working class civil society (wasRe: Class Ceiling--Ehrenreich)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Mar 23 10:27:58 PST 2000

Kelley writes:

>actually, she's talking about how the *shared* experience of gendered labor
>in the form of housework--the social conditions of labor--gave us something
>in common. now, the division of labor and the commodification of what was
>once unpaid labor presents us as enemies, as she astutely notes.

I think that Ehrenreich exaggerates the extent to which housework ever was a common experience for women, especially in America. For instance, Ehrenreich does take a note of Audre Lorde pointing out to white feminists about the racialization of hired domestic work. She (in the Harper's article) also mentions Mary Romero's _Maid in the U.S.A._. If you read Lorde & Romero (and other works by feminists of color), though, you'd notice that their work doesn't really help support Ehreneich's narrative of loss: losing common experience.

>but if we sit around waiting for the time to be right for radical,
>marxist change we'll be sitting around forever. marx surely didn't say
>that we could only pursue radical political practices, but must take a side
>in the struggles and wishes of the age and move them progressively forward.

No, but moralistic pooh-poohing of consumerism & commodification of labor of social reproduction won't do. Noblesse oblige helps even less.

>this involves morality. the market encourages a morality of self-interest
>maximization. "let me keep my own and i will become, without ever thinking
>about it, my brother's keeper".

Yes, but what kind of morality? That is the question. For instance, Ehrenreich sounds disappointed that feminism succeeded in creating lots of affluent women. Of course, it cannot be otherwise under capitalism. I'm leery of arguments that suggest that feminism, anti-racism, etc. mainly helped the mythical "middle class," in that they lend themselves to attacks on affirmative action, etc. From my viewpoint, there is no point in putting _special_ opprobrium upon female & colored workers who have found success under capitalism. Nostalgically essentialist feminists might say that women should have moral values different from men, but I disagree. Even today, women seem less self-interested than men, and it is sexism which makes them sacrifice themselves and do more housework than men; and if women earn enough and are self-interested enough to hire commercial services, it is women who come under moral attack, not men whose houses are also cleaned.

Also, Ehrenreich should make a clearer distinction between being a servant and an industrial service worker producing surplus value. There is no reason to think that commodification of household labor is especially morally bad; I agree that the trend toward the increase of servants (especially superexploitation of "illegal aliens") is not to be welcomed, but the commercialization of household cleaning is another story, in that it brings a possibility of unionization.

Ehrenreich can also propose a workers' cooperative option. Household cleaning doesn't require massive capital to enter the market, so it should be possible for women workers to quit Merry Maids, etc. to form a cooperative venture; it will be self-exploitation, but it is preferable to what exists (free-lancing without any benefits or working for lesser wages for companies).

I think that in a socialist society household cleaning has to be either socialized in an ungendered fashion or left undone (why should we care if dirty socks are lying on the floor -- I'd rather read books in a Hobbesian chaos than clean my apartment, if these two are the only choices).


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