Fifty Shades of Capital: Gender Labor

There are many facets of our social reality influenced by global capitalism; this series serves to highlight the ever-expanding market’s effect on our daily lives. From Bon-App to the environment, capitalism has generated numerous negative consequences around the world.

Several weeks ago, I discussed the displacement of peasants and their subsequent lifetime of laboring for the benefit of a capitalist. There is a missing, but equally important, component of capitalism that deserves an article of its own. Along with the productive laborers who create commodities through the means of production, there is the reproductive workforce as well. Without women, who have been forcefully drafted into this role, there would be much less exploitable surplus value. The patriarchy, and all the detrimental effects associated with it, results from this gendered division of labor.

Following the transformation from production for use to production for exchange came the exploitation of labor productivity by those who controlled exchange. Furthermore, money “allowed the fetishistic absurdity whereby relations among people appeared to them as relations among things,” according to the article “Interpreting the Origins of Gender Inequality” by feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock. These two phenomena developed a society that values, even fetishizes, commodities above the laborers that produce them; out of this emerged exploitation in the production process as well as in the family. Rather than extended families and kin groups collaborating as a communal whole, capitalist societies divide us into economic units through heteronormative nuclear families. Consequently, men sell themselves in the production process and women are relegated to domestic labor at home.

Remember that patriarchal systems emerged much earlier than capitalism, yet they still coincided with the development of private property as a means of controlling and passing agricultural surplus down the patriline. More importantly, capitalism benefits from and reinforces these gendered divisions of production. As Leacock writes, “The fact that domestic work could be separated from a public sphere and assigned to women as the wards of men assured to an upper class the reproduction and maintenance of workers through socially unremunerated — i.e. slave — labor.” 

The time and work that goes into housekeeping, bearing and raising children, cooking and the associated emotional labor comes at no cost to the capitalist, ultimately ushering in more profit. This system reinforces gender inequality by forcing men and women into unfair roles. Men are expected to be breadwinning providers for their families, laboring day and night without much time off to spend time with family and friends, whereas women are subjected to domestic labor with little compensation, autonomy, spending power or opportunity. In many families, women are obligated to take on several jobs alongside housekeeping, a certainly exhausting lifestyle.

The gendered division of labor becomes an increasingly complex issue when we factor in transness, non-binary genders and sexualities beyond the heteronormative. These identities paint a much more fluid representation of variation in gender and sexual expression than the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal logic allows. Without a labor divide between the men and women in a family, how are we to maintain an economically viable society? If everyone works, everyone will become exhausted; if no one works, then production ceases and the economy collapses. Of course, the politics of these issues are not framed in this way. Popular bigotry narratives cite divine creation or nature as deeming humans a certain way, but of course hegemonic cultural values always shift to justify capitalist logic; such is the case with slavery, manifest destiny and war. These justifications serve to corral people into — or even exclude them from — a set ideal: the heteronormative, white, middle-class nuclear family.

Keeping these inequalities in mind, what solution should we turn to? Workplace equality among both genders? Fair opportunity in marriage, gender expression and family? These are certainly important to achieve but are also very narrow in focus. Sure, it is great when you have more CEOs, presidents or general leaders of a non-normative identity — representation matters — yet these victories mean very little for most people in society: the 99% who will continue to work their asses off trying to make a living. Labor under capitalism is pretty dreary to begin with, so equality in that regard is not exactly the best outcome. If we pretend that breaking the glass ceiling is where the struggle for peace, security and opportunity stops, we are selling ourselves short. There needs to be a massive upheaval of the unequal labor relations inherent to capitalist society if we want everyone on the gender spectrum to lead a fulfilling life. Whatever post-capitalist system we envision is up to everyone, not just a single person or ideology, to determine together.