Today we find class politics are all too readily dismissed, and suspiciously so, in the decades since the fall of Communism. Instead it was the newly emergent identity politics which took hold at the wake of socialism’s funeral. In the era of political-correctness we find class politics missing from the discussion, only for its space to be filled by identity – whether it is gender, sexuality or race – in ways which couldn’t possibly threaten the prevailing order. But this isn’t the end of the story. It was Christopher Hitchens who once remarked that “Socialism has been to its own funeral more often than Tom Sawyer.” We may find if we are so inclined, that the majority of the working-class in world terms is female. If class may be abolished through the culmination of the class struggle, then it may be possible to overcome other forms of domination.
This has been the case for a lot longer than we might like to admit. The term ‘proletariat’ is actually derived from the Latin for ‘offspring’ which refers to those who were too poor to serve the state with anything other than their wombs. It denotes to a specific swathe of the masses in the Roman Republic. Too deprived to contribute to economic life in any other way, these women produced labour power in the form of children (who would then be reared by the state as soldiers and sent into battle). What society demanded from them was not production but reproduction. The proletariat started life among those outside the labour process and not from within it. The labour these women endured was a lot more painful than breaking boulders.
In the post-industrial capitalist societies we find that the service sector staffed by vast numbers of women has expanded enormously. And of course, there are those women who have made it in the financial sector – but they are not the proletarians and have little stake in a class-conscious feminism. Even when Britain was the workshop of the world the industrial working-class were outnumbered by domestic servants and agricultural labourers. The sweatshops of the developing world are packed to the brim with female workers, both young and old. And so, we find the politics of class and identity can converge on common material conditions.
The journalist Germaine Greer takes the notion of women's liberation as more than equality, as the achievement of formal equality would mean equality with unfree men and that's hardly emancipation. Liberation from constraints on divorce, abortion, jobs and income are not the end but the beginning. The case of recognising the raising of children and even housekeeping as work with a living wage is an example of what Greer is talking about. Venezuela has gone one step further this year and put aside pensions for full-time mums. This is a much more radical proposal than quotas for women in board rooms, which would just give rise to a few more Thatcheresque women in Greer’s terms. As Lindsey German has written “The talk of glass ceilings and unfairly low bonuses for women bankers misses the point about liberation, which is that it has to be for all working women and not just a tiny number of privileged women.”
Under capitalist conditions the wage a woman receives as a sex worker or indeed a performer in pornography is no different than the wage received by a waitress. Not in the narrow sense that the rate of pay is the same per hour, but rather in the sense that in each case the worker’s labour is still exchanged for a wage. The labour contributed remains disproportionate to the wage received in order to guarantee profitability. It’s about the extraction and the accumulation of profit on the backs of other people’s labour. The advocates of decriminalisation should take note that the content of the labour is not what matters in a society where free-choice and markets prevail. Indeed, in a society of free-choice sex work would be an option among many. A moralising ban on pornography and prostitution seems somewhat futile in light of this. It misses the point.
Objectification is a part of capitalist society; it is a part of the productive process, with the role of wage labour and the commodities resulting from it. Being paid for sex is no different than being paid to smile as a waitress. Wage labour is not a category with any moral precepts or implications, it is merely functional. It's not immoral as much as amoral, relativist and pragmatic. The moves by David Cameron to impose an ‘opt-in’ mechanism over the internet inflow of pornography are contrary to the thrust of a market society. It often seems as though Conservatives want to unleash all of us to the freedom to fail, at least when it comes to the economy. Yet when it comes to social questions the Right wade into our personal lives in order to reassert ‘traditional values’ over us.
The case for feminism has to be made from the ground up, the same with socialism, beginning with the conditions already prevalent in society. In this way we can see that there is a point of divergence between the feminist mission and the structure of capitalist society insofar as the objectives crash against the pillars of market ideology. This may be a terrifying prospect for middle-class liberal feminists, but it’s the way it should be. Women can't just be as free as unfree men. The attainment of civil rights and liberties is only the end of one kind of struggle, which is certainly not at odds with class society and the capitalist system. It’s the aim of human emancipation, not mere liberation under capitalism, to which this cause must be welded.
Originally written by Ellie Crowe and JT White on August 10th 2013 for Pulse.