Women and Household Labour
USHA MENON's article in Social Scientist (Number 110, July 1982) raises the important question of how to understand household labour under capitalism and tries to draw strategic conclusions from her analysis. However, one cannot help getting the impression that the foregone conclusion that an "autonomous women's movement" is wrong, and that the women's question can only be solved under socialism, at certain points, blurs her analysis of the real situation of working class women in the household as well as outside the house. On the other hand it is certainly true that the foregone conclusion that an "autonomous women's movement" is necessary has led many feminists to distort Marxist categories. Yet, one needs to probe why a correct application of Marxist categories in this context is so difficult and what kind of real life problems the feminists wish to draw our attention to even if they twist Marxist categories for their own purposes.
Household labour is indispensable for the reproduction of labour-power. Labour-power has exchange value. Thus, some feminists have jumped to the conclusion that household labour produces exchange value, and indirectly surplus value, if under a time lag.
Menon can easily refute this argument by pointing out that household labour itself remains outside the exchange relationship of the market and thus outside social production. She uses the same argument to show that household labour cannot also be compared to unproductive labour under capitalism. The unproductive labourer, like the housewife, produces not commodities but use-values. Yet, housework is not regulated by the supply and demand of the market and therefore not comparable to unproductive labour in the strict sense.
She argues that domestic labour does not get spent as abstract labour in spite of being involved in the production of the commodity labour-power because the labour-power produced in the family is inseparable from the persons of the family themselves, persons who are of the supreme 'use-value' to the family. This argument does not hold water; it is in fact refuted by Marx himself if one looks at the first part of the passage from Capital which Menon uses only in part:
"The individual consumption of the labourer, whether it proceeds within the workshop or outside it; whether it be the part of the process of production or not, forms therefore a factor of the production and reproduction of capital; just as cleaning the machinery does, whether it be done while the machinery is working or while it is standing. The fact that the labourer consumes his means of subsistence