The Loss of the Body: A Marxist Feminist Response to Estranged LaborPosted: May 24, 2011
Sexism, homophobia and racism and its material basis within the capitalist division of labor has always been what has interested me theoretically. Researching these systems of domination and how they relate to each other and effect our lives and positions in society is what I am interested in politically. Recently, I have been trying to understand political economy more from a marxist framework through my studies of capital. Marx really captured the complexities of capital and the social aspects of it; he put human beings and our exploitation at the center of it to expose the commodity fetish that seeks to hide this exploitation as well as inspire us to struggle against it. His arguments on the role alienated labor and alienation plays within the system made me think about it in terms of myself as a woman of color, who has a particular experience within this system and experience with alienation that is not the same as Marx describes, but still useful for me to examine my own oppression. Below is my first draft of a piece that I hope to finalize at some point on gender and alienation followed by some further research questions. I am interested in feedback and discussion so don’t hesitate to speak your mind!
The Loss of the Body: A Marxist Feminist Response to Estranged Labor
“Thus economic categories express different production relations among people and the social functions which correspond to them, or the social economic form of things. These functions or forms have a social character because they are inherent, not in things as such, but in things which are parts of a definite social environment, namely things through which people enter into certain production relations with each other.” (I.I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value)
“Black procreation helped to sustain slavery, giving slave masters an economic incentive to govern Black women’s reproductive lives. Slave women’s childbearing replenished the enslaved labor force: Black women bore children who belonged to the slaveowner from the moment of their conception. This feature of slavery made control of reproduction a central aspect of White’s subjugation of African people in America. It marked Black women from the beginning as objects whose decisions about reproduction should be subject to social regulation rather than to their own will.” (Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, 23)
“Consider, on one hand, not only the many societies in which marriage is (or was) a relationship imposed on one or both of the partners, but also the forms of training (not to say ‘breaking in’ and use of force) around sexuality; and, on the other, the huge variation that exists in the regulation of relations between men and women in marriage (including, among other things, the presence or absence of rules requiring the execution of ‘conjugal duty’), and hence women’s different margins of autonomy to manage their body, sexuality, and reproduction (the management of sexual relations, contraceptive practices, abortions, ect,.). (Paola Tabet, Natural Fertility, Forced Reproduction)
“And even if she is relatively well placed in the hierarchy of labour powers (rare enough!), she remains defined as a sexual object of men. Why? Because as long as most women are housewives part of whose function in reproducing labour power is to be the sexual object of men, no woman can escape that identity.” (Selma James, Sex Race & Class)
In the ‘Estranged Labor’ section of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts he describes the exploitative system of private property, and its use of alienated labor to support it. The worker is alienated from the product she produces, which contains her objectified human labor, yet she does not own it. Therefore the products of her labor stand as an alien force opposed to her. She is also alienated from the work process itself, which, like her products, she does not control or own. She works to survive and reproduce herself so she can go out and work again. This is estranged labor. It degrades human life into a depressing, animal-like, existence where you are working just to survive, while producing wealth and pleasure for someone else. Your life and existence is crushed into this abstract, congealed human labor; you are a machine whose sole purpose within a society based on commodity production is to produce value. Your individuality, abilities, skills and creative development does not matter. Although human beings have consciousness that allows us, as a species, to be creative and engage in work that is external to us and not solely based on our survival and reproduction, we are deprived of these activities as alienated workers. We are alienated from our work, ourselves, and ultimately our collectivity as a species. Marx argues that the only way to crush such an oppressive system of private property and emancipate society, is through a class struggle that will emancipate the workers, because within the emancipation of the workers is the universal emancipation of humanity. He emphasizes the workers, not because it is their emancipation alone that is on the line, but it is the social relation and role of the worker that everyone is forced into while living under such a system. He writes, “because the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all relations of servitude are but modifications and consequences of this relation.” Marx is right in his analysis of the oppressive social character of the system, and his solution to overthrow it. However, he did not apply his concepts of estranged labor to gender, race, sexuality, and reproduction to reveal all the oppressive social relations that help keep the system of private property intact. The alienation of women’s bodies, and subsequent loss of autonomy over our bodies through the regulation of our sexuality, regulation of our reproduction (forced or limited), and systemic and intra-class violence (rape, domestic, ect.) is a part of the capitalist social organization of society. The family, and relegation of women to the unpaid role of housewife as well as waged worker, has been a mechanism to support this oppression and regulation of women’s bodies and sexuality. Selma James speaks to this objectification in her pamphlet Sex Race & Class, “Because as long as most women are housewives part of whose function in reproducing labour power is to be the sexual object of men, no woman can escape that identity.” Even if you are queer or not a married housewife, all women are subjected to this role within patriarchal capitalism. Our bodies are objectified and not under our control much in the same way that a worker does not control her work conditions or products of her labor; therefore, our bodies stand as an alien force opposed to us.
This type of gendered alienation is not a result or side effect of the division of labor, but is a part of the division of labor that relies on exploitation, including the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies. This was evident during American slavery, where the rape and breeding of Black women was very much a part of the origins of American Capitalism; or today where sex work is a global market. If we don’t understand the particular role that gender plays within the division of labor, then we don’t completely understand the division of labor that structures our society, and if we don’t understand the structures of our society in their totality then our revolution will be incomplete. Marxist revolutionaries must seek to understand reality through analyzing the system and crafting revolutionary theory that we can apply in practice to change that reality and smash systems of domination and exploitation. This will not happen unless we have a material understanding of gender oppression historically and its role within capital. Gender and sexuality are not natural phenomenons. There is a slight biological basis for gender roles historically. But largely gender and sexual categories, like race, have been constructed to help support the division of labor. Everyone has a position within this exploitative division. Systems of oppression, such as racism, sexuality and homophobia, intersect with this capitalist system of exploitation and alienation to support the particularities of this division of labor. I wish to draw on Marx’s concepts of alienation and apply them to reproduction and the gendered body ideas of alienated work, exploitation, and appropriation and expropriation of the product to better understand political economy and gender/race oppression.
We have consciousness, like Marx argues, which allows us to be creative, produce all sorts of commodities, and express desire that isn’t confined to biology and reproduction. We could build a society that is based on real freedom and creative development of the people that also doesn’t regulate sexuality; that supports a free, non-constraining sexuality and reproduction. But, under alienated labor we are not free as workers, and as women, we are not free to own our bodies or our own sexuality. Our bodies our objectified, and like a workers product, are used for the pleasure of someone else, this someone else being a man and the ruling class. The same oppressive social relations that are built into the division of labor, exists with the power relations between the sexes, where women are devalued to support male power within society and the patriarchal Bourgeois State. Therefore, the division of labor that structures our society is also gendered and sexist and racist. Like workers, who are coerced to work, women are also coerced into these subservient roles. As women, we bear the legacy of the madonna/whore dichotomy, where our sexuality is regulated to be the subservient housewife (Madonna), pumping out babies, disciplining them, taking care of them and the husband. Or we are seen as whores, whose bodies are commodified and objectified for the pleasure of men. Whether we are reproducing labor power or pleasuring men, our bodies are not for our own pleasure and our own control. I don’t wish to paint a victimizing picture of women though; this plays into patriarchal gender roles of ‘women’ being passive and weak. There are numerous accounts and movements of women owning their sexuality and expressing fierce and independent desire. I am inspired by the contemporary queer women of color feminist movements from the 70′s and 80′s, where queer revolutionary women of color begin to name the sexism and homophobia that existed within their social movements in order to build a more holistic revolutionary struggle. For now I want to address the particular way the system exploits and oppresses us, and I will incorporate more detailed examples of resistance to it in the next draft.
Although I state that all women share this oppression and alienation, we do not all experience it the same way based off of differences within race and class. Women are all sexualized, but in different ways depending on what ethnic/racial group you belong to and what class you are a part of. For an example, Black women are portrayed as hyper-sexual and animalistic, while Asian, more specifically South East or East Asian, women are portrayed as docile or submissive. Despite the racialized or ethnic differences in our alienation, we all share a type of objectification of our bodies that has given us a sense of disempowerment, and has made us feel alienated from them. Marx says above that the realization of this objectification for the worker is the loss of the object, which results in feelings of alienation. Most women experience a similar feeling of loss, a loss of the body, when we are confronted with sexualized violence or sexist advertising that commodifies our body parts. I remember feeling this loss of the body by puberty when the boys began to take notice and molest me; I felt it when I was raped at the age of 22; and I felt it when I learned the history of my ancestry and slavery, which relied on the rape of African women’s bodies. I realized that women’s bodies are never fully in our control; our sexuality is not a choice that we are free to make without interventions by the state and the class.
This is very disempowering, because it is a loss of yourself in a particular and literal way. Looking at the roots of US capitalism and the slave system is useful for understanding alienated labor in terms of race and gender. Slave women were exploited as workers in the slave economy, but they also played a particular role within that economy as breeders and reproducers of the slave population. Their bodies were a part of the means of production of the slave owning capitalists, and, like the cotton gin, they did not own them. They did not get to decide if they wanted to reproduce, who they would reproduce with, and like the product of their labor, they did not get ownership over it when their children were sold away for profit. Slave women were forced to reproduce with other slaves in breeding houses, and were often vulnerable to rape by their masters. Slave children were a commodity for the capitalist representing the human labor of the slave woman. Although the children followed the mother’s side, due to the slave master not wanting to take responsibility over the children who were a product of his rape, the mother did not own them and had to bear the pain of being ripped away from her children at slave auctions. In this sense their product, children, represents their labor embodied in material form making it objectified. This objectification process results in the realization by the mother of this object and the subsequent loss of realization when her product is sold away from her. Therefore the sexual economy of slave reproduction represented this powerful product that was both a part of her, but independent of her resulting in her alienation from her children and herself. The realization and thus loss of realization for the slave mother fueled her resistance to such an objectification process; she would often kill her children or help them escape in order to not have them experience a life of slavery that, according to Marx, ‘deprives [her] of the means of life.”
Racist and sexist ideology has always been used to justify the particular treatment of black women, and women of color in general. From the very beginnings of colonization and ‘scientific’ racism these false identity categories have been constructed to support the economic system that was expanding around the world, and the specific sexist nature of it. Black women were stolen from Africa and travelled around the world like ZOO animals. Europeans were obsessed with their anatomical features; Black women’s sexuality has always been constructed and policed by the oppressors. Back then they said that African/black women were overly sexual and loose. This justified the massive amounts of rape and economic system of breeding that was forced upon them. Post slavery when blacks were ‘freed’ there was a movement by Black men to dominate Black women in the same way that black women were dominated by their masters and White women dominated by their husbands. Black men were trying to rescue their own masculinity from the process of emasculation that was a part of the gendered social relations built into the division of labor on the plantation. These sexualized stereotypes of “jezebels”, ‘hoes’, and ‘hoodrats’ were something reproduced by the oppressors and reproduced within our own communities and class. This is our legacy today. Why is it that black women are portrayed as overly sexual past and present and white women aren’t to the same degree? This has to do with the origins of the racialized and gendered division of labor that were developed during US slavery, where Black and White women played specific roles. The Black woman was a worker in the slave economy in the fields and in the bedroom, and was devalued as a woman and a black slave woman. The white woman was devalued as well in order to keep the white slave masters power maintained in the house, but she was a delicate, asexual, house wife; not a slave. Black and white women’s positioning in the division of labor had material as well as ideological consequences that are important today when we think about our relationships to our bodies, and the different identity categories that divide us and oppress us still. Women of color are still seen as un-rapeable, and overly-sexualized. This is reflected in the massive amounts of violence that women of color sex workers are subjected to where cops assert that ‘they aren’t raped they’re just not paid;’ Or when a Black stripper is gang raped by White men on the Duke University rugby team, and nothing is done about it. Or when queer women of color in New Jersey are sexually propositioned by a man and then defend themselves against his physical attacks, and are locked up for two years for defending themselves.
Today we still struggle for control over our bodies. In a time of economic crisis where the working class, especially working-class women of color, must face massive amounts of cuts to services, jobs, and wages thus lowering the living standard of our lives. Women must struggle for healthcare, reproductive and family planning services, and abortions. And we must struggle just to survive and defend ourselves in a violent world, where reported rapes happen so much (every minute in the US) that we must accept rape as our lived condition as women. We live in a society where, in the US, three women are killed every day by domestic partners. And we live in a world where a dominated type of sexuality is forced upon us with power relations built into it supporting patriarchy and the objectification of women’s bodies. All of these examples, historical and present, demonstrate that Marx’s concepts of commodity fetish and alienated labor must be applied to gender, sexuality, and the body, and the use of the family to exploit women and maintain these gendered social relations to complete his analysis of the social character of the system.
Guiding Research Questions
1. The political economy of a society has different production relations among people, which have different social functions that make up the social organization of society and its division of labor, which unites everyone within the system. People’s individual labor comes into contact with the labor of the entire society through the process of exchange. How do marriage and the family fit into organization of society? What does it reveal about gender and sexuality?
2. How does the manipulation and control over women’s bodies and reproduction function within the economic system? What does it illuminate for us about gender/sex oppression and its importance to the function and reproduction of capital?
3. If the body is alien to women, then who does it belong to?
4. I stated earlier that the way to resist alienated labor is to withhold it or take it back through the means of class struggle. How do women resist in such ways? How do we re-appropriate our bodies? How do we achieve autonomy?
5. When applying alienation of the body to sex work I see sex workers as having a dual realization of their alienation as estranged workers and as women whose bodies are sexualized. They use their alienation as a way to survive then. As a means of living, which all workers do, but the fact that women use their body as a means to survive demonstrates some sort of realization of the way that we are alienated as workers, and as women through sexual and physical violence. Could sex work be seen as a re-appropriation of their bodies to work and survive?