Women's oppression: Socialist Alternative's conciliation with labour opportunism

In a March 19 article on the website of the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group, the largest Australian organisation claiming to be Marxist, titled “Why men don’t benefit from women’s oppression”, SAlt member Kate Jeffreys repeats a gross distortion of the Marxist analysis of the oppression of women under capitalism. In arguing, correctly, that it is the capitalist class that is the cause and chief beneficiary of women’s oppression, Jeffreys also claims working-class men do not benefit in any way from capitalism’s sexist oppression of working-class women, despite the fact that working-class men have higher wages than working-class women, are more unionised and have more valued skills. They also don’t do anywhere near their fair share of unpaid housework and hardly ever suffer sexual harassment and assault.

Unlike SAlt, Marxists recocgnise that the relative privileges enjoyed by working-class men under capitalism have been a means by which their capitalist exploiters have divided the working class along gender lines, dragging down the wages and conditions of the entire working class and weakening the ability of the working class as a whole to resist capitalist exploitation.

Furthermore, the advancement of the historical interest of the working class — the replacement of capitalism with working-class state power and the construction of socialism — requires the integration of the mass of working-class women into the organised working-class movement on a completely equal basis with the men of their class. And that requires combating any defence of male privilege within the working-class movement. Defence of male privilege within the working class is one of the manifestations of labour opportunism — the sacrificing of the fundamental, i.e., historical/strategic, interests of the working class as a whole to the immediate interests of privileged sections of the working class.

Do men benefit?

Jeffreys has concluded from the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics Time Use Survey that “when we factor in that the men in the survey worked longer hours in paid employment, over all, they had only about half an hour more leisure time than women did. This is hardly a situation of male privilege. The family is unequal — but this inequality doesn’t benefit men”, Jeffreys claims.

She goes on to assert that this inequality within working-class families “really doesn’t equate to a male ‘benefit’ from women’s oppression. The types of domestic tasks where inequalities are the greatest mostly involve caring for children, which benefits capitalism — it has nothing to do with ordinary men”. Jeffreys thus denies the fact that this inequality between men and women in the performance of domestic tasks within working-class families is a material condition of relative privilege for the former and an extra burden of work for the latter.

Aside from being a completely superficial examination, Jeffreys “analysis” hides the real qualitative relationship between women’s unpaid housework work — ABS estimate this is equivalent to about half of GDP, saving many billions for Australia’s capitalist class which they would otherwise have to pay for through socialised services — and men’s paid work. It hides what is a deeply unequal material condition for working-class women under capitalism.

According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics March 24 media release, “There were 3.4 million women not in the labour force, 44% of whom stated that either home duties or caring for children was their main activity when not in the labour force … In the years from 1985 to 2005, the labour force participation rate for women increased from 46% in 1985 to 54% in 1995 and 57% in 2005. In contrast, the participation rate for men decreased from 76% in 1985 to 74% in 1995 and 72% in 2005.” Most of this increase for women has been in part-time work, “with women accounting for the majority of part-time workers (72% in 2005)”.

A closer look at the March 2009 ABS Trends in Household Work statistics shows that between 1992 and 2006 the proportion of women in paid employment went from 48% to 55%. In 2006, women did two-thirds of all household work while men did two-thirds of paid work. Both men and women spend around 50 hours a week in total on both paid and household work.

Men do more household work today than in the past, about an extra hour and a half, but in 2006 women still did nearly twice as much as men. Women’s increased role in the workplace has not reduced the time spent on household work. Household work (child care, household tasks and shopping) was about the same in 2006, (an average of 33 hours and 45 minutes a week) as in 1992.

In 2006, women spent less time overall on cleaning and doing laundry, but spent almost six times longer doing laundry than men, and three times as long on other housework such as cleaning. Women spent almost two and a half times more time than men on food preparation and cleaning up after meals, despite men doing more of the cooking now than in the past. While men took on slightly more child care in 2006, women on average spent more than two and a half times more time on child care than men. There are differences in the type of child care between women and men. Fathers spend more time on play activities (41% compared with 25% for mothers), and mothers spend more time on physical and emotional care activities (43%, compared with 27% for fathers).

The average time spent on domestic activities has declined for women aged 35-64 years, but this group of women has had an increase in the proportion of time involved in child care. When women aged 20-49 moved in with a male partner, the time they spent on household work increased up to six times. In contrast, moving in with a women partner did not significantly affect the amount of time men spent on household work. Women living with male partners spent considerably more time on domestic activities including cooking, laundry and other housework such as cleaning, compared with those living alone or in group houses.

Material basis

By rejecting the idea that there are material benefits to the majority of men from the vast amounts of unpaid work that the majority of women do, SAlt is unable to explain why the sexist idea that unpaid housework and childcare are women’s primary responsibility, rather than an equal responsibility of heterosexual partners, has such a powerful hold within the working class. Dismissing the notion that there is a material basis for the sexist idea that many working-class men materially benefit from women’s oppression, SAlt ends up with an explanation based on the idealist assumption that “consciousness determines being” — rather than the Marxist, scientific analysis based on the materialist premise that social life, including people’s real life interests, determines consciousness.

The oppression of working-class women is grounded in the existence of the family unit as the place where working-class people live, are fed and clothed, and their children are raised to become the next generation of workers. The whole process of the reproduction of labour power results in workers, both the existing generation and the next one, being presented to the capitalist employers ready for work.

That special commodity, labour power, without which capitalism would perish, is produced not in a factory or in a socialised sphere of production, but in the private household of each working-class family. The role of working-class women in this process is very specific. Working-class women are the principle domestic workers who labour, unpaid, to bring up children, keep the house and care for any other dependent relatives. This occurs whether or not women have jobs outside the home. The primary role of the vast majority of working-class women remains that of mother/wife.

The centrality of this to capitalism is clear. Without the labour of these women in the home, workers could be reared, fed and kept alive, but only at the cost of massive investment in the socialised places that would take the place of the family. Capitalism is incapable of completely socialising housework in this fashion, even when women are needed to work in the factories and offices.

The role women have in working-class families is the very basis of their oppression. It is not a matter some technical “division of labour” such as exists in the class generally between different trades, because the social relation of male privilege/women’s oppression condemns the women of the working class and the lower middle-class to a sphere of work which is isolated, where the work itself is tedious and the pressures of feeding and maintaining the family are enormous. (Ruling-class and upper middle-class women have hired domestic servants to do most of this work for them.)

This work, not only tedious and unproductive in itself, also means that women who are fully occupied by it — “housewives” — are denied social contact with others of their class outside their immediate family. This is of central importance in preventing many women from becoming organised, politically active and rebellious — they never have the solidarity and support of socialised production.

Jeffreys claims that “The idea proposed by some feminists that men gain any kind of psychological benefit from being able to beat and rape women is particularly loathsome”, thus ignoring the fact that sexist violence is about men seeking to intimidate women into accommodating to the man’s wishes. Furthermore, Jeffreys falls into a liberal-bourgeois explanation for sexist violence, claiming that “Studies of the demographics of family violence show that strong predictors are poverty, alienation and community breakdown”. She thus parrots the liberal capitalist view that sexist violence is essentially a phenomena of the working-class poor.

But physical violence against women cuts across class lines. It is “about power, not sex”. While Jeffrey’s acknowledges that capitalist social relations encourage sexist violence against women, she minimises the impact and effect this has on women. The ABS 2005 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) found that women in Australia experience high rates of sexual violence.

Since the age of 15, 19.1% of women (or nearly 1 in 5) had experienced sexual violence, compared to 5.5% of men (or one in 20). The PSS found that since the age of 15, 32.5% of women (one in three) had experienced inappropriate comments about their body or sex life, compared to 11.7% of men. Since the age of 15, 25.1% of women had experienced unwanted sexual touching, compared to 9.9% of men, and 23.6% experienced indecent exposure compared to 8.6% of men.

According to the PSS, males are twice as likely to be victims of (physical) violence from other men (89%) than from women. Women account for 81% of male violence. And 82% of women have been assaulted by a male they know, either a partner, family member or friend usually inside the home, whereas men are mostly assaulted by strangers outside the home.

Working-class men do benefit from the oppression of women, not because they are the cause of women’s oppression (the cause is the capitalist class, whose wealth depends upon the organisation of society into family units in which unpaid work is carried out largely by working-class women to reproduce the commodity labour power), but by the very fact that they themselves are not specially oppressed as a result of their gender. The institution of the family is of greater material benefit to them than it is to working-class women.

This simple fact of life has enormous implications for the working class and its political consciousness — both as individuals and collectively. Working-class organisations, such as trade unions, are not automatically or spontaneously opposed to women’s oppression, just as they are not spontaneously pro-socialist. The struggle of revolutionary socialists to win the working class to a conscious opposition to women’s oppression, which will be in the overall interests of the class, will be precisely that a struggle.

SAlt’s denial that there is a material basis for sexism within the working class, is in fact a denial of the need for such a conscious struggle against male privilege. In failing to recognise that the historic interests of the working class as a whole coincides not with the immediate interests of its privileged sections but with the immediate interests of its specially oppressed sections, SAlt in fact accommodates its politics to labour opportunism.