Productive Choice - Getting beyond jobs
C.A.L'Hirondelle - July 2004

Just as women fought and continue to fight, for reproductive choice, the next critical battle for women -- and ultimately for everyone-- must be for "productive" choice.

Productive choice would allow people to be able to say "no" to dangerous, degrading or harmful work; "no" to exploitive relationships resulting from poverty, "no" to jobs that harm the environment. It would allow people to say "yes" to work such as caregiving of our own babies and children, our elders, family members with disability, chronic illness, or unexpected health crisis. It would also allow people to do work that is beneficial to the community and to nature.

Reproductive choice means women choose when and if their body produces another human being. Productive choice builds on the principle of reproductive choice. Women must also be able to choose to look after their own child if that is what they wish. However, more and more poor women all over the world do not have this choice.

The book Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild) describes the lives of women from poor countries in the south who migrate to do "women's work" in the north. The cost paid by migrant mothers and their children is very high. "The first two years I felt like I was going crazy… I was having intense psychological problems. I would catch myself gazing at nothing, thinking about my child." Another migrant mother recounted "some days I just start crying while I am sweeping the floor because I am thinking about my children in the Philippines."


The only way to have productive choice is with economic security through the implementation of a universal guaranteed livable income. This concept, also often called a Basic Income Guarantee, is an income floor below which no one can ever fall. Women should be at the forefront of this movement, because they have the most to gain.

However, it seems the only demand from women's and progressive groups is for good paying jobs and daycare. This demand leaves no room for productive choice -- it says that looking after your own child is not a legitimate activity.

The idea the women can only be liberated by leaving the home been around for a long time. In a 1925 interview about "the woman question" Lenin said equality for women could be achieved by "the transference of the economic and educational functions of the separate household to society" with "communal kitchens and public eating-houses, laundries and repairing shops, nurseries, kindergartens, children's homes, educational institutes of all kinds." This would allow the children to be "brought up under more favorable conditions than at home".

Work at home had no redeeming features and women had to be released from the grip of "petty, monotonous household work, their strength and time dissipated and wasted, their minds growing narrow and stale… The backwardness of women, their lack of understanding for the revolutionary ideals of the man decrease his joy and determination in fighting. They are like little worms which, unseen, slowly but surely, rot and corrode."

79 years later the idea that liberation for women means access to jobs and daycare still dominates women's demands. Where does that leave mothers, or fathers, who want to look after their children? Are they freaks who need to be liberated from their own backward compulsions? Is this is the extent of our vision for society? That no one can spend time with their loved ones, look after their own children, aging parents or other family members without suffering economic penalty? It is very telling that Lenin's idea to liberate people through work is strikingly similar to John Calvin's protestant work ethic.

The demand for universal daycare and full employment at living wages for women is a defeatist and delusional goal. Defeatist because it accepts a blatantly patriarchal definition of "productive" work -- under both socialism and capitalism it demands that women do "real" work, no matter what that work is, whether it is necessary or not, whether it is harmful to people's health or not, or whether it is harmful to the environment or not.

It is delusional because a massive increase in jobs can only come with a massive increase in consumption. Increasing production without increasing consumption only causes a huge surplus which necessitates lay-offs. If people really want to seek full employment as a goal then they had better demand that everyone massively increase their consumption -- eat as many hamburgers as you can to increase jobs in the fast food and medical industry, get more people smoking more cigarettes to make more jobs in the tobacco industry, and buy as many cars as possible to make more jobs in the auto industry. Or, to create full employment we could all become Luddites and smash the machines because they are stealing work from humans. Or, with a socialist solution, we could create masses of make-work jobs, no matter how much time, energy and resources and people's lives are wasted. Which ever way you look at it, the result is the same: no productive choice.

Productive choice would create liberation for women through the opposite effect that Lenin envisioned. It would reverse the daily drain of human resources out of home and community. People would be in the neighborhoods again. Women would no longer be overwhelmed with having to do most of the world's unpaid caregiving. It would mean that men as well as women could share in, and learn from, doing "home" work. Mothers, children, the elderly, the ill and people with disabilities would not be left isolated and denigrated because they are not "productive." Living in age diverse communities would be an enriching experience and would have untold positive health and societal impacts.

Right now the only choice that poor mothers have is get a job, any job, or starve. Looking after children is hard work, but this hard work makes you poor not rich. Mothers are also denounced by the right wing for being parasites at the same time they are also attacked by some environmentalists for burdening the planet with more humans. The end result is that more and more women are just not having babies. Dropping birth rates are fast becoming more of a concern to the world's leaders than overpopulation.

A recent Ms. Magazine article reports "Japanese women have continued their baby strike, pushing the birth rate down to 1.32 as of 2002" (May 04). This spring the Australian government announced a new baby bonus and told women to do their "patriotic duty" and have at least three children per family. In Canada, numerous newspaper articles worry about the "revolution in fertility." In 2001 former tennis star Bjorn Borg told women to "Fuck for the Future" in ads sponsored by Swedish government. Even in developing countries there has been a "revolutionary shift" as women have fewer children (2002 report from the UN Population Division).

The focus on overpopulation as the main problem in the world has been a very expedient way to blame women and poor people for the world's problems and to also justify letting them live and die in poverty. It cleverly diverts blame from the real source of harm: an eco-cidal economic system that demands unlimited growth. As John McMurtry stated in the title of his 1998 book, this is "The Cancer Stage of Capitalism."

It's easy to blame mothers for ruining the world. It is more difficult to grasp economics of motherhood. Declining birth rates are a disaster for an economic system based on growth. Everyone with a job is dependent on women having babies: teachers and professors need students, social workers need clients, the medical industry needs patients and corporations need consumers. No people = no consumption = no jobs.

Demanding that women stop having babies and demanding that people stop consuming to save the planet will only cause those in society who are the most vulnerable to bear the brunt of an economic collapse.

There are more than enough resources in the world for people to meet their needs for a healthy and happy life but there are NOT enough resources in the world for planned obsolescence, unhealthy consumption and waste and degradation of natural resources in the pursuit of jobs and profit.

Patriarchal economics defines "productive" in a way that financially rewards anything that makes a profit, no matter how destructive, while essential unpaid care work is considered "unproductive" and anyone who does this work is financially penalized (as Marilyn Waring points out in her book Counting for Nothing).

There are many people who don't want "in" to a sick and twisted, destructive economic system, but want "out", and until we get the commons back and can meet our needs directly, the way "out" is with a guaranteed livable income for everyone on the planet.


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