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.