It can be difficult to reach agreement about the advantages that socialism would bring for women’s lives, development, and well-being. It is perhaps easier to concur on the diagnosis that capitalism is driving humanity and the planet to misery, destruction, and barbarism.
Just 15 years ago, the average income of the 100 richest households in the United States was 108,765 times higher than that of the poorest 90 percent of households. If we compare this ratio to other moments in history, we can say that the difference in material wealth is equivalent to that which existed between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman Empire. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has been ravaging the world since the beginning of 2020, has only deepened these aberrant contradictions. Amazon is a horrifying metaphor of this: it employs hundreds of thousands of precarious workers — who are subjected to exhausting workdays, who lack the right to unionize, and who keep the economy moving in exchange for meager wages — while the company’s owner saw his wealth increase by an additional $72 billion, during this short period when more than 4.5 million people died.
Thursday, March 10, 7pm BST / 2pm EST: The Left Book Club Presents: Bread and Roses, by Andrea D’Atri
The crisis triggered by Covid-19 only accelerated trends that have long been developing. But beyond that, it also showed that the contradictions of capitalism are not only economic but also ecological and reproductive. The dire capitalist axiom that profits are more important than lives was revealed, in an obscene way, to millions of human beings. With each capitalist crisis, this contradiction becomes increasingly unacceptable. That is why, as many pundits agree, the ideas of socialism are being re-created among the younger generations, even in the very heart of the imperialist countries.
Tied Up Tight and Tighter
In 2019, before the coronavirus spread around the planet, women represented 50 percent of the world’s working-age population, yet they accounted for only 39 percent of the total working population. Women were more likely than men to work under conditions of precariousness and informality, especially in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. More than 21 percent of women of working age are engaged in unpaid care work full time, compared to only 1.5 percent of men in the same condition.
In the same year, 13 million women and girls under the age of 20 became mothers — yet in 119 countries, access to abortion is restricted. Only 38 countries prohibit the firing of pregnant workers, while 86 countries do not count time spent caring for children toward pensions. In 2018, 52 percent of people over the age of 15 living with HIV were women, and that proportion has been steadily increasing since 1990.
With the pandemic, preexisting gender gaps only widened. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum in Davos estimated that it would take more than 135 years to eliminate gender inequalities in the world — some 36 years longer than they had estimated in 2020. Government decisions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic succeeded in delaying by another generation what, in their terms, they believe to be the goal of gender equality.
What is truly utopian is believing that this gap will be reduced, sooner or later, by simply letting capitalism follow its course — or in a more progressive version, by letting social movements demonstrate and democratic legislators pass laws to narrow the gender gap. Today, in the United States, women are facing a rollback of abortion rights. We have seen the same ebbs and flows in the Spanish State in recent years. In Switzerland, marriage equality was passed; in Afghanistan, women are again forced to cover their entire bodies to go out into the streets. Capitalism is not in a moment of development — it is in a moment of survival through recurrent crises. For this system to recover, it will need to leave a trail of destruction of productive forces in its wake. And even if we were to imagine, fancifully, that the neoliberal order could prosper, in which countries would it prosper, and at whose expense? Global care chains are there to show us the answer. When women in the most advanced countries can catch up to men in their working or academic careers, this is largely because the unpaid labor needed to reproduce their labor power has been outsourced to other poor, immigrant, and Black and Brown women.
There are no laws or increases in gross domestic product that can change this situation. It is one of the tightest knots that capitalism has created. It is impossible to untie it within this system.
Unpaid Labor and More Unpaid Labor
Domestic labor is not controlled by the capitalists directly. Nonetheless, capitalists benefit from keeping a large part of the labor necessary to reproduce the labor force in the private sphere. In this way, wages do not need to cover all the costs of reproducing the wage laborer. A part of these tasks is covered by wage laborers themselves, in their homes, without any remuneration. Of course, the vast majority of those who do such work — whether they have paid employment or not — are women. In other words, unpaid reproductive labor, which is mostly carried out by women in their homes, indirectly increases the amount of surplus value that capitalists extract from the exploitation of wage labor.
Thus, although the oppression of women has its roots in the emergence of class society in ancient times, capitalism reformulates this subordination by rendering it functional to the mechanism of extracting surplus value. It fetishizes the production of commodities, thus hiding the existence of surplus labor through the payment of wages. And at the same time, it keeps the “domestic component” of labor, necessary for the reproduction of that very special commodity known as labor power, separated from the sphere of production. For this reason, different Marxist feminist authors argue that domestic labor, the unpaid labor of social reproduction, or what in a broader sense can be called care work, as it exists for the broad masses, is an authentic product of capitalist society.
Sustaining such colossal inequality requires a great deal of ideological pressure, so that individuals accept this norm as their own desire. In other words, men and women end up believing that what women do is not unpaid labor but love. Therefore, romantic love — among other things — is also an invention of capitalism.
Capitalism, which could unravel the mysteries of nature and the cosmos, cannot fully eliminate the prejudices, dictates, and stereotypes that establish what a woman is, what a good woman should be like, what her rights and responsibilities are, what her aspirations and actions should be. This “gender obscurantism” contains a large part of the ideological justification for the idea that unpaid labor is love, and that this love corresponds to women. Any woman who challenges these profound and ancestral preconceptions about her gender, at any point, is liable to be mocked, held in contempt, humiliated, coerced economically or legally, beaten, or killed.
This is why we reiterate that there is no social development policy, no extraordinary economic prosperity, nor any marvelous gender legislation that can completely eliminate the oppression of women, emancipate them, or even provide full equality with men — in any capitalist democracy, and even in the most advanced countries.
Paraphrasing Marx and Engels, we call socialism “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.” And this “present state of things” is one in which a small minority gets obscenely wealthy, even in the middle of a pandemic, at the expense of the increasingly precarious labor of the big majorities, whose reproduction as a labor force depends inexorably on the unpaid labor of women.
Liberating Time from the Capitalist Clock
Capitalism, fueled by its inherent drive for competition, rapidly decreases the socially necessary labor time to produce goods. More products in less time means cheaper products and more consumption. For the capitalists, this means higher profits. For the majority of workers, men and women, this means ever greater robbery: in the time it used to take to make a certain commodity, now 100 are produced, but the person who produces them receives the same salary. This is because they are not paid for what they produce; rather, their labor power is rented for a certain period of time. The capitalist relies on the super-exploitation of a sector of the working class with high rates of production, overtime, and exhausting workdays in one extreme, while a great mass of workers remain unemployed or in ultra-precarious jobs, to push down the wages of the employed.
Andrea D’Atri’s book, Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism, is now available from Pluto Press. Check out the preface to the English edition.
Developments in science and technology have made it possible for labor to reach such a high level of productivity. This technology could also make it possible to greatly reduce the labor time employed in the production and reproduction of the material conditions of society’s existence. That is what we as socialists are proposing: reducing the necessary labor to a minimum, so that all people can develop their human abilities in art, science, sports, and care for others and for the planet. We would all work, spending much less time doing so than we currently do to earn our salary. Of course, this would undermine the capitalists’ profits, and they will resist any attempt to remove their privileges. (This means confronting their laws, their courts, their police, and their armies — but also confronting the divisions they impose in our ranks through religions, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny.) Nothing new under the sun: socialism is the real movement that expresses itself, in embryonic form, in the constant struggle of the working class to liberate itself from the yoke of exploitation. This includes hours stolen from the bosses with a day of excused absence, and also the historic struggle to reduce the working day to eight hours; this includes winning the right to paid vacations and the organization of unions, but also establishing workers’ control of production. A movement of insurrectionary slaves, of all genders.
The Revolution Is Permanent or It Is Nothing
Will overthrowing capitalism and building the foundations of a new socialist society be enough to end the oppression of women? No, but they are a necessary step.
We pointed out earlier that all the gender prejudices, dictates, and stereotypes that are reproduced to maintain discrimination against women are rooted in the material conditions of capitalist social reproduction and production. It is, however, easier to seize power than to dissolve prejudice. It is logical that such prejudices will persist even when the material conditions that made them possible have been profoundly changed. Therefore, the emancipation of women is not an automatic result to be awaited after the mere assault “on the Winter Palaces” and the socialization of the means of production, as Stalinist “comrades” and others have claimed, distorting Marxism into a miserable economistic caricature.
But the socialization of domestic labor and care work, through the construction of communal housing and other establishments (restaurants, laundries, schools, kindergartens, nursing homes, home care) and recreational spaces (parks, athletic fields, clubs, cultural centers), removing them from the private sphere of the home, transforming them into jobs carried out by paid workers, men and women, is a necessary basis to begin to eliminate “domestic slavery” that, in practice, prevents women from exercising and enjoying, in equality with men, their “equal” rights — where they have one them.
Thursday, March 10, 7pm BST / 2pm EST: The Left Book Club Presents: Bread and Roses, by Andrea D’Atri
The coming generations, liberated from the unpaid double working day, having won the reduction of the working day to a minimum, will gradually dissolve sexist prejudices and will find new definitions for love that are not tied to silent sacrifice, invisible labor, and unconditional surrender.
We do not promise that socialism will be an immediate paradise for women. But how true it is that the struggle for a society without the exploitation of human labor to benefit a parasitic minority, which requires the subordination of women in the invisible and unpaid daily labor to reproduce this immense labor force, is the only struggle that makes our lives more livable! To be part of the present state of things, or to be part of the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things”? Choose.
First published in Catalan in the magazine Catarsi, no. 5, Fall/Winter 2021.
Translation (from Spanish) by Nathaniel Flakin.