The Verso blog has an interview with Kathi Weeks, a professor of Women's Studies at Duke University and author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics. When it was first published in 2011, Weeks's book revived long-dormant discussions on the relationship between feminism and refusal-of-work politics, and in the interview, she address the question of how subsequent debates on precarity figure into her analysis. Here's an excerpt:
How do you define Marxist feminism in 2017? What are the basic strategic insights that you think that movement should follow, particularly in the era of global neoliberalism?
Good questions. As a way to try to answer them let me offer a crude but I think useful distinction between two periods of Marxist feminist work, one past and one present.
First the past. In the 1970s, Anglo-American Marxist feminists focused on mapping the relationship bewteen two systems of domination: capitalism and patriarchy. One could characterize this phase as the attempt to bring a Marxist critique of work into the field of domestic labor and the familial relations of production. By examining domestic based caring work, housework, consumption work, and community-creation work as forms of reproductive labor upon which productive labor more narrowly conceived depends, and by viewing the household as a workplace and the family as a regime that organizes, distributes and manages that labor, Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying these so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions. On the one hand, they were concerned with the theoretical question of how to understand the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy: were they best conceived as two related systems or as one fully intertwined system? On the the other hand, they were also focused on the closely related practical question of alliances: should feminist groups be autonomous from or integrated with other anticapitalist (and often antifeminist) movements?
Today we find ourselves in a different situation that holds new possibilities for the relationship between Marxism and feminism. Whereas 1970s feminists struggled to bring a Marxist analytic tailored to the study of waged labor to a very different kind of unwaged laboring practice that had not been considered part of capitalist production, today I think that in order to grasp new forms of waged work we need to draw on the older feminist analyses of waged and unwaged “women’s work.”
Some describe the present moment in terms of the “feminization of labor.” It’s not my favorite term, but what I understand by it is a way to describe how in neoliberal post-Fordist economies more and more of waged jobs come to resemble traditional forms of feminized domestic work. This is particularly evident in the rise of precarious forms of low-wage, part-time, informal, and insecure forms of employment, and in the growth of service sector jobs that draw on workers’ emotional, caring, and communicative capacities that are undervalued and difficult to measure.
To confront this changing landscape of work, instead of using an unreconstructed Marxist analytic to study unwaged forms of domestic work, we need today to draw on Marxist feminist analyses of gendered forms of both waged and unwaged work for their insights into how these forms are exploited and how they are experienced. The practical implication of this is that, if we want to both understand and resist contemporary forms of exploitation, Marxists can no longer remain ignorant of or separated from feminist theories and practices. As I see it, feminist theory is no longer optional for Marxist critique.
Image: Wages for Housework collage. Via Viewpoint Magazine.