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Are Women Mere Vending Machines Of Fulfilling Needs?

SOCIAL REPRODUCTION AND THE DICHOTOMY OF PAID AND UNPAID WORK

Labour supply is very much dependent on the economic system and is not an exogenous component. It is a product of the ongoing economic processes. Since its evolution, capitalism has been responsible for changes in the labour supply to adhere to the demands of the capitalist systems. Throughout its course, capitalism has generated its own labour and it is in the case of female labour that this theory is extremely prominent. Women have been a significant part of the labour force and have fed into the growth of capitalism throughout its history even though most of the times they are not recognized as workers in their own right. As part of the working class, women continue to contribute even when they are not paid for their work. Unpaid care work that women do for their households are mostly not acknowledged or taken into account but it definitely forms an integral part of the social reproduction process without which capitalism would be unstable or rather non-existent. The unpaid care work of women is generally seen as their responsibility irrespective of whether they work outside in paid jobs or not. They often have to face the double whammy of paid as well as unpaid work. In this context, this essay aims to discuss the dichotomy of paid and unpaid work focusing mainly on household work within the ambit of capitalist accumulation and its implications for the social reproduction process.

Introduction

Marx defined social reproduction as the reproduction of the capitalist system as a whole i.e reproduction and sustenance of labour power that in turn produces commodities thereby leading to the growth of the capitalist system. While it might seem that production of labour powepr (or life) is outside the ambit of the capitalist society, this is not the case. Both the production of goods and services and life are linked with each and form one integrated process. This implies that women are the main drivers of the capitalist society even though they are the ones who are the most oppressed and unacknowledged members of the working class of which they form an integral part. Capitalism was the reason why social reproduction was placed outside the ambit of economic activities and was relegated to an essential but unacknowledged activity performed only by women at the domestic levels and now it is capitalism itself which is responsible for the ‘crisis of care’ in contemporary times. Capitalist societies are a free rider of socially reproductive activities and exploits women catering to the care work. Also termed as love, care, and affection of a mother or a feminine figure of the household, household work has been relegated to a point where it is considered that the payment for the same is not monetary but returning that love and care. It has come to be assumed that these activities come naturally to women and it isn’t something that women should be paid for monetarily. However, in reality women are taken for granted for their care work and are treated as a mere machine churning human labour to sustain the capitalist system. Since the birth of capitalism in Europe and subsequently in the whole wide world, the idea that social reproduction is a part and parcel of a woman’s life and body has spread faster than a wildfire.

Capitalism- The Birth Giver Of Social Reproduction

The feudal society didn’t have the capacity to produce its own self and neither could the capitalist society emanate from it. This crisis of limitless demand of accumulation of wealth but the unavailability of the same led the European ruling class to lay the foundations for the capitalist society to capture more wealth, and bring the working class under its control which was going to ravage the world in the coming days. There were profound transformations that capitalism introduced in the reproduction of labour power and the social position of women. This process required the transformation of the body into a mere vending machine and the suppression of women only for the reproduction of the workforce. Most importantly, for capitalism to run in the long run, what was necessary was the destruction of the power and the authority that women had in pre capitalist times which in Europe and America was achieved through the “Great Witch Hunt” where women who went against the pre conceived notions during the capitalist era in any form were ostracized.

With the intensification of capitalism, what came in was the commercialization of life. With the beginning of capitalism, social reproduction activities were separated from economic production activities. Earlier, this was not the case. But as capitalism became the norm, women were relegated to being the second sex- the one responsible for social reproduction and limited only within the boundaries of the households and men became the main breadwinners- the head of the family who dominated the economy as well as the domestic life. The reproductive activities and household work performed by women became an unacknowledged and taken for granted activity performed by women as a part of their “duty” or “responsibility.”

Women were kept away from various wage earning opportunities and even in places where they were employed, they were paid a pittance which was nothing in comparison to what their male counterparts paid. These changes led to the establishment of women as what came to be known as “full time housewife.” This also implied that the capitalist system put more pressure on men and in turn had a control over women’s unpaid labour.  This separation of reproduction from the space of commodity production created a class of proletariat women who were as dependant on and bound to the capitalist system as men but were more helpless and economically impoverished than men owing to the inaccessibility of wage employment and their reproductive labour being invisible. (Federici, 2004)

With the birth of capitalism, women’s freedom to exercise their choice died. In 19th century France and England, the state went on to the extent of criminalizing celibacy and birth control in the name of pro life ideology. They relegated women to the position where they would be controlled by men and the law makers in general and they were not allowed to exercise their choice in any form, be it their wish to earn wages, give or not give birth. Any form of non-procreative sexuality was demonized[1] and those who didn’t obey the law of monogamy and staying within the four walls of the house while catering to the needs of the family members were hunted down by the law makers.

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The Dichotomy of Paid And Unpaid Work In The Contemporary Times

Crisis of care in the present capitalist societies is the situation where care activities such as childbirth, raising the children, caring for the elderly etc. are suffering because of external financial and societal pressures and conditions that capitalism enforces on the people. This constant undermining of the care activities is unsustainable for any economy as the pool of the labour supply in any economy is impossible to sustain without social reproduction of labour. This contemporary phenomenon of crisis of care in the capitalist society suggests that the system at the very foundation or base is faulty. The very fact that the unpaid care work is not counted in the GDP of a country[2] i.e. it is considered to be an activity that goes outside the mainstream economy shows that capitalist society as a whole has chopped off the human aspect or human connection from the production space. Capitalist economic activities, now more than ever, depend on social reproduction and are not self sustaining.

Even in the modern capitalist society, the onus is still on women to take care of household work irrespective of their economic or social status. The household work is largely unbalanced with women, especially those from the lower economic strata, being on the heavier side thus taking a toll on them mentally. The increased burden of the unpaid domestic labour and care work sometimes mean a permanent exit from the labour market and in cases where they can afford domestic help, they hire the same but then again even for those working as domestic help, the dichotomy of paid and unpaid work comes in as they too have to go back to their homes and perform household work. With rapid globalization and intensification of free market economy worldwide, the contours of capitalism have been changing. Public expenditure across various countries in the social sector has been declining over the years which is putting excess burden on women to perform unpaid care and household work. The care economy is being pushed to the invisible corners of capitalism more and more. These changes are increasingly becoming more prominent in Asia that is currently one of the most evolving economies of the world with women bearing the maximum burden of these changes- both economically and socially. More and more women are being employed in informal employments in textiles, retail trades etc. to cater to the ripple effects of capitalism in the form of increasing demands for gadgets, fast fashion etc. to cater to the needs of people of higher economic classes which include women themselves. Most of these women have to work in vulnerable conditions with no social security as a safety net and at the same time cater to unpaid household work as well. Women themselves are responsible for putting on other women by falling into the trap of capitalism.[3] Women belonging to higher economic status, hire other women to do the care work which they would have done on their own otherwise. However, the ones who have been hired do not have the capacity to hire others to do their work. So they have to cater to their own care work and then perform the same for others in return for wages.

The ingrained thought in our mind that the women of the house are supposed to cater to all our needs irrespective of what they are going through reflects how we have taken the care work that they do for us for granted and have assumed that they are bound to do so. This very notion has become a rope around the neck of most of the women. The ingrained patriarchy allows people to take advantage of the unpaid labour and care work that women do at home who in turn are exploited as mere vending machines of fulfilling desires.

Bibliography

Bhattacharya, T. (2017). Social Reproduction Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Engels, F. (1884). Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.

Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch: Women, Body, and the Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia.

Ghosh, J. (2012). Women, Labour, and Capital Accumulation in Asia. Monthly Review Press.


[1] Women who practiced prostitution or any form of consensual sexual activity that didn’t lead to giving birth were criminalized but in contrary, the men who indulged in it were hardly punished. This highlighted the biases of the capitalist system and the tendency to dominate women and treat them as mere commodities.

[2] Unpaid household work in an economy is considered to not add any value to the current goods and services in a given year. Hence, they are not counted in the GDP.

[3] Women themselves are used as models and objectified and are judged only on the basis of their physical appearances to market the products of capitalism. Thus, women have been made the victim and the perpetrator too even in the contemporary capitalist society.

Ishita Bagchi
Ishita Bagchi is a policy enthusiast and a writer who is keen on working in the area of gender, sustainability, and public policy. She is an Economics graduate and is currently pursuing her M.A in Development and Labour Studies from JNU, New Delhi.

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