Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time
The East Coast network Fire Next Time recently posted this dialogue between two of their members, Zora and Ba Jin, contrasting Silvia Federici and Selma James. The post argues that Federici’s Marxist-Feminist understanding of primitive accumulation in her book, Caliban and the Witch, forefronts global migration, colonization, and international connections among women and people of color. On the other hand, the post asserts, James’ Marxist-Feminist analysis centers on the U.S.-centric housewife role and only secondarily takes up the question of waged women’s work and Third World and Black Feminism. The post further critiques Wages for Housework as a liberal feminist goal, arguing that “it seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism.” In response to this post, I feel the need to clear a few things up and ask some questions in the spirit of comradely debate.
1. Why force a wedge between Federici and James?
Federici and James are a part of the same Marxist-Feminist tendency. A third person I would put in this longstanding tendency is Mariarosa Dalla Costa, who co-wrote “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community” with James, and still writes alongside Federici for The Commoner journal. In fact, in the “Preface” to Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, she writes:
“The thesis which inspired this research was first articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, as well as other activists in the Wages for Housework Movement, in a set of documents in the 1970s that were very controversial, but eventually reshaped the discourse on women, reproduction, and capitalism .”
Furthermore, Federici wrote pamphlets in support of Wages for Housework in the 1970s. In addition to their theoretical contributions, Dalla Costa, Federici, and James have done similar organizing through the years, for example with sex workers and in communities in the third world.
It is not clear what James’ and Federici’s relationship is today, but in discussing their contributions between (roughly) 1950 and 1980, their arguments (both historically and theoretically) strengthen and uphold one another. The following will explain why.
2. James’ analysis of the housewife and reproductive work under capitalism.
First, I would like to look more closely at James’ discussion of the housewife. At face value, the housewife is a one-sided experience at best, and a dated concept at worst. As Zora describes,
“The whole wages for housework thing seems alienating for me, because it’s not applicable to that many people in the U.S. There is a history here of women of color being pushed into waged domestic work, in which you weren’t paid that much, and your worker’s rights weren’t protected. So it has already been capitalized on. You pushed multiple groups of people, who were not white women, into this domestic work to take care of white women’s children. And the wages for housework thing makes me think, “Well is that your end goal? To be co-opted by capitalism, and to make your work legitimate under capitalism?” It seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism instead of addressing how capitalism is reaching all the way down into reproduction, and developing a strategy to combat that, beyond just demanding wages.”
However, James’ methodology (along with Federici’s) is much more complex than Zora acknowledges. James discusses the particular, or one-sided expression of the division of labour under capitalism, in conversation with the totality of social relations. James explicitly acknowledges that the experience of the unwaged domestic labourer is one particular experience of the many different types of labour due to the capitalist division of labour. For example, consider the following quote from James’ pamphlet, “Sex, Race and Class:”
[James quoting Marx's Capital] “‘Manufacture…develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If on the one hand, the individual laborers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the laborers according to both their natural and their acquired abilities.’
“In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and pensioners who are wageless, who are ‘dependents.’
“A hierarchy of labor powers and a scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature, fixture our functions for life, and fixing also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour.” [Sex, Race and Class p. 96].
Under the capitalist division of labour, we become our jobs. We are relegated into one form of work (we are teachers, bus drivers, call center workers, etc.) that we are to perform over and over again. Marx calls this alienation. Capitalism has a gendered and racialized hierarchical division of labour, where certain kinds of work, as James points out, are “naturalized,” to people of color, women, and children.
These forms of work are historically de-valued under capital, and therefore women’s labour power is de-valued, a point that Federici explains in her account of primitive accumulation. Further, the appearance of the value of labour power is the wage, and so women’s work is unwaged and/or underwaged. This means that the housewife’s position in the division of labour as an unwaged worker, is tied to an immigrant domestic worker’s low-waged position, and a school teacher’s position, etc.
James’ work in this area was an important step for challenging Orthodox Marxism’s assertion that class struggle only took place in the factory. These arguments could be extended to feudal peasantry, for example, arguing that the peasantry in countries who had not yet been colonized by capitalism had their own unique communist potential.
3. Wages for Housework and reformism.
As noted above, Zora and Ba Jin question whether Wages for Housework is a revolutionary demand, hinting that it echos liberal feminist assimilation/”equality” politics. While I do think it’s important to question the relevance of Wages for Housework (a point taken up below in section 4), I disagree that it can be chalked up to liberal feminism so easily.
The first reason is that Wages for Housework must be placed in its historical context. It was a demand made between the 1950s and 1970s in the US and Europe. It is the absolutely correct approach to make demands appropriate to your time and location. We cannot criticize James for not making international demands when there is not a strong international women’s movement. We cannot put form before content.
Furthermore, the Wages for Housework campaign existed at the height of the women’s liberation movement, which demanded “Equal Wages for Equal Work,” and an opportunity to enter into the workforce. This was a purely economic demand that the Marxist-Feminism tendency (including James) fiercely argued against. According to the Marxist-Feminists, such a strategy would allow capital to absorb the feminist movement by creating additional labour power. The alternative, Wages for Housework, would have caused increased devastation to capital by forcing profit concessions for unwaged domestic labour. In other words, James argued that equality politics would add labour to women’s plates instead of forcing capital to relinquish profits for work already being done.
This anti-capitalist strategy was placed alongside the Marxist-Feminist goal of breaking down the patriarchy of the wage; women’s existence would no longer be mediated by their husband’s wage. When viewed in this context, Wages for Housework was a political demand, not purely economic.
4. Is the housewife/unwaged reproductive labour relevant today?
This brings us to the question of whether Wages for Housework as a demand is relevant today. Zora and Ba Jin argue, as many others have, that because women of color have for a long time received wages for domestic work performed in white women’s homes, and in the service industry, Wages for Housework does not apply to them. However, this argument ignores the material reality that most unwaged domestic labour is still done by women in the home; this is on top of the waged work performed outside the home. Consider the following quote from The Monthly Review, citing the Bureau of Labor Time Use Survey:
“Women are still primarily responsible for raising children and taking care of the house. Although there has been an increase in the number of single-father-headed households and the amount of child care done by fathers in general, there continues to be a large gap between the average hours that mothers and fathers devote to raising children. Contrary to the popular view that many young fathers are leaving the labor force to care for their children, the labor force participation rate for fathers with children under three years old is 95 percent: higher than any other group. Even when both parents work outside the home and fathers share in child-care tasks, mothers are more likely to take jobs with flexible hours that allow them to drop off and pick up children from school or take the day off when the children are sick. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working women with small children spend more than twice the hours per day doing primary child-care activity than their spouses. Husbands do a slightly greater share of household tasks but still average only about half of the work done by their wives.”
Researchers in Britain are drawing similar conclusions. We can couple these comments with anecdotes about generations of children of color being raised by single mothers, sisters, aunties, and abuelas. This is compounded by material conditions such as the hyper-incarceration of men of color, as Zora notes: men of color are oftentimes physically unable to contribute to unwaged domestic labour in the home.
In essence, Wages for Housework is actually more relevant for women of color and immigrant women than the white women who do not do domestic labour in their own homes.
However, women of color accessing waged work does complicate James’ and Federici’s arguments about the patriarchy of the wage. Under these conditions, patriarchy does not appear as a wage-relationship between a man and woman in the home (i.e. her existence is not mediated by her husband’s wage). But one could counter that since the gendered wage gap exists among people of color, women of color in some ways still mediate their existence through men’s wages. Furthermore, this problem only complicates Wages for Housework as a strategy to break down the patriarchy of the wage; it does not upset its potential to impare capital, while winning material gains for the class as a whole.
5. For the last 60 years, James has forefronted third world women and women of color in her analysis.
Putting the housewife and Wages for Housework aside, James is now over 60 years deep into her work as a Marxist-Feminist theorist and organizer. It is not enough to look at one aspect of her work and assume it is the end-all/be-all of her politics. As an alternative, I encourage Zora and Ba Jin to check out James’ recently released anthology, Sex, Race and Class and note that a majority of the pieces forefront women of color and the third world, tackling women’s interest in topics such and Israeli Apartheid, the U.S. Coup in Haiti, State Capitalism in Venezuela, etc.
In addition, James explicitly acknowledges the links between the housewife figure and unwaged/underwaged feminized labour in the global division of labor in her pieces, “The Global Kitchen,” and “Strangers and Sisters: Women, Race and Immigration.” And finally, these politics are most impressively filled out, in conversation with defending the subjectivity of the peasantry in the essay, “Wageless of the World.”
6. Second Wave Feminism’s Subjectivist Methodology.
Finally, I want to clarify what I see as the flaws of second wave feminism, how successive feminist currents have not only failed to rectify those flaws, but actually replicated them. I am unclear whether Zora and Ba Jin would agree with this assessment because the post does not go into detail on what they mean by “Black Feminism” and how it overcomes the limitations of second wave feminism. I would like to hear more from them on this.
For me, the pitfall of second wave feminism is that it was rooted in subjectivist identity politics, which overemphasized the individual one-sided expression of capitalism, conflating the particular with the totality. This was characterized by consciousness-raising circles, for example, which encouraged women to find their voices and express their experiences. These were (and are) an essential part of building up women and oppressed people as revolutionary leaders, but it cannot replace a political program for organization. The downfall of such a method, as has been pointed out by many, is that an objectively white feminist movement conflated their experience under the capitalist division of labour with ALL women’s experiences, or the totality of experiences. However, the response has generally been to replicate second wave feminism’s subjectivism, by relying on “intersectionality theory,” which seeks to merely add on one-sided expressions of capitalism to white women’s expressions, again conflating the particular with the totality. More specifically, intersectionality theory creates a list of one-sided expressions of the division of labour (being Black, disabled, queer, etc.), treating these identities as static and universal. Instead of focusing on what is the historical unity between these identities, intersectionality theory is trapped in the logic of identity, which replicates the individualism and alienation of capitalism, and conflates the particular with the totality. A person is then a queer, Black bus driver, instead of those three aspects being different expressions, or sides, of the totality of relations under capitalism.
Marx, on the other hand, offers the concept of “moments of expression,” which place a particular one side of capitalism in conversation with the totality of social relations. He writes, in the Grundrisse:
“When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create” (712).
This is the methodology that James, Dalla Costa, Federici, and other Marxist-Feminists sought to expand. An entire post could be written on the bankruptcy of intersectionality theory, but the goal here is to identify and dissect the Marxist-Feminist methodology and how it differs from the subjectivist methodology of second wave feminism. Further, I aim to dispute the counterposition of James and Federici, and to facilitate further conversation about the Marxist-Feminist tendency. I welcome comments from Zora, Ba Jin, others in Fire Next Time, and anyone else, in the hopes of fleshing this out more.