What is work? Wage labour, unpaid work and feminism

Labour is central to a Marxist view of history

Labour is central to a Marxist view of history

Ian Anderson, Fightback coordinating editor. With contributions by Kassie Hartendorp.

Labour, or work, is central to historical materialist (or Marxist) views of history. Stereotypically, this means only caring about men wearing overalls and working in factories. However, factory labour is only one form of wage labour, which in turn is only one form of labour.

Labour is the sum total of human activities that reproduce social existence. Work keeps us alive, nourished, able to participate in human society. In The German Ideology, Marx argued that the “first historical act” is the “production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.”

Labour includes, but is not limited to, wage labour. Unpaid labour in the home – cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the sick and elderly – reproduces our social existence. This unpaid domestic labour, including housework, has been termed “reproductive labour.”

Women still do the bulk of reproductive labour under capitalism. Surveys of unpaid work are not collected often, showing the priorities of the ruling class. However, 2009/2010 Time Use Surveys show that while women and men perform similar hours of work, the majority of men’s work is paid, while the majority of women’s work is unpaid.

Given the onslaught of attacks on both paid and unpaid workers, it is necessary to understand the relationship between wage labour, unpaid work, and unemployment. As women work the majority of unpaid hours, this understanding is also necessary to reconciling socialist and feminist demands.

Aged care workers on strike.

Aged care workers on strike.

Wage labour, unemployment and unpaid domestic labour

Wage labour is one form of labour, central to capitalist production. Wage labour was generalised in recent centuries by the violent global dispossession of land and resources, forcing the vast majority to labour for a propertied minority. Labour by the majority produces the value which capitalists rely on, value which is the seed of working class power.

State and capital use unemployment to control the demands of wage labour. This is a deliberate, stated strategy. Suzanne Snivelly, member of the Reserve Bank Board of Directors during the crucial attack period of 1985-1992 states:

“It was a manageable thing for the Reserve Bank to use employment, and unemployment, as the way to get wages down… So they used it.”

When unionised McDonalds workers plan to strike during a breakdown in negotiations, managers say they’ll be fired. Although this threat is strictly illegal, it reveals the underlying logic of unemployment for the capitalist class. Demanding full employment unites the needs of unemployed workers and wage workers.

However, beneficiary advocates such as MANA’s Sue Bradford distinguish between unemployed workers (who are seeking full-time work, and may or may not rely on a benefit) and beneficiaries (who due to physical or mental impairments, or parental commitments, are unable to commit to full-time work). Beneficiary-bashing deliberately blurs the line between these categories.

Women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit work full-time to raise children. Similarly, spouses who work to feed families entirely on their partner’s wage do not register as unemployed, because they are not seeking full-time work.

There are two main differences between ‘housework’ and wage labour:

  1. Housework is largely unpaid
  2. Unpaid housework does not directly produce profits for capitalists

Slaves are also unpaid; both historically, and currently throughout much of the majority world. Every class society has relied, at least in part, on unpaid labour.

The question of housework and profits is more complicated. The labour of unpaid domestic workers realises the value of commodities; cleaning fluids, appliances, ingredients, and numerous other products. Domestic labour in turn reproduces the existence of wage labourers. Arguably this sets the price of labour power, by mediating between wages and the price of domestic commodities.

Women also perform the majority of ‘voluntary work,’ unpaid labour for organisations. This could include staffing a soup kitchen, providing support for youth, collecting funds for striking workers, or dispensing evangelical literature.

Voluntary work fills in the cracks (or gaping chasms) in the system; trauma, hunger, ecological damage. In capitalist terms, these cracks are ‘externalities,’ not directly relevant to producing profit and therefore taken up by volunteers.

At worst, voluntary work can operate according to principles of ‘charity.’ Charity encourages passivity, by addressing symptoms and obscuring causes. At best, voluntary work can operate according to principles of ‘solidarity.’ Solidarity supports mutual self-activity, to overcome oppression and exploitation.

In the neoliberal era of capitalism, participation in voluntary work has lessened, while women’s participation in wage labour (always an aspect of capitalism) has increased. As women participate in wage labour, they also participate in industrial struggles, including the recent strike wave of aged care workers in Aotearoa.

At the same time, many women have taken on the ‘double-shift’ of wage work and housework. Women still perform most unpaid labour.

smash patriarchy smash capitalism

Capitalism and patriarchy: parallel systems?

In a seminal 1979 essay, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Heidi Hartmann argues that feminism has been subordinated to Marxism in most attempts:

“The ‘marriage’ of marxism and feminism has been like the marriage of husband and wife depicted in English common law : marxism and feminism are one, and that one is marxism.”

On the flipside, feminism without socialism is often “blind to history.” Hartmann suggests that capitalism and patriarchy are parallel systems, requiring a socialist-feminist response.

 Where housework is not directly waged or salaried, proving whether or not it produces profit is a blind alley. Through commodification, all acceptable activities in capitalist society (including sport, music, even watching television) increasingly support the production of economic value, and the reproduction of social existence.

The dominant system is both an economic and a social relation. Central aspects of women’s subordination in the private sphere, such as sexual violence, cannot be easily reduced to economics.

Hartmann argues that patriarchy rests on men’s control of women’s labour, maintained through sexual control of women’s bodies. Sexual control could take the form of intimate partner abuse, denial of reproductive rights, denial of the right to self-identification of gender and sexuality.

Patriarchy predates capitalism. Even Friedrich Engels, key collaborator of Marx, argued that the first historic division of labour was the division between men and women. However, patriarchy has found a new, historically specific form under capitalism, with the division between wage labour and the private sphere.

Although men would ultimately benefit from the creation of an egalitarian society, we often defend our limited privileges within this system when challenged. These daily privileges include more control over our own bodies, less unpaid commitments, and therefore more leisure time than women.

If patriarchy and capitalism are parallel systems, socialism and feminism must be parallel responses.

feminism back by popular demand

Feminism: from patriarchy to kyriarchy?

More recently, feminists have moved from the concept of ‘patriarchy’ (rule of the father) to ‘kyriarchy’ (rule of the master/lord). Kyriarchy is often conceived as a pyramid, with the most powerful at the top and the least powerful at the bottom.

Kyriarchy describes a complex web of power structures, recognising intersecting oppressions including racism, transphobia, homophobia and disability. This concept uses ‘intersectionality’ as a framework to describe and understand how forms of oppression reinforce each-other. For example, it takes into account that a white able-bodied woman, may have more power in Western society than a black, disabled man.

Although this framework is useful in overcoming the one-sidedness of previous approaches to understanding oppression, it has some limitations. Firstly, the concept takes ‘domination’ or ‘rule’ out of any defined historical context, and secondly it doesn’t distinguish identity from economic relations.

By naming the problem as ‘domination’ or ‘rule,’ kyriarchy theory leaves crucial questions unanswered about how societies produce particular forms of oppression. Capitalism emerged out of a particular historical context; not all societies have been capitalist. Patriarchy has also taken a new form in the capitalist era. Historical materialist, or Marxist, analysis helps to understand the ‘historical specificity’ of social structures, the way ‘everything flows and nothing stays.’

Kyriarchy theory describes oppression in terms of personal identity. This approach understands class, and ‘classism,’ in terms of the privilege experienced by a wealthy individual, or the oppression experienced by a poor individual. It conceives class as one of many identities making up the pyramid.

Marxists understand class as an economic relation more than an identity. Class is defined by ownership of the means of production, (land, factories, people) with the majority lacking ownership. Gender, by contrast, is mainly an identity, which is partially but not entirely autonomous from class. A given individual woman can climb to (or near) the top rung of the pyramid and remain identified as a woman. By definition, a given worker cannot reach the top and remain a worker, unless we demolish the pyramid.

Class and identity-based oppression are deeply entwined. Oppressed groups overwhelmingly lack ownership of the means of production (only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women). However, these struggles and experiences are far from homogeneous. As African American socialist-feminist Angela Davis asks:

“How can we be together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive? How can we be together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory?”

If socialists do not recognise and work to address daily disparities, for example by considering the needs of primary caregivers in political organising, unity will be simplistic and oppressive.

Our class politics must complement our intersectional feminist politics, neither subsuming the other.


What is to be done?

In response to the combined state offensive against wage workers and beneficiaries, socialists must draw the necessary links between social movements (including gender liberation and beneficiary advocacy) and industrial struggles. Wage workers are not ‘more important’ than other oppressed groups, however the fusion of wider social struggles with industrial power is needed to actually overturn this system.

Currently, struggles both by paid and unpaid workers are mainly defensive; maintaining hard-won rights where possible. Transformative politics must move from defence to offence, by actively building the strength of struggles on the ground, and by raising demands that link current experiences with the road to socialism.

Socialists have called for free public childcare, fully-funded education, free public restaurants, and public responsibility for all forms of reproductive work. These demands remain relevant. Ultimately, a democratically planned system could work to meet social needs collectively, rather than relegating them to unpaid private labour.

Connected to the liberation of private reproductive labour, socialists must support the generalised liberation of bodies from gendered control. This includes self-determination in medicine, (reproductive rights, fully funded gender-reassignment) combating rape culture, and defending survivor support services.

While raising these long-term demands on the system, socialist-feminists must also develop an anti-sexist praxis in our daily work. In part this means considering the immediate needs of women, and parents, here and now – not just after the revolution.


  1. said it before and I’ll say it again, universal income as proposed by those two great socialists Gareth Morgan and Milton Freidman.

%d bloggers like this: