The Marxist analysis of women’s oppression

First published in Socialist Action newspaper, August 14, 2014.

By CHRISTINE MARIE

Review of Lise Vogel, “Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory” (Leiden: Brill Academic Books, 2013; Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013).

In the late 1960s, more feminist theorists than not assumed that Marxism offered the main analytical tools necessary to understand women’s oppression and, in turn, to chart the strategic course to its elimination.

At the center of their theoretical efforts was the “domestic labor debate.” This debate opened with the publication of a 1969 article by Margaret Benston, titled, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation.” The work that women performed within the household became a subject of analysis; this work was understood as “productive,” necessary for the reproduction of capitalist society as a whole.

For the next 10 years, feminists who were socialists began studies to fully theorize domestic labor as an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. As Susan Ferguson and David McNally write in their introduction to the new publication of Lise Vogel’s 1983 text, “Marxism and Oppression of Women,” in dozens of journals they “probed Marxist concepts of use value and exchange value, labour-power, and class for what these might reveal about the political-economic significance” of household work.

In the main, the debate hung up on a few central questions: What kind of value does domestic labor produce? Is it the kind of value produced by workers in capitalist production, i.e. surplus value? If not, and if, according to Marxist theory, domestic labor is not central to the workings of capital in the same way that the work in an auto plant or steel mill is, does this mean that Marxism by its very nature is incapable of providing the central framework for understanding the oppression of women?

There were three main responses to this question. By far the most influential one was “yes.” The most famous articulation of that position in the United States was Heidi Hartmann’s “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism,” which launched what became known as the dual systems approach, a thesis that posited that capitalism and patriarchy merely functioned alongside each other. Over time, patriarchy began to be treated primarily as the realm of ideology, creating space for non-materialist post-structuralist approaches to women’s oppression.

Other debate participants like Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Sylvia James responded by questioning the weight that Marxist theory placed on surplus value and the strategic approach that flowed from this weight. Contemporary autonomist Marxists who work within this general theoretical approach charted by Dalla Costa and James, such as Sylvia Federici, elevate the social power of unwaged labor and see it as central to the overthrow of capitalist society.

The third major grouping of responses was expressed by individual Marxist feminists who insisted on the strategic importance of waged labor, and remained optimistic about the possibility of Marxist theoretical advances that would more adequately explain women’s oppression. These voices, however, were generally lost in the great void created by the waning of the mass feminist movement that nurtured previous such theoretical work, and a corresponding lack of attention from within the socialist movement.

One of those voices, that of Lise Vogel, has recently been given the attention she deserves. A new version of “Marxism and Women’s Oppression,” updated with essays by Vogel from the 1990s, has recently been issued in hardcover by the academic publishing house of Brill and in paperback by Haymarket Press. The re-publication of Vogel’s book is both reaction and stimulus. The current crisis of capitalism—characterized by the most extreme attacks on the social wage, an increasing awareness of the role of women in global capitalist production, and an ever more obvious shift in the way that the reproduction of labor is organized in the United States—has created a new sense of urgency regarding such theoretical work. The rediscovery of Vogel by sections of the socialist movement, in turn, has provided a basic foundation on which Marxist feminist theoretical work can more easily begin again.

Vogel’s book is divided into four sections. Part One reviews the theoretical debates that took place during the second wave of feminism (ca. the 1970s) in a kind of chronological and thematic organization, summarizing critiques of Juliet Mitchell’s iconic work “Women: The Longest Revolution,” Margaret Benston’s “What Defines Women?,” Peggy Morton’s “Women’s Work is Never Done, or: The Production, Maintenance and Reproduction of Labor Power,” Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” and the work of Nancy Holstrom and Maxine Molyneux.

She also notes the contributions and weaknesses of radical feminists such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millet. She argues that the work of this period accomplished several important things. It firmly established the project of analyzing women’s oppression as having a material, and not just political or ideological root. Secondly, they exposed how inadequate were economic determinist approaches by highlighting the psychological and ideological factors enacted in the family.

In the end, while most were certain that the concept of “reproduction” linked women’s oppression to the Marxist analysis of production, a truly unitary theory that embedded women’s oppression in Marxist theory of capitalist production remained undeveloped.

Part Two focuses on the views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels over time and in their historical context. She easily dismisses facile or dishonest mis-readings of the two giants of socialist thought and traces the development of their thought on this question, but does not hesitate to pinpoint moments when the thoughts of Marx and Engels on the place of woman in class society is incomplete or contradictory.

Vogel reviews the theoretical importance of both Marx’s “Capital” and Engels’ “Origin of the Family Private Property and the State,” but devotes a considerable amount of space to some of the inconsistencies of the latter owing to Engels’ rush to get out a materialist rebuttal to August Bebel’s “Women and Socialism.” Marx’s work in “Capital” on social reproduction, which becomes the anchor of her own theoretical work, she finds especially suggestive and useful for the coming effort construct unitary theory.

In Part Three, Vogel shows how the weaknesses of Bebel’s 1879 work, stemming from his incorporation of some of the ideas of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier and liberal individualism, led to great confusion in the era of the Second International. Then, as in the 1970s, the “woman question” and the class question were treated more often than not as parallel rather than intertwined phenomenon in capitalist society. The Bolsheviks attempted to correct these reformist tendencies, as they did other errors of the German social democracy, but their theoretical work was shaped by the crisis and challenges of their specific historical moment.

Vogel concludes this section by stating, “In the long run, the experience of the Russian Revolution raised at least as many questions about the relation of women’s oppression to socialist transformation as it answered. … history had posed a specific woman-question, distinct from those thrust forward by capitalist relations of production.” Unfortunately, Vogel suggests, the more advanced positions of Clara Zetkin and Lenin on the root of women’s oppression failed to make a lasting impression on the Left as a whole, and the weak legacy of the Second International remained dominant.

The basis for continuing to advance Marxist theoretical work on women’s oppression, Vogel argues, is stepping beyond the bounds of the domestic labor debate as it unfolded during the 1960s and 1970s. To begin, she says, we first have to look at Marx’s Capital and the notions of labor-power and the reproduction of labor power. From the theoretical point of view, the reproduction of labor power is not invariably associated with private kin-based households, as the old domestic labor debate assumed.

Child rearing and the private care of workers in families is only one way that capitalism organizes the reproduction of labor power. At certain moments, for example, capitalism can choose to import immigrant labor, enslave them, house them in barracks, work them to death and import more, etc.

The system of using a kin-based unit to reproduce labor power is clearly advantageous as it has been normative at moments of capitalist stability. At the same time, the countervailing tendency of capitalism to reduce necessary labor in favor of surplus labor is always at play. In our own time, the reduction of domestic labor through technological means offers capitalists the hope that profit-making can increase.

If these theoretical assertions about capitalism provide at least some of the tools with which we begin to do concrete historical investigation and contemporary economic exploration, Vogel argues, we will be back on the route toward a unitary theory of Marxism and women’s oppression. All people who are striving for social change should take advantage of the road map created by this pioneer of Marxist feminist thought.

The Gender Wage Gap – Still

Women in Canada still earn 31 per cent less than men annually. In fact, Canada ranks fiftieth out of 149 countries when it comes to wage equality for similar work. This is according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2018.

The Justin Trudeau Liberal government in Ottawa claims to be feminist – though not so much for equal pay. It winks at Canada Post management which refuses to raise the largely-female Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers to equality with their urban counterparts. It has blocked pay equity, even denied compensation for the agonizingly long delayed payment of workers in the federal public service.

Just as bad, Trudeau and his bosom brethren in the corporate elite have no plan to institute or fund public, affordable, quality childcare services that would enable mothers to get back into the workforce. They refuse to boost family income and reduce child poverty by taxing the rich and relieving the burden on the working class. Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford goes one worse by stalling implementation of legislation aimed at increasing wage transparency in the province – which he denounces as a “challenge” for business. Likewise, last summer Ford cancelled the rise in the minimum wage to $15/hour set for January 2019. That move cost low wage workers about $2,000 each.

The rulers’ policy on women goes beyond shameful. Besides, the rich have no shame – they have only profit goals. Theirs is a corporate agenda — part and parcel of a system that deserves to be eradicated.

– BW

Report: Cop Racism in Thunder Bay, Ontario is “institutional”

The widely held view that police have racist attitudes towards Indigenous people was confirmed by Ontario’s independent police watchdog following a two-year investigation. A searing 200-plus-page report by police review director Gerry McNeilly states that systemic racism exists within the Thunder Bay Police Service “at an institutional level.” It says that police in the city on the north shore of Lake Superior did not carry out proper investigations of dozens of Indigenous deaths that occurred under suspicious circumstances because of deep-seated racism. The implication is that police mistreatment of Indigenous people is commonplace.

The commercial media cites McNeilly’s report as a wake-up call to police across the province and beyond, especially in cities like Winnipeg, Manitoba and Regina, Saskatchewan, which have large Indigenous populations. The report, titled “Broken Trust”, comes on the heels of another study, released in early December, that found Black people were “grossly over represented” in incidents between 2003 and 2017 where Toronto cops used force, resulting in injury or death.

The liberal elite is worried more about the loss of cop credibility — loss of “Trust” — than about achieving justice for Indigenous people, for all racialized minorities, and for the working class. The naming of a new police chief in Thunder Bay, and the hiring of the first Indigenous chair of the city’s Police Services Board, are not going to reverse centuries of dispossession and marginalization. That’s where racism is rooted. Instead of agitating for pipelines, if politicians wanted meaningful change they would attack poverty and target obscene concentrations of corporate wealth.

They would join socialists in demanding: Restitution before Reconciliation.

What are the chances?

– BW

In Canada, the Right to Strike Exists… Until you Try to Use it

Postal workers, power workers, teachers and bus drivers are recent victims of a disturbing trend – loss of the right to strike. In the case of members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, federal Liberal back-to-work legislation on November 27 put a halt to five weeks of rotating strikes. Up to then, no cross-country work stoppage occurred, and there was only a minor mail backlog. On December 20, the Conservative Ontario government passed a no strike law aimed at 6,000 Power Workers’ Union members who run hydroelectric stations and nuclear plants; this occurred before any job action began. Back in the Spring, a Liberal Ontario regime broke the strike of teaching assistants, members of CUPE Local 3903, at York University. In May 2015, Queen’s Park stopped secondary school teachers from exercising their ‘right to strike’ at three school boards. In 2009, the government imposed a back-to-work law on striking Toronto Transit Commission workers.

According to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights (CFLR), a serious erosion of the fundamental and universal human right to organize into a union, and to engage in free collective bargaining is spreading. Federal and provincial governments in Canada passed 224 pieces of legislation since 1982 that have limited, suspended or denied collective bargaining rights.

Authorities restricted the right of unions to organize. Collective agreements have been torn up. Negotiated wages and benefits have been taken away. Employers’ proposals have been legislatively imposed on workers and the right to strike removed. Both the private and the public sectors have been hit.

The CFLR finds that:

There has been a major change in the frequency and severity of back-to-work legislation in Canada in recent years. Since the early 1980s, the number of instances of back-to-work legislation is higher than any other period in the history of labour relations in Canada. In the last three decades, the federal government alone passed 19 pieces of back-to-work legislation while provincial governments across the country have enacted 73 pieces of back-to-work legislation.

Most of this legislation (50 of the 92 pieces of legislation) not only forced workers back to work after taking strike action, but also arbitrarily imposed settlements on the striking workers. In 2011 postal workers were locked out, then had terms and conditions imposed on them.

A common phenomenon in the public sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s has been the suspension of collective bargaining rights. With the exception of Saskatchewan, public sector workers across Canada gained the right to collective bargaining in the decade between 1967 and 1977. In the three decades that followed, most public sector workers have had their collective bargaining rights suspended anywhere from three to ten years.

There have been 53 pieces of legislation passed in the federal Parliament and provincial legislatures that have suspended the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

Since 1982, there have also been 80 instances where federal and provincial labour laws have been amended to further restrict unions’ ability to organize and bargain collectively. Nine pieces of legislation have actually denied certain categories of workers the right to join a union and nine pieces of legislation have restricted the certification process hurting the labour movement’s ability to organize the unorganized. There have been 62 instances where the federal and provincial governments passed legislation that restricted the rules and/or scope of bargaining, denied the right to strike and limited the mechanisms available for settlement of disputes or allowed for greater government and/or employer interference in internal union matters.”

In a recent news release, Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario asked:

When are we going to see ‘back to the bargaining table’ legislation forcing employers to deal with workers’ representatives fairly and appropriately?

Clearly, the bosses’ agenda is not about bargaining. It is about squeezing workers, and using the law to deprive workers of a legal recourse. Thus, what pressure can workers hope to apply?

Traditionally, less than two per cent of collective bargaining led to a legal strike. Today, even that low incidence is being reduced to a rarity.

Why? Because the capitalist rulers have fewer crumbs to offer. They seek to solve their deep economic problems on the backs of working people. Conservative labour leaders and cowardly social democrats compound the problem by acquiescing to concessions demanded by management. General Motors, after milking the public for billions of dollars in aid, is planning to shut down auto production in Oshawa – and seems to be getting away Scot-free.

What is the solution? Workers should look to history to see how the first unions were built, and how improvements were won. May 1, 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.

A general strike – now there’s an idea whose time has come again. History teaches that struggle decides, not the law.

(The above article was compiled by Barry Weisleder.)

Ottawa caters to Trump’s anti-China campaign

by Barry Weisleder

What does the arrest in Vancouver of a senior executive with China’s tech giant Huawei, have to do with the “rule of law”? Precious little. What does it have to do with enforcing Washington’s illegal trade embargo of Iran? A bit more.

Meng is accused of committing fraud as part of a scheme to violate United States trade sanctions against Iran. She was arrested when she passed through Vancouver on her way to Mexico. U.S. officials want Ottawa to extradite her. Awaiting a decision by a Canadian judge, Meng is out on $10 million bail. The extradition procedure could take months, even years. Meanwhile, China detained three Canadians, two of them (ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor) on dubious charges of “engaging in activities that endanger the national security” of China. No less dubious is the American agenda. U.S. President Trump openly linked the fate of Meng to winning a better trade deal with Beijing.

Washington’s efforts to punish Huawei for trading with Iran are in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 that calls on all countries to drop sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 treaty aimed at limiting Iran from developing nuclear weapons – a treaty praised globally for reducing the risk of nuclear war.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau restored relations with Iran, and lifted economic sanctions in February 2016, overturning the policy of the previous Stephen Harper-led Conservative government. So, why knuckle under now to Trump’s rogue policy? There is no obligation in law to extradite Meng. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is blowing smoke when she claims that Canada is upholding the rule of law. It is a political decision, not a strictly legal one. And the politics cleave to imperialist ambitions to control the oil fields of the Middle East and Iran, regardless the character of the government in Tehran.

Bottom line: Should Ottawa back Trump’s bid to block Huawei from U.S. and other markets where it is making headway against American tech giants?

The answer is a resounding No. The working class has nothing to gain by backing any capitalist power against another. To that end, Labour, the NDP and all workers’ organizations should demand an end to Ottawa catering to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. The release of Meng will likely bring the detained Canadians home. It won’t quell Trump’s simmering trade war with China, but at least there would be one less state accomplice.

Huawei and Military Power

by Gary Porter

Huawei is the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, recently passing Apple. The Chinese company sells over 10 per cent of the world’s smartphones. Yet its devices are effectively banned from sale in the United States due to suspicion of Chinese state involvement in the running of the company, and ties to China’s military that go right back to Huawei’s inception.

Would you be safe buying a Huawei phone? The quality of its tech is certainly compelling. The Huawei P20 Pro, for example, is widely considered to be the best camera phone on the market. But U.S. consumers may never get to own one.

China’s military is an important Huawei customer. It serves as the company’s political patron and R&D partner, according to Timothy Heath of the Rand Corporation.

“Huawei continues to receive contracts from the Chinese military to develop dual use communications technologies. In particular, it is helping develop 5G networks with military applications in mind”, Heath asserts.

Of course, exactly the same thing happens in the U.S. Telecom manufacturers collaborate with the U.S. military and spy agencies to enhance digital spying, military communications, command and control and cyber war applications. The U.S. is determined to maintain its hegemony, against this powerful and highly competent Chinese competitor.

To put it another way, the United States insists on being the one entity that spies on your entire life and does not want to share that capacity with powerful trade and military competitors like China.

Are Huawei devices safe from surveillance? Probably not. Are U.S. companies’ devices safe from surveillance? Definitely not. So my next phone will be a Huawei P20 Pro. If I am going to be spied upon anyway, why not get the best phone? Helping American imperialism maintain technical dominance is just not in my interest.

Photo: Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei

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