Capitalism, Women, & Exploitation

I’ve been re-reading Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article “The Traffic in Women” today. I’m planning to use a bit of her work for an article on Social Media that I’m writing, but I thought I’d use today’s post to explore Rubin’s take on Marxism, capitalism, and women in a more general way than I will in my article. I hope you’ll be interested.

First, let me give two particularly interesting quotes.

“The worker gets a wage; the capitalist gets the things the worker has made during his or her time of employment. If the total value of the things the worker has made exceeds the value of his or her wage, the aim of capitalism has been achieved. The capitalist gets back the cost of the wage, plus an increment—surplus value. This can occur because the wage is determined not by the value of what the laborer makes, but by the value of what it takes to keep him or her going—to reproduce him or her from day to day, and to reproduce the entire work force from one generation to the next. Thus, surplus value is the difference between what the laboring class produces as a whole, and the amount of that total which is recycled into maintaining the laboring class.”[1] (emphasis mine)

“The amount of the difference between the reproduction of the labor power and its products depends, therefore, on the determination of what it takes to reproduce that labor power. Marx tends to make that determination on the basis of the quantity of commodities—food, clothing, housing, fuel—which would be necessary to maintain the health, life, and strength of a worker. But these commodities must be consumed before they can be sustenance, and they are not immediately in consumable form when they are purchases by the wage. Additional labor must be performed upon these things before they can be turned into people. Food must be cooked, clothes cleaned, beds made, wood chopped, etc. Housework is therefore a key element in the process of the reproduction of the laborer from whom surplus value is taken. Since it is usually women who do housework, it has been observed that it is through the reproduction of labor power that women are articulated into the surplus value nexus which is the sine qua non of capitalism. In can be further argued that since no wage is paid for housework, the labor of women in the home contributes to the ultimate quantity of surplus value realized.”[2] (emphasis mine)

I find Rubin’s points quite poignant. Although, she doesn’t lay out the entire argument in those two quotes, I think they highlight some of the most important points. However, for clarification, please let me restate these points,

  • The goal of capitalism is the production of surplus profit.
  • Surplus profits requires that:
    • Workers must continue to work.
      • In order to continue working, workers must have sustenance. This includes clothes, food, drink, an adequately comfortable place to sleep, social outlets, mental well-being, etc.
      • More workers must be available when the current set of workers dies off.
    • Production of surplus profits is most successful when there is the greatest possible difference between the amount paid to workers and the value of the products of their work.
      • To ensure the greatest difference, workers must be paid as little as possible, while still ensuring that they continue to work.
        • In order to pay workers as little as possible, much of the “background work” required to make their food, drink, etc. into sustenance must be unpaid and made invisible.
        • In order to pay workers as little as possible, the labor required to reproduce the work force (re: having and raising children) must be unpaid and made invisible.

This explanation of capitalism leads us to conclude that the very idea of capitalism rests on (even requires) under-paying workers and not paying and undervaluing housework…. which may, I think, be viewed as exploitation and oppression.

Your thoughts?

What would you say are the goals of capitalism?

How do you understand capitalism to achieve those goals?

Do you think that capitalism rests on (or requires) exploitation?


[1] Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic of Women,” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p772.

[2] Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic of Women,” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p772-3.

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