be possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
However, and significantly, recognizing that socialist transformation of society is a precondition for women’s liberation must not be conceived as a liquidation of the vanguard role of communists in the actually existing women’s movement. The mobilization of the masses of women for working class revolution remains a key link; as Lenin made clear a century ago:
[We must regard] the woman question as a part of the social question, of the workers’ problem, and so bind it firmly to the proletarian class struggle and the revolution. The communist women’s movement must itself be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movement. Not only of the proletariat, but of all the exploited and oppressed, all the victims of capitalism or any other mastery. In that lies its significance for the class struggles of the proletariat and for its historical creation, communist society […] There can be no real mass movement without women…
Three tasks follow: ideological struggle against chauvinism and sexism within our tendency, the development of a proletarian feminist line through mass work in the women’s movement, and the construction of mass organs capable of organizing the women’s struggle under communist leadership. We find the CMLMS Standards of Feminist Conduct to be a crucial breakthrough on this front, though further elaboration is certainly necessary:
Those who imagine that a communist organization with proletarian feminist politics at its core can be built or that a revolutionary proletarian feminist movement can be developed today from the ground up – without first confronting the pressing issue of male chauvinism in the existing organizations and circles, including determining the proper guiding principles and policies to do this – are thoroughly deluding themselves. This view amounts to the liquidation of the struggle for women’s emancipation and a kind of economism that refuses to address the real political question at hand of the involvement of women in organizations.