Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital by Leopoldina Fortunati
Reviewed by Kersplebedeb
Ideas – ones that need to be chewed over, and sometime spat out in rejection. Arguments that snap together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, only to give a badly distorted image. The realization that a few pieces of the puzzle were missing all along, are still missing. Dense language, sentences that give new meaning to the word “jargon” – all the while not completely obscuring a radical new vision, just making you have to contribute your own work and imagination to elaborating it. A book which goes – like the Starship Enterprise – “Where no man has gone before”, but which nevertheless leaves you frustrated that it does not go further.
If the above does not sound like a ringing endorsement, that is because – despite some provocative insights – i can’t really recommend The Arcane of Reproduction. A slim volume, Leopoldina Fortunati’s 176-page book nevertheless took me almost a month to wade through. One part of the problem is the fact that she assumes the reader is familiar with various presumably Marxist terms – “variable capital”, “use value”, “exchange value” make sense once you think about it, though could still benefit from explicit definition, but i tended to surrender to alcohol after banging my head against “constant variable capital” vs. “variable variable capital”, and even something that should be a no-brainer like “reproduction” is used inconsistently throughout. I think if you have recently read your Marx (concentrate on Capital and the Grundrisse), and especially if you are used to that peculiar strain of Marxism known as “autonomous Marxism”, the book may present less of a challenge, or at least i hope so…
“They have a right to work wherever they want to – as long as they have dinner ready when you get home.”
– John Wayne
Because the issues, as i understand them, are very important. Grossly simplified, Fortunati’s argument is that unwaged labour, especially traditional “women’s work”, is as much a part of the capitalist economy as the labour that goes on in the world’s factories, sweatshops and other places of waged employment. It has many specific characteristics that make the production of human beings different than the production of television sets, but both are forms of work determined by capitalism, in which (indirectly or directly) the capitalist class exploits the worker. In other words: housework is real work, not only in the way that all human activity is work, but more precisely is work within capitalism, under conditions and governed by rules specific to capitalism.
“There’s a new gadget you can screw on the bed and it does all the housework – your wife.”
– sexist men’s “joke”
The waged worker’s labour is made possible by activities that we often don’t think of as being “labour”, and which are rarely waged: the parental, generally maternal, labour that went into raising the worker, and also the emotional and physical “labour” provided by family members. I use the term “labour” in quotation marks here, because Fortunati is not only referring to shopping, cooking, cleaning, and other forms of work that go into “reproducing” the worker (i.e. getting him/her ready to get up and go to work tomorrow morning). Where i think Fortunati pushes the envelope is in her inclusion of anything that provides emotional sustenance as labour, which she describes (jargonistically) as the “production of immaterial use values”. This is an interesting way of looking at the family – not only as an economic unit where labour is physically produced and re-invigorated, but also as a unit with its own emotional economy – in which not only sex but also companionship, a sense of belonging, feelings of safety, individuality, power, and so and so forth – are all “use values” exchanged between different family members in order, ultimately, to enable people to get up and go to work every day… or as Fortuanti would put it, “to produce labour-values”. (And yet there are serious problems here, which i will discuss a little later on…)
“Prostitution in towns is like the sewer in a palace; take away the sewers and the palace becomes an impure and stinking place.”
– Saint Thomas Aquinas (De Regimine Principum (Opuscula XX), lib. iv, cap. XIV)
“If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts.”
– Saint Augustine of Hippo
Furthermore, Fortunati views prostitution as also being an integral part of the “reproduction of labour-values”, inasmuch as when the (presumably male) worker has sex with a prostitute he is receiving an “immaterial use value” in the form of sex, i.e. he feels better afterwards and this makes him more productive or at least less rebellious. Furthermore, with shades of Saint Augustine, it is implied that the work of prostitutes helps “safeguard” the position of houseworker (presumably because men are not getting their wives to do things they really really can’t stand in bed). While i know that there is an element of truth, a factual insight of sorts, in this way of seeing things [ 1], it begs as many questions as it answers, for instance there is no discussion of how this labour (sex work) is different than other activities that make people feel good or relieve their stress (i.e. taking drugs, talking to a therapist, getting a massage, watching tv, etc.) – i mean, i do assume Fortunati sees a difference because prostitution is specifically singled out, but if the difference is discussed then i missed it, or perhaps did not understand what was being said (it is that kind of book). Also, not all men frequent prostitutes, and the vast majority of women (including woman wage workers) do not frequent prostitutes, so simply describing the cash-for-sex exchange as part of what workers do to “reproduce themselves”, in an almost gender-neutral fashion, seems to be a case of not mentioning the elephant in the living room – namely, the way in which men’s desires, sense of appropriateness, understanding of their own needs, and sense of entitlement are all very dfferent in this society than women’s are.
“On 7 November 2002, the Mainichi Shimbun reported the conclusions of an Ehime University study on elderly couples which basically found that marriage is good for male life expectancy but detrimental to female life-spans. While it is almost universally accepted that marriage is good for men, the conclusion that marriage has a negative impact on female life expectancy goes against current thought in most family studies related research fields. With a sample of 3,136 people, the Ehime study found that unmarried men were 1.79 times more likely to die than their married counterparts, while women who were married had a 55% greater chance of dying than those who were alone.”
– J. Sean Curtin, in Marriage and Life Expectancy in Rural Japan
While i admit that much of Fortunati’s detailed “proof” of the hidden role of housework in contributing to the creation of wealth for the capitalists (“surplus value”) was way over my head, it didn’t really matter as i agreed with her conclusion beforehand (an indication that i have already encountered the argument in more accessible and plain-talking terms). But for those who need to see the obvious proven using the terminology and logic of Marxist theory, i imagine that this part of her book may be satisfying, or else may give something solid to disagree with… as for me i just tried re-reading it twice and then shook my head and moved on.
If you can get through Part One, Part Two seems to go a lot easier. Maybe it is because you get used to the dense jargon, or maybe its because the book actually gets better, it’s difficult to say for sure, but chapters 11 (“The Family as a Form of Capital’s Development”) and 13 (“For a Workers’ History of Reproduction”) were actually exciting at times. (ok, ok, maybe it was partly that the end was in sight!) Fortunati’s argument actually becomes a lot more clear and interesting when she uses concrete examples, or when she links them to actual specific historical events or situations – like all theory, it is only worthwhile if it relates to reality. It is all the more unfortunate, when i realized how the sudden use of concrete examples was helping bring the argument together in the last chapter, that concrete examples or historical evidence are absent from so much of the text.
Some important realizations…
The question must be asked at this point why i would stock this book – after all, i am not only reviewing it, i also distribute it. Why distribute a title with such weaknesses as this one has?
First off, i would probably not have gotten through The Arcane of Reproduction if i had not been told that it was an “important” feminist book that belonged in my catalog, or if i was not interested in understanding the background to other “autonomous Marxist” feminist works, such as Silvia Federici’s immensely more worthwhile Caliban and the Witch. So i can’t recommend this book for just anyone interested in the subject matter (“Housework, Prostitution, Labour and Capital”) – you have to also be interested and familiar with the insular intellectual tradition it is enmeshed in. However, for those who don’t mind “autonomous Marxist” theory, and have a sense of adventure, squeezing your brain through the torturous wording may well be rewarding.
Refreshingly, Fortunati does avoid a pitfall of much of the Marxist theory i have read, especially of the “left-communist” variety. Often intellectuals within this tradition insist that regardless of divisions within it, the working class is in fact unitary. It may have cracks, but it is basically sticking together, this lumbering seamless working class, which is supposed to include everyone from airline pilots flying jumbo jets to teenage girls working in Third World sweatshops. “United we stand,” and all that. The implication, though rarely put to paper, is that intra-class struggles are all problematic, that there is one enemy and that enemy is always outside of the working class. Indeed, the only members of the working class most left communists will ever consider to be bought off by capital are those who belong to other left-wing sects!
This weakness leads to a gross underestimation and dismissal of struggles by members of colonized nations, women, queers, oppressed ethnic/racial groups… indeed, struggle by any worker whose interests diverge from that of the least-oppressed most petty bourgeois sections of the working class.
Fortunati does not explicitly deal with this question for entire chapters at a time, though she does do so implicitly. But then in chapter 13 she makes it clear, and eloquently so:
Marx also never really understood the history of the liberation of labor-power. The proof of this lies in his assumption that the history of white male adult labor-power is synonymous with the the liberation of the entire working class, or, if not synonymous, at least representative of the main trend. He did not understand the different proceses of liberation undergone by other sections of the labor force, nor did he see that the process of the liberation of white male labor-power went ahead at the cost of other sections.
Or even more clearly:
On the one side, there is the state, and on the other, the male worker. The large-scale aspect of capital’s control over women could not exist without its small-scale part. The working class has at times a capitalist face… and a state face, too.
Again, the above is nothing new – similar observations have been made since forever by women, by people of colour, by colonized people, by the whole non-“adult male labor-power” part of the working class – but to slap left-communist theory upside the head to get it to acknowledge this is no small feat. The specific tradition that Fortunati seems to be coming out of has been one of the slowest sections of the “revolutionary” left to come to grips with this, at least in my experience, so this was a pleasant surprise.
some new insights…
“They take away your money
If you’re sleeping with a man
So you have to be dependent
That’s how it all began
The one that does the screwing
Is the one that pays the bills
SS Snoopers SS Spies
Buzzing round your body like flies.”
– SS Snoopers, by the Poisongirls
Most importantly, although i think Fortunati is wrong in some of her conclusions, the ground she is walking on is ground we should all be exploring. That she manages to bring this hostile strand of academic marxian theory to bear on these questions, even if she may at times have to drag it kicking and screaming, is impressive. And the question she is grappling with – the role played by unwaged emotional nurturing and physical care in maintaining the economy – is vitally important. From the edges of her argument one can see new ways of integrating entire ranges of issues within an anti-capitalist perspective. [ 2]
“The campaign for Mothers’ Pensions demonstrates this philosophy in action. Since the ratio of children raised in orphanages who became social delinquents was exceedingly high, the reformers wished the government to pay widowed and deserted mothers a pension so that they could stay home and look after their offspring.”
– Carol Le Bacchi, Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragettes, 1877-1918
“I put the veteran of the great war ahead of every man in the country; but I put ahead even of him the good mother, the mother who has done her duty and brought up well a family of children.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the united states
What follows is an incomplete and “off the top of my head” list of things that i thought Fortunati’s argument helped to clarify:
- the policing of mothers, by doctors, social workers, Child Protection services and whatnot, appears as a way that the State disciplines the mothering workforce. Mothers are carrying out an important job, one which is vital for capitalism’s survival: they are producing future workers. The State’s involvement has nothing to do with caring about children, and everything about reducing the quantity of “damaged goods” on the future labour market.
- capitalist divisions over homosexuality appear as a difference in capitalist strategy to organize the “reproduction of the labor force” – or in plain english, to organize how we get our emotional sustenance. Homophobia is not just a cultural relic from the big bad past, it represents one capitalist position, namely that women should be ghettoized within the “housework sector”. More significantly, though, the move to legitimize some homosexual relationships (through the symbolic medium of gay marriage and the far more important ideological tools like the mass media and the co-optation of queer culture) is not some simple “victory” but rather a capitalist strategy to legitimize the way in which non-heterosexuals form our families and get our emotional sustenance (aka “immaterial use values”), so as to not waste this important “reproductive” labour.
- State policies of denying or reducing welfare payments to people (mainly women) in couple relationships appear clearly as a necessary (to capitalism) policy to make sure that housework remains an unwaged form of labour which is “paid for” only when capital pays the (usually male) worker his wage.
- the extention/invention of childhood and associated laws against child labour, children living alone, children acting like adults (i.e. everything from child prostitutes to child soldiers), etc. are not signs of capital’s love for children, nor are they the universal concerns they are made out to be. Whether capitalism treats someone as a child up until the age of 8 or 18 has to do with how much care and training it predicts they will need as adult workers, which is also directly related to how valuable they will be, and how well or badly they will be treated. In this sense struggles to delay adulthood – to postpone marriage, to postpone work, to postpone military conscription – have two sides to then: on the one hand they represent the disciplining of “children” so that they will be better (literally, as in “more valuable”) workers, and as such it is understandable that “children” should rebel against this. But they can also represent a strategy of increasing their future value, and as such winning for them a better life, which while not anti-capitalist is not simply a cold calculated investment scheme. And at best these struggles can represent an attempt to protect “children” for as long as possible from the grim, not-at-all-liberatory future that capitalism has in store for them. Which explains for instance why there is oftentimes grassroots working class opposition, especially amongst women, to child-marriage, child prostitution, the employment of children in sweatshops, child conscription, etc.
“It was generally agreed that, if women were taught to take as little exercise as possible and to wear styles of clothing which impaired the functioning of their internal organs, the children they bore would either be dead or better off so. As a result both dress reform and ‘physical culture’ for women became respectable, but in each case the motivation was racial, not feminist. Similarly, factory women were considered in need of special protection, not for their own sake primarily but for the good of the race.”
– Carol Le Bacchi, Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragettes, 1877-1918
[note that Fortunati would likely replace the words “racial” and “race” with “capitalist” and “capital”]
The above is a partial list, and not one i am sure Fortunati herself would agree with. Indeed, the above are questions that i myself see as complex, not leading towards any automatic answers. The point is that an understanding of housework, mothering, sex, emotional care and other traditionally female unwaged work as being integrated into capitalism, as being as vital to it as the production of planes or cars or guns or whatnot, provides a new way of looking at some old questions, one which hopefully may lead to a better integration of anti-patriarchal perspectives within anti-capitalist struggles, and vice versa.
“We need to remind ourselves over and over again that what all the foreign wars and culture wars are really about is who shall own women’s bodies? Everyone cares about who controls our bodies, because women reproduce the most important thing in society. Women reproduce people, everyone else just produces things. Women reproduce the labor to keep society going, both biologically and socially. That’s why it’s so important who owns us. That’s why our bodies are a battleground. That’s the dialectical weirdness of women’s lives — we produce both ourselves & our enemies. That’s why men all want to control our sexuality.”
– Butch Lee, “after Anti-War movements win or lose in Iraq… there’s still Women”
what it is not…
Right away i should point out that the denseness of her language and the lack of almost any specific examples before the book’s last chapter makes it difficult for me to judge if Arcane is supposed to be a universal examination of housework and prostitution within capitalism, or one more centered on the western european experience. In chapter 13 (“For a Workers’ History of Reproduction”) there are some interesting arguments made which pertain solely to the latter, but the way in which the rest of the book is written in this abstract “pure theory” mode makes it difficult for me to tell. This is unfortunate, because if it is meant to only be an examination of the western european experience it would be good to say so, especially given how Fortnati does explicitly acknowledge that different sections of the (global?) working class can have different experiences and interests.
Secondly, i should clarify that i took Arcane to be an argument specifically about the economic work that takes place within the home in terms of “reproducing labour values”, that is to say getting people ready to go out and work. I did not expect a complete analysis of women’s position or of of patriarchy, and so i was not disappointed. Because this book really does not deal with other aspects of women’s lives – it is really a very theoretical examination of work that goes into “reproduction”, and that’s all. So don’t expect a Marxist analysis of violence against women, or child abuse, or compulsory heterosexuality, or any of thoe other incredibly important components of women’s lives – this ain’t that book.
As i noted earlier, on the subject of “reproduction of labour values” Fortunati seems to put a lot of effort into explaining the step-by-step way in which housework and prostitution work “fit” within the capitalist economy, both of which being as necessary as factory work or agricultural labour. As i admited before, as unfamiliar as i am with much of the terminology, i am not really a good judge of whether she succeeds or not, and this does not really concern me, as i already agreed with this position beforehand. While perhaps groundbreaking from the vantage point of traditional Marxist theory, this position has been staked out and defended by feminists since god-knows-when.
And thirdly, this book does not pay much attention to the process of “housewifization”, that violent coecive transformation of women into housewives which accompanied the witchunt in europe and colonialism elsewhere. For this subject i recommend Butch Lee’s The Military Strategy of Women and Children, Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. Again, Arcane of Reproduction is not that book.
…a blindspot in its vision
Your kids don’t get to school on time
You don’t watch the clock ma
The hair don’t curl
and their teeth don’t shine
It’s all in doctor spock ma
Your man don’t feel too good today?
You didn’t treat him right ma
If he don’t work he gets no pay
You’d better fix him up tonight ma
– Jump Mama Jump, the Poisongirls
The subject of the “reproduction” of the working class – all those activities and institutions and traditions which allow people to live even though they are being exploited and brutalized by capitalism, and which thus enable capitalism to continue brutalizing and exploiting them without fear of diminishing its workforce – is something i have not read a lot about, and i have not seen many radicals tackle this subject in a serious manner. For that reason alone, this book has some value. Regardless of its shortcomings, it provides glimpses of a different vision of things, one which feels very necessary.
Yet while Fortunati’s insights do “open up” certain questions to a more coherent critique, unfortunately i found that her argument also tends to “close off” or obscure some important ways in which people struggle and resist.
Specifically, i am referring back to her description of physical care as the “production of material use values” and emotional nurture as the “production of immaterial use values” which are then “consumed” by other family members as part of their transformation/reproduction into “labour values”. It is worth repeating this in plain english, because it has important consequences. In the traditional nuclear family the “production of material use values” would be what mothers do to look after the husband and kids’ physical needs (cooking food, buying and mending clothes, cleaning the house, etc.), whereas the “production of immaterial use values” is everything that nurtures people emotionally so that they grow up capable of holding down a job, or in the case of adults so that they feel they have a reason to go to work in the morning and a reason to come home at night [ 3]. Here we are not only, or even mainly, talking about sex, but also such basics as taking care of herself when she is pregnant, talking to the baby so that it learns language, looking after sick family members, making kids feel loved, spending time with each other, managing the family’s social relationships, giving everyone a reason not to slash their wrists, and so on and so forth.
“Yes, it takes a woman, a dainty woman,
A sweetheart, a mistress, a wife.
Oh yes, it takes a woman, a fragile woman,
To bring you the sweet things in life.”
– Jerry Herman, from Hello Dolly (1964)
Where i question the description of these activities as the mere “producton of immaterial use values” is that, as i understand that phrase, this implies a zero-sum game where for one person to get something good out of an exchange (“consume an immaterial use value”), somebody else has to give up something good or at least provide labour (“produce an immaterial use value”). Yet many encounters which either give us emotional sustenance or make us feel shitty/burnt out (“produce immaterial use values” / “consume immaterial use values” if i am undertanding Fortunati’s code-jargon correctly) are not zero sum games. Shitty encounters – between parents and children, between spouses, between friends – often leave all parties feeling burnt out. Not to the same degree, and not always, but often enough to be an important factor in how we all relate to each other. Likewise, good encounters can provide sustenance to both sides of an “exchange” – in which case “immaterial use values” come for free [ 4].
Of course, there are similar situations in the world of “production”. War, or instance, involves the destruction of “use values” – both material and immaterial – and not just their exchange or expropriation by one side or the other. People and things are chewed up and destroyed, lives shattered, psyches pulverized – not just “taken over” by the winner like in some “world conquest” computer game. Likewise, things can be created without requiring constant human labour, for instance when they are produced by machines [ 5]. So perhaps, taken further, Fortunati might consider mutually destructive encounters between family-members to be akin to warfare, and relationships which give us emotional sustenance with just occasional maintenace work as being machines?
“Peace under patriarchy is war against women.”
– slogan from German Women’s Movement
Fortunati does not explore this possibility at all, but i think it is of more than passing interest, and is necessary in order for her argument to make sense. Yet even assuming this is so, that Fortunati would agree with this extention of her argument, i still see problems on the horizon…
It is well known that extremely destructive relationships do create a cost for capitalism (fucked up kids, police interventions, low-productivity, etc.). As a particularly horrible example of this, feminist author Ann Jones listed the following facts in her 1994 book Next Time, She’ll Be Dead:
“Federal officials estimate that ‘domestic violence’ costs U.S. firms four billion dollars a year in lower productivity, staff turnover, absenteeism, and excessive use of medical benefits. One New York City study of fifty battered women revealed that half of them missed at least three work days a month because of abuse, while 64 percent were late for work, and more than three-fourths of them used company time and company phonesto call friends, counselors, physicians, and lawyers they didn’t dare call from home. As surgeon general, C. Everett Koop labeled the ‘epidemic’ of battering a leading national health problem and pointed out the costs to hospital emergency services, public health, and mental health facilities.”
(Of course, this cost for capitalism is more than made up for by the incredible benefits it gets from the exploitation of women both in the family and in the lowest paying jobs, both of which come as part of the same big patriarchal package deal.)
Less obvious to me is the idea that capitalism gains some special bonus (“extra surplus value”?) from particularly good relationships. While this may sometimes be the case, as often as not there is no correlation between a mutually fulfilling relationship and greater productivity or conservative political positions. Indeed, the way in which we empathize with those we are closest to is more likely to lead to feelings of solidarity and a greater awareness of how other people are exploited or oppressed in ways that would otherwise be invisible to us. I am thinking here of the houseworker who is angered by the exploitation their spouse experiences on the job, or the feelings of anger and distress that men can feel when they hear how their girlfriend, wife, mother or daughters are subjected to violence and harassment every day, or parents who are distressed and angered when they hear of how their children are dehumanized and brutalized at school. Of course these feelings are often mixed with patriarchal feelings of family loyalty, control and posessiveness[ 6], but inconsistently, and they often retain and realize the potential to develop in a liberatory direction.
So in relationships which are either good (i.e. mutually fulfilling) or only moderately bad (i.e.draining or abusive, but not to the point of being incapacitating) , it seems that the “gain” or “cost” applies only to the individuals within the family – it is not passed on to capital. While capitalism may impose a structurally unequal exchange between houseworker and waged worker, there is room for a lot of variation in how this plays out, and a lot of room to manoeuver. In Marxspeak, whether it is a horrible or ok relationship, there is usually no change in the amount of surplus value being expropriated. So it is family members themselves who have the largest stake in creating good relationships and avoiding/confronting/dismantling bad ones, and this is not just or even primarily a matter of interest to capitalists or the State.
Which is why i think Fortunati’s inclusion of all of these “immaterial use-values” as being nothing more than labour for capitalism misses the fact that people are sometimes able to inject personal, real, unoppressive and unexploitative elements into family relations. The other side of the coin being that her argument also lets us off the hook for creating and maintaining bad relationships. Even in exploitative and abusive relationships where one partner (usually the man, of course) gains at the woman’s expense – and we know that these relationships are anything but rare – this “extra” does not automatically translate into any bonus for capital; rather it is the man himself who takes on the role of a mini-capitalist, exploiting other family members and keeping the “profit” from this for himself. And it can swing the other way, too…
Fortunati’s argument is very useful in explaining the tendency for family relations to be oppressive, sterile, stifling and unpleasant, but this tendency is only one part of the picture, for even prior to the destruction of capitalism, home-life can be subverted and turned into a place where good, liberatory, mutually satisfying and unexploitative relationships can emerge. Don’t get me wrong: i know that the latter is rarely the case, but this is not the same as saying that it is never the case, or that it is not often something that people struggle for, albeit with mixed results [ 7].
In a similar vein, Fortunati does not spend a lot of time examining people’s emotional and physical needs as they would exist regardless of capitalism. This is a tricky question, as there is an incredible tendency to universalize based on our own experiences, so whatever we “need” in order to remain productive under capitalism seems to us to be what everyone must have always needed, everywhere in every period no matter what society they lived in. This is a humungous pitfall that we must assume distorts all conjecture about “what people will need” in a future non-capitalist society – but there is no geting around this problem, and just avoiding the question, as Fortunati does, leaves us with an equally distorted picture.
Not acknowledging any of our emotional needs as existing except in order to get us ready to go to work (“reproduce our labour value”) implies that it would be an effective and viable anti-capitalist tactic for houseworkers to just stop “reproducing labour value”. To be clear: this would be something more than the International Women’s Strike spearheaded by groups like Wages for Housework a couple of years back. To take Fortunati’s analysis seriously, one cannot forget that all emotional and physical relationships that keep people psychologically or physically capable are part of the reproduction of labour-values. Lest one be tempted to morph this analysis into a Marxist retelling of the lesbian separatist stategy of withdrawing all emotional and physical support from men, it should be noted that Fortunati is smart enough to see where this would lead, and explicitly acknowledges that reproductive labour is increasingly being carried out by same-sex partners and others in non-traditional arrangements. In the way the term is used here, anything you do that gives someone else sustenance could be a part of the reproduction of labour-values. So a strike by those who “reproduce labour values” would in fact imply the absolute atomization of society, an absolute and even biological victory for capitalism. Whether capitalism could survive the absolute dehumanization of its subjects is of course another question… one that is irrelevant to us, for we know that we could not survive it.
I admit it: the above is a very uncharitable, unfair interpretation of Fortunati’s argument, and one i doubt she would approve of. It is an exaggeration for the sake of argument, to explore the far edges of where i see her logic going, made in order to underline a previous point: creating good relationships and avoiding/confronting/dismantling bad ones is in the interests of the working class.
In other words, the “reproduction of labour values” occurs alongside the “reproduction of human beings”; the two processes are inseparable. As such, it is not only in the interests of capitalism, but also in the interests of anti-capitalists, that this “reproductive work” be carried out. Capitalism may want the working class to be fed and clothed (as cheaply as possible) and not so fucked up that they are going to bring a gun to work and go “postal”, but for very different reasons we also want the working class to receive the necessities of life and to not be so emotionally devastated as to pull a Columbine. The difference is “why” and “how” this labour should be organized, not “if” it should occur.
Fortunati’s exclusive focus on the way in which reproductive labour serves capitalism leads her to only examine resistance to the exploitation of reproductive workers in terms of withdrawal of labour. Some examples of this: mothers spending more money on themselves than on their children, women (and some men) choosing to live without a spouse, refusal to do housework, separation from men, struggles for the right to abortion and contraception. All of these are essential parts of the anti-capitalist struggle within the family, and all of these are essential developments in a struggle against patriarchy, but they are just one side of struggle. It is not surprising that just as these struggles developed, becoming important battlefields for the feminist movement, other struggles were also taking place: the fight for a fairer division of housework, resisting sterilization abuse, experimentation with different ways of raising children, different ways of structuring sexual relationships, changing the definiton of “family”. These battles – for abortion rights and for unoppressive child-rearing, for women’s only space and for challenging men to stop acting oppressively, etc. – were not generally opposed to each other, but were all aspects of the same complex multifacetted movement.
Rather than exclusively focussing on withdrawing reproductive labour power, an acknowledgement that we are social beings gives a more realistic idea of how people choose to resist patriarchal structures, including the exploitation of “reproductive workers”. There is an overwhelming preferance for struggling with others, for living with others in new ways, for social experimentation, rather than for social abandonment, being alone, separating from everybody else. This togetherness can be a communal household, an extended family, a lesbians-only homestead, a celibate religious community – while we may have problems with some aspects of these experiments, we can not fault people for overwhelmingly choosing to try and leave this society collectively. Indeed, it is not really a choice, as it is much easier when you find other people with similar ideas and in a similar situation of struggle that you can see the possibility of breaking from the capitalist routine.
Unfortunately, by starting from the position that emotional and physical nurturing is nothing but exploitation by capitalism, Fortunati puts herself in a position where it is difficult to evaluate or support some of the most important anti-patriarchal initiatives developed by women, queers, teenagers and others who are most oppressed by the traditional nuclear family. While they may often be co-opted by the State and re-integrated within capitalism, this is neither automatic nor total, and we need more clarity not less in order to be able to struggle effectively on this terrain.
If you want a challenge, or if you’re at home with his kind of high-falutin’ language, this book may be worth your while. Accurate useful concepts are not developed by just one person all of a sudden, but come out of an ongoing interplay between various factors and thinkers, and as such i consider this book to be a contribution to a theory that lets us see and explain the various struggles against capitalism and patriarchy, and how they are all related. Without agreeing with all of her points, i appreciate the fact that Leopoldina Fortunati took the effort to map out this terrain. It is a rough map, drawn with old tools and written in a strange language, but it is a start – there is more good here than bad.
1) I am reminded, in this respect of somethng a friend in prison explained to me several years ago. We were discussing HIV transmission behind bars, and he told me how several transgendered prisoners (whether male-to-female or drag queens i forget) who worked as prostitutes while in prison had just been transferred to the prison he was being held at. He explained that this was something that was done by the prison administration as a way of “pacifying” the general population in tense situations (there was, as is so often the case, a crisis in the prison with twice as many people being held as theer was space for, with many having to share cells that had allegedly been designed for just one prisoner). Making prostitutes available to the general population, or as Fortunati would put it providing them with an opportunity to acquire an “immaterial use value” (sex), was understood as a tactic to buy off the prisoners. I really really really have to note that the above is not only anecdotal, the understanding of what was going on being just as it was presented to me – how the prostitutes in question experienced and analyzed how they were being used, and the nature of the “exchange” behind bars, could very well be radically different from how it was described to me. [back to text]
2) An important note of explanation: i do not consider that “adding” an anti-capitalist understanding of these struggles makes them more worthwhile or valid. Like many leftists, i already consider them to be vitally important questions. Nor do i mean to suggest that the only way to solve these problems is by abolishing capitalism, nor that the abholition of capitalism will automatically solve them. Rather, by showing that capitalism is complicit in these problems, one explains part of what is happeneing at the moment, in this society, in this system which is both patriarchal is a very specific way and also capitalist in an equally specific way. [back to text]
3) In this vein, it is worth remembering the entire chorus of David Allen Coe’s hit single:
Take this job and shove it,
I ain’t workin’ here no more.
My woman done left,
An’ took all the reasons I was workin’ for.
You better not to try to stand in my way,
As I’m a walkin’ out the door.
Take this job and shove it,
I ain’t workin’ here no more.
4) As a hippy song they had us sing when we were kids went: “Love is like a magic penny, when you give it away you wind up having more.” Truly corny, but you get the idea. [back to text]
5) Of course other living things (plants and animals) and natural processes (i.e. sunlight, rainfall, etc.) also produce some use values without need for human labour, but productive personal relationships do not occur naturally but must at some point be “made” by the people involved, so i feel that the analogy of machines is more appropriate, though ironically less emotionally satisfying. [back to text]
6) I.e. for every father who may oppose sexual violence against women because of his daughters’ experience, how many more react by trying to control every aspect of how “his girl” dresses, who she sees, where she goes and at what time. [back to text]
7) In fairness, on page 142 Fortunati does admit that “it is also easy to see that the family has the potential to be a place of love, affection, and solidarity. But for it to become so, capital’s power must be destroyed.” However, i understand her “But…” to indicate that the family’s potential cannot be realized until after capital’s power is destroyed. [back to text]