If you read through Karl Marx’s opus, Das Capital, you will notice that in all of his discussion of labor, there are only two types of labor. There is unproductive and productive labor. Productive labor refers to labor that is used to turn raw materials into commodities that can be exchanged in a way that capital is increased. So productive labor is considered productive because it results in capital. Unproductive labor is that which creates a commodity that does not result in capital. For example, if you have a small garden, and you take some of the flowers and sell them at the local market, you may get some extra money for the week. But, unless that money is going to be turned back into building your garden to be bigger to grow your flower business…that original work you did with the growing and selling of a handful of flowers is unproductive labor. If you do turn that flower money into a bigger flower business, then that original work you did with a handful of flowers is productive labor.
And that’s it. All labor in a capitalist system is based on those two, and only those two types of labor.
However, because words to carry a political weight and do have a class meaning, which is kept as hidden as possible, there is a confusion here which needs to be explained. When working people say ‘labor’, we mean labor/work which we associate with what keeps societies going, and which sustains and maintains their lives. When capitalists say ‘labor’, they mean the activity of people they can capitalize on, they can transform into capital.
You see many ‘leftists’ or progressives or ‘marxian’ individuals say all sorts of things about how women were and are oppressed under capitalism. They claim they would want women to live as equal people, if only women could be converted into capitalizing, as ‘their own choice’, their own oppression. That would indeed make it progressive. What they try to make women convert to and adapt to – in material and political reality – translates exactly into the opposite of their claims, and into the opposite of what women might understand by emancipation or a dignified life. They use the source of the oppression of women – the fact that women are the only ones who can give birth to people, who bring people into the world – to tell women the way out of their oppression is to capitalize the fact they, women, are the only ones who give birth to people and raise children. They call women giving birth to people ‘Reproductive labor’. The reason they invoke in trying to redefine women giving birth to people as ‘Reproductive labor’ is that capitalism later uses the people women bring into the world as workers. So women, they say, no longer bring people into the world, but just ‘reproduce’ the labor power capitalists need to have access to. What they try to normalize by redefining giving birth to people as ‘Reproductive labor’ is that people women give birth to no longer matter politically except as instruments for capitalists. This is what in fact women fight against – the power of capitalists to reduce their children to instruments. Women do not bring ‘labor for capitalists’ into the world, but people. Women do not ‘produce’ or ‘reproduce’ instruments for capitalists. Children are not a product, just as women are not factories. Giving birth is a human ability women have which existed before capitalism came along and will exist after this system will end too. Women give birth to people who have the right to live irrespective of what capitalists want or need, and irrespective of how capitalists may view their coming into the world.
Before we fully understand the lie that is reproductive labor and what political aims this lie hides, we must first learn a little about a process that takes place under capitalism.
Under capitalism, there is something called the Reproductive process or the Reproductive cycle. This refers to what was described above, turning capital into more capital by growing the business or factory. Capitalism requires constant growth, which means that a business must always be using some of its capital, some of its profit, to grow the business, to acquire more machinery, a bigger share of the market. Another part of the reproductive process in capitalism is how we need to always use some of our production to actually make the tools and machines that we use to build our commodities. Some of the products a society builds are new tools and machines that are only used to replace the old tools and machines, reproducing the tools that will be obsolete or broken.
Reproductive labor is a term that was introduced first by so-called Marxist Feminists and radical feminists in the end of the 20th century, it was then picked up by so-called Marxist economists, or Marxian economists, and is used today to describe all of the work that we do to take care of ourselves and our families every day.
The cooking, the cleaning, the feeding, and the care we do in a family and individually. Reproductive labor is a lie, and anyone who uses that term supports capitalism.
The work we do taking care of ourselves and our families is not considered labor, because it is not producing a commodity. It is taking care of ourselves, it is raising and loving children, it is family care, it is being a friend and a neighbor. It is life itself, it is the most important and valuable work we can do. It is building a community and growing children into adults. But it is not labor, it is not something that can be commodified in any way, because children, families, and communities are not units, not commodities, and not objects to be used or sold. Our relationships are not for sale.
Considering what the term reproduction means within capitalism, for family and life care to be considered reproductive labor, then our children and ourselves are simply the new tools to take the place of the old tools in the factory. This is exactly how capitalists think of workers, think of other people. That a worker is not equal to a capitalist, a worker is just a tool. Got an old, broken tool? Just throw it out and get a new tool.
If we say that housework (housework meaning all of the care of the family and house, what has traditionally fallen on women) is labor and should be paid for…who exactly is being paid? And who is doing the paying? So a mother should be paid for caring for her child? Will she have a ticket puncher, like in a factory, when she wakes up in the middle of the night to change a diaper? When a father takes care of a sick child, who is going to pay him? The child? The mother? Will the mother include a bill with the laundry? What if no one can pay for dinner that night, will the 3 year-old go hungry? When a husband and wife have sex, who is doing the paying? Is the husband to pay the wife for sex?
If all of our relationships are turned into a commodity, what is the next step? We could pay a woman for having children. Pay a mother for raising children. What if she doesn’t like the children she has, can she find some new ones to hire her? If the husband pays the mother for birthing and raising the children, then does she have any claim to the children if he decided he doesn’t like how she treats his children?
All bourgeois relations are based on exchange of money and seeing people as tools and objects. A child is just an object to carry on the family name and fortune. A wife is just a unit to produce an heir, and to be available to her husband for sex. A husband is just the boss of the family that pays his wife for the heir and sex, with a life of ease. A mother just produced the heir, nannies and governesses raise the child. A wife has an army of housekeepers, maids, and butlers to clean and cook for the family. A husband has a factory full of workers to produce capital for him. A bourgeois family has no need for love, nor can they even summon feelings of love. The bourgeoisie see proletarians as objects, as tools for producing capital. The bourgeoisie can’t turn from seeing humans as objects in one place in their life, and then see other humans as people in another place. Once you start to objectify other people, you objectify all people. It would be easier for the bourgeoisie if we proletarians also objectified ourselves by charging our children or spouses for the work we do for them in our families. It would make us all fall into the category of tool without much effort by the bourgeoisie.
Is the work we do in families hard? Is it tiring? Does it use our energy and our resources? Yes, to all of those questions. But that does not make it labor.
Should all of that work fall only on women? No. That work should be equally born and shared by the mother and father of the family, with the children also helping to care for themselves, each other, and the home. All neighbors should help care for the community, all members of society should care for each other, not just the women bearing the brunt of the work. But it will never be labor.
When Marx explained how capitalism functions and analysed its law and mechanisms, he did so in order for working people to understand it, not to adopt it. The entire corpus of ‘marxian’ ‘theologians’ – which are strangely associated with the ‘left’, even when in fact they are corporate progressives – are not marxists. For the simple reason that they try to convince people that being leftist means to adopt the way capitalism functions as the reality working people must adapt to. Marx wrote that book to try to help working people save their life. To understand what determines the political mechanisms of class society. Not to convert them to capitalism, as these ‘marxian’ individuals claim, by misinforming and lying to people.
They do not use Marx’s work to help working people understand what is happening to them today. They use its analysis to try to convert working people to adopt the way of life capitalism imposes against them. For them slavery was something bad just because the slaves did not make money too from it, and they would tell you today that ‘to end slavery’ it’s progressive to legalize even more slavery. Just don’t forget to call it ‘choice’.