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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Women’s Strike: Reclaiming the future of work by Eleanor Penny

“A woman’s work is never done.” There’s something insulting about the neutered cutesification of the familiar realities of women’s lives - vast swathes of which are dedicated to the largely unpaid task of domestic or caring labour upon which all other work depends. Ask anyone facing down that mammoth, life-long work assignment and they’ll tell you - women are so done with women’s work. What was once private misery of thankless work - chronicled over and over ever since women have wielded writing tools - has become public outrage. On International Women’s day, thousands of women across the world are due to down tools for the day to join the swell of a global women’s strike. UK organisers have called for women to refuse both “paid work in offices and factories, and unpaid domestic work in homes, communities and bedrooms.”

We are familiar with the traditional spectacle of the strike - mulleted miners facing down lines of Thatcherite riot police. Lines of sheepish students sneaking past the ‘thuggery’ of their counterparts on the picket lines. But the women’s strike does not re-enact this drama, prompting some puzzlement from the fustier outreaches of traditional trade unionism - where, they ask, is the strike? There are no clear battle lines, no machinery grinding to a halt as workers flock to defend the boundary between the work they are obliged to perform and the rest of their lives - the psychic and literal boundaries between the duty of work and the relief of the domestic sphere. It is no coincidence. Of course the women’s strike is unrecognisable. Because quite simply, there are no clear boundary between the world of work and the world of life, no respite from work in the privacy of the domestic sphere. Unpaid reproductive work takes place within its hallowed bounds. Once the paid shift is over, the unpaid shift begins. These are the working conditions which define terrain of our intimate lives. You cannot walk away from your workplace without walking away from your life. The strike, therefore, is everywhere - picket lines must be drawn around kitchens, crèches, bedrooms, around our hearts and minds, at our own front doors.

We are all, it seems, out of love with work. Unromanced by a vision of a future which used to unite conservatives and trade unionists alike - that of a “fair days’ work for a fair days’ pay”. Not because we’ve successfully slugged off the baggage of puritan work ethics demanding we toil ourselves into the ground. But rather, because this toil seems unnecessary - and indeed, incapable - to deliver on its past promises of personal fulfilment and global wealth. For one reason: automation. Where once we relied on elbow grease and animal effort to produce a surplus or a profit, workers are increasingly being replaced technology. Man has been declared defunct, an error-riddled meat-facsimile of our soon-to-be robot replacements.

This age of the cyborgs provides fodder for the dreams of socialist accelerationists and the nightmares of cautionary futurists alike. Where the effects of automation transform labour into capital, two futures cleave open in front of us. One sees the mass dispossession of now-obsolete wage labourers, cast onto the scrapheap of surplus humanity without a wage or basic services. That it could drive capital headlong into a disastrous dearth of consumer demand is unlikely to fend off this future by itself.

The other sees a utopia of leisure where automation frees us from the burden of labouring for a wage, and collective ownership of the robots allows us to all share in this easy luxury, dedicating ourselves to working for personal fulfilment and collective flourishing. This latter ‘post-work’ future was prophesied even by Keynes. He thought that by now, we would all be working a 15-hour week - that due to increased production, capital could easily tolerate offering people fewer and fewer hours work for the same wage. The Luddites could have told him that bosses concede nothing without a fight.

It’s undeniable that we’re seeing a moment of incredible automation - not just in physical labour, but in the intellectual labour set to challenge post-industrial service-based economies of the global north. But sometimes missing from the analyses of techno-utopians is the simple fact that industries don’t automate without good reason to do so. As Marianna Mazzacutto points out, state funding and research has been at the heart of developing revolutionary new technologies - from space travel to new medicines to the technology which powers the iPhone. But companies are unlikely to invest the enormous amounts of cash requires to automate their production processes without economic incentive. In other words, there’s little motivation for companies to automate their work when it’s just cheaper and easier to rely on workers. That’s why the garment industry today looks startlingly similar to the garment industry of a hundred years ago. It’s not because automating clothes production provides a unique technical challenge. It’s because it makes way for sense for the industry to keep relying on low-waged workers. Where the sweatshops of the United States in the early 20th Century were rocked by mass industrial action demanding higher wages and better conditions, manufacturers had a few options to keep their profits up in the face of higher wage bills. One was a technological fix - trying to rid the production process of costly, troublesome workers. The other is a spatial and legal fix - upping sticks to another part of the world where wages were cheaper, labour less organised and in-work legal protections close to non-existent. The latter, vastly cheaper, option was a no-brainer.

Our current imaginaries of life beyond work are dominated by dreams of automation. But it’s hard to square this proselytisation with the realities of reproductive labour; with the practical demands of ensuring women can share in this utopia of leisure. Clearly, freedom from waged work doesn’t automatically bring freedom from work for those accustomed to the ‘double-shift’ of balancing paid and domestic labour. Pretending it does simply re-articulates the old battle lines where the burdens of the labouring man are an intolerable indignity - whereas the burdens of the labouring women, where they are at all visible, are cast as the loving dedication to biological destiny.

We can’t rely on the old ‘fixes’ to deliver us from drudgery and exhaustion which eats up the lives of women. The vital labour of producing life can’t be wholly relocated to the other side of the world. If anything, the reverse is the case - the domestic sector is dominated by migrant women on low wages. Moreover, the urge to relocate domestic labour springs from the colonial impulse to outsource western economic problems to the global south - not eradicating them, just alleviating the burden for white westerners. It smacks of Betty Freidan’s clarion call to white bourgeois women to free themselves from the burden of domesticity by hiring black domestic servants. Women are still excluded from her utopia - it just happens to be women who aren’t white.

It’s not clear that developing technology will right the imbalance either. Inventions such as the washing machine have taken some of the sheer back-breaking toil out of the task - but have done little to alleviate the idea that this burden is the responsibility of women. As ever, the machine itself is politically neutral - what matters is who owns it and how it’s used. Moreover, it’s uncertain as to whether complex task of caring and domestic labour is something that could be entirely replicated by machines- or that a technological fix is desirable. It should be said that there’s nothing inherently alienating about reproductive labour - the problem comes when a shared duty is foisted thanklessly onto the shoulders of only one half of the global population. Liberation does not necessarily track on to the evolution of cyborg care-machines which imitate the intimate work of human connectivity.

Fundamentally, there’s little motivation for capital to roll out either of these fixes when the domestic work (upon which their profit margins depend) is performed either for free, or for poverty pay. The problem of social reproduction is not a problem for capital. It’s a problem for the people who are conscripted into it by the logic of gender, which casts the work of keeping the world alive, healthy and productive as the birthright of a certain slice of the population. There’s no need for capital to invest in new technology to replace labour, when the old technology of gender already does such an excellent job of keeping that labour cheap.

The women’s strike regroups a constellation of activist groups from around the world coming together to call for a diverse set of demands: trans healthcare, sex worker rights, access to reproductive care, an end to the wage gap, an end to migration detention, an end to austerity whose brunt is borne by women, an end to the pervasive sexual violence. It may at first glance seem puzzling that a strike movement could act as a vessel for such wildly differing demands. At second glance, it seems that only the strike articulates a collective experience lived by the overwhelming majority of women: that the work assignments of womanhood bring with them thankless drudgery, haunted by violence, unfreedom and a parade of petty humiliations. That womanhood is an unsafe working condition.

Apparently disparate demands unite. Calls for economic justice, for reproductive rights and for greater social welfare together articulate out a world in which ensuring that people are safe, cared for and flourishing is a collective responsibility - best undertaken by families and communities. Activists demand a future where services are provided collectively, and care organised not according to gauchely reductive myths of biological destiny, but according to need.

Indeed, the women’s strike is made possible only by play-acting those futures; by the work of male activists who have organised take on the duties of child care and cooking - if only for a day. There’s something beguilingly simple about this idea. In our world of unthinkable surplus, it doesn’t take a mechanical marvel to free women from the unhappy conscription into domestic servitude. All it takes is for men to sign up as well.

I’m enchanted by the post-work imaginaries of tech-accellerationists - worlds where human life isn’t solely geared towards cranking out profit. Where we can throw ourselves into creativity, leisure, and collective flourishing - notions of fulfilment alien to today’s metrics of ‘productivity’ and ‘transferable skills’. I want in. I want to eat lotuses and make art and care ferociously. I want to live in a world where we all share in the marvels of technological surplus. But that world requires dismantling the architecture of domestic work - not just those elements of paid work readily discarded or automated. Geographical sleight of hand, technological wizardry, and even expanded rights for paid workers, are all insufficient to clear a space in the post-work utopia for women. We don’t need an end to reproductive work, but to transform how that work is done - and mostly importantly, by who.

Eleanor Penny is Senior Editor at Novara Media, Editor of Red Pepper Magazine and By Poets, and is writer in residence at Houseman’s Radical Booksellers. You can check out her podcast here, and she tweets @eleanorkpenny