For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Marx, Housework, and Alienation"

by Kain, Philip J (1993)


For different feminist theorists, housework and child rearing are viewed in very different ways. I argue that Marx gives us the categories that allow us to see why housework and child care can be both a paradigm of unalienated labor and also involve the greatest oppression. In developing this argument, a distinction is made between alienation and oppression and the conditions are discussed under which unalienated housework can become oppressive or can become alienated.

Key Passage

Difficult as they may be, cleaning and washing can still be satisfying. Sewing, quilting, cooking, decorating, and building can be not only satisfying but also creative and can develop one’s powers and capacities. Child care can also be emotionally rewarding. The point is that difficulty, repetition, and even drudgery by themselves do not produce alienation; they do not even produce oppression. Something else is required to produce alienation or oppression. The most unalienated work, the most satisfying work, can involve certain aspects that are simply dull, repetitious drudgery. Even artistic work, the production of films, or scholarship can all involve long stretches of dull, difficult, repetitious drudgery and still be highly creative and satisfying. Moreover, overcoming such difficult obstacles can be an exercise in liberty if the work as a whole is meaningful and significant. For drudgery to become oppressive, the work must lack meaning and significance, either because it is not done voluntarily but is coerced, or because it does not benefit others, the species. And indeed, this leads us to the key to understanding how housework and child care, which can be almost paradigms of unalienated labor, can also be the greatest oppression and slavery. It may seem odd to claim that housework can be both an unalienated ideal and also the greatest slavery and oppression, but it is not really so strange. After all, Marx makes the very same point about labor in general. (p.127)


Marx, Feminism, Child Rearing, Housework, Alienation, Oppression, Gender


Alienation, Marx, Home and Work, Care Work

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