Women and Childcare in Capitalism: A Dialectical and Materialist Study - Part 4: Reformism as Response: Transforming Childcare Now

This is the last Part 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[1] 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.

Part Three looked 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 used both William Morris and Alexandra Kollontai to explore how the sites and nature of both work and care can be transformed.

Finally, this is Part Four which 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.

4. Reformism as Response: Transforming Childcare Inside and Outside the Home Now

As argued above, capitalism poses a huge problem for childcare, standing at it does at the crossroads between the contradictions of production and reproduction. It appears inevitable that these contradictions will be resolved, or given “room to move” (p. 198), by free riding on the unpaid labour of women. Given these profound challenges to providing good childcare outside the home in capitalism, it seems difficult to suggest a way forward within capitalist society without reverting to an abstract, and ultimately idealist, position of total anti-capitalist opposition, that objects to any practical improvements as a compromise, and indeed a distraction from the only serious task, that of overthrowing capitalism itself.

This requires a consideration of a form of reformism that involves a total understanding of society and of the limits imposed by capitalism, this kind of reformism is suggested in Raymond Williams’s notion of “reformism as response”[1:1]. This kind of reformism must be distinguished, firstly, from an ameliorative reformism in which, perhaps, as with the struggle to shorten the length of the working day, the workers’ movement may act in the interests of capitalism in the long-term against the short-term interests of capitalists, as Marx argues, uninterrupted by struggle, capitalism “undermines the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker”. It is in this way that demands for childcare in the name of ‘education’ against childcare for maternal employment have been deployed (see Part One), but, in fact, are often a way to assert capital’s long-term need to stabilise social reproduction against the short-term need for profit through freeing women for capitalist production. Secondly, reformism as response must be distinguished from a reformism of transitional demands which is, essentially, a crude pedagogical strategy that does not, in the last instance, aim at real reforms but at mobilising around demands which while “reasonable”, capitalism cannot meet.

Reformism as response for Williams proceeds from a particular situation, and the state and capital’s failure to meet human needs, but then, both in theory and practice, pushes beyond the limited and particular so that “one struggle connects with and implies another”[2]. Childcare, precisely because of how it stands within absolutely fundamental contradictions within capitalism, certainly has this dynamic possibility. There are then three fundamental aspects of a reformism as response when it comes to childcare. Firstly, that childcare cannot be addressed on its own, it implicates other struggles, one of the most notable of which is over work, particularly the length of the working day. Secondly, that a reformism as response is part of the radical end of boundary struggles- an attempt to go beyond simply providing some relief to women from their double shift of productive and reproductive labour, through potentially revolutionary struggles against these spatial distinctions of capitalism that are central to women’s oppression. Thirdly, that even if capitalism cannot be overcome in the short-run, that any serious childcare reformism must be anti-capitalist. It is in this vein that the following reforms are suggested.


Shorter Working Week

One key demand that attacks the boundary between waged and domestic labour, based on an understanding that the real length of the working day does not end after returning from paid work, is to shorten the working week. This would increase the time available for those domestic aspects of necessary labour for which workers are not paid, including care of children, as well as attacking the amount of surplus labour capital extracts from paid workers.

Demands for an eight hour day were beginning to be formulated at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the working day has been naturalised, with an eight hour day established as the norm and even extended. Although struggles against zero hours contracts, bogus self-employment and piecework are important to resist the demand for complete availability to work, our struggles need to go beyond being defensive with a clear demand for a shorter week, that, between paid work and unpaid work, may even provide some time to recuperate.

A pilot project in a Swedish care home found a shorter six hour working day improved wellbeing among both staff and residents, and, crucially, was particularly beneficial to carers of children:

The perceived health of the care workers increased considerably in relation to stress and alertness. This was especially apparent in child-caring age groups. Having longer to recuperate and spend time with family is evidently an important factor in creating a sustainable work-life balance.

The way this article frames this experiment is in terms of the long-term interests of capital against overwhelming attacks on the scheme as “too expensive”, desperate to show that

Some of the cost of employing the new care workers is offset by lower payments from the social security system, and the net increase in cost drops to approximately 10%. It is worth noticing that the calculation still doesn’t take into account any long-term effects, which are sure to lower the total even further.

However, although phrased as ameliorative reforms, the strength of capital’s opposition to something which, in some ways would benefit it, reveals how the potential breaking down of certain constitutive boundaries of capitalism and the empowering of workers - especially women workers, through this measure, is a greater problem for capital than the deterioration of the work-force and the expense to society of “unemployment, poor working conditions, early retirement and sick leave”.

Here perhaps the clearest theoretical parallel may be found in Michal Kalecki’s “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, and the argument that, “there is a political background in the opposition to the full employment doctrine, even though the arguments advanced are economic”. In other words, even if the capitalist economy may be more efficient under conditions of full employment, a significant disciplinary power over the working class would be lost to capital. In the Swedish case, this political challenge to capital is less about discipline, more about the constitutive, internal boundaries of capitalism, those that underpin women’s oppression, being challenged. Once this political perspective is introduced, beyond the ameliorative reformist perspective of the contradiction between capital’s short and long term interests, capital’s political stake in the boundaries that partially cause women’s oppression should become clear. For a challenge to the length of the working day combines demands for better conditions for production and reproduction and unites women and men in that struggle.

Care Bank

While a shorter working week goes some way to recognising that the real length of the working day includes work in the domestic sphere as well, it needs to go hand in hand with a recognition not only of its existence, but of its importance. Recognising care as labour that can resist commodification, providing a potential site of work that, following Morris, is governed by “social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of man”, it is also a potential critique of productive labour that does not meet the real needs of people, advocating “work for livelihood, instead of working to supply the demand of the profit market”.

This means people, particularly women, need to be better resourced in order to undertake this important work, which would also begin to transform the conditions (of submission, isolation and drudgery) under which it is performed in both the household and the productive realm. As Nadine Houghton argues in New Socialist, about the demand for resourcing care:

The natural consequences of raising it address the structural impact of unpaid domestic labour on women working outside the home. Such a demand should be linked to the experiences of low paid women - not simply as a tool for solidarity but as a practical organising tool that shifts the debate around low pay to a clear analysis of class, race and gender.

However, as argued in Part Three, the way unpaid care is resourced needs to not only give women more control over how to resolve the contradictions that capitalism make so decisive for their lives, but to question the boundary between them and the polarised choice they present to women. Houghton writes of the need to remove

What is often seen as a binary decision between work at home and work outside the home - we should be demanding a system whereby the situation is more fluid and women and parents have the ability to fluctuate more easily between the two.

This creates a demand that everyone, both men and women, parents and non-parents, should have a ‘Care Bank’, paid care time, which they can draw upon throughout their life span, whenever they need to, to care for children, elderly relatives, other family members or friends, with employment protections so that they can return to work when they choose. This would enable both mothers and fathers to take maternity and paternity leave together at this demanding and important time, rather than the current system, which allows parents to share their leave, but in reality, has not been taken up by fathers. It also allows time to be taken at other crucial life moments.

A Care Bank, unlike a wage, which commodifies care work, potentially opening up social relations further to the discipline of capitalist production and oversight, while not necessarily transforming the conditions in which reproductive labour is carried out – particularly collapsing care with the drudgery of housework, and potentially maintaining women in their isolated domestic role; equally, is not just welfare, which does not conceptualise care as work and, in consequence, does not adequately compensate carers for their labour. It challenges the division between the production and reproduction while also potentially opening up the sharp distinctions between men and women’s responsibility for care work and the stipulation that care is done in isolation.


While shortening the working day and a Care Bank could provide parents time together to care for their children, the family needs to be further integrated into the community, both because families need to be supported more widely, and to increase the capacity in the community for care in general. A mix of state provision, co-operatives and well resourced informal care, with the boundaries between the three being porous, provides a way to challenge the spatial, temporal, institutional and cultural splitting off of the domestic sphere[3] as a place where care is carried out in conditions of submission, isolation and drudgery as well as making the social realm inclusive of families, rather than excluding children from public life.

Childcare as a Free, Universal Service

It is clear that the current model of childcare, predominantly formal private nurseries (79% of childcare places) that parents have little involvement with except as consumers, cannot provide the means of ‘socialising the domestic’ that challenges either the conditions of care that takes place inside the home, or to fully integrate care within the community in a way that meets women and children’s needs.

This is because, in this model, childcare is treated as a ‘black box’, where government money goes in to private companies to deliver the government’s policy aims, which are described by the Conservatives' own evaluation of the extension of free hours as a confused mixture of predominantly enabling parental, and in reality maternal, employment and some early years education[4]. As a Reformism as Response strategy would suggest, without delivering childcare on the basis of a total critique of capitalism, these purposes are not only liable to co-option to capitalist purposes for production (coercing women into the labour-force) and reproduction (educating and stratifying the future workforce), as explained in Part One, but the way these aims are delivered become subordinate to the profit motive, which means it becomes only incidental that the services companies provide are useful for the community. Subsequently, there needs to be strong counter-pressure by government to maintain standards, however, by ceding control of how childcare is delivered – what goes on inside the black box, the only mechanisms available for this is a purely external regulatory framework, involving OFSTED inspections, which not only are inappropriate to measure caring interactions (as, after all, care is labour which potentially resists commodification and capitalist forms of measurement), but also act to commercialise knowledge and restrict access to other alternative forms of care).

Yet, as the purposes of childcare move more towards an outcome external to the content of care – enabling maternal employment seen in the Conservative restriction of free childcare to the children of working parents, the government is not only ceasing to assure quality to counter the downward pressure of privatised provision, but rather is favouring a landscape of privatised care, presided over a series of deregulatory reforms to enable private companies to cut costs. This can be seen in the government wanting providers in the 30 hour trial to “test different approaches that drive market innovation and efficiency, trialling different ways of supporting providers to achieve economies of scale and reduce costs” (DfE, 2017, p. 12). By encouraging “economies of scale” to enable them to keep their subsidy low, the government is also acting to create a favourable regulatory and funding framework for larger chains of for-profit childcare providers at the expense of independent, cooperative or voluntary sector provision, part of the sector that is decreasing as for-profits take over.

This is the only way in which this model of childcare – low government subsidies going to private childcare chains delivering increasingly poor quality provision and paying low wages to workers – has any chance of working. Forty-three per cent of the early implementers of the 30 free hours reported that they joined the scheme because “they saw it as a good business opportunity” (DfE, 2017, p. 14). However, the fact that the state functions to enable private companies to make a profit out of delivering essential services allows firms to frame demands for increased subsidies as meeting need and identifies the concerns of children, parents and society as a whole with private childcare providers. This can be seen in the identification of providers’ and parents’ interests in demanding a higher state subsidy to provide the free 30 hour entitlement to three and four year olds. While this is necessary for it to be practically possible to deliver this extension of free hours in the current circumstances, with research showing that without a higher subsidy “nurseries would have to pay their staff below the minimum wage to break even”, the logic of capitalism means good quality childcare is impossible, even with strong state entitlements, if it is delivered through companies governed by the profit motive.

While private companies make a profit from caring for our children, as well as the free entitlement for working parents being structurally undeliverable by all but the big childcare chains paying women childcare workers the minimum wage, it is also inconceivable that parents, and mothers in particular, could define their own purposes for childcare to meet their needs and for the kind of society that we want, such as having childcare provision for time off from care work as well as paid work. In The Playgroup Movement, Brenda Crowe writes, “there is a very real need for mothers to go off duty for a couple of hours occasionally. Who else is on the job for twenty-four consecutive hours, seven days a week, without even a break for meals?”[5]. Parents and childcare workers have only minimal control over the services they use and provide. Parental input is only very weakly determined by market mechanisms, as ‘consumers’ of childcare; and even then, these mechanisms and the pressure of competition serves not to improve standards or further choice but to drive smaller independent and voluntary providers out of business and lower standards, often by intensifying the exploitation of childcare workers, who have minimal control over the pay and conditions in which they work, which are some of the worst in the country.

However, socialising childcare is not the same as ceding it to the market, rather, as Fraser observes has been the case with earlier socially democratic governments, “some aspects of social reproduction were transformed into public services and public goods, de-privatized but not commodified”. Recognising care as labour which potentially resists commodification provides a strategy to oppose the integration of childcare into the very narrow horizons of existing capitalist purposes, and recognise the work that childcare workers do, even in conditions that mitigate against a generalisable support structure for that work. However, in order to genuinely value and support their care work, as well as meeting the needs of parents and their children, we need to start by bringing childcare back into public hands by not allowing private companies to profit from the care of our children. Childcare needs to be recognised as a national service, like the NHS or education (and here, the Labour Manifesto (p. 35) promising a National Education Service from cradle to grave is positive), with simple supply-side funding through general taxation, available to all parents and free at the point of use. It should be a flexible resource to suit parents, whether in employment or not, so that they can also use it when they are not doing paid work, to have time to rest or to pursue other meaningful activities and long-term projects.

However, this does not mean ceding control over the care of our children, for the ways in which childcare is delivered should not be incidental to our aims, taken out of democratic control and handed over either to private companies, or the state. Here it is important to go back to Federici:

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[6].

Alternative Models of Childcare: Co-operative Playgroups

Like the Playgroup Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s, a grass roots self-help movement by mothers, and it’s New Zealand equivalent, the Playcentre Movement, which began during the war and is still active, parents democratic involvement in care challenges the sharp distinction that views childcare as only occurring when parents, particularly mothers, are absent from it (and ideally at work). Federici, again, observes how “welfare mothers, for example, denounced the absurdity of the government policy that recognizes childcare as work only when it involves the children of others”[7]. In contrast, the Playcentre Federation describes in its philosophy how it “recognises the parents as the first and best educators of their own children. Playcentre families receive a unique early childhood experience with opportunities for whanau/families to learn together.”

There needs to be a more fluid conceptualisation of childcare that belies the strict separation between formal and informal childcare, and care inside and outside the home. This means childcare that mothers, and parents in general, are not excluded from. Instead of parents only relation to other parents being as consumers, co-operative provision allows women to create networks of support in their local community. In this 1980 film, Parents in Playgroup, one woman describes how “I was a lonely mum, came to Honiton with my husband’s job, I didn’t want to come, I started playgroup, and I needed the playgroup, very much, I was very lonely, I was a mum help and then I started staying when I wasn’t a mum help.”

Cooperative care recognises and builds on the capacities that parents have, and are already using everyday, to care for children, but without naturalising this ability – and Crowe explains how fathers were involved in Playgroups too, as they have been in delivering co-operative childcare today. It allows for parents to learn from the shared wisdom of other parents, as well as recognising that parents need support, and benefit from interactions with, and training from, childcare professionals. This means childcare workers are given a new importance, reflected in their pay and conditions1, as Crowe writes, when parents turn to professionals for “advice, guidance and support”, they do so “within the context of a redefined relationship of self-confidence and partnership”[8]. In this sense of partnerships, it is important that childcare workers also have co-operative control alongside parents. Lucie Stephens has further researched how co-operatives operating today are beneficial for children, parents and workers.

It also increases the capacity of the community for care in general, as Crowe describes, in her 1972 book The Playgroup Movement, how the Pre-school Playgroups Association (PPA), “continues to promote the principles of mutual support and self-help for the benefit not only of pre-schoolers but of their parents and the wider community. This fosters the morale, self-confidence and the general capacity to cope among a much wider age range that the movement’s name would suggest” For example, “PPA has started to involve teenagers and the retired. A further new development might be to enlist the interest of the redundant and the unemployed to the benefit both of those made to feel unwanted by society and of young children most of whom see far too little of male figures in their every day life”[9].

In order for this to be practically possible, the government should provide a legislative framework and set up a shelter organisation, like the Playcentre Federation in New Zealand, to give support, advice, training and funding to parents and workers. This NEF report also has further suggestions for how cooperative childcare could be supported.

A System of Fluid Care

In order to truly attack the spatial separation of the domestic, parents need to be resourced, with the money and time, to be able to have the choice to look after their own children, create their own informal arrangements with their peers, where they can be present or not, or have democratic control over more formal, state arrangements; or, ideally, be able to use all these ways of caring fluidly to fit into their lives and the lives of their children. In this way, a system of paying parents directly, or vouchers, could help parents combine a truly flexible use of provision. To paraphrase Marx, to be able to “leave your child at nursery in the morning, for you and friends to look after your children in the afternoon, join other parents at playgroup in the evening, look after your child at home after dinner”, and be paid for the care you are doing across all these settings, at home and outside the home.

Again, this is not commodifying care through providing a wage; neither does it classify mothers as non-working dependents through welfare. It is a way to challenge capitalism’s sharp division of the domestic sphere and obscuring of the labour done there, often in conditions of isolation, by allowing women to socialise their domestic care arrangements in pleasurable ways that suit them and their children.

However, as direct payments and vouchers have been used to integrate care into the purposes of capitalism (in particular, with how PIPs payments have replaced DLA) and been way to remove support from people, particularly people with disabilities and women, on the grounds of facilitating their ‘independence’, this tentative suggestion needs to be approached with care. Payment is not enough, especially in the current regulatory and funding framework; knowledge also needs to be socialised and support needs to be available to help parents, and mothers in particular, set up the type of childcare that suits their needs and those of the family and wider community.


A Transformation of Space

To help grow the general capability of the community and equip public space with 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.

Alongside “the good community playgroup, firmly rooted in its own locality”[10], child-friendly spaces need to become the norm in public buildings and work places. Birmingham Impact Hub provides #radicalchildcare, a co-operative pop-up on-site creche facility alongside its workspace, which parents can use flexibly. One mother describes how the creche did not enact a strict separation of her from her child, neither did it for the childcare worker and her child:

Co-creche was relaxed and easygoing, it gave me opportunity to work, while knowing that my kid is just upstairs and I can visit as many times as I want; just to see him through the glass door happily playing with other kids or getting inside to give him a cuddle when he was upset or even breast feed him if he was hungry. I felt I was there for him, and I didn't just leave him in a nursery and went. It was also good to get to know lovely ladies, childcare professionals who were there every week to take care of our children. One of them had her baby in the co-creche which felt more personal, like a community.

It is also important to note the importance of architecture, with the glass partition allowing parents to work undisturbed alongside their children. Although this is a workspace for freelancers, workplaces in general could have a similar arrangement, with co-operative creche facilities and working rights that allow parents to have some allocated time working in the creche.

Child-friendly spaces such as creches, soft play areas, unisex baby changing, breastfeeding rooms, would also mean families, childminders or co-operatives of parents and professionals could fluidly care for children both in each others homes and in public spaces, and means informal groups of parent-carers do not necessarily have to provide a premises. Having already been transformed, spaces are ready to use for such groups. This divorcing of space from collectives of parents reconceptualises formal and informal childcare, allows groups to develop more easily and informally and naturally as a pre-cursor to perhaps establishing more formal arrangements.

Increasing the Capability and Responsibility of the Community for Care

Further to ready-made child friendly spaces, organisations should also have the responsibility to provide childcare. Wainwright describes how women’s sections transformed the Labour Party so that in one branch, “they have changed the time of meetings to suit parents and provide two hours’ paid child care”[11].

Wainwright also discusses women’s demands for a mobile creche: “their idea was that creche workers would take play equipment and set up a creche on demand, at adult-education classes for instance, or health centres or community centres”[12].

These are all ways to reform childcare that need further examination.

Photo: Staff Sgt. Victoria Sneed

  1. Raymond Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945” in Culture and Materialism, London, Verso, 2005. ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945”, p. 248. ↩︎

  3. See Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, Chicago, Haymarket, 2013, p. 159. ↩︎

  4. " While the universal entitlement is focused on supporting child development, the aim of the extension is that “Additional free childcare will help families by reducing the cost of childcare and will support parents into work or to work more hours should they wish to do so” (DfE, 2017, p. 12). ↩︎

  5. Brenda Crowe, The Playgroup Movement, Oxon, Routledge Library Editions, 1983, p. 1. ↩︎

  6. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, PM Press, 2012, p. 21. ↩︎

  7. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 43. ↩︎

  8. Crowe, The Playgroup Movement. ↩︎

  9. Crowe, The Playgroup Movement, p. xi. ↩︎

  10. Crowe, The Playgroup Movement, p. 1. ↩︎

  11. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 175. ↩︎

  12. Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, p. 169. ↩︎

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