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Wages for Housework?

From LSA/LSO Internal Discussion Bulletin 1970, Number 7, August 1970.

This document is an example of the intense discussion of issues related to the rise of the women’s liberation movement that took place in the Trotskyist movement in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this article, from the 1970 pre-convention discussion, Ian Angus and Elisabeth Angus of the Ottawa LSA branch responded to an article that had appeared in an internal discussion bulletin published by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Robert Langston (1933-1977) was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a staff writer for The Militant.

Wages For Housework?

By Ian Angus and Elisabeth Angus

This is written as a reply to Bob Langston's “The 'Wages for Housework Slogan", which is inevitably a part of our pre-convention discussion on women's liberation, Comrade McGuire has already replied to parts of it (See Bulletin No, 5), but we feel it requires a more complete response; as well, Comrade McGuire accepts the 'economic' arguments of Comrade Langston rather too easily,

Comrade Langston's article can be divided into five distinct parts: some introductory comments outlining what he sees as the psychological origins of the demand; an argument that housework is unpaid labor because it does not produce any value; an argument against the wages for housework slogan; a set of slogans he poses as alternatives to that slogan; and some concluding remarks about the value of the demands he poses.

It must be said that the logic of the article is not always clear. What, for example, is the relationship between the argument that housework does not produce any value and the argument against the wages for housework slogan? If he means to say that housework does not produce value and therefore we should not demand wages, what becomes of the demand for a living allowance for students, who certainly don't produce any value?

The main thrust seems to be in the second and third sections. Housework, comrade Langston says, is unpaid because it does not contribute to the value of the commodity labor-power.

“It is the cost of the groceries bought at the store, and not in the slightest the amount of time spent cooking them, that en­ters into the determination of the wage, the price of the commodity, labor-power.”

He goes on to oppose the wages for housework slogan because it

"diverts attention away from the need to socialize the reproduction of labor-power end to undermine the sexual division of labor, and directs the attention towards the possibility of making this oppressive status quo somewhat more acceptable by – paying women to be housewives."

There is a non sequitur involved in the argument that housework is unpaid because it does not produce any value. Hundreds of thousands of workers in capitalist society do not produce any value -- the police, the armies, the advertisers, and so on. They are paid because they help to maintain the environment within which commodity production takes place. That is, they produce use-values for capitalist society, even though they do not produce exchange-values. Thus, even if we accept that housework does not produce or help to produce exchange-values, it is not logical to conclude that this is the rationale for not paying housewives a wage.

But does housework produce exchange-value: does it contribute to the exchange value of the one commodity produced by the nuclear family, labor-power? Again Comrade Langston follows a peculiar line of reasoning. He admits that "Those activities (i.e, housework) are indeed necessary to the reproduction of labor power”, but denies that they contribute to its value. But, according to Marxist economics, the exchange-value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labor necessary to produce it (See Mandel, Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, 17-23). If housework is necessary to produce and reproduce labor power, then it contributes to the value of labor-power: you can't have it both ways. And if housework contributes to the value of labor-power, then a part of the price of labor power is the price of the housework.

(The only way that Comrade Langston could rescue his argument is by arguing that housework is necessary but not socially necessary. This would mean arguing that it is not the norm, which doesn't seem very likely.)

In fact, it should be quite obvious that housework contributes directly to the value of labor-power. Comrade Langston, in asserting that the capitalist pay for the food, but not the cooking, seems to assume that the uncooked food is edible, which is seldom true. Similarly he must assume that an apartment which is never cleaned will remain inhabitable. Unless the food is prepared and the other housework done, the value of labor-power will decline, as the worker becomes less fit, physically and psychologically.

Comrade Langston ignores the fact that wages -- the price of labor-power -- include not only the cost of keeping the worker working, but the cost of replacing him. That is, they include the cost of raising children. (See Marx and Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: 1962), Vol.  I, 73.) Thus the innumerable tasks involved in raising children, performed in the early years almost exclusively by housewives, are included in the wage, the value, of labor-power.

Mandel writes:

"The value of labor-power comprises not only the prices of the means of existence needed for its purely physical reconstitution (and the maintenance of the workers' children, i.e., the reproduction of labor-power). It also includes a moral and historical element, i.e., the prices of those commodities (and later, of certain personal services) which the traditions of the country have come to include in the subsistence minimum." (Marxist Economic Theory, Vol. I, 147)

Included in that moral and historical element, in advanced capitalist society, is a clean and well-kept home, a degree of sexual and non-sexual companionship, food that is more than uncooked food, and so on. The housewife’s labor makes these things possible.

Why then is housework unpaid? The answer is that housework is in fact paid under capitalism. But it is not paid directly: it is paid as a portion of the husband's wage.

The implications of this are clear and important. Despite comrade Langston's statement that working class wives usually handle the budgeting, the indirect payment of the value of housework reinforces the subordinate status of women. The housewife is directly dependant upon her husband for her means of subsistence. No matter who actually spends the money, it is the husband that brings it home. This process uses and strengthens the nuclear family. The unemployed single mother cannot survive: she needs a husband in order to be paid for her labor.

It follows from the above argument that the second part of Comrade Langston's argument is also incorrect. But first we should point out that it too contains a non sequitur. The argument that the demand for wages for housework will only make things easier for housewives is only a variant of every sectarian argument against reforms, wage increases, and so on.

But there is more involved than that. If, as we believe, the present method of paying for housework reinforces the nuclear family, then the demand for direct wage payments for housewives, rather than strengthening the present family basis of reproducing labor, actually weakens it.

Further, we think Comrade Langston misses the point when he suggests that the demand points away from the socialization of the reproduction of labor-power. The demand requires that the state take on the responsibility for financing housework. That is, that a portion of the social surplus be used to pay for the labor involved in reproducing labor-power. As such, the demand is linked to demands for day-care centers, etc., and not opposed to them.

(We should add that we are considerably less confident about the ability of capitalist society to seriously meet the demand than is Comrade Langston. Insofar, however, as the demand is partially won, it must be linked to militant opposition to wage reductions for non-household workers.)

In discussing the wages for housework slogan, we must deal with the present realities of capitalist society. Our aim is to raise demands which bridge the gap between present consciousness and objective necessity. The fact is that a large number of women, probably the majority, are not prepared either in skills or psychologically, to enter the wage-labor market at once. As well, the transition to a system involving the full socialization of the reproduction of labor will take some time.

The demand for wages for housework is aimed precisely at women who cannot (or will not, which is pretty much the same thing) enter industry for any one of a hundred reasons. It is a demand which can reach such women and help to expose to them the oppressive nature of capitalism and the nuclear family . It is a demand for open recognition that housework does produce value, that it is socially necessary labor at this time, and a demand for the financial independence of the housewife. We should keep the slogan.

Finally, we must comment on Comrade Langston’s concluding remarks, It becomes clear in his third-last paragraph that his particular concern is explaining women’s' demands to men. He worries about reducing “the inevitable social conflict between men and women”, and overcoming the "weakening of working class unity" that a serious women’s liberation movement can cause. Surely no one would raise such questions in discussing the relationship of Whites to the Black Liberation struggle. The key question we must deal with is how our demands relate to women, and we must never lose sight of the fact that the militant struggle for full equality -- including the right to be paid directly for labor --- is a part of the struggle for workers’ power, and is a crucial aspect of the fight for working class unity.

--Ottawa, August 3, 1970.

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