Most of the world’s exploited labor comes from women. Women work in the sweatshops and the giant factories. Women sow and tend and harvest the world’s crops. Women carry and birth and raise children. Women wash and clean and shop and cook. Women care for the sick and the elderly. All of this—layer upon layer of labor—is what makes human society possible. Ripping it off is what makes capitalism possible.
The primacy of women’s labor is normally edited out of political discourse, but it’s a fact beyond dispute. More than half of the world’s women have formal jobs. (In some countries in Asia and Latin America, the percentage is well over 60%.) On top of this, women predominate in millions of illegal and semi-legal “off the books” jobs, where they are normally heavily exploited. Meanwhile, some 70% of women’s labor, worth tens of trillions of dollars a year, is unpaid altogether. Most of the world’s women average 31-42 hours per week on family housework alone. Women “do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the means of production.”
Throughout history, groups and classes of men have fought over the precious resource of women’s labor. All women, but especially working-class women, who constitute the world’s most valuable source of wealth. Hundreds of millions of these women, the core and majority of the working class, lack any private property or social privilege. They have no ownership, claim or control over the means of production. This sets them apart from the upper stratum of wage workers—labor aristocrats and privileged sectors subsidized from capitalist profits.
Instead, they belong to the “lower and deeper” layers of the working class, compelled to offer their labor up for exploitation within capitalism for sheer survival. This part of the working class stands as capitalism’s main labor force and, historically, its direct antagonist.
Many of these working-class women are paid wages; many are not. Few are paid for all their labor. Most are destitute or economically vulnerable. They labor under extreme duress—facing not only the threat of hunger, but also dependency, slavery and male violence backed up by tradition, family structure and law. Their labor and life experience—and their class position—is often substantially different from that of even the men in their own families.
The multi-sided struggle to own, control and exploit this fantastically profitable labor force is expressed on many levels and in many forms: migrations, wars, genocide, cultural movements, populist rebellions, changes in family structure, colonialism, shifting geopolitical alliances, the rise and fall of governments.
Today, the women at the center of the world working class are experiencing dramatic and fundamental changes in their work lives and their social lives. Capitalism, entering a new phase of development, is remaking the working class. This is where a new revolutionary politics must start.
Black parenting is often too authoritative. White parenting is often too permissive. Both need to change.
In college, I once found myself on the D.C. metro with one of my favorite professors. As we were riding, a young white child began to climb on the seats and hang from the bars of the train. His mother never moved to restrain him. But I began to see the very familiar, strained looks of disdain and dismay on the countenances of the mostly black passengers. They exchanged eye contact with one another, dispositions tight with annoyance at the audacity of this white child, but mostly at the refusal of his mother to act as a disciplinarian. I, too, was appalled. I thought, if that were my child, I would snatch him down and tell him to sit his little behind in a seat immediately. My professor took the opportunity to teach: ‘Do you see how this child feels the prerogative to roam freely in this train, unhindered by rules or regulations or propriety?’
'Yes,' I nodded. “What kinds of messages do you think are being communicated to him right now about how he should move through the world?”
And I began to understand, quite starkly, in that moment, the freedom that white children have to see the world as a place that they can explore, a place in which they can sit, or stand, or climb at will. The world, they are learning, is theirs for the taking.
Then I thought about what it means to parent a black child, any black child, in similar circumstances. I think of the swiftness with which a black mother would have ushered her child into a seat, with firm looks and not a little a scolding, the implied if unspoken threat of either a grounding or a whupping, if her request were not immediately met with compliance. So much is wrapped up in that moment: a desire to demonstrate that one’s black child is well-behaved, non-threatening, well-trained. Disciplined. I think of the centuries of imminent fear that have shaped and contoured African-American working-class cultures of discipline, the sternness of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ looks, the firmness of the belts and switches applied to our hind parts, the rhythmic, loving, painful scoldings accompanying spankings as if the messages could be imprinted on our bodies with a sure and swift and repetitive show of force.
I think with fond memories of the big tree that grew in my grandmother’s yard, with branches that were the perfect size for switches. I hear her booming and shrill voice now, commanding, “Go and pick a switch.” I laugh when I remember that she cut that tree down once we were all past the age of switches.
And then I turn to Adrian Peterson. Not even a year ago, Peterson’s 2-year-old son, whom he did not know, was murdered by his son’s mother’s boyfriend. More recently, Adrian Peterson has been charged with negligent injury to a child, for hitting his 4-year-old son with a switch, in a disciplinary episode that left the child with bruises and open cuts on his hands, legs, buttocks and scrotum.