Saturday, 6 September 2008

Feminism: just socialism for girls? Part one.

The idea that feminism is simply the ladies' branch of socialism makes me chuckle. (When I hear it, I imagine myself behind the barricades, serving tea and scones to the menfolk as they fight the revolution. I suspect I'd be as shit at armed combat as I am at baking, though, so it's a fantasy that will likely never come true.) People who adhere to this view tend to assume that women's oppression is class-based and that socialism will fix it, meaning feminism is redundant at best, or a form of misguided identity politics at worst.

I've given this stuff a lot of thought. Feminism may indeed be a broad church, but I don't have much problem excluding right wingers from my definition. If your politics ultimately seeks to exclude, oppress or impoverish others, male or female, I'll work with you on specific projects that advance the cause, but you won't make it onto my Christmas card list. This doesn't shed much light on how feminism fits with exclusively class-based politics, though. Here's what I reckon:

1# Women's oppression is in large part a class issue
2# Class analysis doesn't solve all problems anyway

Allow me to rabbit on at length about my opinions on the first point. I'll bore you with the second some other time.

Most of us on the left take some or most key concepts of our class analysis from Marx, but - not to put too fine a point on it - Marx didn't give a rat's arse about women. (Of his three daughters, only one, Eleanor, was allowed to get a job; and that was within the typically female occupation of governess.)

Marx (like most great Western thinkers, to be fair) didn't think of women as individuals as such, but as appendages of men: wives or daughters. The workers Marx theorised about were men. Insofar as Marx worried about women, he assumed they got looked after by wage-earning fathers and husbands. Men had the productive economy to rely on for their subsistence, and women had marriage.

Now, Marx is my homeboy and I don't want to diss him. He produced an extraordinary analysis of capitalism in his day. He's left us with a quandary, though. A woman who stays at home to look after the kids and house doesn't have a relationship to the means of production, and she therefore doesn't have a class. All she has is a marriage to a guy with a wage, who may or may not choose to share that wage equitably with her.

Marx believed that exploitation happens when a capitalist takes the surplus value generated by his worker. The capitalist takes the thing made by the worker, sells it for more than he paid the worker to make it, then keeps the difference. So far, so good. But what this means is that work that is not paid - work done in the home, usually by women - can't be exploited, by definition. Work that isn't paid, and that you don't sell the results of, doesn't create surplus value.

Lefties who don't see the point of feminism tend to assume that the interests of a wage-earning man are the same as those of his at-home wife, and that a man automatically and unfailingly looks after his family. Why assume this? The husband might rise up with his comrades, overthrow capitalism and appropriate the means of production. That's all very nice, but Mrs Working-class has no relationship to the means of production. Her livelihood comes through marriage, and she's just as reliant as before on whatever her husband chooses to share with her. Whether a man gets his income from a capitalist or socialist economy, he might still spend it all at the pub on the way home from work, or withhold it from his wife to control her.

To make Mrs Working-class's plight worse, marriage (her livelihood) gives no guarantee whatsoever that Mr Working-class will help her with the unpaid work needed to run their home (and which may prevent her from going out and making a wage of her own). Many lefties tend to be a lot more interested in democracy and fairness in the important outside world of the economy, but less interested in overthrowing injustice, economic or otherwise, in the home. This has a great deal to do with the fact that women's work isn't paid, and therefore produces no surplus value to be exploited. Women's work isn't paid because it's not important, and it's not important because it isn't paid. Therefore, it doesn't matter that much from a Marxist perspective if a man works eight hours a day outside the home while his wife does 12 hours inside it. Is it just me, or is that a logical gap you can drive a bus through?

All this is why feminists insist that 'the personal is political'. Men of various classes can and do exploit the labour of women. Time use studies show that women, whether they're in paid work or not, tend to do more unpaid work in the home than men, and work longer days (aggregating paid and unpaid work). And unpaid work does have an economic value, by gum. The man who has his tea cooked by his wife doesn't have to buy it. When she darns his socks, he doesn't have to purchase new ones. Her work, including looking after their kids, allows him to go out and earn a wage.

So to recap: being married to someone of a particular class status doesn't automatically give you a class of your own, because it doesn't give you a relationship to the means of production. Marriage doesn't guarantee a woman's material wellbeing, and it doesn't necessarily give a woman the same class interests as her husband. A man of any class can exploit his wife by getting from her free goods and services which he might otherwise have to pay for. Nor does it follow that a change in the sort of economy that man earns his wage from will affect his wife.

Socialism has had a long time to prove that feminism is redundant by addressing these issues. And yet, I've never heard a socialist suggest mounting an overthrow of economic exploitation within the home - only the kind which happens in the economy beyond. This isn't to say that capitalism is a girl's best friend. Rather, I'm saying that socialism - or certain versions of it- hasn't got much of a game plan for solving all the problems on the feminist agenda, and I don't feel quite ready to pack up my feminist tent and go home until it does.

Tune in next time when I rant about all the non-economic forms of oppression that socialism can't fix either.

Part Two now up here! - Julie


artandmylife said...

Great post. I may have to put Marx is my homeboy and I don't want to diss him o a t-shirt

Cactus Kate said...

"being married to someone of a particular class status doesn't automatically give you a class of your own, because it doesn't give you a relationship to the means of production".

Try telling that to the millions of housewives who use the royal words "we", "us" and "ours" then turn their noses up at others who have less than they "think" they do!!

Azlemed said...

I had never thought about the fact that I am currently class-less..... Hubby is middle class, my dad is working class. my mum is middle class (she works as a social worker) but I as an at home mummy have no class according to marx... Anna are u going to lead the charge against this....

Julie said...

Absolutely fantastic post Anna! I've been finding that during my 9 months of staying home I don't seem to quite fit in places that used to be quite comfy, eg answering surveys, so it's great to read your analysis.

I think it's interesting that in most cases where traditional "women's work" is paid it is still largely working class, eg cleaners, ECE workers, cooks, laundry workers, care-giving. Yes there are sometimes elite groups within these occupational groups (chefs spring to mind) but they are often dominated by men.

homepaddock said...

"If your politics ultimately seeks to exclude, oppress or impoverish others ..."

I find the whole concept of class offensive because it does all of that and more.

It sticks labels on people and puts them in boxes, suggests that some people are superior and others inferior; judges people on what they do and have...

It's an affront to freedom and equality.

Anna McM said...

Marx didn't theorise class relations because he supported the idea of having different classes. I don't support it either.

I don't think there's any denying that how much material wealth a person has affects their opportunities in life, no matter how much you prize the idea of freedom. Talking about it may be unpleasant, but you can't do much about it if you don't talk about it.

homepaddock said...

Anna - you are right that more money generally provides more opportunities -but that's an issue of income and education not class.

Talking about the issues isn't unpleasant but classifying people is.

Anna McM said...

Income and education are class.

homepaddock said...

Income and education are facts; class is a label based on the erroneous theory you can file people by what they have and do.

Anna McM said...

That's not an understanding of the idea of class that I've come across before. Usually it describes how much someone has (capital, cultural capital, etc), rather than desribe what kind of person they are. There are often correlations between class and different types of behaviour (eg poor people are more likely to smoke, rich people are more likely to own their own homes), but I don't see that as 'filing' people as much as describing different social phenomena.

Carol said...

Thanks for addressing this important topic so articulately and clearly, Anna McM.. I agree with many of your points here, but as you say, feminism is a broad church. While I agree with some of Marx’s ideas, I don’t see feminism as being as strongly bound up with class as you do.

In a nutshell, for me feminism means wanting freedom from any kind of oppression, injustice or misogyny that women experience. However, the experience of this differs for women according to their situation/s. i.e. class inequalities are experienced more by some women than others, as are those to do with racism, sexuality etc. e.g. some women with high-powered jobs & quite a bit of money, pay other poorer less powerful women a inadequate wage to do their housework.

Anna McM said...

Thanks Carol :-). I do see feminism as being bound up with class, but not exclusively so. There's a huge bunch of women's issues which a class analysis won't explain - and one of these days, I'll get round to writing about all that in part two!

feministblogproject said...

This is a great post - you do a much better job of articilating my problems with socialism than I ever did.

I'm a capitalist, although I don't find anything inherently evil about socialism . . . I just have a lot of problems with it, some of those problems being from a feminist standpoint. I just can't trust that a socialist system would be inherently less sexist.

Plus, as you said, there's definitely more to sexism than just class.

Carol said...

Yes, Anna, I look forward to your next post on the topic. Your explanations are very readable and set me thinking. I just wanted to flag up that there’s different feminist explanations. In practice tho, I think we probably criticise and support most of the same behaviour and actions. And for me Marx and socialist feminists have been important influences - Foucault and various post-structuralist feminists even more so.

Basically, I think capitalism, patriarchal forces, racism etc are fairly separate and operate a little differently according to the context. They sometimes overlap and influence each other, sometimes intersect, sometimes work together and sometimes are totally antagonistic to each other. Also I think capitalism is agnostic on those other forms of oppression. Consequently, it will use anti-sexism/feminism (and/or anti-racism) if there’s a profit in it – as has McCain in his choice of Veep.

But I’m also opposed to all forms of systematic oppression and social injustice that impact on some men as well as some women, like those relating to class, sexuality and ‘race’/ethnicity.

And, feministblogproject, I do think capitalism (especially rampant free-market capitalism) produces major inequalities and injustices for most women (and many men) - more so than any socialist system - but I also think there's more alternatives than just the extremes of these two: ie more than one way to resist capitalism.