The Next Great Recession — The business cycle, decline in the rate of profit, and the socialist alternative.
Speakers: Dimitri Lascaris, lawyer, journalist, Montreal-based coordinator of Disruption Network Canada; John Clarke, founding member of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and Jeff Mackler, national secretary, Socialist Action-USA, and Rebecca Keetch, worker at GM Plant in Oshawa and UNIFOR Local 222 Political Action Committee and Education Committee.
Imperialism, Origins and nature of the system. Are Russia and China imperialist?
Speakers: Jeff Mackler, socialist candidate for President of the United States, and Robbie Mahood, leading member of SA/LAS Canada based in Montreal.
This session will open with Giovanna Riccio reading her poem about the public campaign to ‘Take the Plant’ at GM Oshawa, and George Elliott Clarke, National Poet Laureate, 2016-17, with an anti-imperialist poem.
Efforts to make abortion illegal do not stop at the U.S. border. The threat to a woman’s right to choose is gaining ground in Canada, at least partly as a result of the right wing offensive in Trump’s America.
The so-called March for Life held its annual event on May 9 with rallies in Toronto and Ottawa. At the Toronto gathering, Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff declared his intention to “fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime.” A number of Conservative MPs attended the Ottawa rally, openly displaying their support for the anti-choice movement. Later, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer publicly disavowed any plan to reopen the abortion debate. While that may seem somewhat reassuring, both Ford and Scheer owe much politically to the support of the same social conservatives who organize anti-choice actions and who wish to see women’s rights reversed. This, combined with Conservative attacks on women and workers, makes it hard to believe what those Tory leaders say.
Restrictions on access to abortion force women to resort to back-alley, unsafe abortions, particularly those women who cannot afford to travel or to seek private care.
Working class organizations have won important gains over the decades, including maternity leave and pay equity. However, genuine freedom for working women is incomplete and impossible without the power of every woman to make decisions over her own body that only full reproductive justice can provide. That must include access to free, safe and legal abortion; freedom from forced sterilization; and material support to raise children, free from state seizure and interference. The struggle continues to realize abortion access in rural and remote areas, and for a universal pharmacare programme that includes access to all forms of contraceptives and the abortion pill.
Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’Action socialiste across the Canadian state stands in proud continuity with the fight for abortion rights, going back to the inception of the movement over fifty years ago, the defense of the Morgentaler clinics, and the defeat of this country’s anti-choice laws. Our predecessor organization, the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere, together with Henry Morgentaler, played a leading role in that. SA is firmly socialist-feminist. It is committed to building the autonomous women’s movement. SA is devoted to the proposition that there can be no women’s liberation without socialism, and no socialism without women’s liberation.
On May 15, the most restrictive abortion law in the United States was signed into law in Alabama by Governor Kay Ivey. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act, which passed the Alabama Senate 25-6, makes abortion illegal at all stages of pregnancy and makes no exception for rape or incest. The bill seeks to make abortion illegal in Alabama in all cases but health threat to the mother, fatal fetal anomalies, and ectopic pregnancies. Under the law, abortion providers could face up to 99 years in prison.
The author, Socialist Action’s Vice Presidential candidate Heather Bradford, on a pro-choice picket line in Duluth.
This draconian law follows a wave of anti-abortion legislation across the United States aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade. In 2019, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi have passed “heartbeat bills,” which outlaw abortion at six to eight weeks. At the time of writing, six-week abortion bans are moving forward in the respective legislative bodies of South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Many abortion seekers may not be aware that they are pregnant at six weeks and would have little time to make an appointment or raise the funds to obtain an abortion.
In this sense, heartbeat bills functionally outlaw abortion. “Heartbeat” itself is a misnomer as at this stage of development, an embryo has not developed a cardiovascular system. Rather, a group of cells generates rhythmic electrical pulses, which is more technically known as fetal pole cardiac activity. Of course, a tactic of the anti-choice movement has long been to warp fetal development to infanticize embryos and fetuses. Thus far, about 30 anti-abortion laws have been passed in the United States this year.
Attacks on abortion access are nothing new, but the latest abortion restrictions are bolder and represent a concerted effort to use the court system to overturn or at least chip away Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, over 1900 abortion restrictions have been passed. About ⅓ of these have been passed since 2011. These restrictions have included mandatory waiting periods, restrictions on state funding, no requirement for insurance to cover abortion, state mandated counseling, parental consent laws, gestational limits, and hospital requirements.
The barrage of laws against abortion access has been accompanied by the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers that pose as health clinics and are designed to confuse and outright lie to abortion seekers by providing false information and “pro-life” propaganda. There are 2300-3500 crisis pregnancy centers spread across the United States but only 1800 abortion clinics. In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the right of these fake clinics to provide false information and false advertising when it ruled that California’s Freedom, Accountability, Care and Transparency Act (FACT) violated the First Amendment.
At the same time, and since the 1970s, there has been an effort to defund Planned Parenthood by blocking Title X funds that have assisted low-income patients in obtaining contraceptives and other reproductive health services. The decades of attacks on abortion access was heralded by the Hyde Amendment, which was passed in 1976 with bipartisan support and barred the use of federal funds for abortion services. The truth of the matter is that the pro-choice movement has been fighting a losing battle for over 40 years.
A boycott of Alabama?
There have been a number of responses in reaction to the recent restrictions on abortion. Some activists have called for an economic boycott of Alabama and other states with strict abortion restrictions. A disturbing sentiment that sometimes accompanies the call for a boycott is that the people of Alabama are backwards, uneducated, and even incestuous.
While boycotting can be an effective tactic, it is important to remember that many people in Alabama are not supportive of the new abortion law. In a 2018 survey of likely Alabama voters, Planned Parenthood found that 65% of respondents felt abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest. The law does not represent the sentiments of many Alabama voters, even those who are pro-life.
Marches against the bill were held in Montgomery, Birmingham, Muscle Shoals, and Huntsville. Rather than boycotting the state of Alabama or denigrating the state as backwards, the efforts of pro-choice organizers should be recognized and the potential acknowledged for educating the more conservative populace of the state on this issue.
A quarter of the children in Alabama live in poverty. The state has the second highest infant mortality rate in the country and is the sixth poorest state in the country. It is ranked 50th in education, 46th in health care, and 45th in crime and corrections. The people of Alabama need solidarity, not shame. Rather than boycott the state, which already lacks infrastructure and is marked by racism and poverty, it would be more useful to boycott corporations that actively support or donate to the pro-life movement, such as My Pillow, Hobby Lobby, Curves, Gold’s Gym, and Electric Mirror.
Another reaction to the recent ban is to wait for the courts to overturn the restrictions. Activists are reminded that abortion remains legal, all three of Alabama’s abortion clinics plan to stay open, and that these new laws will be tied up in litigation before they can be enacted.
The narrative goes that the Supreme Court is not eager to overturn Roe v. Wade outright and that other restrictive abortion laws have been struck down elsewhere. For instance, a 2013 heartbeat bill in North Dakota was struck down as unconstitutional. Six-week bans were also struck down in Iowa and Kentucky.
However, there are a number of flaws with this perspective. First, it is disempowering, and it is difficult to build a movement around waiting for court decisions. Second, this perspective grants legitimacy to the court system. The presidential nomination of and lifetime tenure of Supreme Court justices and federal judges is fundamentally undemocratic. The feudal nature of these courts should be questioned and challenged.
This has lent itself to a cultish following of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is viewed as a liberatory figure who must never retire (or die), lest abortion rights be overturned once and for all. The centrist justice is celebrated for her support of women’s rights, but her critique of Kaepernick’s taking a knee (which she apologized for), ruling against paying overtime to Amazon workers, support of warrantless searches in Samson v. California, and failure to condemn solitary confinement within the prison system in Davis v. Ayala mar her record.
Finally, it is important to remember that Roe v. Wade was approved on the premise that abortion is a matter of privacy. The courts have never framed abortion rights as fundamental to ending the oppression of women or gender minorities. Abortion legality has always had a shaky foundation.
Democrats’ shaky support for reproductive justice
Some activists look to the Democratic Party to protect abortion rights, framing this as a matter of electing more Democrats into office. Already, potential presidential nominees have issued statements about abortion, ranging from Kamala Harris’ remarks in a February 2019 interview that abortion should be a decision between a woman, physician, priest, and spouse to Bernie Sander’s statement that abortion is health care and would be covered by his plan for Medicare for All.
Yet, the track record of Democrats on the issue of abortion is part of the reason why we find ourselves with so many restrictions today. Of the 24 candidates vying for the presidency, only 11 mention prioritizing reproductive rights on their websites. It was Bill Clinton who said that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare in 1992, which was echoed by Hillary Clinton in her 2008 election campaign.
Abortion has indeed become “rare,” as access has been curtailed in a legislative death by 1000 cutbacks. Joe Biden voted in favor of partial birth abortion bans in 1999 and 2003 and against federal funding for abortion. Like “heartbeat” bans, “partial birth abortion” is an anti-choice construction, as the medical term is “intact dilation and extraction.”
In 2017, Bernie Sanders unapologetically campaigned for Heath Mello, an Omaha Nebraska mayoral candidate and anti-choice Democrat. Some Democrats, such as Louisiana Gov. John Bel are anti-choice. Bob Casey Jr., Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin are “pro-life” Democrat senators who voted for abortion bans at 20 weeks.
While abortion has become increasingly partisan since the late 1980s, voting for Democrats is no guarantee of abortion access. Between 2007 and 2009, Democrats controlled the House and Senate and in 1993-1995 controlled the House, Senate, and presidency. These episodes of majority power did nothing to roll back anti-abortion laws or overturn the Hyde Amendment. Democrats have consistently supported the Hyde Amendment.
Even Barack Obama stated in a 2009 health-reform debate that although he is pro-choice, he did not feel that financing abortions should be part of government funded health care. In the Machiavellian shell game between the two parties of capitalism, electability trumps values; it is ultimately the power of social movements and organized workers that sways the opinions of politicians. Recently, some Democratic candidates have vowed to repeal the Hyde Amendment or defend abortion rights, but this is a function of the success of social movements rather than a sign of courage or conviction.
A response by women worldwide
Boycotting anti-abortion states, depending upon courts, or voting for Democrats will not secure abortion rights. The way forward for the abortion-rights movement is to take cues from mass movements elsewhere in the world.
In October 2016, thousands of women in over 140 cities in Poland protested against legislation that would have punished anyone who terminates a pregnancy with five years in prison and investigate women who had miscarried. In March 2017, Polish women protested wearing black, boycotted classes, and went on strike against the proposed new law and the restrictive abortion laws passed in 1993. This mass mobilization shifted abortion discourse in Poland and forced politicians to quickly retreat from new restrictions. In March 2018, thousands of demonstrators marched against a renewed effort to pass more restrictive abortion laws. Ireland’s movement, Repeal the 8th, likewise mobilized against Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.
Inspired by Poland’s Black Protests, activists marched and went on strike on March 8, 2017, in cities across Ireland. About 66.4% of Irish voters voted to legalize abortion in a referendum held on May 25, 2018. Abortion is now legal and free in Ireland due to a movement that was catalyzed by the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in 2012 because she was denied an abortion while experiencing a miscarriage. The vote to legalize abortion was shocking to some, as Ireland had been a bastion of conservatism regarding abortion; like Poland, the country had strict anti-abortion laws.
Social attitudes can change quickly, which should offer some hope to those who dismiss the Southern United States as impossibly reactionary. Despite the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of participants in the Ni Una Menos movement that has sought to legalize abortion and end gender-based violence, a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina failed by two Senate votes in August 2018. Even in the face of defeat, the protests and strikes continue as well as efforts to build a feminist international. Recently, activists involved in the movement for abortion rights in Argentina protested on the red carpet at the Cannes Film festival at the premiere of “Let it be Law,” a film about their struggle.
A glimpse of the capacity to build such a movement in the United States happened on May 21 with a day of protest actions called Stop the Bans. Thousands mobilized in a day of action that consisted of over 400 protests spread across all 50 states.
The feminist movement must build upon the successful mobilization for the Stop the Bans day of action and continue to show up in mass to put pressure on politicians to support abortion rights. Based upon recent feminist organizing that culminated in the International Women’s Strike, a framework for building a global feminist movement was put forth by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser in “Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto.” Key ideas from the manifesto include tactics such as mass action and strikes against the conditions of paid and unpaid labor.
The feminist movement must abandon liberal feminist vision of equality under the law and instead fight capitalism head on, including fights against imperialism, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, and austerity.
Social Reproduction theory grounds the tasks of building a global anti-capitalist feminist movement. Understanding social reproduction theory (SRT) is vital to combating anti-abortion laws in the context of capitalism. SRT posits that capitalism does not reproduce the labor power required to perpetuate itself. In other words, capitalism produces goods and services, but doesn’t in itself produce workers and due to profit motive (wherein profit is derived from surplus value of labor), capitalism does little to provide for the upkeep of workers. Thus, women are tasked with supporting the continuation of capitalism through biological reproduction, the care of non-laborers such as children, elderly, or people with illnesses, and unpaid household labor such as cooking and cleaning.
When women can control their biological reproduction through birth control or abortion, they are denying capitalism the reproduction of a future labor force. Lack of bodily autonomy enforces the traditional family and gender roles, thereby further enforcing social reproduction. At the same time, the drive for profit always works to erode or deny social provisioning such as paid maternity leave, free day care, socialized health care, or other social benefits that the United States lacks, but encourages or supports reproduction. This creates a contradiction wherein birth is mandated but not supported.
It is little wonder that the war against abortion access has intensified in the last decade, following the world economic crisis that erupted in 2008. Abortion became legal in the United States in the same era as our waning hegemony and the accompanying age of neoliberalism that promotes austerity and the movement of industrial production to the low wage “developing” world. Women’s bodies are punished into ameliorating the crisis of capitalism.
The United States was founded upon the subjugation and destruction of bodies through slavery and genocide. Reproduction is controlled in the name of national interests, which is itself a guise for the overarching interest of amassing wealth for an elite few. At times, this has meant the forced sterilization of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, low-income women, and women with disabilities. In the interest of population control, birth control was first tested on women with mental illness without their consent, and later on Puerto Rican women.
Today, the rhetoric of walls and criminal immigrants is used to control some populations while the limits on abortion access are used to control another. A part of this continuum of control is violence and oppression of trans and non-binary people, whose existence challenges the gender binary and traditional family structures that have so long been the cornerstone of social reproduction. Trans and non-binary people are denied reproductive justice too.
The struggle for abortion access, as part of the larger movement for a feminism for the 99% must also be a struggle against racism, transphobia, ableism, and for the liberation of all bodies long subjugated by capitalism.
The author, Heather Bradford, is the Socialist Action candidate for vice president of the United States in 2020.
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.
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.
When I became a mother four years ago, I began to feel my oppression as a woman in capitalist society more acutely. All of the endless demands on my time began to add up—the sleepless nights, the feedings, childcare, cooking, housework, errands and laundry around the clock. And then there were the demands at work—no paid maternity leave, the pressure to go back to work as soon as possible after giving birth, pumping in a bathroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids and I love being a mother, but I began to think deeper. Have women always been oppressed? Where does my oppression as a woman stem from? And isn’t there a better way to do things that spreads out all the work that women do more evenly?
The book that has ultimately helped me the most to understand my own oppression as a woman is Marxism and Women’s Oppression by Lise Vogel. Originally written in 1983 and since updated, the book gives a comprehensive overview of the evolution of socialist feminist theory since the time of Marx and Engels. It delves into the debates between radical and socialist feminists in the 1960s and 1970s and ultimately offers a detailed explanation of a socialist feminist way of understanding women’s oppression—social reproduction theory. I would urge anyone who is interested in the subject to give Vogel’s book a close read for a deeper understanding of this important subject.
Before we delve into the origins of women’s oppression, let’s dispel a central myth in our society—that women have ALWAYS been oppressed. This viewpoint claims that women’s subordination is inevitable because it is a function of their biology or psychology. Eleanor Burke Leacock, a feminist anthropologist and Marxist wrote Myths of Male Dominance in 1981 and debunked this myth. Her research showed that male dominance results from the effects of colonization and participation in market relations in societies that were previously egalitarian, from developing inequality in societies where specialization of labor and production for exchange is undercutting the collective economy, and from data as viewed through a Western lens. At the same time, history shows that women have not always been oppressed. While their childbearing function has always remained the same, women’s social status has changed dramatically throughout history. The oppression of women is not rooted in our biology. The origins of women’s oppression are economic and social in character and the development of women’s oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society.
Before the rise of class society, social production was organized communally and products shared equally, and the material basis for the exploitation of one group over another did not exist. The social status of women and men reflected the indispensable roles each played in the subsistence process, and gender and sexuality were often much more fluid categories than they are today. The change in women’s status developed along with the growing productivity of human labor based on agriculture, the domestication of animals, the rise of new divisions of labor, the private appropriation of an increasing social surplus, and the development of the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labor of others.
There are many different theories about the causes of women’s oppression that have been hotly debated by socialist and radical feminists since the 1960s. They have raised many questions which are not easily resolved (read Vogel for a comprehensive overview of these debates). Questions raised include: What is the nature of domestic labor? What is the purpose of the family? What is the meaning of patriarchy? Of reproduction? What is the relationship between imperialism and the family? Between sex and class oppression? Between women’s oppression and other forms of oppression (for example, racial oppression)?
Some theories, called dual systems theories, imply that women’s oppression comes from two distinct and autonomous systems, such as capitalism and patriarchy, the mode of production and the mode of reproduction, or the class system and the gender system. But these theories fail to explain how these systems are related.
On the other hand, socialist feminism starts from the assumption that there is a material root to women’s oppression, and that the family is a major terrain. Marx, Engels and other early socialist thinkers did write about the “woman-question,” but their theories were often inadequate or not fully developed and they were constrained by the social conventions and male-dominated ways of thinking of their time (read Vogel for a more in-depth analysis). At the same time, Engels made an important contribution in “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” as he closely examined the way these three institutions actually co-developed and continue to sustain each other. They are a powerful 3-legged stool on which Capitalism stands.
Social reproduction theory considers two concepts of Marx’s work as a point of departure: labor-power and the reproduction of labor power. Basically, workers sell their labor power on the market as a commodity. Labor power is realized when workers produce something with a use-value, which may or may not be exchanged. But workers also suffer wear and tear and eventually die. They must renew themselves on both a daily (individual) and long-term (societal) basis—this is the reproduction of labor power.
There are three types of processes that make up the reproduction of labor power in class societies: daily activities, the maintenance of non-laborers (for example children, the sick, and the elderly), and biological/generational replacement.
It is also important to note that the reproduction of labor power can take place in many locations, such as labor camps or barracks, and through many different processes, such as replacing laborers through slavery or immigration. However, most capitalist societies primarily reproduce labor power through kin-based family units and through biological procreation. These heterosexual family norms are most often institutionalized in class-based societies. They are constantly reinforced and made to seem like they’ve been around forever, even though (as we have seen) this is not historically the case.
Women’s special role in the biological reproduction of labor rests on a capitalist contradiction—capitalists need women to have babies to reproduce the labor pool, but when women give birth, it temporarily decreases their ability to contribute both as direct producers and in daily maintenance activities. Men also have to spend more time maintaining women during this period of time, which means they are less able to spend time producing commodities. This cuts into the capitalists’ ability to accumulate even more profits.
Although this differential division of labor that surrounds a woman’s ability to bear children need only last for a short period of time surrounding her pregnancy, most societies assign these roles a more permanent status through the family structure. Families then become the site for the performance of the daily and generational replacement routines, and are usually legitimized by male domination and backed up by institutionalized structures of female oppression. This also helps explain why heteronormative forms of the family are institutionalized. Non-normative families, such as LGBTQI families, or people who don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories, such as trans women, are less likely to be directly engaged in the social reproduction of new workers. Thus, it profits the capitalist system to exclude these people from mainstream society.
The family system is the fundamental institution of class society that determines and maintains the specific character of the oppression of women. In the upper classes, women’s oppression stems from their role in passing property along to their heirs. In the lower classes, it stems from women’s role in the reproduction of labor. Thus, women can experience oppression across all classes, although on different levels.
Let’s return to the concept of labor for a moment. There are two types of labor in capitalist society: necessary labor, and surplus labor. Necessary labor is the labor needed to renew a worker so they can continue to work the next day (this can be on an individual or societal scale). For example, cooking food, taking care of children, or preparing for the next day’s work. When workers work for their capitalist bosses, part of their work during the day is necessary work (the work they do to earn wages). Workers need wages in order to buy the products of capitalism for their personal consumption and renew their labor. The other part of their work is surplus labor. This is the extra labor they are essentially doing for free—the labor the capitalists bosses appropriate for their own profit.
Necessary labor has two parts: the social component (the part that earns wages) and the domestic component (unpaid labor in the home). The domestic labor often takes the form of additional labor needed to make commodities purchased by the worker for their consumption at home useable. For example, if you buy food, you have to cook it before you can eat it. It can also include caring for people who are not part of the labor pool, such as childcare or care for the elderly who cannot work.
Because of the contradiction in women’s roles in the reproduction of labor power and the institutionalization of the family structure, men are often primarily responsible for earning the wages, while women become primarily responsible for domestic labor. In capitalist society, the realms of productive and domestic spheres become spacially, temporally, and institutionally isolated from each other.
The capitalist bosses are always looking for ways to decrease necessary labor so they can increase their surplus labor and maximize their profits. They can do this in several ways—through longer working hours, speed ups, or increasing worker productivity. There is also a tendency to decrease domestic labor, for instance by socializing education, or obtaining even more profits through outsourcing tasks such as child care to daycare centers, or laundry to laundromats. This also helps explain the drive to privatize education to gain even more profits for the ruling class.
It is important to note here that women also play an important role in production and have often worked outside of the home (both in the present and historically). But it is through their role in the reproduction of labor that their oppression arises. Family members who are not working and are maintained by the family wage also help make up a reserve army of labor that capitalists can draw on when they need more workers. In fact, it benefits capitalists to have women as a mobile workforce they can exploit on demand, and women entering the workforce doesn’t necessarily mean that a family’s circumstances or wages will improve. For example, capitalists can use this as an excuse to pay everyone lower wages if more members of a family are working (and the lower wages have historically gone to women and children). The entry of women in the workforce has also been a controversial topic in socialist feminist debate.
So now that we understand where women’s oppression comes from, what can we do about it? Domestic labor has often been a class battleground and working people strive to win the best conditions for their personal lives and the renewal of their labor. Historically, women have been incorporated into strikes even if they are not in the workforce, for example the women’s auxiliary in the 1934 Teamster’s strike in Minneapolis. Women also played a crucial role in the recent teacher’s strikes that took the nation by storm.
Efforts to organize and expand equality can also reveal the fundamentally exploitative character of capitalism while moving everyone towards a more equal footing. Social struggle, as we all know, is essential and many things we take for granted today, such as the 8-hour day or child labor laws, were won through hard struggle by the working class. Despite the family’s base for the exploitation and oppression of women, families can also have a protective aspect for the working class—they can be centers for organizing against exploitation and provide social ties and supports to working people.
It is important to recognize here that there are democratic demands that we can fight for now that can be achieved under capitalism. Social reproduction theory provides a useful lens for us to examine social struggles that are currently occurring in a context of capitalist crisis. When capitalism is in crisis, there is an extraordinary level of pressure on women to “return” to their “traditional” role in the home. I put “return” and “traditional” in quotes because for working class women and especially women of color, not to mention women who are not heterosexual or cis-gendered, this traditional family role is pure mythology. Being full time in the family home and playing a support role for the nuclear family is not a viable option. But the ideological and physical assaults are real. There are attacks on reproductive freedom. All the services which support women in exercising full autonomy over our own bodies are on the chopping block. Abortion certainly, but also sex education and birth control. Services which help mothers maintain themselves in the workplace, such as paid maternity leave, breastfeeding supports, and low-cost quality childcare are all under attack as part of Capitalism’s offensive against women, as are social support programs targeted towards women and children, such as SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid. Immigrant women, whether undocumented or refugees, are doubly oppressed, as they face super low wages and deportation of the head of the family household, and are barred access to social service programs due to their immigration status.
Sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence are part of the same offensive, a conscious ruling class campaign to “put women in their place.” African American women and women of color have faced especially brutal levels of repression in this area and experience deeper layers of oppression as women because of their race. Socialist Action has always spoken out when women are under attack. We join the chorus welcoming the #MeToo movement and we join the protests against violent misogynists in power—from Trump to Kavanaugh and beyond. But we have a lens that others lack, which helps us explain where this entitlement and violence comes from. It is the violence of the capitalist system in crisis, desperately lashing out against women’s ability and right to function in the public sphere.
Socialist Action recognizes that the oppression of women and the oppression of LGBTQIA people are intertwined and we have always supported LGBTQIA liberation struggles. We have done so because we believe that everyone has the right to be fully who they are. Here too, social reproduction theory gives us additional insight into the nature of the oppression LGBTQIA people face. The normative and central role played by the heterosexual nuclear family unit under capitalism implies additional levels of oppression for those who fail to comply. It is important to affirm everyone’s unconditional right to be who they are, and to be free from discrimination, harassment, and violence because of their sex, sexuality, or gender.
At the same time that we support all of these important social struggles, we must also recognize that a true end to women’s oppression can only be achieved through a socialist society. Socialist society will give us the freedom to re-think and re-distribute labor, which is the only way to eliminate the material root of women’s oppression. The need for domestic labor will never go away, but socialist society will allow us to socialize domestic labor under worker’s control. It is interesting to think here about what will happen to the institution of the family under socialist society. Once the material basis for women’s oppression is gone, the family will also begin to naturally shift and take on new forms and shapes.
I would like to end with a quote from Vogel’s book (page 181-182): “Historical materialism poses the difficult question of simultaneously reducing and redistributing domestic labor in the course of transforming it into an integral component of social production in communist society. Just as in the socialist transition ‘the state is not “abolished”, it withers away’, so too, domestic labor must wither away…In the process the family in its particular historical form as a kin-based social unit for the reproduction of exploitable labour-power in class-society will also wither away—and with it both patriarchal family-relations and the oppression of women.”
This text was presented at the SA Educational Conference (Toronto) on November 16, 2018.