The Covid pandemic brings into focus how the distinction between productive and reproductive labour oppresses women – Editors
Marx shows us how, under capitalism, there is a distinction between ‘productive labour’ which is work done for pay that produces surplus value for the capitalist, and ‘reproductive labour’, which reproduces the worker on a daily and generational level.[i] This includes not only having children and raising the next generation of workers, but also the daily tasks of shopping, preparing and cooking food, doing laundry, housework, care of the sick etc. Without these tasks, the worker would not be able to show up in a fit state to labour and produce surplus value, so this so-called reproductive labour is a necessary part of capitalism. But reproductive work has use value yet no exchange value, which is why it falls outside productive work.
While some of these tasks are now paid and things like education of children and some health and social care have been outsourced from the family, the costs are not borne by capitalists, but by workers. Even when paid, the money paid to people in exchange for personal services is only payment for use value—That is to say, it is revenue payment, coming out of the profits of the capitalist, although these services are often mediated. (For example, if you employ a cook, their wage is revenue payment.) It reduces your capital, not increases it; this is why reproductive work is devalued under capitalism. If you go to a restaurant, then the work put into making your meal is productive work, since your meal is a commodity that has an exchange value.
Reproductive work is also heavily gendered, in both the domestic and public sphere, with the majority of it undertaken by women and mostly unpaid. Since reproductive work is devalued, the women who do it are also devalued. But as Selma James, among others, points out, the domestic sphere as ‘haven in a heartless world’ reduces the likelihood that workers will be disruptive, acting as a safety valve that capitalists rely on at the financial and emotional expense of women, who may not see the home as a haven in the same way[ii].
This gendered division of labour (the productive/reproductive split) is predicated on men doing productive, paid work and (married) women doing reproductive, unpaid work while not engaging in productive work. Of course, while this was the case for bourgeois families in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was never true for working class women, who worked from home both in hand manufacturing and in paid reproductive work (laundry and childcare, for example) as well as in factories. [iii]
Before capitalism, work tended to be done within the household, and men and women (and often children) participated, although in different ways. This wasn’t ideal, and was often very onerous and controlled by the head of the household, but there wasn’t a firm line between productive and reproductive work. With industrialization, men went ‘out’ to work, leaving a care gap in the home that was largely filled by women.
Federici argues that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was made possible only be a new sexual division of labor that separated productive from reproductive labor, expropriated the reproductive labor of women by making it unpaid labor, and also by devaluing that work and making it seem not like work at all. Under feudalism, most people lived essentially by subsistence agriculture and were able to resist a wage economy because they had rights to the use of agricultural land and could therefore produce most of the necessities for their lives directly through their own labor. Hence, there was no division between productive and reproductive work, since all work was reproductive. Women and children were involved in agriculture, and even poor women and widows were able to survive through access to common land. The enclosures put an end to the land rights of the peasantry and most were forced off the land and into wage labor. Women were hit particularly hard by this since they were excluded from many forms of paid employment (even in occupations where they had previously been active) and were paid less than men in areas where they could work. So, men’s waged labor had to support both their own reproductive needs and that of their wives and families, forcing them into the disciplined work practices and long working hours required for capitalist production. The unpaid reproductive work of women thus became part of the accumulated surplus labor necessary for capitalism. So, the wages paid to a worker included not only his surplus labor, but that of his wife, that work necessary to reproduce them both on a daily basis, and also to produce the next generation of workers. [iv]
Now, in the UK, the vast majority of women over 60 are in employment- around 72%, compared with 81% of men. About 2/3 of women work full time. 78% of the health and social work sector are women, and 71% of the education sector as well, which is congruent with the outsourcing of reproductive work to the public sphere. Within the domestic sphere, women also continue to do the majority of unpaid labour- about twice that of men. The disparity increases greatly when women have children.[v]
The COVID Pandemic
While these trends have been around for decades, the pandemic has laid bare the assumptions behind the productive/reproductive split under capitalism. Periods of lockdown and self-isolation have meant many more people, particularly women, working from home, and many more children being educated remotely from home.
Before the pandemic, more men than women worked from home in the UK. However, during the lockdown, the number of people working from home tripled, with women slightly more likely than men to do it. However, not only did the proportion of reproductive work done by women not change greatly, but the overall amount of reproductive work increased, particularly in terms of childcare, education, housework and cooking. So, women were faced with trying to juggle an increased reproductive workload with their paid work. [vi]
Of course, the kinds of work that can be done from home tend to be professional and white-collar jobs, work done in offices, and these groups of workers are those who have been most reliant on paying others to take on reproductive work, from cleaners to nannies and food service workers. In fact, the move of women into managerial and professional work has been based not on a more equal division of household labour between men and women, but on paying other women so that men don’t have to take on more domestic labour. During the pandemic, those paid to do domestic and care work were not always available. The pandemic has brought these contradictions home to middle-class women, and some are beginning to see how capitalism is damaging to work and family life.[vii]
However, alongside the professional, managerial and white-collar workers who have been able to work from home, essential workers (usually the lowest paid) have had to continue to work outside the home, but in situations of greater risk. The health and social care labour force is predominantly women and disproportionately ethnic minorities, and they (particularly ethnic minority women) have died in greater numbers as a result of covid.[viii] Poor women and BAME women have also been disproportionately laid off from jobs in hospitality and retail in particular. [ix]
Working from home, or being laid off or locked down, has increased the social isolation of women and has led to a spike in domestic violence as women lose their usual sources of support and, probably in response to increased tension at home due to close proximity, the additional burden of work that women are expected to do. As Marxist-Feminist Fran Ansley describes it, ‘women are the takers of shit’.[x]
The pandemic may well be the cause of permanent changes in patterns of work, since the necessity of working from home has shown managers and capitalists that some types of work can be performed satisfactorily outside of offices, and so they can make savings in the instruments of labour by reducing their capital expenditure on workspaces and pushing those costs onto workers, who will pay increased costs in heat, internet, etc. While the extra burden of childcare will be reduced in a post-pandemic world (if we get there) as schools reopen and children will no longer have to isolate in massive numbers, there is no indication that there will be any major changes in the household division of labour.[xi] [xii]
The deeper issue is that, under capitalism, the ‘worker’ is conceptualized as someone who sells their labour to the capitalist as if they were merely a tool, not a human being. Although capitalists understand that tools and equipment need maintenance, workers are expected to deal with that themselves; they produce surplus value that the capitalist takes and then pays them as little as possible to maintain themselves so they can show up every day. Furthermore, the capitalist extracts the labour from the worker before paying them, so the worker is giving ‘credit’ to the capitalist but must pay the costs of their own maintenance in advance. How they deal with home and family is of no concern to the capitalist even though the reproduction of the worker is necessary for capitalism- even more than the maintenance of the equipment. If your child is sick, that is irrelevant to the capitalist. If you must be pulled away from your life for work purposes at a moment’s notice or stay on without warning to do overtime, the capitalist doesn’t concern themselves with any arrangements you must coordinate to make that happen. The ‘worker’ is presented as an abstract concept, but in reality, it corresponds to the ideal of the male worker with a stay-at-home wife who can deal with all those ‘outside’ concerns; an ideal that no longer exists although the reproductive work still does.
So, how can we break this cycle? It is simply not possible to have a word where women are equal under capitalism. The division of productive and reproductive labour is another form of wage theft, and only the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and ‘value’ based in exchange value can break down the system of surplus extraction from workers, and the hard distinction between work for profit and work to sustain ourselves.
As Marx points out, what separates humans from animals is our capacity for productive work. While animals work and produce, it is to meet their immediate physical needs; in other words, they work only reproductively. Marx argues that humans work even when free from physical need, and free and meaningful work is a part of our ‘species being’, or what makes us human. For him, the essence of human work is social, but individuals control the products of their labor, which contain part of themselves. Capitalism controls work and takes away the object of the workers’ production, alienating humans from their work, and from themselves. Wage labor turns humans back into animals by making work merely into a means for physical survival where relationships between human beings are transformed into relationships between things.
As Brown points out,[xiii] Marx criticises the analysis of the earlier political economists who talk about productive consumption needed to keep the worker going, i.e., the maintenance of the human ‘machine’, and unproductive consumption, what the worker consumes for themselves. Marx points out that without the so-called ‘unproductive consumption’, the worker is alienated and has nothing for themself. You eat food so the capitalist can continue to exploit your labour. Going to a gig, seeing a film or buying something that gives you pleasure for yourself takes you beyond being simply an animal.
It’s in the interest of the capitalist to reduce unproductive consumption. It is unnecessary to him and cuts into his profits, since he is paying wages that do not go into the physical reproduction of the worker. Also, since the capitalist must pay a minimum to reproduce the worker and his family, the only way to reduce that minimum is to actually draw in women and children to the production process itself. In that way, the capitalist no longer needs to pay a ‘family wage’ to the male breadwinner but can get additional and lower-paid workers and also be able to reduce the pay of the male worker.[xiv] Women and children become part of the reserve army of labour, to be called upon when extra labour is needed, but also to keep wages under control. In the Forbes article, [xv]they cite a study showing that because of the pandemic, 25% of women in the US workforce were considering leaving work, or cutting back on their career aspirations, which even before the pandemic was a response to the pressure of trying to combine the unequal burden of reproductive work with paid work. But leaving the workforce or cutting back on your work means that the pay gap increases, as women re-entering will be offered less money and those not seeking promotions will see the wage gap increase.
But while this leads to more exploitation, having women in the workforce outside the domestic sphere also creates the economic foundation for a new and more equal form of the family and relations between the sexes, because the patriarchal authority of the father, as sole breadwinner, becomes less important. When men and women are working cooperatively as workers this leads to the possibility of collective organising to overthrow capitalism. [xvi]The difficulty is whether this can happen in the post-industrial era, where there are not factories as mass workplaces.
Earlier Marxist feminists criticised Engels’ analytically distinct concepts of separate spheres, production and reproduction, and rather ignoring reproduction. They posited that women’s oppression could only be explained by dual systems theory, which really does separate the economic and social spheres by arguing that women are both oppressed by capitalism in the economic sphere and by patriarchy in the domestic one. [xvii]
However, as Brown points out, Marx shows how capitalism structures both the public and private sphere, and reproduces the social relations of capital through the private sphere by showing the dialectical relationship between production and social reproduction, even if the social reproduction side is not well-developed by Marx. The question is, how can we develop this side and move beyond the production and social reproduction dialectic to something new that reconciles these contradictions?
Brower, Tracy. 2021. ‘Women And The Pandemic: Serious Damage To Work, Health And Home Demands Response.’ In Forbes.
Brown, Heather A. 2018. Marx on gender and the family a critical study (Haymarket Books: Chicago, Ill).
Chung, Heejung, Holly Birkett, Sarah Forbes, and Hyojin Seo. 2021. ‘Covid-19, Flexible Working, and Implications for Gender Equality in the United Kingdom’, Gender & Society, 35: 218-32.
Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the witch (Autonomedia: New York).
Kisner, Jordan. 2021. ‘The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew.’, The New York Times Magazine, 17th February.
Lokot, Michelle, and Amiya Bhatia. 2020. ‘Unequal and Invisible: A Feminist Political Economy Approach to Valuing Women’s Care Labor in the COVID-19 Response’, Frontiers in Sociology, 5.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. ‘The German Ideology’ in, Marx/Engels Collected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart).
Marx, Karl, and Martin Nicolaus. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Penguin).
[i] (Marx and Nicolaus 1973)
[ii] (Kisner 2021)
[iii] (Marx and Engels)
[iv] (Federici 2004)
[v] (Office of National Statistics 2016)
[vi] (Chung et al. 2021)
[vii] (Brower 2021)
[viii] (Lokot and Bhatia 2020)
[ix] (Kisner 2021)
[x] (Brower 2021)
[xi] (Chung et al. 2021)
[xiii] (Brown 2018)
[xiv] (Brown 2018)
[xv] (Brower 2021)
[xvi] (Brown 2018)
[xvii] (Brown 2018)