Yesterday was International Women's Day and, among the many articles circulating around Facebook, I came across a recent interview with the radical feminist Silvia Federici published by Mute. Federici was an active part of the International Wages For Housework Campaign of the 1970s. The purpose of the movement, she recalls, was "to unmask not only the amount of work that unwaged houseworkers do for capital but, with that, the social power that this work potentially confers on them, as domestic work reproduces the worker and consequently it is the pillar of every other form of work."
Federici has done the crucial work of thinking through feminism, identity, and capitalism as related phenomena. For Federici, as for other Marxist feminists, patriarchy is both a system of social relations and the process by which they are reproduced and maintained. Reproduction, in other words, refers not only to a biological imperative but to the perpetuation of social relations.
In the sixth chapter of Capital, "The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power," Marx briefly addresses this hidden reality as a condition of labour-power, but allows it to remain hidden. The only agents that are given any mention in this section are unquestionably male, but, although the woman's labour goes unnamed as such, Marx here lays the groundwork for feminists such as Federici. First, Marx makes it clear that if the worker's existence depends on his ability to labour, he must be allowed a basic level of subsistence that includes "natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing." The production of value, in other words, depends on material conditions beyond the factory floor.
The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article. . . . Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his production of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of his means of subsistence. (274)The worker, in other words, must be allowed some recuperation: "Since more is expended, more must be received." His means of subsistence must be at a level that allows him to maintain his normal state as a working man. From there Marx follows the logic further, indirectly describing the other role of the feminine sphere in the maintenance of the labour-force.
The owner of the labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous transformation of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself 'in the way that every living thing perpetuates himself, by procreation'. The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually be replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker's replacements, i.e. his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity owners may perpetuate its presence on the market. (275)
Marx doesn't name the woman as the specific agent of reproductive labour. Instead, he describes what's typically forgotten in the production process inherent to capitalism: the unrepresented, unaccounted for labour of reproduction. In this way, the ground of labour in Marx's theory of value depends upon another series of conditions hidden in plain view: conditions that allow for social reproduction to occur simultaneously on multiple levels.