Sunday, July 04, 2010

Women and labour

One of the projects I'm working on at the moment is the subject of work under capitalism. I have it in mind to write the kind of book that insubordinate types such as yourselves could take to work. It would be a sociological satire, a users' guide to the workplace, a good way of wasting company time, and a resource for the bored, stressed and bullied. It would be a work of explanation and incitement combined. Are you interested yet?

One aspect of the subject that always comes up is the way in which politicians speak of work as dignifying and emancipating. Whether you're a single mother, disabled, or simply unemployed, work is the answer. There's an important sense in which this is true. If you're not in a workplace, there's no one to socialise with, organise with, or fight against. You're stuck with your narrow horizons, enforced by a miserly income. In work, you can get a certain measure of independence and self-respect - sociological studies tend to show that this is what people value about work, and it's what attracts women to jobs even where they are paid less than men, even when the job is emotionally or physically taxing. It's an escape from house-bound drudgery.

But work under capitalism can never be so unambiguously liberating, and I would hesitate to participate in the paeans without at least considering the matter of exploitation, and the way in which oppression can be intensified when intersecting with exploitative processes. In this respect, there was an interesting discussion at yesterday's Marxism meeting featuring Nina Power, Hester Eisenstein and Judith Orr. Those of you who have read Nina's book will know that it is a witty, trenchantly iconoclastic and incisive re-thinking of feminist mainstays on subjects from equality to pornography, its provocative opening line setting the tone for the combative, aphoristic style of exposition that follows. The chapter on the feminization of labour and the arguments therein were the source of mild controversy at yesterday's panel. To be brief about it, the argument is about the limits of female-emancipation-through-work.

The tremendous changes in the lives of women since WWII, with their increasing absorption into the labour force, is in very obvious ways a step forward. The erosion of the traditional capitalist patriarchy in the form of the nuclear family, which allotted to women a largely passive, housebound role in the reproduction of society, is a development that reactionaries have every reason to regret. When Frank Field MP recently said something to the effect that "single mothers don't need benefits, they need husbands", he was mobilising this retrograde, patriarchal version of social solidarity to justify the coming cuts in welfare and public services that working class women especially depend upon. (The Tories are now reportedly upping the ante, looking for up to 40% cuts across departments, though this may be an effort to make 25% cuts look moderate by comparison). Field explained that he was opposed to the emphasis on getting single mothers into work, and that the real issue was to target 'shirking fathers' who refused to find work. He blamed them for the high number of single parents, and said that they should lose their benefits altogether if they refused to take a government offer of work. This would coerce fathers into being productive and responsible, restore the cohesive family unit and serve mothers better than work. Now, this is a break from New Labour's agenda of coercing single mothers into jobs, but it is a break to the right. It is also significant that this anti-feminist, traditionalist, pro-family discourse is being used to bully working class men. It doesn't at all free women from the burden of bearing sole or key responsibility for the raising of children. In fact, it reinforces that role by attempting to restate the traditional status of men as key bread-winners. But what it does is attack the idea that motherhood is a social responsibility, that the feeding, education and raising of the future labour force is something that society has an interest in, and has to share the burden of. It individualises what is a social issue, and in this way discloses the hard, Thatcherite kernel at the heart of the Tories' "Big Society" soft-sell.

Still, despite the potential for emancipation that work can offer, the persistence of oppression reflected in such features as structural wage inequality suggests that it has definite limits. These limits express themselves in a number of ways. First of all, as insecurity, and the way in which this is turned into a virtue ('flexibility', etc). Secondly, as occupational typecasting, in which women are encouraged to take roles that involve emotional labour, 'caring' and 'nurturing' jobs, jobs requiring communication skills, and so on. Thirdly, as the sexualisation of labour, in which women are required to consider their sexuality - not merely their bodies, but their ability to be flirtatious and charming - as part of their job skills, part of being 'professional'. Employers don't expect to have to shout at their female employees to dress nicely; they expect women to come prepared, knowing the drill, internalising such requisites as part of their own career mission. And this applies outside work as much in the workplace, ie in social networking sites, which employers and recruitment agencies regularly check to dig up information on CV submissions. Women have to see themselves as walking advertisements for themselves. And finally, perhaps, as a conflict between production and reproduction, in which women are expected to manage child birth and rearing in ways that don't burden the employers. This is just one more way in which women are expected to augment the exploitation process by pre-emptively exploiting themselves, by assuming extra hours of labour, by accepting deductions from their income to pay for childcare. The 'labourisation of women', as Power puts it, is a process that has intensified exploitation and reinvented gender oppression. That it doesn't have to be that way, and that the organisation of women in trade unions offers the beginnings of a way out of this deadlock, suggests that these limits arise in part because of a particular organisation of work, perhaps because of the individualisation of work in the neoliberal phase of accumulation, but more broadly because it's capitalism, and capitalism is most efficient when it is most exploitative, and when that exploitation is augmented by oppression.

I suggested previously that the phrase 'work-life balance' inadvertently revealed something about work under capitalism, namely the fact that the majority of one's waking hours are not spent alive, but labouring in a sort of undead capacity. If work and life are separate and opposing modes of existence, then the tendency of the former to increasingly dominate the latter outside of formal working hours, structuring our 'fun', commanding and regulating our socialisation, governing how we conduct ourselves in public, etc., means that capitalism is almost literally sucking the life out of us. That this process is advancing most rapidly for women confirms that the feminization of the proletariat is not automatically a liberation for women - not without the struggle and solidarity it makes possible.