Capital Accumulation and Women's Labor in Asian Economies
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Capital Accumulation and Women's Labor in Asian Economies

Peter Custers

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eBook - ePub

Capital Accumulation and Women's Labor in Asian Economies

Peter Custers

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About This Book

The global impact of Asian production of the wage goods consumed in North America and Europe is only now being recognized, and is far from being understood. Asian women, most only recently urbanized and in the waged work force, are at the center of a process of intensive labor for minimal wages that has upended the entire global economy. First published in 1997, this prescient study is the best available summary of this crucial process as it took hold at the very end of the twentieth century. This new edition brings the discussion up to 2011 with an extensive introduction by world-famous economist Jayati Ghosh of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Drawing on extensive data concerning the laboring conditions of women workers and peasant women, this ambitious book provides a theoretical interpretation of the rapidly changing economic conditions in the contemporary global economy and particularly in Asia, and their consequences for women. It is based on prolonged field research in India, Bangladesh, and Japan, combined with a broad comparative study of currents in international feminism. Peter Custers reasserts the relevance of Marxist concepts for understanding processes of socio-economic change in Asia and the world, but argues forcefully that these concepts need to be enlarged to include the perspective of feminist theoreticians. In the process, he assesses the theoretical relevance of several currents in international feminism, including ecofeminism, the German feminist school, and socialist feminism. With its strong theoretical framework, supported by massive amounts of evidence, this important book will interest all those involved in women’s studies, social movements, economics, sociology, and social and economic theory.

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Feminism and the Conceptualization of Women’s Labour in Asian Economies

Asia—A Growth Pole of the World Economy

For the first time in its long history there is the possibility today that the centre of accumulation would shift to the east’.1 These are the concluding words in an elaborate essay on the history of the international financial system, authored by the Indian economist, Krishnendu Ray. The article, amongst others, details the growing influence of Japanese financial markets and banks on the flow and control of international capital. By 1988, Japanese banks had come to control 35 per cent of all international bank assets, and around the same time Tokyo’s bond, foreign exchange and equities market ‘had begun to challenge their New York counterparts in size.’2 Ray sees the present phase in the international financial system as one of transition, and raises the possibility that East Asia, with Japan at the centre, in the future will emerge as the pole of hegemony in the world economy.
Another author who, like Ray, believes that the world balance of industrial and financial power is rapidly shifting, is Frederic Clairmonte. In a recent article on Malaysia’s explosive growth, Clairmonte draws a contrast between the negative rate of production growth of ‘advanced’ capitalist countries for 1993, and an output growth for Asia that has amounted to 7.5 per cent over the last decade. According to Clairmonte, ‘in 1950 the anaemic Asia-Pacific region had an exiguous 3.5 per cent of world GDP; in 1994, this share will rise to 22; by the century’s end, it will have rocketed to about one-third.’3 Thus, Asia’s growing clout within the world economy is unmistakable. Moreover, both Ray’s and Clairmonte’s comments underscore how relevant it has become to scrutinize the ‘laws’ of capitalist accumulation of countries situated in the Asian continent.
This book puts the spotlight on the experience of three Asian countries—India, Bangladesh and Japan. Whereas the choice of the latter is largely dictated by the country’s powerful position in the world economy, the choice of the two former countries has been guided primarily by my prolonged experience of residence, research and academic discussions in countries of South Asia. Based on this experience, and on my reading of the economic evolution in other parts of Asia, I have selected themes which I believe to be crucial for understanding the overall process of capital accumulation in the southern and eastern regions of Asia. The production of readymade garments, for instance, for which I have carried out field research in India and Bangladesh, has been or does constitute a dynamic growth element in most of the economies of these two Asian regions.
Further, I have undertaken this study from a specific angle. When Japan embarked on its modernization programme in the last part of the 19th century, its initial capitalists preferred to recruit young women to toil in their silk-reeling and cotton textile mills. More recently, the country’s successful electronic companies have similarly shown a marked preference for women as production workers on assembly lines. Elsewhere in Asia women are likewise considered to be a convenient target for exploitation, in particular in the initial processes of industrialization. Yet, until feminist researchers started taking an interest in women’s roles, the analysis of the existing recruitment and employment policies was severely neglected by economists. This study highlights the crucial place of women in the process of capital accumulation in Asian countries. In this introductory chapter I will briefly outline the main theoretical sources from which I have drawn my conceptual framework for fieldwork and comparative analysis.

The Legacy of Marxism and the Contents of this Study

This book explicitly re-asserts the relevance of Marxist concepts for the analysis of contemporary production processes. My experience of discussions at Indian universities, and my acquaintance with the literature which is published in the South Asian region, have taught me that a significantly large section of academicians and writers in the subcontinent continue to insist on the relevance of Marxist tools of economic analysis. They do so alongside Marxist-oriented political parties which continue to constitute a viable force in Indian politics. To mention just two authors whose work I have found useful in the course of my fieldwork: the Bangladeshi academician Atiur Rahman has fruitfully applied Lenin’s analysis of peasant differentiation in pre-revolutionary Russia to explain the ongoing process of pauperization in the Bangladeshi countryside; and the Indian author, Manjit Singh, has advocated the supremacy of Marx’s theoretical framework for understanding the huge ‘informal sector’ of the Indian economy.4
An Indian magazine which continues to provide scope for Marxist analytical approaches, along with non-Marxist ones, is the Bombay-based Economic and Political Weekly. In an article published last year, for example, the noted economist Paresh Chattopadhyay commemorated the writing of Marx’s first critique of political economy, the so-called Parish Manuscripts (of 1844). Chattopadhyay recapitulated Marx’s theory regarding the alienation of labour under capitalism and resumed the discussion as to how such alienation can be abolished.5 In this study I intend to show how a number of concepts which Marx used to explain the methods of economic exploitation in 19th century Great Britain have become increasingly valid for the analysis of Asian economies.
My acceptance of Marxist economic concepts is, however, not an uncritical one. The cornerstone of Marx’s economic thinking was his labour theory of value which, as will be shown in Chapters 2 and 4, formed a further refinement of ideas which had been posed by classical political economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Through the formula he proposed on the creation of the value of commodities, Marx sought to explain how a part of this value is appropriated by the owners of capital (surplus value), whereas the labourers are only paid a minimal amount to enable them to maintain their labouring strength. Followers of Marx have insisted over and again that his labour theory of value was not the construct of an isolated individual, for the thesis that labour is the source of all wealth was shared by the classical economists who preceded Marx.6
However, Marx’s followers have, for over a century, failed to see that his theory of value also shared some of the weaknesses underlying the theories of his precursors, more particularly a deep bias against women. This has only become apparent with the feminist debates of the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, like Ricardo, with whom he agreed that labour time is the measure of value, Marx ignored women’s domestic labour when measuring the value of the workers’ labouring strength. Like his precursors, Marx overlooked the sexual division of labour between women and men. And like other male economists of his time, Marx’s attention was almost entirely focused on what the British feminist author Glucksmann has termed the ‘public economy’. The domestic economy, its transformation along with the growth of capitalist relations, and the mutual influence of changes in the public and domestic economy did not constitute an intrinsic part of Marx’s economic analysis.7
Nevertheless, key aspects of the analysis which Marx presented in Capital have been applied in this study to interprete recent developments in Asian economies. Thus, in Chapter 6 on Bangladesh’s garments’ sector, I will recapitulate and apply Marx’s theory of the working day, more specifically his thesis on the creation of ‘absolute’ surplus value; in Chapter 8, dealing with the loss of land and common property resources by peasants in Bangladesh, I will refer to Marx’s views on original or ‘primitive’ accumulation; in Chapter 11 which describes the management style of the Japanese automobile company Toyota, I will argue, in conformity with Marx’s analysis of capital’s turnover time, that the company’s methods of operation are centrally guided by the urge to abbreviate the turnover time of capital. And in Chapter 12 I will use Marx’s view on the reserve army of labour to explain the employment of middle-aged women as part-time labourers.

Historical Waves of Feminism and the Debate on Women’s Labour

Before reviewing the labouring experiences of women in three Asian economies, I will highlight key aspects of the debate on women’s labour that has accompanied successive movements for women’s emancipation in European countries. Thus, after Chapter 2 on the patriarchal bias of 19th-century working class theoreticians, I will explain in Chapter 3 the significance of the German proletarian women’s movement which developed exceptional organizational strength during the first ‘wave’ of feminism (between 1890 and the beginning of the First World War). It is true, of course, that the real history of working class women’s struggles extends further back into the past, and was geographically broader than this particular experience.8 Yet the review of the German movement brings out well that the first ‘wave’ of feminism did not give rise to a breakthrough at the level of economic theory.
Like my review of the first wave of feminism, that of the second wave presented in Chapter 4 is also selective. Whereas numerous issues were put on the agenda that were/are important to women’s lives, I have primarily tried to assess the significance of the discussion on household labour under industrial capitalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women’s reproductive labour became the focal point for both action and intense theoretical debate. In Italy and many other Western countries, as also in the United States, housewives and their allies started demanding that their isolated and invisible work be socially recognized, and that they be paid a wage or salary. Concomitantly, feminists effectively started challenging the biased views of male economists, including Marxist ones. They insisted that the domestic labour performed by modern housewives is productive, socially necessary, and indirectly helps the owners of industrial entrepreneurs reap their profits.
I will argue in Chapter 4 that while participants of the household labour debate raised valid criticisms, the process of rethinking economic theory and of building a more comprehensive conceptual framework was incomplete, since leading authors tended to ‘delink’ domestic labour from the public sphere of the capitalist economy. A fruitful line of thought has more recently been provided by the British feminist author Miriam Glucksmann, whose analysis of domestic labour is both historically specific and class differentiated. Distancing herself from the ‘dualistic’ assumptions underlying various analytical writings of the second feminist wave, Glucksmann proposes a more ‘dialectical’ theoretical framework. She vigorously argues that the domestic and public sphere of the capitalist economy should be understood as two poles which are inextricably interlinked.
Still, in my chapters on women’s labour in Asian economies I have found the essential teaching of the second feminist wave (that through their reproductive work women create both use and exchange values) relevant for the interpretation of reality. Thus, when discussing the waged work of women ‘part-timers’ in Japan, I will simultaneously look at the time they spend daily doing the cooking, cleaning and other domestic chores. When analyzing the exploitation of women homeworkers in the Indian states of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the values homeworkers create in the time they do non-waged work will be taken stock of. And again, when describing the productive activities of village women in South Asia, I will try to systematically enumerate what use and exchange values they create. In short, the broad overview of women’s labour in Asian economies will demonstrate that the initial lessons of the debate on household labour can be applied in a non-European context.

The Concept of Patriarchy and the Critique of Marxism

Apart from the issue of domestic labour, there are other topics which have been hotly debated in the course of the second feminist wave. Another debate which again has led to a critical appraisal of Marxist theory is that on the history and meaning of patriarchy. When Marx and Engels referred to the patriarchal family, they had in mind the family of the feudal era which was an economic unit (i.e., a unit of agricultural production). The male peasant head directly controlled the family’s land, cattle and instruments, and divided the labouring tasks among its members. This patriarchal family was being destroyed, Marx and Engels argued, as production was being relegated to the factory, and as women became independent wage earners under industrial entrepreneurs. Capitalism, they held, would equalize the position of men and women as exploited workers in the (public) economy.9
This view has been challenged and criticized by various currents of feminism ever since the heyday of the international women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It may be recalled that the impetus to the agitation against women’s subordination was provided by radical feminists in the United States—feminists who see patriarchy as the determinant social relationship under all modes of production. For radical feminists, all existing social systems are characterized first and foremost by men’s domination over women, by the fact that ‘every avenue of power in society, including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands.’10 Class relations (that is, the differentiated position various social groups hold to the means of production) were/are seen as a secondary issue by the radical current of feminists.
The socialist feminist current, which later became more prominent, differed on the meaning of patriarchy and its relation to class. It has justly questioned the proposition that women’s energies should be channelled into a common battle against all men. While acknowledging the contribution of radical feminism to the debate on the concept of patriarchy, socialist feminists moved beyond both their view and that of classical Marxism. They admitted that male dominance takes many forms, and that psychological aspects of women’s oppression (which are stressed by radical feminists) should not be neglected, but felt a keen need to define the material roots of the structures of patriarchy. Thus, Heidi Hartmann, in her essay on the ‘Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism’, argued that ‘the material base upon which patriarchy rests lies most fundamentally in men’s control over women’s labour power.’11 Socialist feminists hold that women’s relations to the means of production are generally different from men’s.
In this book, I have followed the socialist current within feminism and agree that, given patriarchy, women’s relations to the means of production are different from men’s. However, I agree with Miriam Glucksmann’s critical comment that one cannot mechanically draw a parallel between, on the one hand, class relations in the public economy (capitalists versus wage labourers, landlords versus tenants, etc.) and, on the other, the relations of men and women in the domestic economy.12 I have also sought to locate, in this book, men’s patriarchal dominance in both spheres of the economy, and at both the economic and social levels of human interaction. As Chapter 6 on the garments’ sector in Bangladesh well illustrates, mechanisms of patriarchal control can be situated in both spheres, and the methods of dominance used in one tend to influence what happens to patriarchy in the other sphere of economic life.

The Sexual Division of Labour: An Enduring Element in Factory ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Capital Accumulation and Women's Labor in Asian Economies
APA 6 Citation
Custers, P. (2012). Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labor in Asian Economies ([edition unavailable]). Monthly Review Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Custers, Peter. (2012) 2012. Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labor in Asian Economies. [Edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press.
Harvard Citation
Custers, P. (2012) Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labor in Asian Economies. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Custers, Peter. Capital Accumulation and Women’s Labor in Asian Economies. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.