Monday, October 10, 2005

Mary O'Brien's "The Politics of Reproduction"

We are but locusts experiencing our first plague

"The Politics of Reproduction" by Mary O'Brien was a deeply unfashionable book for its time, 1980. It was the height of the lesbian separatist wave in feminist literature. In philosophy the works of Mary Daly in the U.S and Luce Irigary in France were at once opening up the world to a feminist viewpoint by withdrawing into a separatist world. Sheri Tepper's, "Rust" and Joanna Russ', "The Female Man" popularised this viewpoint. It is commonplace(at least by men!) to regard this as some sort of dead end of feminist thought, but, in reality, it was Mary Daly's sweeping agenda in "Gyn/Ecology" that laid the groundwork for women outside of the 'Western' World. Such issues as clitoredectomies and female circumcision in Africa, suttee burning in India and the history of footbinding in China and more, demonstrated that Feminism and the position of women was a philosophy, and a practice, that could step across specific cultural, or economic, agendas such as Capitalism or Judeo-Christianity....


This developing viewpoint swept aside the marxist-feminist school of philosophy that had co-existed alongside the cultural feminist school up until this time. The so called 'collapse of communism' completed the job on marxist-feminist thought as it pummelled into submission by post-modernist verbiage.

Now Mary O'Brien is not your average communist, she wouldn't even call herself a Marxist. A Hegelian, yes, a materialist, yes, and a feminist assuredly, yes but a Marxist, definitely no. And "The Politics of Reproduction"will, I'd argue, be remembered as one the most important texts of the era. 'The Politics of Reproduction", is first of all, a feminist critique of Marxism. Its also a feminist critique of capitalism that dissects Engels famous essay on the reproduction of the worker through the family, through the observation that, for all it's so-called 'feminist' ideals, Engels never once mentions in his essay the biological reproduction of the family nor the role women in this process.

Before becoming a philosopher Mary O'Brien was a midwife, so she had a self declared stake in this argument, being, as she put it, a close observer of the work that is women's uniquely, 'the labour of labour'. The labour of reproduction she identifies, has a number of critical moments besides parturition(giving birth) in which women's labour is critical. The first moment of reproduction, she observes, has been known colloquially as the oldest profession – prostitution. There was a 60's chant about 'marriage is legalised prostitution' I recall.

Apart from identifying kinds of work that women often don't get paid for, she crucially supplies us with a generalised description of the nature of reproductive work. She, critically, distinguishes reproductive work from the productive work that Marxism and Capitalism variously describe. Of critical importance is that this distinction, although based upon sex and an acknowedgement of women's unique role in reproduction, does not depend upon the sex of the labourer to describe it.

Reproductive work differs from productive work in that:

(1) it is cyclical rather than linear with respect to time,

(2) it is time compulsory rather than time voluntary. ( the baby needs changing now!)

(3) it is necessarily social rather than socially necessary.

The last one is important because it offers an alternative view of reproductive currency. Social necessity is another way of saying 'demand' and hence price. Necessarily social goods are how people work together, how they react to a cyclone or in a queue.

Mary O'Brien goes on to describe the other critical moments of reproducing ourselves, the labour of childcare, schooling and so on. But a little reflection will reveal that many of the tasks that governments carry out are also reproductive by nature. As productive individual work has come to dominate private life so the government has been forced to take up the tasks of reproductive work.

Germaine Greer once described the way in which the Mughal Empire's agrarian system collapsed. A complex system of irrigation, forests and farms was managed sustainably over much of western India for 700 years. The British destroyed the system within a decade by changing the land system, whereby tenant farmers paid the Government with a day's labour a year, to one in which the land was rented for coin and could be brought and sold. The reproductive work that had maintained the system was lost and it collapsed and the region was reduced to desert.

There is a capitalist fetish to transform all goods into money and it is this particular fetish that often causes the most damage. Thus the first labour strikes were and are fought over issues of time rather than wages, 8 hour days and 5 day weeks matter far more in reproductive terms. Labourers will, where possible, sacrifice offers of higher wages to protect their right to reasonable working hours. Opposition to the current Industrial Relations changes(in Australia) is driven as much for concern for this issue as for wages.

Whatever the outcome of the current political situation, the labour of reproduction will be of necessity dealt back in. Even with a complete removal of say a 40 hour week, the government will be forced to mandate other provisions to prevent people being forced to work unreasonable hours. It may not happen straight away but it will happen.

Beyond the immediate political situation, it's also clear that Mary O'Brien's characterisation of reproductive work has much to inform us regarding the nature of government and economic rationalisation. Or rather to indicate why economic rationalisation fails to deliver the promised outcomes. Specifically, reproductive work, such as that provided by health, education, welfare and emergency services can be cut only to certain levels without having significant affects on outcomes. A nurse can only look after six acutely ill patients, a teacher can only teach thirty children, a town over 500 people(say) can't function without a police officer. These limits are not easily amenable to technological fixes, because time can't be made to go faster and a baby and a hospital patient, both need 24 hour care - nothing less!

All is not lost, however, many women have famously managed reproductive work by 'doing five things at once'. Hospitals that have strong focused preventative medicine programs, schools that have after-hours adult education: There are many examples of reproductive institutions doing more than one thing because it is in the nature of the work itself.

One can also see how these ideas can be married to a design philosophy such as permaculture, with it's 'everything must serve four purposes' rule of thumb. Town planning is an area much neglected by the feminist broom More broadly, reproductive economics encapsulates the requirements of sustainability and provides some signposts for achieving this.

Reproductive work begins by asking about one's children (Jesus was good at this) and more specifically, their needs their future. It immediately raises the 'necessarily social' aspects of their reproduction, the nature of the partnership. It has been demonstrated that the position of women, their education and their control over fertility are prime determinants of population growth throughout the world (Susan George, "How the other half dies") . Improving these three things reduces the number of children being born and enables poor countries a chance to restore the ecological damage caused by overpopulation. This is the locust's lesson….

more later…

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