And so I reach the end of a five blog post series on Marxism and Transgender Rights. In this post, I want to look at how the emerging school of Trans Marxism has alighted on Social Reproduction Theory – an approach to Marxism developed by Marxist feminists since the 1970s.
What has Marxism got to offer Transgender people?
Queer Theorists would answer – not much. But ‘trans Marxism’ has picked away at the weaknesses of Queer Theory. Banging on about pronouns and who can use a bathroom is no substitute for class struggle. And the fight shouldn’t be for inclusion but liberation.
Misha Falk is a trans woman, teacher and writer based in Winnipeg, Canada. She argues that the Queer Theory emphasis on language has led to a media conversation on trans people that distracts from far bigger issues. Not least that most transgender people are more likely to be working-class than non-trans. Poverty rates are higher, getting a job more difficult and violence a tragic fact of life.
While Queer Theory uses language to challenge biological essentialism and breaking down gender stereotypes, Marxism has more defined answers about how this situation arose. The starting point is the imposition of a discriminatory gender binary by class society as humanity emerged from what Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx’s co-theorist) called Primitive Communism.
What Engels didn’t address directly – but subsequent Marxist feminists have set out to do – is the way in which women’s unpaid labour in activities like giving birth to new workers and looking after the family home constitutes an unrecognised source of profit for capitalism. The system couldn’t work without this. Even though women are treated as the second sex, their ‘labour power’, as defined by Marx in Das Kapital, makes the wheels of capitalism go round.
Marxist feminists and scholars have argued that Marx needed to say a lot more on how labour power itself is reproduced. Where do all those workers come from and whose labour makes them and why? They address this through something termed Social Reproduction Theory where the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process”.
Women replenish the stock of human beings that can then sell their labour power. There is no capitalism or profit without labour from which to extract it. And women create that labour – the workers – without whom capital could not be created.
This is a major modification of Marx’s writing where he was focused on the worker’s direct relationship with the forces of production. In fact, this hidden labour allows for maximum extraction of surplus-value (profit) by capitalism. And it explains how patriarchy and capitalism are completely intertwined.
Dual Systems versus Social Reproduction Theory
Some Marxist feminists have regarded patriarchy and capitalism as almost two entirely separate systems of oppression running parallel to each other and occasionally overlapping. This is referred to as Dual Systems Theory. The criticism from orthodox Marxists is that you cannot disentangle class and gender, and neither should there be two entirely separate struggles going on – that’s identity politics, not Marxism.
Dual Systems is also seen as a rejection of intersectionality. Black feminists have criticised the theory for ignoring or marginalising their experience. And by separating out class and gender, it fails to explain how capitalism not only benefits from the unpaid labour of cis white women but doubly exploits black women “as the cheapest and most vulnerable form of labour”.
It’s also a crude rendition of Marxism – which is truly economically reductionist. Gender cannot be placed outside of capitalism and treated separately.
This is something that Social Reproduction Theory recognises. And frankly I think that Marx and Engels would have sided with this theory and flatly rejected Dual Systems, with its un-Marxist divorcing of gender from class. To a Marxist, the oppression of women and transgender people is completely bound up with the way in which society and the forces of production that underly it developed over millennia.
But then Social Reproduction Theory appears to be focussed entirely on the role of cis women in producing workers on an unpaid basis for capitalism. That explains the position of women – but what about questions of gender? What relevance does Social Reproduction Theory have to transgender people?
Trans Marxism and Social Reproduction Theory
We can safely say that Engels was never looking beyond cis women when he analysed the emergence of patriarchy in tandem with class-based societies. Today, there are attempts being made through Social Reproduction Theory to understand how capitalism oppresses transgender people and why. It must be said that while the theory works well for an account the position of cis women under capitalism, it gets suspiciously convoluted when it comes to transgender people.
So how can it be applied to trans people? One argument is that the very act of transitioning to become a trans proletarian is a form of unpaid work. As one trans writer puts it:
“To transition in capitalist society means to turn it into a commodity that requires the labour of others to produce, and from which surplus value is extracted to accumulate capital for capitalists who get paid but not us.”
And in response to those feminists who characterise trans people as being the agents of profiteering Big Pharma, the same writer states:
“What a trans Marxism proposes is gender communism, a collective resistance seizing the workers own control of the production of our gender, a transition removed from the neoliberal custody of healthcare administration, which consistently and ruthlessly exploits our bodies for profit.”
Women create baby workers for no pay thereby boosting capital’s profits. Similarly, trans people obligingly transition themselves into trans proletarians at no cost to capital. Women should be paid for their reproduction activity and trans people should be paid for transitioning. Both are using their own resources to create hireable labour power for capitalism.
Of course, this is going to irk feminists of the biologically essentialist persuasion. There is no comparison – I’m going to bet they would say – between the reproductive labour of women and the housework etc they endure and the transitioning of transgender people. And this touches on another baleful by-product of identity politics – the constant competition over who is experiencing more privilege or oppression. At the expense of the underlying exploitation that should be uniting different groups.
DISCOVER: Karl Marx meets Transgender Rights
Trans Marxism – class and gender
Gender inequality has been a hallmark of class society and with the rise of the nuclear family under capitalism reached a high point. Trans Marxists argue that their very continued existence continuously questions that gender binary calling into question the capitalist model.
Capitalism has shown itself to be surprisingly adaptive to non-traditional families. It has allowed gender non-conforming people to move up the social ladder. It has even launched a takeover bid for Queer Theory allowing society to be queered so long as the power structures – that Queer Theory claims to be undermining – go largely unchallenged. So what if the toilet can be used by anybody so long as profit can still be extracted from everybody sitting on the bog!
Capitalism recognises queering as a pre-occupation of relatively privileged and educated people. Corporates have shown themselves able to play the Queer Theory game. Why, even LinkedIn asked me if I wanted to change my pronouns the other day. It didn’t feel like a revolutionary act when I specified them. And I’m pretty sure capitalism didn’t totter on its foundations.
Trans Marxists argue that all this is an argument for redrawing the dividing line in society horizontally between capital and labour. Trans workers have an identity of interest with non-trans and can contextualise the discrimination and violence they face in a capitalist context. It therefore becomes in everybody’s interest to effect societal change.
Transgender people have less to lose than other workers and an awful lot to gain. Their oppression is completely bound up with the way in which class society has developed.