Kjersti Ericsson: Sisters, comrades!

Contents | AKP home page | More in English

Capitalism and housework

In this chapter: The husband - an exploiter? | The housewife and the farmer in the Third World
| Housework - full of contradictions for Capital? | The ideological veil | Capitalism against women


"In the humid kitchen, Anna works on alone. Mazie lies swathed in sweated sleep in the baking bedroom. Jimmie and Jeff sleep under the kitchen table, their exhausted bodies, their hair damp and clinging to their perspiring heads, giving them the look of drowned children. Ben lies in sleep or in a sleep of swoon, his poor heaving chest laboring on at its breathing. Bess has subsided in her basket on a chair where, if she frets, Anna can sprinkle her with water or try to ease the heat rash by sponging. The last batch of jelly is on the stove. Between stirring and skimming, and changing the wet packs on Ben, Anna peals and cuts the canning peaches - two more bags to go. If only all will sleep awhile. She begins to sing softly - I saw a ship a-sailing on the sea - it clears her head. The drone of fruit flies and Ben's rusty breathing are very loud in the unmoving, heavy air. Bess begins to fuss again. There, there, Bessie, there, there, stopping to sponge down the oozing sores on the tiny body. There. Skim, stir, sprinkle Bess; pit, peel and cut; sponge; skim, stir. Any second the jelly will be right and must not wait. Shall she wake up Jimmie and ask him to blow a feather to keep Bess quiet? No, he'll wake cranky, he's just a baby himself, let him sleep. Skim, stir, sprinkle; change the wet packs on Ben; pit, peel and cut; sponge. This time it does not soothe - Bess stiffens her body, flails her fists, begins to scream in misery, just as the jelly begins to boil. There is nothing for it but to take Bess up, jounce her on a hip (there, there) and with her free hand frantically skim and ladle. There, there. The batch is poured and capped and sealed, all one-handed, jiggling-hipped. There, there, it is done."

Tillie Olsen's portrayal of worker's wife Anna's housework in the United States of the 20s (Yonnondio, 1980) is enough to exhaust anyone. The situation she describes, where preserving and canning must be finished while at the same time sick and fussy children demand most of the attention, has a distinctive, frazzling quality which is particular to work in the home. Modern women with few children, in convenient homes, who have never toiled in the same way as Tillie Olsen's Anna, will nonetheless be familiar with this particular quality.

Women have lived, and live, with housework as a highly noticeable part of their lives. But this part of life has not had an important place in economic and political theory. Not in Marxism either, which actually is a theory which analyses labor and labor's fate in the capitalistic exploiter society. In Yonnondio two scenes run parallel at the end of the book. One is a depiction of Anna's jamming and canning, which I have quoted above. The other describes the toil of her husband, Jim, at the large slaughterhouse where he works. Marxism is interested in Jim at the slaughterhouse, but has shown less interest in Anna in the kitchen.

The women's movement led, however, to new theoretical problems being placed on the agenda, also by Marxists. One of these problems dealt with housework. How should unpaid housework and caring be placed within a Marxist conceptual framework? Which role does housework play in the maintenance of the capitalistic mode of production? And what is the importance of housework (which primarily is performed by women) for women's class standing and role in class struggle?

Male Marxists had seldom shown any deep interest in these types of questions. This shows how true Marxism's tenet is: it is our social existence that determines our thought processes, not vice versa. Housework is not a central part of men's social existence, Marxists or not.

It was, and is, different for women. Indeed there are great differences between what today's women and their great grandmothers had to tackle. Nonetheless, industrialization and technological advances have had surprisingly little effect on the volume of housework. Tillie Olsen complains in the book Silences (1980) of "this technologically and sosially obsolete, human-wasting drudgery", and she observes that atom bombs were produced before the first automatic washing machine. In a book about the history of housework in Norway, Avdem and Melby (1985, p.182) write:

"The housewife's history is full of ambiguities and contradictions. This was registered already in approximately 1850 when Eilert Sundt travelled around the country and confirmed only slight changes in homelife: "No advantages in one direction without losses in another, no advances in care, without paying the price", he concluded. Even relief is bound with ambiguities. Housework demands less physical toil today than one hundred years ago, this is evident. However, the demand as to standards has a tendency to increase with the improvements. Today's housewife has fewer children, but must live up to greater demands for the care and keeping of each of them. She has easy access to hot water and soap, easily cleaned floors and limited space, but the demands for cleanliness have increased. Food is easier to obtain, and preparation takes place in practical and easily maintained kitchens, but the housewife today is faced with demands for a varied diet and complicated dishes which were unknown to housewives in the 1800s.

Changes are central in the history of housework. The history that we have followed can be seen as an illustration of the economic development which the country has gone through from an agricultural society to a modern industrial society. However, we can simultaneously glimpse stability despite the sweeping social changes. The work is performed within each household, and this determines the framework for mechanization and efficiency. Care, the practical and emotional administration of a family, cannot be easily made more efficient. The tendency, on the contrary, is just the opposite: for those housewives who have enough time, the chores fill the time that is available. The work seems unending and impossible to make more efficient, and time determines the workload, not the other way around."

Housework takes a large portion of the day, also for those housewives who do not have "enough time", because they have a paid job. A time budget study from 1975, based on data from 12 countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, West-Germany, East-Germany, Hungary, Peru, Poland, USA, USSR, and Yugoslavia) provided the following picture (Women, a world report, 1985, p. 4). The men in wage labor included in the study, worked an average of 49 hours per week. They did housework 11 hours and had 34 hours of spare time. Women in wage labor worked an average of 40 per week. Housework took 31 hours, and they had 24 hours spare time. Full-time housewives performed one hour of paid work per week. They used 56 hours on housework, and had 33 hours spare time. National studies conducted some time later show no dramatic changes in this picture. Scott (1984, p. 67) refers to Heidi Hartmann, who in 1981 summed up the latest time budget studies in the USA. She concluded that women carried out 70 % of the work in the home, men approximately 15 % and children the rest. The wife is, for the most part, responsible for child-raising, the man's contribution is approximately the same no matter the size of the family and does not increase much even if the wife takes a paid job. A woman who does not have a paid job does approximately 40 hours of housework per week, 30 hours if she has a job. Time budget studies from countries like Norway and Sweden show approximately the same picture. In 1980-81 women used an average of 4.8 hours per day on work in the home, men used 2.2 hours.

Figures like these provide a rough picture. They show that it is a question of vast amounts of work, work that is for the most part conducted by women. But it is difficult to interpret what really lies behind the figures. The method used in studies of this kind, is usually a questionnaire. What emerges from it is to a large extent determined by how the questions are constructed. Some categories are relatively easy to define: make dinner; do the dishes; pick up; wash the floor; do the shopping. But how does one define work with children? The Norwegian time budget study from 1970/71 showed, for example, that in families where the youngest children were under seven years of age, the women averaged a little in excess of two hours. A result that astonishes. Where are the children the rest of the time? Let's go back to Anna at the beginning of this chapter. She is making jam and canning, but at the same time she is conducting quite extensive "work with children", because the children are present, must be comforted and taken into consideration, particularly because they are sick (the fact that healthy children can lay claim to at least as much attention is known by everyone who has had small children). What if Anna hadn't made jam and canned, but instead sat down to read a book, while at the same time she stroked Bess with a wet sponge and changed the wet towels on Ben? Would this have been "spare times" or "work with children"? Is it "work with children" or spare time when one watches a favorite tv program while sitting on the floor using half one's attention to build Lego towers with a five year old? Very many women's (and some men's) lives are like this: as long as the children are present, attention is divided. One part of it always waits, ready to answer signals from the child/children. Being a mother means being there to disturb all the time, says Tillie Olsen (Silences, 1980).

Accordingly, it is difficult to know for certain what hides behind the figures in the time budget studies. But it is evident that unpaid labor in the home has a tremendous volume. The fact that this has not given rise to greater interest earlier, tells us something about the strength of the process which makes women invisible in our society.

When the new women's movement made housework of current interest as a political theme, this occurred primarily on the practical level. Demands were made for social services (particularly daycare centers) that could relieve women, and demands were made that work in the home should be divided equally between men and women. The latter caused a number of men to claim that housework was a kind of pseudowork: irrational and unnecessary work that primarily served to satisfy women's neurotic need to feel like good mothers and housewives (for a humorist presentation of this standpoint see Dag Solstad, Klassekampen 24.12.1986). Arguments like this could have a good deal of merit. However, as a social analysis of housework's importance for the capitalistic mode of production, they obviously do not measure up. The explanation for housework's enormous volume and its frustrating ability to survive, must be sought in circumstances other than women's enigmatic psyche.

The husband - an exploiter?

In our society, housework is part of the work that must be done to enable labor power to report for work from day to day, and in order for new generations of laborers to grow up, and grow up in a way that makes it possible for them to function in the capitalistic society. (Hereafter, when I talk about housework, I am referring to all unpaid labor that takes place in the home, including the care for, and the raising of children.)

Seen from this vantage point, perhaps it is not so surprising that the volume of housework has not decreased more than it has. Demands made on labor power have increased (think about how much longer schooling we have now than a hundred years ago), something that also influences care and socialization work in the family. The "historic and moral element" of labor power's value, that causes us to have totally different standards for what are "the necessities of life" now than those we had previously, influences also the "necessities of life" for which housework is responsible. Eating from a large pot of porridge, with a porridge ladle which was put in a crack in the wall from meal to meal, would undoubtedly not satisfy people today. There should be different types of food at every meal, there should be potatoes and vegetables and fish, there should be clean silverware at each meal. The time that it takes to ensure all this, is perhaps not all that much less than it took to cook up the porridge pot. There can also be other, more ideological elements, which contribute to maintaining the volume of housework. I will return to this point later.

The fact that housework is necessary for labor power to be able to report to work from day to day, and for the fostering of new generations of laborers, has been a common starting point for most of the Marxist "housework debate". But how should housework really be understood? It does not take the form of capitalistic wage labor, and therefore it is difficult to force into the "form".

One standpoint, which here at home was defended by Øystein Holter (1982), can be briefly summarized in the following manner. The unpaid house- and care work, which is conducted by women in the family, increases the male labor power's value. Women's house- and care work is a link in the production of the man's labor power. It is a part of the work that is invested in the commodity the man brings to the labor market. The work that the women does tending for the man in the home, thereby increases the value of the man's labor power. When the man is paid for the value of his labor power, it is, accordingly, the women in the home who has created a portion of this value. But it is the man who has it at his disposal, as his wage. He usurps value that another (the woman) has created. The relationship between man and woman in the family is accordingly a variant of capitalistic exploitation relations. Internationally, a similar standpoint was maintained, among others, by Mariarosa Dalla Costa (1972).

An alluring thought. The troublesome housework received an ostensibly logical place, within a Marxist conceptual framework, and the contradictions between women and men in the family became an antagonistic contradiction. The question of whether the male portion of the working class had strategic interest in siding with women against the bourgeoisie, or with the bourgeoisie against the women, had to remain relatively open.

Dalla Costa and Holter accordingly "solved" the problem of housework's position by saying that work in the home formed a part of the capitalistic commodity production, and that housework is commodity producing labor - the commodity it produces is labor power.

In contrast to this view, others claim (see Heen 1982) that women's unpaid labor in the home is not commodity producing labor, and that housework is not a part of the capitalistic commodity production. This does not, however, mean that things that take place in the "home sphere" are without economic importance. Labor in the "home sphere" contributes by determining the conditions for capitalistic commodity production, by influencing, among other ways, how expensive or cheap labor power is to buy. Heen's view was that women's unpaid labor in the home did not contribute to increasing the value of men's labor power, on the contrary, it contributes to holding it down. Heen uses, among others, the following example (p. 94):

"Some of the African working class belong to households where the production of food is part of the reproductive functions that take place in the household. In other words, the wives farm. This farming can vary in extent. It can be so extensive that the wife supports herself and partially supports the man through this reproduction. In that case, this means that the wage costs that capitalism must pay are less than if the wife had not contributed. The wife does unpaid labor that leads to the man's wages (=the reproduction cost for Capital) being less than they otherwise would have been. The value of the man's labor power becomes less than it otherwise would have been."

Heen's argument is easy and logical, and it is founded on concrete experience also shared by the Norwegian working class. Not so very many generations ago, the Norwegian industrial areas were marked by the contradiction between the "real" proletariat and the farm boys, who brought their food along from small farms, and could therefore underbid the other workers on wages. They could manage on less pay, because they benefited from the unpaid labor on the farm from which they came. These are the same circumstances as those in Heen's example. In Edvard Bull's book about the worker's community towards the end of the previous century, based on worker's memories which have been committed to paper, there are examples of a pattern that closely resemble Heen's description from Africa. This is how the situation of sawmill workers in Tistedalen was described (1958, p. 45):

"The millworkers also produced some of their own food. All of our five narrators, who grew up in sawmill-worker's homes in Tistedalen, have told of how they, as a rule, had one or two pigs which provided them with meat in the winter. Sometimes a potato patch was attached to the residence, but it seems to have been more common for people to take the initiative in getting hold of the necessary land." Most of the workers gladly planted a patch of potatoes on one of the farms in the vicinity of Tistedalen, and they cared for it in their free moments after 10-12 hours of work. In this way one also had a winter supply of potatoes in almost every home."

Keeping pigs was, perhaps, not quite so usual. "Not everyone was that well off", said one of the narrators while relating how his own parents kept pigs. And another brought attention to the fact that they did not have pigs every year, because "it was difficult to dig up the money to buy one of the piglets, though the price wasn't more than four-five NOK". It could also be quite an effort, as is, seen in this description of the narrator's mother: "She usually had two pigs. So she carried waste from the brewery (in the main city) in two giant wooden kegs, with a yoke over her shoulders." At any rate it is clear that the keeping of pigs made its mark on Tistedalen. In 1891 the Public Health Commission set a number of mandates, among others "5 in regard to pig-sties, which exist in a substantial number, notably in Tistedalen.""

The potato patches, and to a certain extent, the pigs, were probably necessary for sawmill workers in Tistedalen if they were to keep privation from their doorstep. They had to supplement monetary wages with potato cultivation and pig breeding in order to support their families. The alternative would have been to demand higher monetary wages, so they could buy the foods that they now produced themselves. This would have meant that the capitalists would have to pay more for their labor power. Potato cultivation and pig breeding contributed to keeping the value of labor power down.

Married women in Norway today are not usually engaged in extensive production, such as the African women of whom Heen speaks, or like the sawmill-workers' wives in Tistedalen one hundred years ago. But it is nonetheless possible to argue that the unpaid work that she does, contributes to keeping the value of the man's labor power down. If all the work that the women do for free in the home - food preparation, cleaning, child-care, clothes reparation were to be bought on the market (such as we buy baker's baking-labor when we buy bread and the textile worker's sewing labor when we buy clothes), it would cost far more to maintain the laborer's life from day to day and ensure that new ones grew up. Think of what would happen, if he were to eat at a restaurant, use a cleaning agency, go to the tailor's with clothes that needed repairs. Then the time that the cook used to make the food, the waiter to serve it, and the dishwasher to wash up, the tailor to mend, would have to be figured into the socially necessary time that went into producing the laborer's life. The fact that this would be costly has been proven by practical experience.

The Bolivian laborer's wife Domitila, the internationally known labor leader, tells in an article about the struggle to get her husband to accept her political activities. She kept a careful account of all the housework she did for an entire month, and on the last day of the month she said to her husband, "Well, Don Rene, we must now divide the money. I have washed and ironed so and so many clothes, and made food so and so many days, and totally I have done so and so much." It turned out that Domitila had done housework for 240 pesos in the course of the month. "At that time my husband earned about 80 pesos, so what I had done was worth three times more than his wages," commented Domitila.

Another example is Norwegian Inger Prebensen (bank CEO), who, in a newspaper interview explained how women can manage to have leading positions (from the interview): "Women in high positions can afford to have children's nurses or au pair girls, so that their spare time can be used to enjoy themselves with the children. Inger Prebensen has bought so many services that the tax commissioner thought she was running a small business, with several people in her employ. But it helped her to manage top positions while her children were small." We do not doubt that Inger Prebensen would have managed more cheaply with a wife than with "a whole small business".

One last circumstance that speaks for Heen's viewpoint is that housework is occasionally used as an argument for paying women lower wages than men. The ability to do housework is regarded as a female quality, and this ability can contribute to lowering the value of her own labor power. When the female teacher made her entry into the school system in the last century, it was, among other reasons, because they constituted cheap labor power. "It was moreover argued that the women could manage on a good deal less than a man because she was capable of looking after her own house, repairing clothes and making food. A man would always have to have help with all housework" (reference in Brock-Utne & Haukaa (1979)). Edvard Bull touches on this when he discusses wage differences between male and female Borregaard workers around 1900. The male laborers earned considerably more than the female. "But on the other hand, it may be possible that the women in many cases looked after themselves more cheaply than the men when it came to food - they probably bought fewer meals out," commented Bull (p. 313). The women could survive on lower wages because they compensated for the lack of pay with their own work, cooking, among other things.

Not everyone who rejects Dalla Costa's way of analyzing housework, will support Heen's. In her evaluation of the "housework debate" Lise Vogel rejects the view that the full-time housewife reduces the value of her husband's labor power (Vogel 1983, p. 158). On the contrary she says, the capitalist must then pay a wage that is large enough to support the wife as well. This is true enough. But Vogel confuses two things: a full-time wife and housework. Housework is done both by full-time wives and by wives employed outside of the home. The wife who works outside the home supports herself, at least partially, while at the same time she works for free, holding the value of her husband's and her own, labor power down. In the case of the full-time wife, the amount the capitalist must pay to enable the laborer to support her must be compared with the market price of the services she provides. If the capitalist paid this market price to the laborer, instead of a "provider supplement" for his wife, he would most certainly have had to reach more deeply into his pocket.

This last way of looking at it is the most in keeping with Marx's own treatment in Capital. Marx points out that when more family members than just the man (the wife and children) are drawn into wage labor, this leads to two contradictory tendencies. The most important is that the value of labor power of each individual falls. Instead of the man's labor power being worth enough to support the entire family, the labor power of several of the family members becomes necessary. This means increased exploitation. The other tendency is that when several family members work, it becomes more difficult to get as much housework done as previously. Therefore, more commodities may have to be purchased. But in order to be able to buy more commodities, more money is needed, in other words, larger money wages. This means that the value of the entire household's accumulated labor power can rise somewhat (Marx, Capital, Norwegian edition 1983, p. 34).

"Because certain family functions such as suckling and babysitting cannot be suppressed totally, the family mothers who are confiscated by Capital must, in greater or lesser degrees, rent a replacement. The work that the family's consumption makes necessary, such as sewing, mending, etc. must be replaced by the purchase of finished products. Therefore production costs grow for a laborer family and offset the surplus income."

When housework is replaced by commodities and services bought on the market, then the "production costs for a laborer family" rise. Then the opposite conclusion is difficult to avoid: that housework contributes to keeping the value of labor power down.

Seen in isolation, housework contributes to keeping the value of labor power down. This is the main point in this context. But the net result of the two contradictory tendencies which appear when a housewife goes into wage labor, is still not an increase in the value of labor power. The main tendency is, as mentioned, that the value of each individual's labor power sinks when several members of a household go into wage labor. The fact that the capitalist must pay a little more money wages to the 'whole family than previously in order to compensate for the housework that the wife does not manage to finish when she is a wage earner, is a subordinate tendency, that does not outweigh the main tendency. For women the "solution" to this dilemma becomes doing double work: though they are wage earners, they are still housewives. (What I have written here applies, of course, to society as a whole and not to the individual family. When it becomes usual that several family members earn wages, the general level of the value of labor power in the society sinks. It sinks also for the laborers who belong to families where only one member has wage labor. Housework functions in the same way: it is not the case that a man who has a wife who does a lot of housework, is paid less than a man without a wife. The standard for what it is usual to do as unpaid housework in a society, influences the general level of labor power's value.)

The housewife and the farmer in the Third World

Calling utility value in the home commodity producing labor that is invested in the commodity labor power, as Dalla Costa does, is an artifice that does damage to the Marxist conceptual framework. In the "housework debate" many had to accept this. Some did it with sorrow and frustration. Hilda Scott (1984, p. 142) sums up the housework debate in this way:

"The housework debate wore out more people than it enlightened. The judgement was logical within the given frame, but the logic was difficult to grasp and seemed irrelevant to women who saw quite clearly that both husbands and capitalists profited by their free work. The debate exposed the Marxist theory's and with it the radical party's lack of ability to embrace this side of reality. And it strengthened many socialistic women's conviction that Marxism is gender-blind. Despite Marx' explicit concern for women's oppression, he saw the world through the eyes of the male working class. This was the perspective he used in place of the narrow perspective of the entrepreneur-class, which saw work as a production cost rather than as value-input (to use modern terminology). Marx expanded the outlook, but not enough to throw a light on the economy of private life."

It is true that Marx did not write very much about housework, but Scott's theoretical criticism is nonetheless a bit peculiar. At times she appears almost morally scandalized because housework does not have a "value" in the Marxist sense. But it is not necessary to make up a new value concept to show that both the husband and the capitalist benefit from the housewife's unpaid labor.

Capitalistic commodity production is not the only form of production that takes place in a capitalistic society, and wage labor is not the only form of labor. There is nothing strange about capitalistic commodity production living, so to speak, in a symbiosis with other forms of production, and benefiting from it. The lack of understanding for this has been part of the problem in the Marxist housework debate. For many the dilemma went approximately like this: if we use the Marxist concepts in a strict and orthodox manner, then housework disappears from view; in order to make unpaid labor visible, we will instead have to stretch the Marxist concepts a little further than the stitches allow. Scott's heavy-hearted sigh reflects this dilemma. The same elements also appeared in the housework debate here in Norway. The periodical Materialisten (1, 1982) arranged a confrontation interview between representatives for the different viewpoints. Øystein Holter and Marianne Sætre, who defended Dalla Costa's view, became entangled in insolvable logical knots in an attempt to show that housework was commodity producing labor. Per Lund, who kept strictly to an orthodox Marxist use of concepts, had little to say about housework as a concrete reality and burden for capitalism's women.

But capitalistic commodity production has always existed side by side with other forms of production, which have influenced the conditions for surplus value production. Capital has, so to speak, subordinated the other, non-capitalistic production forms, and has been capable of reaping economic benefit from them. When one makes this clear, it becomes possible to make the economic importance of unpaid labor visible, without doing violence to Marxist concepts. Housework's economic import for Capital lies precisely in this fact, that this labor takes place outside of the capitalistic commodity production. The capitalistic society is primarily organized so that we can exchange labor with each other. Instead of people doing all the actual work that is necessary in order that they themselves can live, most of the work takes place in a form of capitalistic production of commodities and services. We exchange our wages for other's labor. What we can be exchange, is the value of labor power. But some of the work we do ourselves, or get others to do for us, for free. This is unpaid labor in the home. Because this labor exists, we need to exchange less than would otherwise have been necessary. Heen's analysis of the African woman farmer, who, through growing food, keeps the value of the man's labor power down, is an example of this. The African woman farmer's labor reduces the capitalistic reproduction costs, says Heen, and transfers the argument to the housewife's unpaid labor.

Heen is not the only one who has seen parallels between the farmer's labor in the Third World and women's unpaid labor in the home. Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen draws a comparison between women's housework and the so-called "subsistence sector" in the Third World. Both housework and labor in the "subsistence sector" in the Third World serves the capitalistic commodity production, in several ways, including the following (1984, p. 42):

"That part of production which is directly consumed by the peasant serves to reproduce labour which is available to capital. For example, a peasant who periodically works for wages spends a considerable part of necessary labour-time in self-provisioning, thereby increasing the amount of surplus-labour appropriated by the employer. This becomes obvious in the case of temporary wage labourers in agriculture or low-paid workers in the so-called world-market factories, particularly women, who cannot cover their minimal necessities for existence with their wage and have to support themselves by additional means or be supported by relatives engaged in subsistence production."

Bennholdt-Thomsen's argument is as follows. The laborer's working day can be divided in two. One portion goes to creating the values which are sufficient for reproducing the laborer's labor power (plus supporting, totally or partially, a possible family). This is the necessary labor time. The remainder of the work day is surplus labor, and the values which are now created, are usurped by the capitalist. Surplus labor forms the foundation of the capitalist's profit. But if a portion of the means for maintaining the worker's life is created outside the capitalistic commodity production, for example though him receiving life support for free from relatives in the subsistence sector, then the necessary labor time in the capitalistic factory is reduced, and correspondingly, the surplus labor time is increased. This is obviously to the capitalist's advantage, and increases the exploitation.

Celia Mather (1984) describes how this system functions in the Kelompok area on West Java. The wages in industry are extremely low, usually far too low to support children or other relatives. The majority of adults who have someone to support, regard the wages as hopelessly low and insecure (many laborers are engaged on short term contracts or as seasonal workers). Instead, they send their young sons or daughters, or younger siblings, to the factories. The wages earned by these young laborers are regarded both by the parents and by the employer as a supplement rather than a main source of income, though this is often the only relatively regular cash income in the family, and is totally necessary for buying commodities such as paraffin for lamps and food production, matches and soap.

Because of the subsistence sector, Capital can pay the workers less than they need to survive and procreate. Thus Capital's reproduction costs are reduced. In addition, Bennholdt-Thomsen argues that the subsistence sector makes it possible to maintain a reserve army of labor power for which Capital does not need to pay. When Capital does not need them, they are supported, more or less on the starvation level, in the subsistence sector. If the need for labor power arises, they can be pulled back into the factories.

What about housework? Can it be said to function in the same manner? I have previously argued that the existence of housework contributes to keeping the value of labor power down, in other words reducing Capital's reproduction costs. This occurs through necessary labor (the portion of the work day that goes to creating the values which correspond to the necessities of life which the worker must have) being reduced because a portion of the services and products that the worker needs to survive from day to day, and to raise a new worker generation, are created outside the capitalistic commodity production, and are unpaid.

It could also be argued that housework, though it does not exactly make it possible for Capital to maintain a reserve army of labor power without paying for it, at least contributes to making the system more flexible. One of the most important consequences of the crisis in the 30s for women in the USA (probably not only there), was that housework increased. When the husband was unemployed, the wife tried to compensate as much as possible for the missing income through her work: baking bread and sewing clothes instead of buying; etc. In an article about the crisis' consequences for women, Milkman (1976, p. 82) writes:

"Many women almost managed to retain the family's earlier standard of living despite lower incomes by replacing commodities they had bought earlier with their own work. The tendency in the previous decade towards increased consumption of commodities was thereby reversed. Canning and jamming at home was so common that the sale of jars was higher in 1931 than at any time during the 11 preceding years. There was a comparable decrease in the sales of jams and canned foods, which had doubled in the decade from 1919-1929. In the same way home sewing had a renaissance in the thirties. People who had never sewn before went to evening courses to learn to sew and to remake old clothes."

The description of Anna's jamming and canning, which opens this chapter, stems from the USA at precisely that time. Anna (and surely many other working class housewives with her) also had a vegetable garden. The production of vegetables, potatoes, etc. in the vegetable garden may have shortened the leap over to the "subsistence sector". It can, at any rate, safely be asserted that the increase in women's free labor in the crisis period made the effects of unemployment less catastrophic than if this possibility for the compensation of lost income had not existed.

Housework - full of contradictions for Capital?

"Capital's need to augment surplus value implies a contradiction between domestic labor and wage labor. As a component of necessary labor, domestic labor potentially takes away from the commitment workers can make to performing surplus labor through participation in wage work. Objectively, then, it competes with capital's drive for accumulation,"

says Lise Vogel (1983, p. 154). She concludes, therefore, that the pressure from capitalistic accumulation creates a tendency to reduce the amount of housework that is carried out in each household.

The volume of housework has obviously been reduced since the breakthrough of industrial capitalism. But as I have argued earlier, one can just as easily ask oneself, "Why hasn't it been reduced more?" The necessary labor time in capitalistic production has fallen dramatically, so that the exploitation has multiplied, despite a shorter overall working day. A similar development has not occurred with the work that takes place in the home.

One important reason for this must be that housework takes place outside of the capitalistic commodity production, and thereby is not exposed to "pressure from the capitalistic accumulation" in the same manner as the labor that takes place in the factories. For the capitalist it is, in principle, of no interest whether the housewife uses four or eight hours per day on housework, because she still does not create surplus value for the capitalist in the time that she has left over, if she does not use it to take on wage labor.

This last argument is Vogel's. Housework is a burden for Capital because it takes time that otherwise could be used for wage labor, and thereby the production of surplus value. But this relationship, as well, is more complicated than Vogel presents it. First of all, it has only been in very few and very special situations that Capital has had use of the entire female labor force, particularly full-time. England and the USA, during the Second World War, are perhaps the closest we have come to this kind of situation. Though the theory of women as an industrial reserve army does not provide a comprehensive explanation for women's oppression under capitalism (as there were tendencies to claim in the Marxist-Leninist movement in the 70s), one must not totally abandon the idea that women serve this type of function. Women are also a more flexible reserve army than men, because they are more accustomed to interruptions in their working careers, and because they can also be used as part-time workers.

Secondly, Vogel places little emphasis on housework's contribution to holding Capital's reproduction costs down. Housework is a no-cost subsidy that women bestow upon capitalism. As a double worker, the modern woman is an extremely useful economic animal for Capital. She is exploited in the capitalistic production, and she does unpaid work in her "spare time". As Marx pointed out, the value of labor power sinks while simultaneously the exploitation increases, when both man and wife must have wage labor to support the family. And since the wife's housework only partially replaces the purchase of commodities and services on the market, she still contributes, through her free labor, to keeping Capital's reproduction costs down.

A common adjustment pattern for modern women is part-time work, which can be combined with the primary responsibility for the family. On one level, this is the individual women's individual solution to the conflict between her job and her housework. However, it can just as easily be seen as Capital's adjustment pattern, a pattern which allows Capital to have its cake, eat its cake and sell its cake, too. Capital draws surplus value out of women, without having to give up the unpaid labor. In addition they get a "flexible" labor force, which can be used as part-time workers when the need for effort is greatest, and which is often willing to work inconvenient hours. In many contexts it appears that this is precisely the type of labor power Capital prefers.

The conclusion must be that the contradiction between housework and wage labor is far less sharp than Lise Vogel claims, and that the "pressure from the capitalistic accumulation" for the reduction of housework, is not all that extensive either. Modern capitalism has managed to find a favorable compromise, where the woman is exploited both as a wage laborer, as a supplier of free housework, and as a flexible labor power reserve.

The ideological veil

Lise Vogel is also occupied with the consequences that result from the fact that work that is necessary for maintaining the worker's life and labor potential, and for raising new generations, assumes two totally different social forms under capitalism. And here she has some interesting standpoints. She points out that the development of capitalism has led to a sharp division between production and housework. The two forms of labor are separated in time and space, and take place within different institutional frameworks. This sharp division did not exist in earlier agricultural societies, nor did it exist among the craftsmen in the cities. The family was a production unit, where both forms of labor were conducted, though there existed a division of labor between man and woman. Servants and apprentices lived together with the family, and were a part of the household, though they were clearly subordinate to the master and mistress.

Capitalists must organize production so that more and more of it takes place under their direct control in workshops and factories. Wage labor takes on features that are totally different from the worker's existence outside of the job. The necessary labor that takes place in the factory, results in money wages. The other labor that must also be done in order to maintain the worker's life, and labor power, housework, is carried out in specialized places (residence) and in its own social units (the family), and does not result in money wages. It is the man who is responsible for the largest portion of wage labor, and the woman who is responsible for the largest portion of the housework. This division is an inheritance from oppressive forms of labor division in earlier society, says Vogel, a division of labor that was combined with male supremacy. This division of labor was strengthened through the distinctive division between wage labor and housework that the capitalistic mode of production creates.

Experience shows that this division leads to both men and women feeling an intense contradiction between private life and the public sphere, says Lise Vogel. The sharply institutionalized division between housework and wage labor, combined with male supremacy, forms the foundation for powerful ideological structures, which, after a while, live their own lives. The division between the units where housework and wage labor takes place, appears as a natural division between woman and man. Isolation in a family separated from the production process appears as women's fate since the beginning of time. Concepts regarding apparently eternal and universal pairs of contradictions arise: private and public, domestic and social, family and work. Women become inseparably tied to the one set of these contradictory pairs, men to the other. Since this ideology has its foundation in the capitalistic mode of production, and is strengthened by a system of male supremacy, it has a strength that is extremely difficult to break down, concludes Lise Vogel.

In other words, the ideology of "women's place" has a solid anchoring in capitalism's economic basis. But Lise Vogel's standpoints also provide a starting point for an understanding of the mystification of housework under capitalism.

Marx revealed the hidden theft that lay beneath the apparently "equal exchange" between worker and capitalist. On the surface it looks as though the worker is paid for the work that he does. In reality he is paid for the labor power's value, this corresponds to only a portion of the work that he does in the process of a day. A commodity, labor power, is sold for its value, and this is "equal exchange" according to the capitalist's logic. But the real content is gross exploitation, hidden in a form which is difficult to penetrate. Under feudalism, the bonded farmer moved from his own fields to the squire's when he changed from carrying out necessary labor to surplus labor. Or he brought some bags of the grain that he had grown and gave it to the squire. In the modern wage earner's working day there is no visible division in time and space between the necessary labor and supplementary labor. Everything simply appears as work, and a specialized analysis must be carried out in order to discover these two elements. It is thus that the mystification of exploitation occurs within the capitalistic production process.

The mystification of housework occurs in the opposite way: housework is separated from the capitalistic production process in time and space; takes place in other institutional forms; and is subjected to another "logic". Because housework is carried out in the family, in the residence far away from the factory, without money wages, it appears as something that has nothing whatsoever to do with the capitalistic production. Housework is something the woman does, not for the capitalist, but for her own family, in the private sphere, out of love and consideration for those closest to her.

In one sense it is correct that housework is not a part of the capitalistic production process. It is utility value producing work, organized for direct consumption in the housewife's family. But it is not correct that the housewife only works for her own and her family's advantage. She is part of a larger economic context, and works for Capital in the sense that she contributes to holding Capital's reproduction costs down. But this is difficult to see through if the vantage point is the kitchen counter.

Housework's appearance as something that the housewife does solely for herself and her family, has many advantages seen from Capital's viewpoint (I obviously do not mean that this is a question of a conscious conspiracy). The work is governed by totally different norms than wage labor, and has entirely different emotional overtones. A housewife should, in principle, sacrifice herself limitlessly for the good of her family, no matter what she might get in return, and often in reality she does this. There exists, then, a non-economic motivation that ensures that the housewife works herself to death (to Capital's advantage) under all kinds of conditions. If she simultaneously has wage labor, this is no hinder. She cuts down on her spare time in order to ensure her family the care and services that they need. The time budget study based on data from twelve countries which is referred at the beginning of this chapter, showed that the result can be that women end up with ten hours less spare time per week than men.

The housewife's work holding Capital's reproduction costs down is driven by a force that is virtually independent of rewards and working conditions. Anything of this sort would be unthinkable in a factory. If it is to be compared with anything, it would perhaps have to be the farmer's labor in his own fields. The notion of working "for one's self" makes many farmers willing to tolerate considerably longer working days and poorer income than the industrial worker would accept.

The sacrifice ideology tied to housework is obviously not just a delusion in women's heads. In our society the welfare of children and husbands is actually dependent upon the women's unpaid labor. Most women love their children, and, in varying degrees, also love their husbands. Therefore, the woman takes on the burden of double work. They see that it is necessary if the people that they care about are not to suffer hardship. This arrangement ensures Capital a virtually bottomless well of unpaid labor.

But one can ask oneself - isn't it also true that housework creates and maintains the sacrifice ideology? I have previously stated that a woman is an extremely useful economic animal for Capital. But this is dependent upon the woman having a specific psychological structure. The female psychological structure in our society is marked by what is called "relation orientation": she is concerned with, and sensitive to the relations between people, and she is trained to interpret other people's signals, feelings and needs. Women's moral concepts are determined more through consideration of concrete others in her immediate surroundings than by abstract principles about right and wrong. Women do not have the same relationship to their own rights as men do, there are a number of other considerations which must be taken first. And women are used to being secondary in their own lives.

This is, of course, an extremely rough and stereotypical description of the female psychological structure. But it breaks through enough in concrete, living, modern women to make it possible for Capital to keep them in the economic role women are meant to play in our society.

Is there any other activity that is better suited to imprinting and strengthening this type of psychological structure than housework itself? Perhaps this is the reason that the volume of housework reveals itself as being so resistant to technological development? Not only does Capital need women to ensure that housework is carried out, it may well be that it also needs housework to ensure that the "female person", a person who is useful in so many different ways, is created again and again. When you are governed by "care mentality", there is no clear criterion defining when you have provided "enough" care. In this perspective Dag Solstad's and other's interpretations regarding the meaningless and irrational housework appear in a new light. Under capitalism, housework's function is not merely to lower Capital's reproduction costs. Possibly it is also a link in an ever-present socialization process, which will ensure capitalistic society continual new supplies of oppressed women with the "right" psychological structure.

Capitalism against women

The viewpoint on housework which I have presented here, gives other political conclusions than Dalla Costa's view. The relationship between man and woman in the family cannot be seen as a direct, economically exploitive relationship, and the man is not the woman's "class enemy" on the same level as the capitalist. The fact that there exists an, at times extremely sharp, contradiction between woman and man in the family, is clear. For the men it is comfortable to have a private servant in the house. But housework is also work that holds Capital's reproduction costs down. The economic conditions which make unpaid housework necessary, are maintained by capitalism.

Those who place their faith in capitalism abolishing "this technologically and socially outdated, people-consuming toil" will have to wait in vain. This work has advantages for Capital. And Capital's driving force for making housework more efficient is much weaker than for making wage labor more efficient. Since housework takes place outside the capitalistic production process, the capitalists will not directly benefit from it becoming more efficient. They can benefit indirectly, through more women being drawn into wage labor and exploited there. But it is difficult to imagine that Capital's need for labor power will ever be so great that it cannot be combined with double working women, particularly when we know how far the "female person" can stretch herself. In addition, women make up a market with weak buying power. Therefore, the market does not "see" their needs, and it takes a long time before commodities are developed and produced that will meet these needs. Man landed on the moon before cleaning robots existed that could take over the heaviest and saddest portion of housework. This is not because there are greater technological problems in the development of cleaning robots than in the development of space capsules. It is because there are powerful groups who are willing and able to finance a landing on the moon. But women are poor and have little power.

Moreover housework has an ideological and socializational function in addition to the economic. Through housework "the female person" is created and recreated.

For all of these reasons, the women's movement should direct itself against the capitalistic system.


Contents | AKP home page | More in English