Capitalism and the family

Domestic work is privatised and is traditionally performed by women - cooking, cleaning, laundering, etc. This individual work is essential for the production and the reproduction of labour. However, generally it lies outside the sphere of capitalist production. Capitalists are quite content to leave it to the workers and their self-interest in living some kind of reasonable life. They want to eat; they do not want to live in filth and squalor. So domestic labour is left to the family and in particular women.

While feminists have primarily blamed men for refusing to do their share of the drudgery, Marxists attack first and foremost the economic function of the family, its role as an economic unit in class society, concerned under capitalism with the maintenance of the exploitability of the working class's labour-power. The family unit has a restrictive and repressive hold on all its members - especially women and children.

The family relationship is formed outside of the wage relation in capitalist society. But it exists as a legally protected entity to enable that exploitative relation to continue. The separation of women's domestic labour from social labour in general arose with capitalist society and is specific to capitalist society in this form. Domestic labour is therefore labour that is performed gratis, for the benefit of the capitalist class, as it frees that class from some of the expense of reproducing its own workforce.

That is why communists demand the socialisation of housework. This is the necessary prerequisite for the liberation of women, freeing them from the ties of private labour which underpin women's status in capitalist society. Fighting for the concrete implementation of this demand poses the needs of working class women, and our entire class, against the essence of the capitalist system. Our freedom is entirely counterposed to that system's very existence.

Fitting in with their domestic role, women also perform another important function for capitalism. Given their often precarious position in the general process of social production, women are ideal candidates to form an important part of a fluctuating reserve army of labour. Such a reservoir of exploitable labour can be sucked into the production process in times of boom or war and expelled from the ranks of the employed when accumulation stagnates.

Women's specific form of oppression dictates firstly that when employed they are as far as possible systematically regulated and ghettoised into a narrow range of peripheral jobs, and secondly as 'natural' wives and mothers they are easier to throw out of work and back into the home. In periods of relative high employment, such as the present, women can be drawn fully into the labour force, although this process does not relieve them from domestic slavery.

David Coaturn