Does it happen in the base or superstructure? Some notes pending a review of some Althusser stuff.

All of the surplus value that capital appropriates is unwaged. Some of this is uncompensated time in recognized workplaces, where workers produce a value for the capitalist greater than the value of the wages the capitalist pays. Some of this is uncompensated time in other sites which are not recognized as workplaces but which are still required for or imposed by the function of different capitals. For example, housework, commute time, getting dressed in the morning, training and drug testing in the workplace, as well as other activities which maintain existing labor power at some level of quality wanted by the capitalists. In addition to ongoing forms like these there are also longer stretches of time spent which are later appropriated all at once or in lump sums by capitalists when new workers or workers who have been out of circulation enter the labor market – many years uncompensated in schools, many years spent raising children who later enter the market as sellers of their hides as labor power, etc. This latter is the production of new labor power in order to reproduce capitalist ability to purchase wanted labor power. Generally these functions overlap and are done by the same people (women) in homes but they are logically and practically differentiable (for instance, public health programs manage the long term health of populations of sellers of labor power while emergency rooms more manage the short term health of individuals).

Gendered inequalities in the distribution of varieties of this labor, both
unremunated labors at home an gendered inequalities in money wages, serve the short term interest of those members of the working class who get the better deal (men who get out of doing housework and so forth and generally receive higher wages) and the longterm interests of the capitalist class because divisions in the working class help the ruling class stay in power. In these cases, one can say that there is an exchange made between a lower sector of the working class and capitalism, with a higher sector of the working class serving as the mediator and getting some kind of cut (just like low level politicians and bureaucrats in business unions get a cut for fulfilling a mediating role). This is particularly the case with unwaged labors like housework, but is also the case when privileged sectors of the working class defend inequalities and hierarchies from which they (we?) profit.

Despite Althusser’s laudable insistence on the need to attend to reproduction, he is problematic as a source for addressing these important issues. Althusser emphasizes the functions of the school and the family as ISAs and as part of the superstructure. While ideology and the superstructure and so forth is important, the most important aspect of these sites is precisely not any
superstructural role. They are part of the economic base, sites where labor
takes place without full remuneration and thus sites of the production of
surplus value. These are susidiary or secondary parts of the base – just as
factories which manufacture items like candy corn are secondary when compared to, say, oil rigs, refineries, and ports – so it’s much harder for power to be exercised in these sites compared to many others, but that subsidiary
position in terms of power does not mean that these sites are not in the
base. It also seems to me that if Althusser were to concede that these sites
are sites of surplus value production and thus of labor then his base/superstructure topography would have to be drastically revised.

Related to some of this this, an article about Venezuela. The Venezuelan constitution holds that housework is productive work, such that housewives should be paid for it.

http://www.metamute.org/en/Wages-for-Anyone-Is-Bad-for-Business

The article is in part an interview about Venezuela with Selma James, who has
done theoretical and organizational work around traditionally feminine
unwaged labor.

Advertisements