MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

Wages for Housework and Strategies of Revolutionary Fantasy

The great merit of Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community is their challenge of certain Marxist views that the “capitalist family did not produce for capitalism, was not part of social production, (so that) it followed that they repudiated women’s potential social power....” and the consequence of that kind of analysis, which makes housewives socially “invisible” in proletarian struggle, and leaves the massive laboring population of women in the home virtually outside of the organizations and struggles of the proletariat.

While we owe a debt to James and Dalla Costa for raising the general level of debate on the entire question of women under capitalism, we are still constrained to engage in debate if we find the analysis to be incorrect. I do believe that the analysis is incorrect. Furthermore, I believe that it leads to strategic consequences which in practice are self-defeating and divisive. This commentary will focus upon the strategic consequences of the analysis.

The Mystery of Wages

Their analysis suffers from two catastrophic errors. The first is the assertion that women’s work is “unwaged” and the second is that the family is really a “social factory.” The heart of the problem is our understanding of what the family under capitalism is. While we do not accept that it is a “factory,” we do accept that it is a production unit. Under capitalism the family produces a commodity, human labor power (an individual’s ability to work which is sold as a commodity, so that the seller has no claim on the product of his labor, and which must be produced like any other commodity). If we follow the labor theory of value, the value of human labor power is equivalent to the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce and reproduce it. Thus the value of human labor power is based upon all the socially necessary labor time expended by the entire family, to feed, clothe, rest, recreate, comfort, restore and educate those individuals taking their labor power to market.

The value of labor power is thus determined by the labor that it took, in the family unit, to produce and reproduce it in the first place. However, under capitalism, the origin of the value of labor power as determined by the collective labor of family members is mystified, disguised, hidden by the individualized and contractual relations under which labor power is bought and sold. Thus, it appears that when individual workers, male or female, contract with a capitalist employer to sell their labor power they do so as free individuals selling the commodity of their ability to work, in the same way that capitalists as private owners sell their commodities (produced by the workers, but upon which the workers have no claim). However, in reality, a wage (the price of labor power, which is not the same as the real value of labor power) belongs to the unit which produced the commodity, the family (which basically means the housewife and her domestic labor). It is because of the mystifying capitalist relations in which labor power is bought and sold in the labor market that the wage appears to be paid only to an individual worker.

This mystification leads to the relationship within the marriage contract in which the wife appears to be dependent upon her husband’s productive labor (labor power that produces surplus value for the capitalist) and secondly, that the wage “belongs” to the husband alone, and is therefore his by right, and his to control. The wife thus appears to stand “outside” of capitalism: her work belongs to her husband (in return for her board and room), is no more than the production of use values (work which is useful but does not produce commodities) and therefore her labor is “outside” of capitalist production.

Of course, it is not true that the labor of the wife produces only use values for the husband, who then provides for her subsistence in return for these services. What is true is that the labor of the wife, and the children and every other family member who helps out in the home, are producing commodities: the one, essential, fundamental commodity under capitalism, human labor power itself! However, as long as the true function of the family is hidden by capitalist market relations in the sale of labor power, the capitalist is able to systematically undervalue the price (wage) of labor power by contracting with individual units (the worker) instead of contracting with the entire production unit (the family).

The severe undervaluation of labor power enables the capitalist to pay such wretched wages that wives are increasingly forced into the capitalist labor market, i.e., families are so undercompensated for their product, labor power, that both husband and wife must work directly for the capitalist. For the wife, this is super-exploitation: she is not compensated for her labor in producing labor power at its real value in the home, and she then is exploited a second time when she works in the labor force.

Thus, the first error in the James-Dalla Costa analysis is the presentation of the wife as being unwaged, while we have seen that her “wages” are really a part of the wages of the husband. James and Dalla Costa reify the very mystification that serves capitalism so well! That is, they accept that the wage belongs to the husband, making the husband some kind of “boss” over the wife in the home “factory.” The James-Dalla Costa analysis fails to carry out one of the principal tasks of Marxian analysis, which is to go under the appearances and mystifications produced by capitalist relations of production to the perception of the actual relations of production. In the true relations of production of which the family is a part, the husband and wife are in fact partners in a single production process, and wages are really payment for the product of that production partnership. In short, the wife is not a dependent, but is in truth a partner.

Therefore, the real task of Marxists in regard to the family is to destroy the veils of mystification which serve to 1) pit wife against husband, and 2) permit the systematic undervaluation of labor power. How can we do this? By demonstrating to working men and women, to working-class wives and families, how they are being cheated by the capitalists and how the capitalists have turned wives against husbands to keep wives from turning on the real bosses and thieves and oppressors: the capitalists. In this way, working-class husbands can come to understand that the price of petty tyranny over a wife is perpetual impoverishment; wives can come to understand that the husband is not a “boss” and not the real oppressor and that the impoverishment of the entire family is a product of the capitalists’ ability to deny the wife’s and the family’s rightful claim to repayment at its real value for the labor expended in producing the commodity of labor power.

Revolutionary Fantasies

These errors in the basic James-Dalla Costa analysis lead, in turn, to profound problems in strategy and tactics as they are manifested in the “wages for housework” or “power of women” movements. First, the mystification of wages contained in the analysis (in conjunction with a correct appreciation of the family as the unit for the production and reproduction of labor power) produces in practice (in the translation of written ideas into concrete action in everyday life) an antagonistic attitude towards men in general, as if working-class men were somehow “responsible” for the psychological oppression and economic dependency of wives.

Materials with this analysis which have been translated from Italian show a marked tendency to identify all housewives, irrespective of their social class, as “oppressed” workers. This leads to positing “woman as a class” and the conclusion that an upper middle-class woman and a working-class woman have more in common with each other as “wageless” workers than working-class wives have with their working-class husbands. The woman-as-class (or caste) argument leads to the promotion of serious divisions within the working class; it leads working-class women into disastrous alliances with bourgeois women’s organizations; above all, it attacks the development of class consciousness in working-class women, serving to strengthen the bourgeois ideology of “men as the enemy” and “women as caste,” which is so destructive to the struggle for the emancipation of women.

The argument that begins “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power” leads to a tactic-as-strategy calling for a “general strike of housewives.” This argument is hopelessly idealist. It is a “logical” deduction from an incorrect analysis that results in a completely illogical revolutionary fantasy. In the first case, a general strike of housewives (a tactic which seems to have fallen upon deaf ears since it was first proposed in ancient Greece) would not bring capitalism to a halt, although it would impose untold suffering upon the few working-class households it might be visited upon. Any number of unmarried men make it to work each morning, although infants do not manage on their own with the same ease. Furthermore, in a number of industries using migrant labor, unmarried workers are herded into barracks during the week and provided with prostitutes every Saturday night in both Europe and North America.

It is not true that the nuclear family is indispensable to capitalism. Profitable and useful, yes, but where it is not profitable and useful, it is dispensed with quickly enough. Thus, a “general strike of housewives” would turn husband against wife, for such a “strike” in fact would be against husbands and children, while it would leave capitalism untouched. In fact, the capitalists doubtless laugh themselves to sleep at night thinking of such an ideal situation: to have husbands and wives fighting each other with as much energy as capital has been able to generate between black and white workers!

Finally, the very demand “wages for housework” is, in practice, reformist and counterrevolutionary. John Kenneth Galbraith has already made a plea for a program of wages for housework. Galbraith is the real spokesman for that class of technocrats whom we may thank for the “war on poverty,” the “triple revolution” and other programs for the containment of possible North American proletarian revolution. As Lenin pointed out long ago in his debates with the Economists, the easiest and cheapest concessions capital can make are those around wages and economic bribes. The objective result of the demand “wages for housework” would be a reformist campaign (energetically supported by the petty-capitalist owners and editors of Ms. magazine). The demand would probably be granted, amidst sighs of relief from the bourgeoisie, to all housewives (including those “oppressed” sisters whose husbands make $50,000 a year) in the form of petty “home allowances” to housewives. The “concession” would have to come from the state, out of the taxes of the working class: thus the working-class family would not gain an extra penny. Indeed, they would lose money, because out of their taxes would come the “family allowances” for the middle and upper middle-class women. Thus, portions of the working class’s wages that might go to feed families or educate children or provide health care would be used as pin money by already significantly privileged but psychologically “oppressed” women. The question of tax-fund allocation aside, such “home allowances” or “wages for housewives” would permit capital to undervalue wages even more. Far from “liberating” housewives by providing them some of their “own spending money” the real consequence would be to force even more women onto the labor market.

What James and Dalla Costa have done on the positive side is to raise the debate about the real nature of the family and the true function of domestic labor. In that regard, the debate has also focused on the biases and sexism that crept into Marxism to distort the analysis of women and of the family. On the negative side, the “wages for housework” movement has produced objectively counterrevolutionary fantasy in the place of genuine revolutionary program.


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