This is Part Three of a four-part examination of the care of children under capitalism, which draws extensively on Lise Vogel’s (2013) Marxism and the Oppression of Women in order to theorise exactly how childcare functions in the UK today and to suggest alternatives.
Part One examined how the establishment of childcare outside the home in capitalist society is vulnerable to co-option by capitalist purposes for both production and reproduction, and I summarised Vogel’s central thesis in order to explain how.
Part Two explored how this co-option functions in the current situation, and the exact ways childcare is used to facilitate women’s work and stabilise the rearing of children both through childcare inside and outside the home.
This is Part Three, which looks at how childcare can be deployed in other ways to those dictated by the purposes of capitalism, drawing on Nancy Fraser’s understanding of how the sites of class struggle can be widened beyond the productive realm in order to redraw the boundaries between production and reproduction. To inquire how childcare can be reclaimed for our own purposes rather than ceding them to capitalism, I use both William Morris and Alexandra Kollontai to explore how the sites and nature of both work and care can be transformed.
Finally, Part Four discusses how this transformation can be initiated today, understanding reformism as a potential part of a revolutionary strategy, and suggesting sites of struggle that working class women can take up to influence Labour Party politics.
3. Domesticating the Social and Socialising the Domestic
The contradiction at heart of women’s situation is being resolved in favour of capitalist concerns over both production and reproduction – so that women are performing the ‘double shift’ of paid work and taking care of their families. While public policy could and should help women to make their own choice within this binary formation rather than leaving it to capitalism, requiring meaningful income support for carers and universal free childcare, this still leaves capitalism to set the terms on which women are choosing, as the contradiction between production and reproduction would be broadly maintained even if it were resolved in a better way for women. Moreover, in the absence of a strong working class women’s movement, it seems unlikely, given the increasing and coercive drive to mobilise women into productive labour, that women will ever reasonably even have this choice (especially the means to refuse paid work).
It would still also be a choice between which parent takes on the primary carer role. In heterosexual families, there are powerful tendencies towards childcare being predominantly done by women due to the strong association between the varied tasks that make up the domestic component of necessary labour because of their expulsion from the public world of production. This would ultimately still provide the material basis for a system of male domination. Another division that is maintained is that between women who make different choices, with all their attendant ideological and cultural structures, as well as upholding the conditions in which women work. This means both the exploitation of the labour market, with long hours taking women away from their children, and the isolation of the home – which, alongside care, often becomes the site where the repetitive drudgery of the other work of domestic labour is carried out. Any strategy for struggle, then, needs to go beyond advocating this binary choice which divides the working class - women from women, men from women, and women and men from children - and be pitted against the destruction of this binary itself. As Federici explains, “the Left has thus reproduced in its organizational and strategic objectives the same divisions of the class that characterize the capitalist division of labour”[1:1].
As outlined in Part One, capitalism is exploitative because it forces surplus-labour from members of the working class beyond the necessary labour needed to sustain them. Capitalism has (at least) two strategies to increase surplus-value: by obscuring exploitation through the wage by intermingling necessary labour with surplus labour within the social conditions of public production – but, also, by totally dissociating the other aspects of necessary labour from wage labour by splitting them off spatially, temporally, institutionally and culturally in order to create a further category of necessary labour, a domestic component; hidden and unremunerated. Usually class struggles are over the former, for better wages and conditions of work, however, they also needs to encompass the latter as well.
In her essay ‘Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode’, Fraser has explained how the boundary between waged and domestic labour, because it “arose historically, with capitalism”, can and has been shifted as a result of struggle so that
The precise configuration of the capitalist order at any place and time depends on politics- on the balance of social power and on the outcome of social struggles. Far from being simply given, capitalism’s institutional divisions often become foci of conflict, as actors mobilize to challenge or defend the established boundaries separating...production from reproduction.
She gives examples of how this “division [has] mutated historically, taking different forms in different phases of capitalist development. During the 20th century, some aspects of social reproduction were transformed into public services and public goods, de-privatized but not commodified”. However, these boundary shifts are not always – and perhaps, not even predominantly – a result of class struggle, but vary according to the needs of the historical “regime of accumulation”. As Fraser explains, “today, the division is mutating again, as neoliberalism (re)privatizes and (re)commodifies some of these services, while also commodifying other aspects of social reproduction for the first time”.
However, it is important that our struggles are not simply defensive. While it is necessary to defend state provision, such as Children’s Centres, against private nurseries, and advocate for an extension of public services for families; as argued in Part Two, the state is, ultimately, a lieutenant of capitalism – with Marx noting that it was “not merely by the force of economic relations, but by the help of the State” that dispossessed and compelled the proletariat to sell their labour-power. As such, the state has presided over the withdrawal of support and services, as well as establishing services on the basis of their later privatisation, as NEF’s report on childcare attests: “even the more direct supply-side initiatives of New Labour such as the Neighbourhood Nurseries scheme were clearly set up with the view that the funding provided was to pump-prime something that should become a viable business.”
Any strategy needs to attack the boundary between the domestic aspect of necessary labour and the social aspect of necessary labour, as well as that between necessary labour and surplus labour. What is more, this attack needs to come from both directions, that is from the domestic and social aspects: to domesticate the social and socialise the domestic.
William Morris and the Transformation of Work: Domesticating the Social Realm
In ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’, William Morris talks about a threefold “hope” that, “when it is present in work, makes it worth doing”, which he defines as “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself” (1962, p. 118). Taking these as starting points, which, according to Morris, make work ‘manly’ to do, they can suggest ways to transform paid work, and the public sphere more generally, that allow for the inclusion, and subsequent transformation, of care. This dialectical transformation questions the association of work as freedom without children, which is constituted by the expulsion of children from public life and their relegation to the domestic sphere.
Rest: Shortening the Working Day, Time for Care
Of the first hope, rest, Morris stipulates that it “must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working…[and] it must not be disturbed by anxiety” (1962, p. 118). Adequate ‘rest’ away from work would also give more time to care for children, but, also, to allow a true recovery of strength, would require time when parents are neither engaging in paid work nor caring.
For rest to be ‘long enough’, work, conversely, must be shortened. In the chapter on ‘The Working Day’ in Capital, Marx outlines how the length of the “normal” working day is not fixed but the result of “centuries of struggle between capitalist and labourer” (p. 181). In outlining the English labour Statutes from the 14th century to the 18th century, Marx shows the process by which the working day was lengthened, and, it is only at this point of in capitalism’s development that the introduction of the factory acts “curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working day by state regulations” (p. 166).
Women and children in England were granted the ten-hour day in the 1847 Factory Act. Even before then, there was agitation for an eight hour day, with Robert Owen formulated the demand for "Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest" back in 1817. The International Labour Organisation devised the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919, calling for the "application of the principle of the 8-hour working day”, which has not yet been ratified by the UK. Since then this struggle has more or less laid dormant and this ‘normal’ working day has, broadly, been naturalised and even extended.
As part of what Fraser describes as the “mutating of the boundary”, there have been capitalist counter-pressures to once again extend the working day, both directly through the state, as in France, and indirectly - mirroring the inspectors descriptions of violations of the factory acts, quoted by Marx - by the “petty pilfering of minutes” (p. 167). This can be seen in recent struggles by care workers supporting people in their homes. The working day is lengthened by paying the workers only for the time spent at appointments and not for traveling between them, which has lead the Labour MP Paul Blomfield to comment of one care worker in his Sheffield constituency, that “she was working for eight hours or so, but being paid only for four hours”. This resembles other recent struggles by couriers: “One said that working long hours on rural rounds meant their pay worked out at less than £3 an hour, while another said they earned about £6 an hour because they had to drive 12 miles to start their round."
In terms of working women’s demands for time to care, the state has presented flexible working as a solution, as discussed in Part Two. However, as with the state’s role in the factory acts, this has not necessarily challenged the interests of capital. For example, McDonalds advertise that their jobs provide a “good work/life balance”, however, recent strikes by workers concerned that their employer can’t be trusted to move employees off zero-hours contracts, show that ‘flexibility’ for the employer is not necessarily for the worker. In fact, zero-hours contracts extend the working day by making the demand for the complete availability of their workers, while the fake self-employment of the gig economy extends their ‘employees’’ working time by taking away holiday and sick pay. This is reminiscent of Marx’s account of the extension in days of work Belgium peasants owed their feudal masters, by requiring an unrealistic yield, “the 12 corveé days of the ‘Règiement organique’ cried a Boyard drunk with victory, amount to 355 days in the year” (p. 166).
While demanding to work flexibly on our own terms and not those of capital is important, we should not let it distract from demanding a shorter working day. For granting the right to work flexibly does not shorten the length of time worked, and may even increase it if shifts are shorter and require additional time for the necessary labour of preparing for and getting to work (especially, as in the struggles outlined above, when these activities are integral to the job). For, as Federici polemicises in ‘Counterplanning from the Kitchen’, what “OPENS FOR THE WAGED AND THE UNWAGED ALIKE THE QUESTION OF THE REAL LENGTH OF THE WORKING DAY” is consideration of the domestic component of necessary labour, including care of children, which currently takes place outside of the workplace and is therefore excluded from the hours that count as labour-time. The demand for ‘rest’ that would allow a true ‘recovery of strength’, would require time when parents are neither engaging in paid work nor caring, and so leads to a call for the availability of affordable childcare, crucially, for when parents are not in paid employment, Federici’s “daycare centres, not just to be liberated for more work, but to be able to take a walk, talk to our friends, or go to a women’s meeting”.
For Morris, if we have rest longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, “we shall, so far, be no worse off than the beasts” (1962, p. 118). Marx remarked that there are natural limitations to the working day for people just as for animals, such that “a horse, in like manner, can only work from day to day, 8 hours”. Soviet Russia was the first country to introduce the eight hour working day in 1917 and, even then, Alexandra Kollontai, Central Committee member and later Commissar for Social Welfare, remarked, “what kind of “family life” can there be if the wife and mother is out at work for at least eight hours and, counting the travelling, is away from home for ten hours a day?” (1977). With a consideration of necessary labour including care work alongside the stagnant advancements in curtailing paid labour-time, it seems, we are not yet as well off as the beasts.
Product: The De-commodification of Care
The second stipulation is that we “look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use” (1962, p. 118). In Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hilary Wainwright explains that “planning production on the basis of a full use of resources to meet social need” was also a concern taken up by socialist feminists in the 1970s and 80s.
The focus on the purposes of production has led in several directions. First, it has involved a concern with the nature of the commodities or services themselves and their technology, whether they are weapons, pollutants, unsafe deodorants, unhealthy food or unresponsive public services. Second, it has stimulated a greater emphasis on the quality of working conditions, on health and safety, the uses and design of technology and the control of labour’s time – time for education, for childcare, for recreation”.
Supporting the demand for rest: ensuring all production meets social needs rather than producing commodities for the capitalist market will allow for reductions in the working day and time for “childcare”, whether parents caring for children, or having time to pursue other meaningful things while their children are looked after.
However, going further than creating a better ‘balance’ between work and care, a concern with the decommodification of labour challenges the absolute distinction between them. This is because work will not be defined by what is done in the capitalist production process so it can include what is done outside it – “so that we might all work at ‘supplying’ the real ‘demands’ of each and all – that is to say, work for livelihood, instead of working to supply the demand of the profit market” (1962, p. 128).
The recognition of reproductive labour as ‘work’ has been an important argument taken up by feminists’ demands for wages for housework. However, this strategy has two drawbacks: firstly, it accepts the capitalist unification of care with other aspects of domestic labour; secondly, by bringing care into the mystifying wage relation it commodifies it. Federici argues that domestic labour is already commodified, providing direct value for capitalism: “to say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking”. However, following Vogel, it is not reproductive labour that provides surplus value in itself. It is the use that is made in the capitalist system of the non-capitalist processes which produce people, whose capabilities are then commodified as labour-power, which produces surplus value. As Ferguson and McNally summarise of Vogel’s argument: “labour in the household is not commodified; it produces use-values”. This is another reason for resisting the collapsing of care work with housework; care provides a potential alternative to capitalist modes of being, while the drudgery of housework needs to be overcome through a mixture of technologisation, urban planning, redistribution and socialisation.
A concern with the social control of production, however, employs the opposite strategy – by recognising care as labour that can resist commodification, it provides a potential site of work governed by “social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of man” (Morris, 1962, p. 129) rather than a morality where “a definite social relation between men...assumes...the fantastic form of a relation between things” (p. 183), from which exploitative work can be critiqued and overcome. Not the commodification of care through wages for housework, but the decommodification of work through the social control of production, so that care can be recognised as work too, but without making a ‘product’ of it. This strategy allows resistance to childcare being privatised and run on a for-profit basis. It also means that parents engaged in care work will be recognised as working, and therefore not be required to do a ‘second job’ at the same time.
Pleasure: Care as Life
Morris’s final and most ambitious hope is of “pleasure enough for all of us to be conscious of it while we are at work” (1962, p. 118). Morris has four broad requirements for this, of which, the first two encompass previous stipulations: the first, that work be short, has been covered in terms of providing more time for care; the second, that work be useful, means care becomes part of the definition of work and therefore not relegated to fit into the interstices of capitalist production, but valued as a worthwhile thing to do in itself; the third is that work be varied; and the fourth, that it be done amidst pleasurable surroundings. Wainwright also refers to these concerns as a result of focusing on “the purpose and social relations which could be achieved through the social control of production” which lead to “a scrutiny of the division of labour, its sexual and racial roots as well as its basis in class power. And third, the influence of the new socialism has stressed the relationship between the workplace and its surrounding community”.
The requirement for variety has several consequences as regards care work. As Wainwright perceives, it is by addressing the “social control of production” that the sexual division of labour is undermined – for, as Vogel explains, “it is the responsibility for the domestic labour necessary to capitalist social reproduction – and not the sex-division of labour or the family per se – that materially underpins the perpetration of women’s oppression and inequality in capitalist society”. Getting “the means of making labour fruitful, the Capital, including the land, machinery, factories, etc., into the hands of the community” (1962, p. 128), Morris explains, will enable the conditions to vary work, and in so-doing undo the divisions of labour (based on race and sex as modalities in which class is lived – to modify Stuart Hall). This would both redistribute care within the family, from mothers to fathers in heterosexual relationships, but also, within wider society as well.
This is because, for Morris, an important part of creating the conditions for engaging in a variety of work would be through the education people receive. “For the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of ‘money-making’” (1962, p. 130). Importantly, education, although not instrumentalised for “commerce”, is not presented as education ‘for its own sake’ - in other words, education is not the immediately utilitarian or relegated to useless and ideal abstraction. Education is for unalienated work; it is useful without being used, and through its unadulterated study, is preparation for life. Morris makes a similar point with art - “that side of art which is, or ought to be, done by the ordinary workman while he is about his ordinary work, and which has got to be called, very properly, Popular Art” (1962, p. 130). The point for care work is that, equally, it would not be fetishised into a branch of bourgeois knowledge (and one that is identified with subordination) - so that everyone would be seen to have the capacity to care; but neither would it be naturalised - so that parents receive no support with raising their children. Furthermore, because everyone would “take a pleasurable interest in all the details of life” (1962, p. 126), more adults would would be involved in all the aspects of care as a potentially pleasurable form of decommodified work, whether they were parents or not.
Parents’ work would also vary, which means looking carefully at what can and what cannot be done while looking after children. The capacities of parents to engage in more varied work and exercise their creative potential (“thousands of women who are agonizing over the book, the painting or the music they can never finish or cannot even begin”) will be enlarged by the general capability and responsibility of the public world around them – both adults and space – to take on a flexible caring role. This is where Morris’s requirement for ‘pleasant surroundings’ and the role of architecture is important, to equip the work place and public space more generally with the facilities to accommodate families, so that children would become a part of daily life rather than excluded from the public realm and relegated to the domestic sphere.
Kollontai and the New Family: Socialising the Domestic Sphere
Key to struggles around the care of children is Vogel’s central insight that the domestic sphere is not some universal realm where the timeless, pre-capitalist relations of patriarchy rule - “it is the development of capitalism...that creates a sharp demarcation between the arena in which surplus-labour is performed and a sphere that can properly be called domestic”. The splitting of necessary labour into a social and a domestic component is a capitalist invention to increase surplus labour and therefore profit.
As we have seen, when assailed from the ‘social’ aspect, a concern with the social control of production, in particular, begins to subvert this demarcation, by breaking down the distinctions between work and care: when work is divested of all but its useful function, it becomes necessary labour in the same way that care is. Approached from the ‘domestic’ aspect, an understanding of the historical role of the family, and its particular deployment under capitalism, is fundamental to apprehending that reproductive labour, which, following Morris, can be a potential site of work governed by “social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of man” (Morris, 1962, p. 129), does not have to always be done in conditions of isolation, submission and drudgery.
Alexandra Kollontai both wrote about and worked to achieve a different form of family by changing the relations between the family and society and, in so doing, transforming the conditions under which mothers worked by providing collectivised forms of support which also undermined the functional violence of male disciplining within the household.
Overcoming Submission: Material Resources for Care
Kollontai demonstrates an understanding of the historical nature of the family, and, in particular, its contradictory form under capitalism. This means that, although, like Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, she sees capitalism as destroying family life, she also notes that this destruction is not total, because of both working class resistance to maintain kinship relations, and the use by capitalism of the family as the site for social reproduction. This is the reproduction of labour power, but also the reproduction of the social order,
For the capitalists are well aware that the old type of family, where the woman is a slave and where the husband is responsible for the well-being of his wife and children, constitutes the best weapon in the struggle to stifle the desire of the working class for freedom and to weaken the revolutionary spirit of the working man and working woman. The worker is weighed down by his family cares and is obliged to compromise with capital. The father and mother are ready to agree to any terms when their children are hungry” (1977).
This means under capitalism the family is always structurally precarious under these contradictory pressures, but stabilised by the promotion of male disciplining, so that “the working-class family becomes a highly institutionalised repository of women’s oppression”.
Although, as noted in Part Two, the structure of male disciplining in households has changed given women’s greater participation in the labour force, there is a limit to the extent women’s increased ‘bargaining power’ can curtail male disciplining, because, as Vogel states, “so long as capitalism survives, domestic labour will be required for its reproduction, disproportionately performed by women and most likely accompanied by a system of male supremacy”. Because it is the reproductive labour necessary to capitalism that is at stake, it is the relation of the household to the capitalist mode of production, rather than an abstraction of men and women’s relative status (based on their bargaining power) within it, that conditions women’s submission. As the Power of Women Collective write, “serving men and children in wageless isolation had hidden that we were serving capital” (1975).
In this way, the state, as capital’s lieutenant, still acts to maintain the integrity of male supremacy indirectly through the threat of proletarianisation – taking away the means of survival to families without access to the male wage, or, increasingly, who are unable to live as part of a ‘dual earner’ household. For Kollontai, the way to address this is to make sure that each woman has the material resources for her and her children to be able to survive without men: the “woman must accustom herself to seek and find support in the collective and in society, and not from the individual man” (1977).
Overcoming Isolation: Support for Families
Kollontai shows how under Communism motherhood would become a collective institution and child rearing would not be left to the individual responsibility of isolated women. She discusses the host of facilities and supports that should exist:
No longer will there be any women who are alone. The workers’ state aims to support every mother, married or unmarried, while she is suckling her child, and to establish maternity homes, day nurseries and other such facilities in every city and village, in order to give women the opportunity to combine work in society with maternity” (1977).
However, against critiques that interpret these plans as “the forcible destruction of the family and the forcible separation of child from mother”, she declares that the communist state is “not intending to take children away from their parents or to tear the baby from the breast of its mother, and neither is it planning to take violent measures to destroy the family. No such thing!” (1977).
Kollontai contrasts the situation under capitalism, where the family is disempowered to care for their own children because of lack of material support. She asks “how can one talk of parents when the mother and father are out working all day and cannot find the time to spend even a few minutes with their children?” (1977). This means that when the state do provide services, they are co-opted by either the need to intervene when parents are seen as ‘failing’, or to enable parents to work more – see Section One. Federici highlights the distinction between state provision of services which disempower women as mothers and making demands of the state for our own purposes:
It is one thing to set up a day care center the way we want it, and then demand that the State pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and then ask the State to control them not for five but for fifteen hours a day...In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us”.
For Kollontai it is important that state interventions do not usurp the role of mothers, but give them both the “material and moral support” to fully enjoy their role, so that
Those parents who desire to participate in the education of their children will by no means be prevented from doing so. Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the joys of parenthood will not be taken away (1977).
Overcoming Drudgery: Reinstating the Family as a Site for Useful Work
There is a need to disassociate care from the wider work of social reproduction and the tasks of daily maintenance; in short: housework. While, as argued above, care provides a potential alternative to capitalist modes of being, which, with material and social support, can engender the “joys of parenthood”; the drudgery of housework needs to be overcome through a mixture of technologisation, urban planning, redistribution and socialisation.
Under the subtitle ‘Housework Ceases to be Necessary’, Kollontai shows how domestic labour has been transformed under capitalism from being a useful activity for the community as a whole to being “of no value to the state and the national economy, for they do not create any new values or make any contribution to the prosperity of the country” (1977). This is because “all that was formerly produced in the bosom of the family is now being manufactured on a mass scale in workshops and factories” (1977) leading to, what Vogel has termed, the “severe spatial, temporal, and institutional separation between domestic labour and the capitalist production-process”. The tasks left, are, essentially boring and repetitive, and, “even if a working woman were to live a thousand years, she would still have to begin every day from the beginning. There would always be a new layer of dust to be removed from the mantelpiece” (1977).
While outlining ways for such tasks to be managed efficiently through the strategies indicated above such that “Communism liberates woman from her domestic slavery and makes her life richer and happier” (1977), it also provides an opportunity for the transformation of the family as a site in which it is not just the performance of these grinding tasks which “still serve to keep the family together”, but rather allow the family to concentrate on the care of their children; a pursuit, following Morris, that will be valued as exemplary useful work, which is undertaken under conditions of rest and pleasure.
Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, Chicago, Haymarket, 2013, p. 159. ↩︎
Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 38. ↩︎
Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 57. ↩︎
Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, pp. 255-6. ↩︎
Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 19. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. xxv. ↩︎
Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, pp. 255-6. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 177. ↩︎
Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p.60. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 152. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 177. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 176. ↩︎
Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p.21. ↩︎
Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 159.
This means the domestic labour debate is essentially an abstract debate of an historical problem – whether work in the household produces value for capitalism depends on the historical conditions of that household, and while, as Kollontai recognises, most of those value-producing tasks have been externalised to the collectivised production of the economy, the uneven development of capitalism means this may not always be the case in all geographical locations. However, it is always important to remove care from those tasks of domestic labour that produce direct value for capitalism. ↩︎
New Socialist is, and will always be, not for profit. Help us sustain and develop this project by subscribing on Patreon.