All posts by Eve Mitchell

I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory

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In the United States, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a specific set of politics among the left reigns king.  Today, you could go into any university, on any number of liberal-to-left blogs or news websites, and the words “identity” and “intersectionality” will jump out you as the hegemonic theory.  But, like all theories, this corresponds to the activity of the working class in response to the current composition of capital.  Theory is not some cloud that floats above the class, raining down thoughts and ideas, but, as Raya Dunayevskaya writes,”the actions of the proletariat create the possibility for the intellectual to work out theory” (Marxism and Freedom, 91).  Therefore, in order to understand the dominant theories of our age, we must understand the real movement of the class.  In this piece, I will look at the history of identity politics and intersectionality theory in effort to construct a Marxist critique of intersectionality theory, and a offer positive Marxist conception of feminism.

The Context for “Identity” and “Intersectionality Theory.”

In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.  More specifically, since “intersectionality theory” primarily developed in response to second wave feminism, we must look at how gender relations under capitalism developed.  In the movement from feudalism to capitalism, the gendered division of labor, and therefore gender relations within the class began to take a new form that corresponded to the needs of capital.  Some of these new relations included the following:

(1) The development of the wage.  The wage is the capitalist form of coercion.  As Maria Mies explains in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, the wage replaced serf and slave ownership as the method to coerce alienated labor (meaning labor that the worker does for someone else).  Under capitalism, those who produce (workers) do not own the means of production, so they must go to work for those who own the means of production (capitalists).  Workers must therefore sell the only thing they own, their ability to labor, or their labor power, to the capitalist.  This is key because workers are not paid for their sensuous living labor, the act of producing, but the ability to labor.  The labor-labor power split gives rise to the appearance of an equal exchange of value; it appears as though the worker is paid for the amount of value she produces but in essence she is paid only for her ability to labor for a given period of time.

Furthermore, the working day itself is split into two parts:  necessary labor time and surplus labor time.  Necessary labor time is the time it takes the worker (on average) to produce enough value to buy all the commodities he needs to reproduce himself (everything from his dinner to his iPhone).  Surplus labor time is the time the worker works beyond the necessary labor time.  Since the going rate for labor power (again, our capacity to labor – not our actual living labor) is the value of all the commodities the worker needs to reproduce herself, surplus labor is value that goes straight into the capitalist’s pocket.  For example, let’s say I work in a Furby factory.  I get paid $10 a day to work 10 hours, I produce 10 Furbies a day, and a Furby is worth $10 each.  The capitalist is only paying me for my ability to work 1 hour each day to produce enough value to reproduce myself (1 Furby = 1 hour’s labor = $10).  So my necessary labor time is 1 hour, and the surplus labor time I give to the capitalist is 9 hours (10-1).  The wage obscures this fact.  Recall that under capitalism, it appears as though we are paid the equivalent value of what we produce.  But, in essence, we are paid only for our necessary labor time, or the minimum amount we need to reproduce ourselves.  This was different under feudalism when it was very clear how much time humans spent working for themselves, and how much time they spent working for someone else.  For example, a serf might spend five hours a week tilling the land to produce food for the feudal lord, and the rest of her time was her own.  The development of the wage is key because it enforced a gendered division of labor.

Continue reading I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory

For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism

by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman

Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B’Al Sk’a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle.  We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women’s liberation.

The scope of Eve’s response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign.  Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.

What may at first sight appear in Nat’s response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.

In Nat’s comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of “reproduction” here which we’ll expound further down).  The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object.  This is done through a dualistic reading of  “economics” and “politics,” or, to use the terms Marx employed in the “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, “base” and “superstructure.”  But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories.  The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.

We’d like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx’s conception of labor and unity of subject-object.  Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.

Marx’s conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.

Marx’s early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as “labor.”  In “Estranged Labour,” Marx writes,

“For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence.  Yet the productive life is the life of the species.  It is life-engendering life.  The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character.  Life itself appears only as a means to life.” (76)

Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production.  Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs.  Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.

But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process.  Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves.  Later in “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes,

“It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being.  This production is his active species life.  Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality.  The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.  In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” (77)

Here Marx’s conception of the subject-object becomes clear.  The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).

Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German “materialist” Ludwig Feuerbach.  In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that sensuousness  is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated.  It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world.  Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor.  This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.

Continue reading For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism

Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time

The East Coast network Fire Next Time recently posted this dialogue between two of their members, Zora and Ba Jin, contrasting Silvia Federici and Selma James.  The post argues that Federici’s Marxist-Feminist understanding of primitive accumulation in her book, Caliban and the Witch, forefronts global migration, colonization, and international connections among women and people of color.  On the other hand, the post asserts, James’ Marxist-Feminist analysis centers on the U.S.-centric housewife role and only secondarily takes up the question of waged women’s work and Third World and Black Feminism.  The post further critiques Wages for Housework as a liberal feminist goal, arguing that “it seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism.”  In response to this post, I feel the need to clear a few things up and ask some questions in the spirit of comradely debate.

1.  Why force a wedge between Federici and James?  

Federici and James are a part of the same Marxist-Feminist tendency.  A third person I would put in this longstanding tendency is Mariarosa Dalla Costa, who co-wrote “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community” with James, and still writes alongside Federici for The Commoner journal.  In fact, in the “Preface” to Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, she writes:

“The thesis which inspired this research was first articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, as well as other activists in the Wages for Housework Movement, in a set of documents in the 1970s that were very controversial, but eventually reshaped the discourse on women, reproduction, and capitalism [7].”

Furthermore, Federici wrote pamphlets in support of Wages for Housework in the 1970s.  In addition to their theoretical contributions, Dalla Costa, Federici, and James have done similar organizing through the years, for example with sex workers and in communities in the third world.

It is not clear what James’ and Federici’s relationship is today, but in discussing their contributions between (roughly) 1950 and 1980, their arguments (both historically and theoretically) strengthen and uphold one another.  The following will explain why.

2. James’ analysis of the housewife and reproductive work under capitalism.

First, I would like to look more closely at James’ discussion of the housewife.  At face value, the housewife is a one-sided experience at best, and a dated concept at worst.  As Zora describes,

“The whole wages for housework thing seems alienating for me, because it’s not applicable to that many people in the U.S. There is a history here of women of color being pushed into waged domestic work, in which you weren’t paid that much, and your worker’s rights weren’t protected. So it has already been capitalized on. You pushed multiple groups of people, who were not white women, into this domestic work to take care of white women’s children. And the wages for housework thing makes me think, “Well is that your end goal? To be co-opted by capitalism, and to make your work legitimate under capitalism?” It seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism instead of addressing how capitalism is reaching all the way down into reproduction, and developing a strategy to combat that, beyond just demanding wages.”

However, James’ methodology (along with Federici’s) is much more complex than Zora acknowledges.  James discusses the particular, or one-sided expression of the division of labour under capitalism, in conversation with the totality of social relations.  James explicitly acknowledges that the experience of the unwaged domestic labourer is one particular experience of the many different types of labour due to the capitalist division of labour.  For example, consider the following quote from James’ pamphlet, “Sex, Race and Class:”

[James quoting Marx’s Capital] “‘Manufacture…develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages.  If on the one hand, the individual laborers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the laborers according to both their natural and their acquired abilities.’

“In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and pensioners who are wageless, who are ‘dependents.’

“A hierarchy of labor powers and a scale of wages to correspond.  Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others.  Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature, fixture our functions for life, and fixing also the quality of our mutual relations.  So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence.  Race, sex, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour.” [Sex, Race and Class p. 96].

Under the capitalist division of labour, we become our jobs.  We are relegated into one form of work (we are teachers, bus drivers, call center workers, etc.) that we are to perform over and over again.  Marx calls this alienation.  Capitalism has a gendered and racialized hierarchical division of labour, where certain kinds of work, as James points out, are “naturalized,” to people of color, women, and children.
These forms of work are historically de-valued under capital, and therefore women’s labour power is de-valued, a point that Federici explains in her account of primitive accumulation.  Further, the appearance of the value of labour power is the wage, and so women’s work is unwaged and/or underwaged.  This means that the housewife’s position in the division of labour as an unwaged worker, is tied to an immigrant domestic worker’s low-waged position, and a school teacher’s position, etc.

James’ work in this area was an important step for challenging Orthodox Marxism’s assertion that class struggle only took place in the factory.  These arguments could be extended to feudal peasantry, for example, arguing that the peasantry in countries who had not yet been colonized by capitalism had their own unique communist potential.
Continue reading Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time