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Gender, Class and Capitalism

A half-century ago a capitalist coup was launched in the U.S. to shift power from labor and the liberation movements of the 1960s to the lords of capital. The political trajectory since then has gone in only one direction— to the right. The populace— starting with those most likely to develop revolutionary tendencies according to official logic, has been mass incarcerated as the police have been militarized. A simulacrum of democracy was created through oppositional political parties that serve a single master— capital.

How ‘we,’ the citizens of the West, got from there to here is a great mystery by design. Terms put forward as descriptive, like populism and economic anxiety, are cover for more brutal realities. The language and social dimensions of liberation were coopted as weapons of class warfare. Liberation movements, conceived in opposition to capitalism, were moved within its confines. Once within, these movements served to direct attention elsewhere as oligarchs made off with the greatest concentration of wealth in human history.

Following from the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s, gender pay equity was separated from class struggle to be made a ‘women’s issue.’ Women workers in the U.S. have long been paid less than men for equivalent work. Since they began re-entering the (paid) labor force in large numbers in the 1970s, liberal efforts have centered on closing this gender pay gap. Left out of liberal framing is whether doing so would be achieved through raising the living standards of working-class women or lowering the relative position of labor in class terms.

Graph: as women competed with men in labor markets, connected capitalists and corporate executives absconded with more wealth than in any other period in human history. While there is more to life than economics, (1) food and shelter are prerequisites to more nuanced political struggles and (2) the people who have come to control politics and economics appear quite content to let workers fight amongst themselves over their diminishing share of what they produce. In other words, doing so is poor strategy.

To the extent the term patriarchy has descriptive content, it goes quite beyond labor issues. The question of liberation then is: how would power be redistributed away from patriarchy outside of economic power? Wage labor has relatively low standing in the capitalist schema. As evidence presented here suggests, the struggle for gender pay equity has taken place as oligarchs and corporate executives absconded with large quantities of social wealth. Through their class positions, most women have had their own economic lots diminished through this concentration at the top.

The systemic nature of this development might be more easily seen through analogy. By placing predominantly male manufacturing workers in competition with lower paid and unpaid workers overseas, NAFTA and subsequent ‘trade’ deals lowered wages, bargaining power, job security and living standards for manufacturing workers. Earlier still, working age men began leaving the workforce as working age women entered. And wages for men stagnated or fell as those for women rose (graphs below). Inside the frame of gender struggle, progress for women stayed a bit ahead of losses for men. Outside of it, the American working class has been economically devastated.

Graph: the percentage of working age men in the workforce has declined since the 1970s as that of women has risen. The graph represents the men’s rate divided by the women’s rate. While sectoral differences— ‘women’s jobs’ versus men’s, is a factor, it doesn’t explain the difference. The trend in relative pay matches this trend in relative employment quite closely (graph below), suggesting capitalists substituted female workers for male as a strategy to lower wages relative to worker productivity. As of this writing, women are still being paid less than men for equivalent work. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The ‘centering’ of men’s labor, against which gender pay equity has been posed as a goal, keeps the conception of labor wholly within the frame of capitalist social relations. Following WWII, the Federal government forced working women, many of whom had been recruited to industrial labor as part of the war effort, to leave their jobs so they could be taken by returning soldiers. Implied was a surplus of labor as the war effort ground to a halt. The re-entry of women into the workforce in the 1970s was coincident with the capitalist move to increase profits by disempowering labor. Increasing the supply of labor in the face of an existing labor surplus was central to the effort of crushing labor unions.

For context, from 1953 through 1974— approximately the end of WWII to the start of women re-entering the workforce en masse, family income rose 70% (graph below). Between 1975 and 2017, with two income earners per family and over twice as many years, it rose 33%. This represents a stunning drop in gains for labor. The drop wasn’t caused by women producing less than men— they were / are just as productive. From 1975 forward capitalists implemented an array of strategies to pay American workers less than they produced. Increasing the supply of labor by pitting working women against working men was one of them.

Graph: between 1953 and 1974, inflation-adjusted family income with 1.25 workers per family rose 70%. From 1975 through 2017, with 1.65 workers per family and over twice as many years, it rose 33%. Given that women contributed fully to family production through largely unpaid labor prior to entering the paid labor force, the last four decades have been an utter catastrophe for working families despite gains in gender pay equity. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The capitalist coup of the 1970s was undertaken to shift power away from labor and to the rich so they could claim a larger share of labor’s product. And the rich were successful. Labor productivity continued to rise (graph below) as women re-entered the workforce. But the capitalist class and corporate executives were able to keep all this increase for themselves. From the capitalist perspective, it was women’s class position and relative pay levels that made them attractive employees, not their gender.

This distinction is crucial. The contemporary argument over class reductionism— the contention that issues of race, gender and identity aren’t fully encompassed, and therefore can’t be fully addressed, through class struggle, is anti-political. The struggle over gender pay equity— which is just and right within the liberal frame in which it was developed, was largely irrelevant to the distribution of income and wealth that affected the broader economic interests of its working-class proponents. Liberation, in the form of struggle to achieve localized equity within capitalist political economy, was used to facilitate the concentration of political and economic power by an oligarchy that views power outside its reach only in relation to its own interests.

Graph: labor productivity is a measure of what workers produce in a given period. In capitalist theory workers are paid according to what they produce. Beginning in the mid-1970s, and coincident with the rise in women joining the workforce, wages began to stagnate. Workers continued to produce more, but they could no longer demand to be paid the product of their labor. Of relevance is that the movement for gender pay equity took place against rapidly increasing inequity for most workers.

Bourgeois fantasies about the liberatory capacity of capitalist employment are analogs of prosperity theology where social history is pushed to the side and economic class is replaced by an alleged personal relationship between the self and a higher power. For every engaged and well employed scientist or attorney there are nine marginally employed workers staffing the french fry stations at fast food restaurants and cash registers at chain drug stores. Most people who work do so because they must. This is true of most of the women who have entered the paid workforce.

Lest this come as a shock, women worked before they entered the paid workforce. The distinction between paid and unpaid labor is more precisely between capitalist labor and other forms. More precisely, it isn’t ‘work’ that is liberatory as it is put forward in the liberal sense. It is being paid to work when money has been made a prerequisite for eating regular meals, living indoors and social participation that is. In a systemic sense, capitalists created a world they control and then set about defining social struggle within terms amenable to it. Gender pay equity has been framed wholly within capitalist social relations.

By analogy: peasant farmers regularly have their livelihoods cut in half by having their living standards ‘raised’ by helpful capitalists. Growing enough food to feed a family contributes nothing to GDP while earning half enough money to feed the same family through paid work adds the amount paid to it. (Income measure of GDP). This is the approximate form of the economic bloviation behind regular claims that neoliberalism and globalization have raised living standards in the ‘developing world.’ But this same politically loaded distinction applies to the ‘developed world.’

Graph: the rate at which more women were hired relative to men follows the narrowing of the gender pay gap closely. Unless one assumes that women are less capable than men at capitalist production— an easily disproved assumption, then any marginally competent corporate manager would hire the labor that costs the least. Working class men were put at a competitive disadvantage relative to women in precisely the way that capitalists and their ‘explainers’ in academia intended. Note: blue is left scale, orange is right. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The question of whether women wanted to join the paid workforce could only be answered by removing the necessity of doing so. Otherwise the question resembles: would you rather be stabbed or shot? It can be answered, and most people tend toward optimism. Since around 1970, capitalism has been the organizing philosophy of Western political economy. Oligarchs and corporate executives were given virtually free reign to organize society as they saw fit. What they did with this power— as easy to predict prospectively as it is retrospectively, was to put everything that wasn’t nailed down in their own pockets.

More broadly, in a full-on Hannah Arendt, banality of evil sense, they crafted the world in their own image. The world of Jeff Bezos is the world as Jeff Bezos. With talk of socialism and rising optimism over the possibility of reversing the wrong turn taken in the 1970s, it is crucial to note that as of now, nothing of substance has changed. War is still a business, the environment is still in crisis, the same people are still in charge and class warfare is still a bi-partisan endeavor. In this case, begging isn’t a route to political redemption. Power responds to power. Anything else is wishful thinking.

 

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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