Reading Marx’s Capital as a feminist: the personal is political

When I started reading Capital I didn’t expect it to give me insight into my oppression as a woman. But it has. Bear with me.

One of the ways that women are oppressed in capitalism is by the displacement and fracturing of our human selves and labor into the realm excluded from capitalism and on which it depends, the ‘reproduction of human beings and their labor power’, and our relationship to capitalist economy itself through whatever it is we exchange for money. In David Harvey’s lectures, which I am following as an accompaniment to my reading of the book itself, he indicates that Marx considered the reproduction of human beings to be part of nature, and like other natural processes on which any economy depends, it is acknowledged without being addressed in terms of reciprocity. (I am thinking of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s view of human reciprocity with nature, as set out in Braiding Sweetgrass.)

It is not correct to equate the reproduction of human beings with natural processes. Women can and do choose when and how to bring life into the world. The labor that women undergo and perform to give birth and breastfeed, and men’s relationship to this labor of women and the economies of exchange between men and women with respect to the raising of children and their relationship to production of any kind, is human labor and part of human economy. I am not sure if Engels’ work on this question fully addresses this.

For some women, for heterosexual women and those forced into heterosexual relations, in conditions of patriarchy, exchange of our sexual and reproductive labor power for money or the means of subsistence is a sad fact that led feminists to understand that patriarchal marriage equates to prostitution.

For women, the paradigm of exchange of labor in capitalist economy is prostitution/marriage, i.e. exchanging sexual and/or reproductive labor power as such. That is what capitalism sees women in particular as being ‘good for’. A ‘working woman’ has the connotation of a prostitute, and women are shamed for putting ourselves on the market while it is only the conditions of capitalism and patriarchy that force women into this position, whether as a laborer on an assembly line, a secretary, in prostitution or marriage.

The notion of labor as something one can have a sense of one’s own worth in relation to, a sense of skill and pride and competence, and which can also be the basis for negotiating its exchange value for money – whether to an employer, a patron, a donor, a client, a buyer for one’s products – is denied to women by being equated with sexual humiliation. Women are both channeled into sexual self-advertising of our bodies and servility as the only ‘things’ we have worth anything to exchange, and shamed away from developing self-respect and self-worth in relation to our labor that we perform in any area of life, taking our labor seriously as the creation of value, since for women, ‘value’ is equated with the objectification of ourselves and cannot be the effect of an activity we engage in as subjects.

Women who resist prostitution and marriage, who resist objectification, may still find it hard to relate to the capitalist economy. I can say this was true for me, and maybe other women have different experiences.

I think it has something to do also with the notion of labor as a commodity under capitalism. We exchange labor for money, and David Harvey comments that it is recognized as a problem that Marx flattens out the differences between specific kinds of labor in his conception of average socially-necessary labor as the definition of value. But in reality, people in all kinds of work do not think of their labor as something merely average, alienated, a commodity as unskilled power that they must exchange for money as means of subsistence. People take pride in their work as nurses, mechanics, typists, bartenders, seamstresses, janitors, and they put some of themselves into it, there is something in work that remains unalienated despite its commodification.

I thought about this listening to the album The Changer and The Changed by Cris Williamson, a classic of 70s lesbian feminism. In concert, Cris still plays a couple of those songs but not others, and I found myself wondering why. I imagined that she might feel too distant in her life and feelings now from some of the more personal songs on that album, and thought about the concretization of her music in that form and how listeners relate to it. It’s not only that the music has a different use-value for her than for any other listener, but that she retains a link to it through her labor that no one else has. A violin maker still cares what happens to the instruments he makes and how they are being used; a mechanic may be interested in how her tinkering held up; the food we eat holds the specific labor of those who cultivated it, harvested it, packed it, brought it to market.

In my work on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, another person who was involved commented to me, ‘your DNA is in that treaty’. There is still work I’m doing to draw out its inner logic that draws on and extends that labor I put into it, there are things I know the workings of or can relate to intuitively even if I can’t articulate, like the violin maker or mechanic or gardener who can see something of the power in how the product or effect of their labor is expressing itself and adjust or draw out further or simply celebrate.

In some economies, songs remain the property of an individual or collective; songs may be sacred and cannot be sung except by the owner; or they can be sold by being taught to another person to sing. Commodification of songs as social property exchanged for money in the concretized form of recordings of the singer’s voice and words, de-personalizes them and could be experienced as alienating for the creator if she would rather retire them from circulation.

We cannot go back to pre-capitalist personal exchanges, though gift economies and barter and other kinds of cooperative economy such as community currencies and mutual aid are important still in many of our lives and communities. But I think that grappling with the relationship between the specificity and personal quality of any labor, and our ability to contemplate its worth based on our own assessment of quality and social value and negotiate any exchange from that standpoint, is important especially for women in thinking about capitalism, our aversion to the capitalist value system, and how to transform it.

It is not enough to talk about participatory democracy in the economic and political spheres, workplace democracy and socialization of political decision-making. It is also not enough to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy and the implication of this principle for upending capitalism and its patriarchal foundation. That is all necessary but the intersection between the two in women’s lives, in terms of women’s relationship to the capitalist market economy as laborers – our relationship as women to labor that is not sexed or gendered per se (songwriting, violin making, janitorial work, mechanics, nursing, law, etc.), as well as a new visioning of the meaning of women’s sexed and gendered reproductive labor as human labor – is critical for understanding ourselves in the world we live in and moving in it now, as well as to envisioning what we want to fight for, and how.


2 thoughts on “Reading Marx’s Capital as a feminist: the personal is political

  1. Dar Guerra

    Hi Tina, thanks for your observations about Capital. You argue that women’s reproductive labor doesn’t fit well into the Marxist paradigm, and neither does a great deal of labor constitute assembly-style work that the worker is completely alienated from. Yes, we must work out what Firestone called an “enlarged” understanding of Marxist labor theory that encompasses women’s imposed and “natural” differences as well as similarities.

    This sentence seems to me to be key: “Women are both channeled into sexual self-advertising of our bodies and servility as the only ‘things’ we have worth anything to exchange, and shamed away from developing self-respect and self-worth in relation to our labor.” Women’s labor is disrespected, devalued, and becomes part of the subjugation process, then.



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