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 liberate women. What we argue in the following pages is that the central feature of women’s position under capitalism is not their role simply as domestic workers, but rather the fact that they are both domestic and wage labourers. It is this dual and contradictory role that imparts a specific dynamic to their situation. Without this contradiction, their position, however oppressive, would be essentially unproblematic. Further, we shall argue that while domestic labour is a necessary condition of reproduction of labour power, it does not contribute to its value or realize its own value when that commodity is sold on the market, because it is not in the Marxist sense socially necessary labour. The consequences of this fact are by no means academic for proletarian women living in a society dominated by the law of value.

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 the domestic and industrial units of production is closed in the life of those proletarian women who become also wage labourers. The role they perform in conditions of legal-economic dependence as domestic labourers has followed women into industry, reproducing the sexual division of labour on the larger terrain of socialized production, depressing their wages to a norm well below that of male labour, concentrating them within a narrow occupational range generally at the bottom of the job hierarchy and making them an easy prey for trade-union opportunism. Engels’ optimism regarding the fate of the bourgeois family in the working class turned out to be premature: a whole historical epoch has separated the entry of women into production from the social organization of housework.

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 participation and this exchange is not the market but the marriage contract: it is on the basis of the social relations of marriage and parenthood that the housewife’s labour is related to social labour. Under capitalism, the market is the only mediator that allows different concrete labours, through the sale and exchange of the commodities they produce, to reach their equivalence and therefore become abstract social labour. The social conditions under which housework is performed prevent any such relation being formed, so that the conditions of the housewife’s labour cannot be abstracted from, as Seccombe would argue. The fact that her labour is necessary does not turn it automatically into socially necessary labour in the sense used by Marx: the social relations of the family block any direct impact of the market, which alone provides conditions for the homogenization of human labour under capitalism. Housework under capitalism therefore remains a specific labour to which the concept of abstract labour does not apply: it is this aspect which gives it its specific privatized character and which provides a material basis for the relative autonomy of women’s oppression from the central axis of capitalist exploitation. Of course, the knowledge that she creates no value, that her labour has no value, is of little comfort to the working-class housewife, who often works round the clock to maintain herself and her family. But this cruel seeming absurdity has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of her labour, but with the absurdity of the capitalist system itself. To sum up, then, we cannot define domestic labour in terms of the labour theory of value, and can grasp its specificity only once we understand that this is the case. As we shall see, a purely structural analysis of housework under capitalism (such as Seccombe seeks to develop in nlr 83 or Jean Gardiner elsewhere in this issue) is not at all adequate; only an historical account of the modifications which it has undergone and continues to undergo can interrelate and explain what in Gardiner’s article, for example, appear as discrete forces acting upon domestic labour.