14th November, 2020
This article is not part of a series, but does form a continuation of the thoughts began in this article.
The value of the labour of women is often overlooked – and while of course we could stress “not merely women”, it is women who are most frequently overlooked in terms of labour value throughout human history: women who do labour at home, especially. But again, not only.
By this I of course refer to, especially, communal labour. You may have anticipated something else there – but the labour by women most overlooked is labour which connects people one to another, and works to increase the overall trust in a society. Labour like this is found even in societies which are not what we might call “highly technological”: a simple, but great & recurring example of this would be a woman who ensures a fight does not escalate between men, which is of tremendous worth to all communities. Fewer injuries means more hours of labour, and more hours of labour means more prosperity.
Or to put it another way: communal labour prevents loss of value later.
Women, though, are expected to gift this labour: women are the drivers of the isfyd, the “underworld” – though it is “under” in the sense of “foundational”, not “under” in the sense of “less important”.
I name it thus also because it is frequently unseen – not by our eyes, but in the analysis of economies.
This isfyd is effectively however the labour which actually makes our society function. This includes emotional labour, and it includes physical labour too, such as that which conservatives might call “traditional female labour”: washing, cleaning, and maintaining homes & personal property for other people & themselves, as well as ensuring food supplies. And by that latter I do not mean cooking; to say so would massively undersell the role of women in “household management” throughout history.
Yet again, this labour is usually overlooked in economic analysis. For example, 80 or so years ago, James Meade and Richard Stone devised the method of national income accounting that we call Gross Domestic Product. This in no way includes socio-emotional, communal, or household labour.
Noticing this is not new or revolutionary: Meade and Stone in fact hired a young woman called Phyllis Deane, in 1941, who was to apply their method in several British colonies. Rapidly Deane realised that failing to include women’s labour was “illogical”.
Predictably, Richard Stone ignored her. As a result, activities which were absolutely vital to local economies were completely ignored in assessments of those economies for the last 80 years. This has had a global impact on how we approach economics.
Silvia Federici argued that male economic activity would be impossible without women’s unpaid labour. She said that, “It is important to recognise that when we speak of housework we are not speaking of a job as other jobs, but we are speaking of the most pervasive manipulation, the most subtle and mystified violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated against any section of the working class.”
Later feminist thinkers, however, have disagreed with some aspects of Deane’s analysis in that while Deane had rightly spotted that women’s labour underpinned the entire economy, she had not been correct to measure it by activity. Instead, thinkers such as Marilyn Waring argued that rather than using economic activity to measure the value of labour, we should use time.
Time, after all, was “the one investment we all have to make”.
Again predictably, economists have largely ignored these points. GDP still ignores the vastest proportion of – especially female – unpaid labour. This renders women’s contributions to society almost invisible – which makes it hard for our society to understand their true value, and, indeed, renders something else invisible as well: the isfyd itself.
This means that most of us have no real idea of how our society works; no more so than most of us understand how cars work. Certainly we know that they have wheels; we know that you put petrol into them; we know that the wheels go round because the engine and the petrol combine; but most people have no clear conception of what “combustion engine” really means, or how the work is actually achieved.
Women do this labour partly because of coercion: if they do not do the labour demanded of them by their community, especially by men in their community, then they may suffer unpleasant, undesirable, often violent consequences. As well there is other, what we might call capitalist coercion; if the chores are not completed, if the meals are not provided, then the community – whether a single family or a whole village – suffers the consequences collectively, financially and materially.
But it also functions because of trust. Trust is a more powerful lever than coercion, in truth; when we trust someone has our best interests at heart, we will quite often be willing to go to extraordinary, sometimes even irrational lengths to support that person. Trust, after all, is the prediction – or expectation by faith – of mutuality. Of solidarity of caring.
But what is a gift economy?
A gift economy is a high trust economy. Capitalism, for comparison, is low trust, at least in terms of the relationship between people. In a capitalist society, if Jim buys something from Sarah, Jim does not trust Sarah – he trusts “recourse to the law”, not Sarah. Trust may play a role, but only in expediency: Jim may go to Sarah instead of Bill for the desired goods or service because Jim trusts Sarah slightly more than Bill to not fail to provide that service or goods, but the transaction itself only occurs because of trust in the market, not trust in Sarah or Bill.
In a gift economy, Jim does not buy anything – Sarah gives, and Jim says thanks, and Sarah knows that later, someone else will give to her, and she will say thanks, and that’s that. No exchange is necessary because trust is widespread. No coercion is necessary because trust is more powerful. In fact, most human interaction, not just today but all through history, follows this exact model – so much so that we barely notice it or think about it at all.
Gift economies are everywhere, but especially in the countryside or in low-income areas of cities, where people often “do for each other” with no direct immediate return. People often call this, incorrectly, a “barter system”, because sometimes there are promises involved – IE, I’ll fix your car if you later do some work on my roof. But with no way to ensure that this exchange happens – with no formalised market – this is in fact still arguably gifting.
And returning to the core point, women gift all the time. When a woman cleans for someone else, she is gifting. When a woman carries water from the well to the village, she is gifting. When a woman darns socks, she is gifting. There is no recourse to the law for her labour, but the “labour of love” is a labour of trust: others will later do labour for her. This is in fact the basis of all community.
And therefore we can see that in many senses our capitalist market economy is in fact based on the labour of an underlying, ignored gift economy. It only functions because of that gift economy; without women’s labour, without their lioness’ share of the isfyd, the foundational layer of our economy, the entire structure would simply collapse. Paid labour is impossible without the unpaid labour that supports it.
And this is why feminism is vital to socialism – as well as vice versa. And it does not matter which sort of socialist you are, either; whether you are reformist or revolutionary, it is quite plain that the power of the isfyd is there, either as symbol or lever, waiting to be exposed or pulled.
But there’s also question that arises from all of the above, if you are a Leftie or a socialist of any kind, and it is a big one. It has been asked before, but I will ask it again: What would happen if women syndicalised this labour?