The political significance of Wally Seccombe’s analysis of domestic labour’s relation to capital lies in his attempt to show the material basis for the strategic unity of the struggle to liberate women and the struggle for proletarian revolution.footnote1 Against those who view the family solely as an ideological institution of capitalist society, he argues that the labour performed within the family is an essential component of the material process of reproduction of capital. He is not the only author who has argued this point in recent years, but what singles out his attempt is that the thesis is spelt out rigorously and in some detail. However, Seccombe’s concern to demonstrate the importance of housework for capitalism leads him, as we shall argue, into a contradictory position of asserting that housework produces value while at the same time being outside the rule of the law of value. Arguing that ‘sex relations and family relations have become capitalist relations in the bourgeois epoch’,footnote2 he fails to understand the contradictory nature of female labour under capitalism and thus cannot identify the forces, both objective and subjective, that will drive housework out of history and
Seccombe, like Benstonfootnote3 and Dalla Costafootnote4 before him, takes as his starting point the materialist premise that sexual subordination flows from the sexual division of labour, which under capitalism takes the extreme form of separation of the general economic process into a domestic and an industrial unit. All these three writers, at least for the purpose of their immediate analysis, assume that women and housewives are synonymous.footnote5 Seccombe writes: ‘With the advent of industrial capitalism, the general labour process was split into two discrete units: a domestic and an industrial unit . . . This split in the labour process had produced a split in the labour force roughly along sexual lines—women into the domestic unit, men into industry.’footnote6 Of course, as a first step in the development of a theory of women’s oppression, the identification of women and domestic labour is entirely valid: women’s actual or anticipated domestic position is the main axis of their social determination. On the other hand, while Seccombe, like Benston and Dalla Costa, is aware of the importance of female wage labour for any politics of women’s liberation, he too is unable to relate the two forms of women’s labour in any coherent fashion.footnote7 Yet the coexistence of these two forms of female labour, actualized or only latent, is the historical contribution—however fundamentally limited—that capitalism has made towards women’s liberation. The rift between
On the other hand, as Seccombe describes so well, the generalization of commodity production has turned the domestic unit into an oppressive backwater and the labour performed within it has become de-realized from the point of view not only of the capitalist but also of the domestic labourer herself: ‘the position of the domestic labourer relative to all but the lowest sectors of the proletariat has deteriorated’.footnote8 But while arguing convincingly against Dalla Costa that ‘the effect of privatization of domestic labour’s relation to capital and its removal from the arena of surplus appropriation is that the law of value does not govern domestic labour’,footnote9 Seccombe in fact makes only a limited advance over her theory because, among other things, he fails to consider the contradictory consequences of this separation or the effects it has on the consciousness of women. The nature of housework’s relation to capitalism, coupled with the latter’s demand for female wage labour, makes the position of women much more explosive than Seccombe realizes within the terms of his analysis. He is, therefore, not really able to show how, far from being able to find a peaceful solution to the problem of women’s oppression, the growth and maturation of the capitalist system in reality only exacerbates it. The birth of the women’s liberation movement in the sixties and the growing radicalization of female industrial workers around this question in recent yearsfootnote10 show the extent to which the unprecedented development of productive forces since the end of the Second World War has only helped to produce an unprecedented revolt by sections of women against their oppression. In order to understand the force and significance of this radicalization of women, it is necessary first of all to re-evaluate the basis of Seccombe’s analysis—his characterization of housework as value-creating labour—and to examine in a more systematic fashion the indirect but powerful effects which the law of value has on domestic labour.
Seccombe’s central thesis is that housework under capitalism exhibits a dual nature: on the one hand, it has no direct relation to capital, produces no surplus value and is therefore not governed by the law of value; on the other hand, it does create value, because it creates in part the commodity labour power which, when exchanged on the market for the wage, realizes the value created by the housewife’s labour also. Seccombe develops his argument in four stages. Firstly, the housewife’s labour is a necessary labour, given that ‘the commodities which the wage purchases are not themselves in a finally consumable form at the point of purchase. An additional labour—namely housework—is necessary in order to convert these commodities into regenerated labour.’ Secondly, in the course of this the housewife creates value, because ‘all labour produces value when it produces any part of a commodity that achieves equivalence in the marketplace with other commodities’. Thirdly, ‘It matters not at all that the concrete conditions of domestic labour are privatized. The fact is that labour power as a commodity sold in the market place abstracts each of its labour components regardless of their private origins.’ Here a comparison is made between the housewife and the shoemaker, who are both engaged in private labour. Fourthly, housework ‘creates value equivalent to the “production costs” of its maintenance’.footnote11 Here a comparison is made between the domestic labourer and unproductive workers who render personal service, ‘such as cooks, seamstresses, etc.’.
In fact, however, Seccombe’s whole analysis of domestic labour under capitalism is based on an incorrect premise. It is not true that domestic labour creates value, and the arguments put forward by Seccombe to show that it does are fallacious. In the first place, while domestic labour, as Seccombe rightly says, is necessary labour—the working-class housewife is no parasite—it nevertheless does not create value at all, because its immediate products are use values and not commodities; they are not directed towards the market, but are for immediate consumption within the family. This at once differentiates the housewife’s labour from that of a shoemaker: the forms of privatization involved in their respective situations are of a quite different order.
In the second place, given that the housewife does not sell her labour power, the comparison between housewife and cook, etc. does not hold. In the passage quoted by Seccombe, Marx talks of the value of the labour of cooks, etc. only in the specific circumstances of these workers becoming wage-labourers. Thus, in Marxist terms, by definition domestic labour has no value.
Thirdly, it is true that, as Seccombe brings out well, the working-class housewife contributes to the production of a commodity—labour power—the sale of which guarantees her existence (this she has in common with other proletarians) and through this process participates in social production and exchanges her labour for labour involved in the production of the means of her subsistence. But what mediates this