Re: International Women's Day

Fri, 13 Mar 1998 22:55:32 -0700 (MST)
Martha Gimenez (

On Fri, 13 Mar 1998 wrote:
> I initially interpreted M&E as you did, but then I got to wondering about
> why the labor of women in the family is not addressed in M's labor theory of
> value. Indeed, no mention of domestic labor appears at all in Capital (that
> I could find).

> Then I realized that the wealth contributed to society by nature is also not
> accounted for in the theory of value. M describes such wealth as
> "use-value," but not as "exchange-value." And since it is the latter which
> is counted when we count the dollars and cents in our bank accounts, and
> since it is money that determines production decisions, in this regard women
> and nature do not count in M's theory of human history as shaped by the
> productive forces.

....... snip.......

Nancy and I exchanged views about these very same issues in MATFEM and I
forwarding some of the responses I sent at the time. But before I do so,
I will just add that it is true that under capitalism there is an enormous
amount of use value producing activities that enhance people's quality of
life and do not enter in the market and the calculations of the GNP;
women's domestic production is the major component but there are others,
legal and illegal. But this is a characteristic of capitalism and it
cannot be attributed to Marx's attitudes towards women.

Comments on use values, domestic production, women, nature

Marx (CAPITAL, ch. 1, Commodities) argues that it is necessary to
differentiate between use values, the products of concrete useful labor,
and exchange values, which are produced by abstract labor. Under specific
historical conditions, use values become the material depositories of
exchange value. Commodities can be exchanged because they all have a
social property in common in varying proportions: value or congealed
abstract labor power. This is why I understand value not as "the value of
labor," but as that property of commodities which stems from their being,
regardless of their different use values, the product of abstract human
labor and human labor becomes abstract labor only under very specific
historical conditions.

Women's domestic labor is not abstract labor and, as such -- while
valuable in a real or material economic sense, for it creates an enormous
amount of use values for private consumption -- it does not produce value
in the technical sense outlined above. The conclusion that domestic labor
does not produce value has been interpreted as if Marx had "failed" to
acknowledge the significance of domestic labor. In my view, this is not
an indication of "failure" but a consequence of the the focus of Marx's
theoretical analysis: capitalism and commodity production. Domestic
labor does not produce commodities unless domestic workers produce for the
market, as they do when they engage in petty commodity production when
wages decline or disappear (I wrote about these issues in a book I
co-edited with Jane Collins: WORK WITHOUT WAGES: Domestic Labor and
Self-Employment under Capitalism, Suny U. Press, 1990; my chapter is
entitled "The dialectics of waged and unwaged work: waged work, domestic
labor and household survival in the United States"). There is a
dialectical relation between commodity production and the production of
use values which Marx did not explore in his work. Whether this is viewed
as a failure or whether we understand this situation in light of the main
objectives of his work and the political conditions of the time is up to
us and depends on our own theoretical and political allegiances.

Exchange value is not "the value of labor" and it does not "come from
labor alone;" it is the quantity of value at which commodities are
exchanged in a given time; it is only through process of exchange that
the common substance shared by commodities reveals itself, namely value.
Value and exchange value are relational properties of commodities; they
are not inherent in the use values produced by useful labor or in nature
(e.g., diamonds are not naturally valuable); all commodities are use
values but not all use values are commodities even though they are the
product of human labor, but not of abstract labor. This is why the use
values we produce at home have no value, in the sense that they have not
been produced under conditions ruled by commodity relations. This does
not mean that Marx "devalues" (in the sense of considering worthless) what
domestic workers do; it simply means that it is impossible to determine
the value of domestically produced use values because value and exchange
value emerge in the process of exchange; the value of a commodity is
determined by the socially necessary labor time required to produce it.
Each household worker, on the other hand, has hers or his own standards of
productivity and it would be impossible to establish the value of what
each household produces unless those use values are brought outside, to
enter in relations with other products in the market.

In this sense, nature does not have value and, consecuently, exchange
value, if considered it itself, in isolation from historically specific
relations of production. This does not mean that in Marx's eyes nature is
worthless; on the contrary, in the CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME (a
program put forth by the German Worker's Party) Marx forcefully argues
that it is crucial to keep in mind the contribution of nature to the
creation of use values.

Gotha Programme: "Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture ...."

This is Marx's critique:

"Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source
of use value (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as
is labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a natural force,
human labor power..... The bourgeois have very good reasons for fancifully
ascribing supernatural creative power to labor, since it follows precisely
from the fact that labor depends on nature, that the man who possesses no
other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and
culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of
the material conditions of labor (i.e., nature - my note). He can only
work with their permission, and hence only live with their permission."
(CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME, N.York, International Publishers,
1970, p. 3.).

In light of Marx's analysis, capitalists do not appropriate the "unpaid
value of nature" because nature, in a technical sense, has no value; they
appropriate (legally or by force) the material conditions of production,
be it rain forests, mines, agricultural land or whatever and in the
process of employing workers to transform those material conditions into a
variety of products, they appropriate the surplus value produced by those
workers when those commodities are sold. It follows that "nature has
value only when man applies labor" is somewhat appropriate only under
capitalist conditions (I would say that nature is a source of value);
before the universalization of commodity production and outside its
boundaries today, nature was and is a source of use values.


Useful labor becomes abstract labor when it enters as a "factor of
production," as a given quantity of labor time in combination with the
means of production under capitalist conditions of production. Workers
can produce things for sale without their labor becoming abstract labor
when they engage, for example, in petty commodity production

It is debatable whether women's domestic labor reproduces the
commodity labor power their husbands sell in the market or whether,
instead, their labor produces the goods and services that contribute to
the physical (meals, clothing, cleaning) and social (sex, affection,
companionship etc., what Ann calls "sex-affective production"
reproduction of the laborer.

It is important to differentiate between the processes that enter
in the reproduction of laborers, the bearers and owners of labor power,
and the processes and social relations that enter in the reproduction of
labor power as such. They are not the same, though they might overlap.
The processes that reproduce the physical and psychological energies of
workers are not the same as those that produce their manual and
intellectual skills. Women reproduce the former, not the latter, though
their work contributes sometimes to pay for the formal training their
male companions acquire. Depending n the kind of labor power under
consideration, its production may be mostly dependent on the physical and
emotional labor of women (in the case of low skilled workers) or dependent
on the abstract labor of paid workers such as teachers, office or
factory trainers, professors, etc. The higher the quality of labor power,
the more likely it will be produced under labor intensive conditions
relatively independent from the leveling and deadening power of the
market and from domestic labor's inputs.


The application of labor to natural use values or to raw materials
and intermediate products to produce use values for consumption does not
entail the creation of value except when those products enter in
relationship with other commodities in the market. One of Marx's important
contributions is to show the social, the historically specific nature of
value. If I bake a cake and share with friends, my cake is valueless,
though delicious :) If I try to sell my cake in the market, I have to
sell it at a price others are willing to pay and this price is out of my
control; if people are used to paying 10 dollars for a cake in the
nearest Safeways, they will not pay more than 10 no matter how high my
opportunity cost may be and how labor intensive and wonderful my cake may
be. No matter how much labor and money I put into my cake, its value is
determined by the market and this is reflected in its exchange value.

> He also said, "The use-values . . . are combinations of two elements--matter
> and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material
> substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the
help of
> man. . . We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material
> wealth, of use-values produced by labour. . . labour is its father and the
> earth its mother." (Ibid, Section 2) To me, the use of these particular
> sexual metaphors, by someone from the 19th century, implies that an
> active/passive relationship between man and nature is meant by the writer,
> especially in view of other comments which suggest the same relationship.

I know a big deal is made these days of the analysis of such
metaphors. I do not find this kind of analysis illuminating; on the
contrary, it distracts from the substance of the arguments Marx (or any
other theorist whose works are subjected to the same treatment) makes.
Current fashion in academic writing "privileges" agency. Well, we
can talk about "agency" in reference to humans but not to nature (meaning
animals, plants, minerals, etc.). I know, I am being humancentric :) or
something like that. So be it. Not even the volcano that is covering
Monserrat with ashes is for me an example of the "agency" of nature. The
volcano is just being a volcano. This is why Marx, in the chapter on labor
(Capital, Vol. I), "privileged" the worst of architects over the bees,
because the architect had agency and envisioned the project from the very
beginning. Bees are just being bees. So yes, human agency acts upon nature
in the only way the species is called to act; by transforming nature (in
ways we may consider constructive or destructive) and in the process
transforming itself, for we are also part of nature and if nature has
agency it is us. On the other hand, we are indeed constrained by nature;
we need food and oxygen to survive, for example. So I do not reduce
nature to our thought about it or our "social construction;" nature has
material effects on us whatever we might think about it. Nature both
enables and constraints not through agency but simply by being what it is,
working through the various ways in which we, as part of nature, are.

>In light of Marx's analysis, capitalists do not appropriate the "unpaid >
>value of nature" because nature, in a technical sense, has no value;>> >
> I see your argument, and that you for pointing out the error. But here
is > just the problem that I see. Having no value and no agency in
history, > nature cannot be figured into a materialist analysis of human

I do not understand the logic of your argument; Marx's metatheory
and philosophical anthropology as presented in the early manuscripts as
well as his analysis of capitalism rests upon the analysis of the
dialectical relation between humans and nature. To say that nature is the
source of wealth while labor is the source of value does not entail to
vvvvvdemean the contribution of Nature or to exclude it from human history;
Marxists are materialists because they stress over and over the importance
of nature as the condition for production an, consequently, the pivotal
effects of ownership and/or control and possession of the means of
production (which are forms taken by the transformation of nature) and the
social forms in which the means of production are combined with labor as
the sources of the dynamics of human history and the delineation of modes
of production.
I think it is important to differentiate between material wealth
(e.g., land, natural resources, finished consumer goods etc) and the
social forms wealth acquires under capitalism. While the exploitation
(and often the destruction) of natural resources contributes to the
accumulation of capital, nature becomes "capital," a repository of "value"
only when transformed by human labor and sold in the market; because it
is only then that has "value" in the capitalist sense.

> Similarly, without being specified as part of the process of creating
> surplus value, the labor of women in the family cannot specifically enter
> into a materialist analysis, and therefore, neither can a historical
> materialist appreciation of women themselves.

Again, I fail to see the premises underlying your conclusions.
Many feminists have written materialist analyses of the labor of women,
beginning with Isabel Larguia and Jose Dumoulin, and Margaret Benson in
1969. I myself have written about it - in fact historical materialism
gives you the theoretical tools to unravel the connections between
commodity and non-commodity production under capitalist conditions.

> But Marx appears to lump together everything related to the birthing and
> raising of children. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must
> assume that regards the labor of women in the family as the dialectical
> opposite of social labor, and therefore as not conscious, not co-operative,
> not productive, and not determinate in human history.
I think the basis for this conclusion is your version of Mies
undialectical reading on the German Ideology. I will just say that among
the quotes you include in your paper there is a statement that contradicts
the notion that Marx relegated procreation and childrearing - the "family"
or kinship relations - to "nature:" "The production of life, both of
one's own in labor and of future life in procreation now appears as a
twofold relation; on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social

Bertell Ollman somewhere cites Pareto's complaint that Marx's concepts are
like bats, both bird and mice :) (or something to that effect). The
point is that Marx cannot be read literally but dialectically, because his
concepts always intend to capture the manifold determinations constitutive
of all social phenomena.

in solidarity,

Martha E. Gimenez