Sunday, April 8, 2012

Selma James on Unwaged Labour

I recently noticed a new Against the grain internet radio program which was recommended by a friend of mine, which was an interview with Selma James who is a leading proponent of the campaign of wages for house work.

I have to say that wasn't that impressed myself. First, she states that the reproduction of the worker is engaged in disproportionately by women and this does not represent a capitalist social relation as the relationship with the family does not enable wome to have wages. This is clearly true, however, she presents that Marxists have not understood this and that class analysis ignores it. That is far from the case.

The idea that the family unit is responsible for the reproduction of the worker, and that inside the family relationships are pre-capitalist was recognised already by Engels, written on by Bebel, Luxemburg, De Leon, Zetkin and others. I think they were much clearer on the fact that the relation was pre-capitalist, something which was not mentioned by James. We can see quite clearly that as capitalism has advanced, women have been incorporated in an increasing way into the capitalist social relations directly. Housework is now assisted by various machines, dinners are often pre-prepared, and women now make up a very large fraction of the work-force. While there are still aspects of reproduction which are unwaged, that fraction is smaller than in the past, and it represents a failure of capitalism to encroach on some areas in which it has been resisted.

Beyond this historical confusion her class analysis is confused. She oscillates on the meaning of working class, middle class seemingly arbitrarily. Sometimes it means wage earners, sometimes it appears to mean working poor. She additionally blames unwaged systems on capitalism, despite the fact that unwaged systems in pre-capitalist areas can not be blamed on capitalism as most of the world was once like that. This confusion in her own analysis doesn't make it easy to figure out what she is proposing.

It appears to me that she is suggesting a bourgeoisification of the reproduction of the worker. If that's the case than the demand is somewhat unusual, but not necessarily wrong. It's a sort of Menshevik feminism I suppose. It is not true that the reproduction of the worker can not be commoditised. It's simply the case that it has not yet been because we have resisted its complete commodification. However, purchase of sperm, eggs, surrogates, time with companions, child care, sexual partners etc. have all been commoditised, they are simply not yet dominant.

Her relationship with the welfare state was similarly confused. It seems to me that the best accommodation that the working class has as yet come up with to mitigate the oppression of women being involved disproportionately with unwaged labour is the welfare state. Indeed, school is a huge part of this as it serves as an effective government funded day-care allowing women more easy access to wage labour. If we are demanding wages, are we demanding commodification or social welfare from the state or something else? I'm left completely unable to understand.

She sees and talks of real problems but she doesn't seem to have a way out of them that goes outside of some rather strange slogans which do not make it clear to me how they are transformative in an effective progressive direction.

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