This contribution to current debates about the political economy of housework has two specific objectives.footnote1 Firstly, it presents a critique of Wally Seccombe’s article in nlr 83, ‘The Housewife and her Labour under Capitalism’. Secondly, it looks at two questions currently under discussion amongst Marxist feminists concerning women’s domestic labour. Why have housework and childcare, in modern industrial capitalist societies such as Britain, continued to such a great extent to be the responsibility of women and organized on a private family basis? What are the pressures working for or against fundamental change in the economic role of women within the family in the current phase of British capitalism? Since Seccombe does not himself attempt to answer these questions, it may not be immediately obvious why they should be linked to a critique of his article. However, it is his failure to relate the theory of women’s domestic labour to questions such as these, which are of key political importance to socialists in the women’s movement, that forms the basis of this critique—rather than the existence of internal inconsistencies or obscurity in his arguments themselves. I shall begin by summarizing and criticizing the core of Seccombe’s article, which concerns the role of women’s domestic labour in value creation. There will then follow a more general examination of Seccombe’s political and theoretical framework, which is counterposed to the approach of socialist feminists. This will lead into discussion of why women’s domestic labour has retained such importance in the reproduction and maintenance of the labour force. In conclusion, I shall look at the possible pressures currently working for or against change in the role of domestic labour.

One aspect of Seccombe’s article that is to be welcomed is that it reflects a growing recognition by Marxists outside the women’s liberation movement of the need to consider the productive aspect of women’s role in the family and the economic and not just ideological function of the proletarian family in capitalist society. From this recognition Seccombe goes on to ask what role domestic labour plays in the creation of value and to see how this is linked to the general mystification of the wage system.

Firstly, in discussing how the wage form obscures domestic labour’s relation to capital, Seccombe concentrates on showing how this is one aspect, not previously discussed by Marxists, of the more general way, elucidated by Marx, in which the wage form obscures the relation of labour to capital. For Marx argued that whilst the wage appeared to pay for the labour actually performed by the worker, in fact it paid only for the labour going to the reproduction and maintenance of the labourer, i.e. for labour power and not for labour. This left the labourer performing part of his labour unpaid, which was the source of surplus value. Seccombe goes on from this to argue that a part of the wage specifically reflects the value created by the housewife’s domestic labour in reproducing and maintaining the worker (and his ‘substitutes’ in the next generation). This is the part of the wage that goes to maintaining and reproducing the housewife (and her ‘substitutes’).

This approach is based on what Seccombe refers to as ‘a consistent application of the labour theory of value to the reproduction of labour power itself—namely, that all labour produces value when it produces any part of a commodity that achieves equivalence in the market place with other commodities’. The argument runs through a number of stages. Firstly, because commodities bought with the male worker’s wage are not in a finally consumable form and housework is necessary to convert the commodities into regenerated labour power, this labour performed by the housewife is one part of the total labour embodied in the worker, the other part being the labour embodied in commodities bought with the wage. This point is straightforward and uncontroversial, once one accepts that domestic labour is a necessary component of the labour required to maintain and reproduce labour power. The problem arises when we go on from here to ask what the connection is between domestic labour performed and the value of labour power; and whether and how it is possible to measure the contribution of domestic labour in value terms.

Seccombe’s opinion is that the necessary labour of the housewife is realized, when labour power is sold, as a part of its value. In doing this he draws an analogy between petty commodity production and domestic labour. Petty commodity production is the form of production where individuals work separately and independently in a self-employed capacity to produce different goods and services for exchange through the market. He gives the example of a shoemaker and a tailor. This form of production has in common with domestic labour that it is individual and privatized.

Marx, in expounding the labour theory of value in Volume I of Capital, first applied it in fact to pre-capitalist petty commodity production. He argued that under this form of production, although it is not socialized, the terms on which commodities are exchanged will be determined by the different amounts of labour embodied in them. I do not wish here to enter into the question of to what extent the labour theory of value does operate under petty commodity production, but first to note that the assumption on which its operation is based is that labour is mobile between different occupations. For the argument goes as follows. If the shoemaker were not rewarded equally for his labour as the tailor, he would pack up his business and go into tailoring, or at least persuade his sons to do that.

It seems misleading to apply this same analysis to housework where women do not, in any straightforward sense, have the option of moving to another occupation. Women are tied through marriage to housework and housework is therefore not comparable to other occupations. Therefore, there appears to be no mechanism for the terms of the sale of labour power to be determined by the domestic labour performed in its maintenance and reproduction.