Reproduction, Interns and Unpaid Labour

Two very important political debates, the issue of (largely) women’s unpaid ‘reproductive’ or domestic labour and the issue of unpaid interns, have revived debates on unpaid labour within capitalism. I want to address these two campaigns by way of a wider discussion of unpaid labour.

Since the worker in capitalist society participates in a social division of labour, the individual does not directly produce the means of subsistence that must be consumed in order to live (ie to reproduce the worker’s capacity for labour, or labour-power). The worker engages in exchange in order to consume the goods necessary to life that he or she does not produce. In this sense, the purpose of wage labour from the perspective of the worker is the capacity to consume the goods produced by others. The purpose of wage labour from the perspective of the capitalist, however, is to produce profit. Since both wages and profits take the form of money it could appear as if the worker and the capitalist are after the same thing (with the difference, perhaps, that the capitalist is just better at it). But the economic difference between wages and profit is that the one includes an unpaid portion and the other includes an unearned portion.

Capitalism reproduces itself by augmenting value derived from unpaid labour. Marx says the working day can be divided into two portions, one in which the worker produces the value equivalent to their own reproduction (assuming equilibrium in the labour market, this is equal to their wage), and another portion, in which the wage-labourer continues to work, now producing value for the reproduction of the capitalist and the capitalist’s enterprise. During the first portion of the day, Marx says, the worker engages in ‘necessary labour’, and in the second portion, ‘surplus labour’. The value which surplus labour produces is surplus value. ‘The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital’. Surplus labour – ie unpaid labour – is the secret to capitalist ‘wealth production’.

The ratio of necessary labour to surplus labour – or the share that goes to the worker compared to the share that goes to the capitalist – gives the rate of exploitation. And the very concept of exploitation, in Marx, is therefore fundamentally tied to the concept, which he coined, of ‘unpaid labour’. Marx concept of ‘unpaid labour’ is historically significant because with it, for the first time in the history of economics and politics, it is possible to develop a general theory of exploitation, linking slavery, serfdom and wage labour without taking anything away from the specific social conditions under which they each differently produce wealth for others. Marx spells out the differences in mode of exploitation in a pamphlet in 1891, ‘Wage Labour and Capital’:

“Labour-power was not always a commodity … Labour was not always wage labour … The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner … The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once and for all. He is a commodity … but his labour-power is not his commodity. The serf sells only a portion of his labour-power. It is not he who receives wages from the owner of the land; it is rather the owner of the land who receives a tribute from him. … The free labourer … auctions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life … to the highest bidder, to the owner of raw materials, tools, and the means of life – ie to the capitalist.”

To link slavery, serfdom and wage-labour through the concept of unpaid labour might, at first, seem like an error, since slaves are not paid at all and serfs appear to be the ones making payments rather than receiving them. But Marx explains:

“On the basis of the wages system even the unpaid labour seems to be paid labour. With the slave, on the contrary, even that part of his labour which is paid appears to be unpaid”.

That is to say, the slave’s labour produces the means of her own life as well as the life of the slave-owner, and in this sense the slave’s food, lodging, clothes and so on, which appear in the form of a gift from the slave-owner, are produced through necessary labour by the slave. In this sense, the slave, like the wage-labourer, works part of the day for herself and part of the day for the slave-owner – ie part paid and part unpaid.

To the extent that the current campaigns against unpaid labour consist of the demand for wages (as well as rights, recognition and so on) they appear to confront the problem of exploitation by opposing absolute exploitation (ie 100% unpaid labour) with relative exploitation (ie less than 100% unpaid labour). This is therefore a pragmatic demand within the terms of capitalist exploitation, not an anti-capitalist campaign. This does not diminish the political urgency of the immediate need to address the issue of unpaid labour in capitalism, but it is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that wage labour is not a cure for capitalism. Wage-labour is a cure for slavery, since the wage-labourer is not a commodity but the seller of a commodity, but wage-labour is not the antidote to unpaid labour. This last point may sound like a contradiction in terms, so let me explain what I mean.

Within the debate on unpaid labour in domestic work and internships a false opposition between unpaid work and wage labour has developed. While the opposition between paid and unpaid work is necessary, it should not be conflated with the apparent opposition between the waged and the unwaged. Wage labour is not the opposite of unpaid labour, since wage-labour is made up of both necessary and surplus labour (ie the paid and unpaid portions). Unpaid labour unites the wage-labourer, the home-maker, the stay at home parent, the unpaid intern and the paid intern, not to mention the slave and the serf. As such, the campaign against unpaid work must also be a campaign against wage-labour.

During the neoliberal period we have seen the privatisation, commodification and commercialisation of activities that were previously protected from market forces and profiteering. Examples of recent commodification include childcare, laundry, professional home cleaning services, the professionalization of amateur sports, the commercial replacement of parlour games with branded games, the development of supervised soft play centres that replace public parks and street corners, and intellectual property, copyright, patent and price tags being placed on information and knowledge. Rather than the accomplishment of ‘wages for housework’, what has transpired is, typically, the socially uneven commodification of housework and the creation, therefore, of a labour market in which wealthier households pay (mostly) poorer women to do the housework. Some cleaners are wage-labourers (paid by cleaning companies) and some cleaners are independent workers (paid for a service by the consumer), and most if not all cleaners will also clean their own home without any payment at all.

In a society organised around economic exchange the unequal distribution of money, especially the absence of money altogether, has a specific social meaning. Within such a society the demand for money (higher wages, public funding, bonuses, payouts, fines and compensation included) is more than an economic act; it signifies recognition, status, esteem, entitlement, power, affection etc). Therefore, the demand for money is, among other things, also an alienated and distorted expression of the demand for recognition etc. However, the current campaigns against unpaid labour in domestic work and internships risks merging the political demand for full participation in social life with the (neoliberal) expansion of market forces, commodification and financial incentives into every aspect of life. The financialisation of higher education, for instance, is a neoliberal assault on the ‘right to education’ expressed as a seemingly superior right of the consumer to demand the commodity that they purchase with vast amounts of money. Can the campaign against unpaid labour by reunited with the campaign for free universal higher education or does it inadvertently undermine non-monetary and non-market systems of social organisation?

In order to assess the politics of domestic reproduction and unpaid internships we need a comprehensive account of the full spectrum of unpaid labour, unearned income, unemployment, uncommodifed labour and decommodification. Absolute exploitation must be resisted but not by contrasting unpaid labour with wage-labour or by conflating free activity with unpaid labour. Paying women to do the chores that ought to be shared by the whole family as free collective activity does nothing to address the unequal distribution of chores between men, women and children. Paying interns during the era in which internships have become a standard business practice of absolute exploitation is a valid demand as far as it goes, but it risks completing the passage of the internship from an educational technique into nothing but a form of employment. The point is not for interns to be paid but for students to be given sufficient material support as a right.


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