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International Socialism, September 1976


Irene Breugel

Once More on Wages for Housework

A reply to Elana Dallas and Judith Hamilton


From International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, p.15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Elana Dallas and Judith Hamilton were so anxious to outrightly reject wages for housework in their article in IS 90 that they went overboard, reaching the position that demands for any ‘transfer payments’ (i.e. such benefits as family allowances, old age pensions and social security) which go to housewives are reactionary. Such a position cannot be allowed to stand as that of a serious revolutionary organisation. (Indeed the anger expressed by Womens Voice at the sellout on child benefits suggests that in practice IS does not accept this position.)

In my review of All Work and No Pay (IS 89) I too rejected wages for housework using arguments Dallas and Hamilton reiterate. I then went on to question how such a demand can attract support and how revolutionary socialists should respond to it. It is not sufficient to show wages for housework to be wrongheaded in terms of a marxist analysis; to counter the movement one needs to recognise that its attraction does have an objective basis in the failure of the marxist eft to take up the question of the financial dependence of the majority of adult women.

Instead of taking up this question, Dallas and Hamilton fall into the trap of regarding all ‘transfer payments’ which go to housewives as forms of wages for housework and hence into the untenable position of rejecting some of the hard won gains of the working class which make up the welfare state. But payments like family allowances, maternity benefit, attendance allowances which in the main go to housewives are not wages for housework. They are not paid for work done but on the basis of need, albeit bureaucratically defined need. Only incidenally do they provide a small element of independent income for married women who are not employed. If they were all the wages for housework movement wanted we should perhaps support it and demand a change of name. But, as I pointed out in my review, wages for housework is not so much about a demand but a whole strategy; the wages for housework movement is concerned to replace the struggle for wages at work and that for social provisions (such as nurseries) by a struggle for wages for housework as the central strategy of the working class. They locate a primary contradiction of capitalism in the unpaid nature of housework; their demand for wages is deliberate (contrary to what Dallas and Hamilton imply). It is an attempt to assert that housewives bear exactly the same relationship to capital as any factory worker and hence their struggle as housewives is as important, if not more so than that of the organised working class.

To equate the demand for increased benefits to women with wages for housework is playing right into the hands of that movement. It serves to reinforce their claim that they and they alone are concerned with the general struggle for working class living standards (as opposed to the struggle for wages) and for women’s liberation.

Dallas and Hamilton fall into the trap of rejecting benefits by failing to appreciate the dynamic of class struggle, adopting a mechanic analysis and failing to appreciate the specific form of women’s oppression and the demands appropriate to that.

On the first point, while it is true in the last analysis that transfer payments do not in themselves increase the share of the social product going to the working class, as in the long run capital will drive that share down to subsistence level, this tendency does not invalidate a struggle for social payments and expenditure any more than it does the wages struggle. This is particularly true today where the state controls 50 per cent of the National Product and hence, through taxes, benefits and pricing policies, affects working class living standards as much as the immediate wages struggle does. This means that the class struggle does extend beyond the industrial struggle, to include such questions as family support.

Dallas and Hamilton justify their stance that family allowance type benefits only involve a transfer within the working class by citing the child benefit scheme. Their example is faulty. Quite apart from the fact that the whittl-ing away of family allowances from 8.2 per cent of the average industrial wage in 1945 to a mere 3 per cent today has distributed income away from the working class on a large scale (see J. Kincaid: Poverty and Equality in Britain), the Child Benefit scheme as set out by Barbara Castle was redistributive: by withdrawing the regressive tax allowances and pumping (some) money into the system, a large family on £40 a week stood to gain £7.50 all told while a supertax paying family was to lose nearly £5 a week (£12 coming from the man). Child benefits were dropped as much because of this redistributive element and the additional treasury expenditure as the publicised reason – its impact on the acceptability of the pay policy.

On the second point; even if transfer payments did not increase the income of the working class family as a whole, they could still be important in the struggle against capitalism. Redistribution within the working class to the old, the sick and children does represent a victory for working class values and aspirations against those of the market; the NHS for example, in theory at least, aids the sick on the basis of need and not ability to pay. Redistribution of ‘family’ income towards housewives reduces their dependence on men and the familv and is a direct attack on their oppression. Dallas’s and Hamilton’s apparent belief that only the size of the total family wage and not who controls it matters, ignores power relations within the family and the prevalence of male chauvinism.

Redistribution of income towards housewives is in itself of course no more than a reform. Dallas and Hamilton imply that any such improvement would undermine the fight for higher wages, for women’s right to work and for the liberation of women from housework. But that is an oversimplistic approach to class consciousness and class struggle, reminiscent of the thesis that impoverishment brings revolution. With the revolution we would be in a position to abolish housework and would do that rather than attempt to improve the conditions a housewife works in. But today we need to fight to improve housewives’ conditions as a means of involving them in the struggle for socialism and the ultimate abolition of housework.

Of course we have to be wary that demands for a redistribution of income to housewives are not used to keep women in the home and need to insist that any benefits go to all housewives, not simply those who agree to stay at home while their children are young, as has been proposed recently. (But even where such a scheme does operate, as in France, it seems to have done nothing to stem the rate at which women with young children do go out to work, which is higher than that here.)

Above all we must not counterpose the demands for an independent income on the one hand to those for the right to work and for the necessary social facilities on the other. This is precisely the mistake that the wages for housework movement makes. Just as there is no contradiction between demanding unemployment benefit at the level of the average wage and fighting for the right to work, so too is there no contradiction between fighting for increased benefits to housewives and demanding the right of women to work. Indeed a precondition for involving many women in political struggle at all is that they gain a measure of independence from their husbands.

Demands for the socialisation of housework are fundamental to any revolutionary socialist organisation concerned to fight for women’s liberation. But they are not sufficient. While housework continues to exist we must aim to make it just as much men’s work as women’s, because otherwise the participation of women in wage labour under capitalism merely doubles their work and cuts many off from the fight against their oppression.

A revolutionary strategy for women’s liberation must involve attacking the oppression of the family today, that is fighting to break the dependence of women on men in all relevant ways – the rights of women to work, equal pay, social provisions and family benefits to be paid to the mother – recognising of course that at any point in time some demands will be strategically more important than others. The rejection of wages for housework as a demand should not lead us into rejecting all demands for improvements in the housewife’s situation but into placing these in the context of the fight for the abolition of housework altogether.

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