The real merit of the critique made by Margaret Coulson, Branka Magaš and Hilary Wainwright of my analysis of domestic labourfootnote1 is that it focusses discussion about the strategic relation of women’s liberation to socialist revolution upon women’s double labour condition under capitalism. The fact that working-class women, in greater and greater numbers in the post-war years, are both domestic and wage labourers gives their position and consciousness its problematic and volatile character within the structures of late capitalism. The authors make a clear and convincing case in this regard. In my article in NLR 83, I set out to analyse domestic labour’s relation to wage labour in general. This was a proper level of abstraction on which to begin, but further concretization was necessary before political conclusions could very usefully be drawn. As Coulson, Magaš and Wainwright correctly point out, my political conclusions were somewhat over-extended, given the absence of a second level of analysis specifying domestic labour’s relation to women’s wage labour in particular. At this level of analysis, it is necessary to ask: If the law of value does not directly reign over domestic labour in the form of capital, how does it indirectly impinge upon it, in such a way as to distribute women’s total labour time between the household and outside employment?footnote2

While Coulson, Magaš and Wainwright promise ‘to examine in a more systematic fashion the indirect but powerful effects which the law of value has on domestic labour’,footnote3 nowhere do they examine, systematically or otherwise, how these effects distribute women’s total labour time inside and outside the household. Since this is precisely the question posed by their entire critique, their omission on this score cannot be considered an oversight. Rather, it follows naturally from their failure to see that domestic labour creates value. For only value as a category can express the relation of separated private labours to the total social labour in a society of generalized commodity production. Without this link, the underlying connection between the domestic and industrial units cannot be adequately established; consequently, women’s two labours are left to float analytically, to be related to one another only by way of the consciousness of women who move back and forth between them every day.

In fact, however, in the midst of their critique of my position on the value question, Coulson, Magaš and Wainwright concede the core of my argument: ‘the working-class housewife contributes to the production of a commodity—labour power . . . and through this process participates in social production and exchanges her labour for labour involved in the production of the means of her subsistence.’footnote4 But if the proletarian housewife contributes to the production of a commodity, why does her labour not become part of the value of that commodity? Coulson, Magaš and Wainwright attempt to answer this in three ways.

1. Housework may contribute to the production of a commodity but ‘its immediate products are use values and not commodities; they are not directed towards the market . . .’footnote5 The majority of labours under capitalism do not ‘immediately’ produce commodities, but only use values. Does this disqualify all such labours from producing value? Of course not. It is the process of generalized commodity exchange (including the exchange of labour power) and not the concrete activity of private independent labourers which accomplishes the social equalization of all types of labour under capitalism. Concrete labours may be far removed—in terms of time, space and product form—from the finished commodity exchanged on the market. Many are farther removed than domestic labour and yet still create part of the commodity’s value realized there.

2. The housewife does not sell her labour power and thus ‘by definition domestic labour has no value’.footnote6 Since when is the presence of the wage the criterion for determining value creation? Does this mean that independent commodity producers, who do not work for a wage, create no value? Preposterous! The authors accuse me, in this context, of using a quote by Marx on cooks and seamstresses incorrectly, since these workers draw a wage and housewives do not. This criticism is wide of the mark. I did not use the cooks example to make the argument for value creation per se. This argument I made elsewhere. I drew an analogy with cooks in seeing how Marx determines the magnitude of the value created by unproductive workers rendering a personal service. Their similarity with housewives is that both work unproductively creating value equal to the costs of their own maintenance.

3. It is the marriage contract and the market that mediates the housewife’s participation and exchange with the labour involved in the production of the means of her subsistence. The relevance of this argument escapes me. It is not the interior exchange in the family that stamps labour power as a commodity. Labour power becomes a commodity by being exchanged on the market, and this external relation abstracts the past labours embodied in it and accords them their value-creating status. If labour power were not exchanged on the market, the argument for domestic labour creating value could not be made. The existence of a legal sanction for this arrangement is simply beside the point. Housewives in common-law marriages also create value if their spouses are wage labourers.

Tracing the flow of value right through the reproduction cycle of labour power—as wage goods enter one side of the household unit and renewed labour power bound for market comes out the other—is the vital link in connecting domestic labour to women’s wage labour. This entire cycle is a value equilibration, where labour time is continuously being proportioned, disrupted and reproportioned in each of its constituent parts. Without this value connection, the chasm which looms between the family unit and the economy at large becomes insurmountable. Inevitably, then, analysis will tend to fall back into a dualistic conception, where the household appears outside the economy, completely impervious to its laws of motion.footnote7 The separation of the domestic from the industrial realm is real enough, but as with other separations which appear on the surface of capitalist society, it is also profoundly deceptive. It conceals a ‘hidden substratum’ where the continuous flow of value ties housework into the larger division of labour established in the whole society, by ‘equalizing’ it with other labours as the commodities produced (including labour power) exchange in the marketplace with one another.