Re-imagining work and the family

CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews a fascinating book which traces the evolution of domestic labour in class society and offers a glimpse of what socialism could mean.

After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time

By Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek

Published by Verso, 2023, £16-99

Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek want a world in which we all work less and have more free time. Not many working people would take issue with that. After Work, however, is concerned not with paid work – the ‘exchange’ of a workers’ labour power for wages – but unwaged ‘social reproductive’ work: housework, childcare, household management etc, work in the family that is still predominantly performed by women, even in the more advanced capitalist countries in the ‘west’ – which this book concentrates on. Could society be organised differently in order to reduce this work as much as possible? Could the remaining work be redistributed more equitably? These are questions posed in the introduction to this interesting and thought-provoking book.

In the UK, in 2014, 8.1 billion hours were spent doing unpaid long-term care work. Overall, in most countries, 45-55% of what the authors term “total labour time” is expended on unwaged reproductive work. And this is highly gendered. Women spend on average 3.2 times as much time as men on unpaid work. In the UK, they do 60% more unwaged labour and have on average five hours less free time a week. And according to the authors, the gender imbalance has actually been increasing over the last 15 years. Even where men do more caregiving it tends to be the ‘enjoyable’ rather than the repetitive, monotonous type. Because, as they write, not all unpaid work in the home is drudgery; playing with the kids can be fun, cleaning the bathroom, ironing clothes and putting away laundry, less so.

Marxists have historically pointed to how domestic and caring work, that women have traditionally performed in the family, has contributed to the broader inequality and oppression they face in society. It limits their ability to work outside of the home, it restricts the hours and kind of paid work they can perform, and it reinforces age-old gender stereotypes that underpin sexism and abuse. And where, as today, working-class women in particular are juggling both work and family responsibilities, it can be enormously stressful, even more so if they are bringing up children on their own. A recent Yougov survey in the UK found that because of economic difficulties, lack of childcare, and other problems, 61% of parents are concerned about their mental health.

Inequality and oppression

Vladimir Lenin wrote and spoke about “domestic slavery”, the “petty housework” that “crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades” women. He was mainly referring to the terrible lot of peasant women in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century but, as Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai wrote with regards to women workers, “capitalism has placed on the shoulders of the woman a burden which crushes her: it has made of her a wage worker without having lessened her cares as a housekeeper and mother”. “How I wish people didn’t live in houses and didn’t cook, and bake, and wash and clean”, exclaimed Eleanor Marx. “Who is the fiend that invented housekeeping? I hope his invention may plague him in another world”.

In the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels declared that “the first condition for the liberation of women is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry”. Drawing women out of the home would decrease their economic dependency on men, broaden their horizons, and raise their confidence and understanding of the need to collectively struggle alongside of working-class men to overthrow capitalism and end exploitation and oppression. But merely working outside the home would not in and of itself bring about liberation, as women today can clearly attest to. It would also need to be accompanied by the “abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”.

The authors rightly state that the nuclear family “is not a natural or immutable formation but in part an adaptive response to the economic system in which it is situated”. In terms of reproductive work the family is “widely inefficient”, “isolating, exclusionary, labour intensive, time consuming and deeply unfair”. “And yet”, they add, “it has retained an impressive grip upon our cultural imagination”.

Family under capitalism

The fourth chapter of After Work traces the evolution of the family following capitalist industrialisation in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, although gender inequality and oppression were embedded in family relations, there had been no clear demarcation between the reproductive and productive work carried out by women; both took place in and around the home and were often done communally, with other family members mucking in. But with industrialisation, production occurred increasingly outside of the home, initially in mills and factories.

As women, alongside children, were particularly prized by the capitalists as a source of cheap labour to exploit in order to produce surplus value and profits in the early days of industrial production, this totally disrupted the way in which the family had previously functioned as an economic and reproductive unit. How could women simultaneously work long, exhausting hours in the mills and factories and adequately take care of children and the home? In most cases they couldn’t. And, as the authors write, “these competing demands led to a crisis of social reproduction among the urban working classes”.

Engels pointed out that “marriage according to the bourgeois conception was a contract, a legal transaction”. For the emerging capitalist class this transaction was primarily concerned with consolidating and extending wealth and property, as had been the case previously with slave owners and feudal rulers. The bourgeois family of male ‘breadwinner’ and economically dependent wife overseeing the running of the household and tending to her husband’s needs became associated with growing capitalist affluence – and eventually the norm to which all classes aspired. The working-class family, which had no wealth to defend, extend, or inherit, did not collapse under the burdens capitalist industrialisation placed on it – as many commentators at the time expected. As economic production expanded the capitalist class needed healthy and productive workers whose personal needs could be met on a daily basis. They wanted children to be nurtured so that they could become future exploitable labour power. “The eventual fix”, write the authors “was for households to withdraw their married female members from external employment”.

It became economically advantageous to the capitalist class for working-class women to carry out unpaid reproductive work in the family in order to have the workers they desired. In this way the family, and women in particular within it, came to play a different economic role. Not a direct producer as in the peasant economy, and not producing surplus value for the capitalist class as in the mills and factories, but working unpaid in a site of reproduction, indirectly allowing that surplus value to be created. Working-class women were expected to care, without payment, for all ‘unproductive’ family members – the unemployed, the disabled, the sick and the elderly – although the working class organised industrially and politically to fight for the state to relieve some of the stress and load the family unit endured, through the provision of welfare benefits and public services, something the authors don’t really develop in their history.

Because of the enormous stress placed on the family by the double burden working-class women were expected to carry, the bourgeois family model also coincided with the needs of working-class people, and women workers in particular. Trade unions began to campaign for a ‘family wage’ that would allow married working-class women to be released from super-exploitative paid work outside of the home. And the capitalist class, through their control of the state, promoted the bourgeois family as the ideal form of household organisation.

Although the authors don’t mention this, the family, inherited and shaped from its roots in previous class societies, became a useful ideological tool for the capitalist class – a unit in which ‘appropriate’ gender roles could be shaped, which could act as a restraint on striking workers, and become a scapegoat for social problems such as poverty and crime. Of course, economic desperation meant that many married working-class women had no choice but to continue with paid work, often unhealthy ‘sweated labour’ for starvation wages that could be carried out in the home, combined with household chores and childcare.

Work never done

Industrialisation and the development of capitalist production also impacted the family in another way. Some of the tasks that peasant and working-class women had traditionally carried out in the home, such as making clothes and food production, became ‘marketised’. With the development of mass production techniques, refrigeration, convenience foods, mail order catalogues department stores etc, many essentials were now provided outside of the ‘privatised’ family unit. To begin with these were mainly available only to the wealthier households, but gradually even the working-class family transitioned from a place of production to a place of consumption.

The authors pinpoint the early twentieth century as a turning point as far as women’s domestic work in the household was concerned. The most important changes, they posit, were infrastructural. Running water, sewage systems, gas and electricity transformed or eliminated many of the physically demanding and time-consuming chores that women in working-class families undertook (and female servants in richer households) such as fetching water and fuel, emptying chamber pots etc. Household domestic appliances also had an effect but were mainly designed to replace the work of individual servants.

The authors explain how commercial laundries were popular and accessible even to some of the poorer households in the 1920s but were not long after replaced by individual household washing machines. Socialists had long campaigned for publicly provided communal laundries but, as the authors point out “the manufacturers of these devices saw more profit potential in mass market production than in production for collective use”.

Although more individual ‘labour saving’ devices were invented as the twentieth century progressed, paradoxically they did not dramatically reduce the hours spent on unpaid domestic household work. A 1974 article by Joann Vanek reported that full-time housewives spent 52 hours a week on housework in 1924 and 55 hours in the 1960s. Further research by Ruth Schwartz Cowan discovered that time spent on domestic work did not decrease between the 1870s and the 1970s. One reason for this was that the ‘industrial revolution of the home’ coincided with higher standards in cleanliness and hygiene, “and all these standards tend to become enforced through state representatives, advertising and the weight of social expectations”.

The authors write that “from the 1920s onwards, this drive for higher standards was further pushed by companies keen to sell a whole range of consumer products to a growing mass market”. If cleanliness was next to Godliness there were certainly profits to be made from it. A less than spotless house was considered the sign of a bad housewife and mother, putting the health and well-being of her children at risk: “Guilt became a way to sell goods, and women’s identities became increasingly tied into this work as well”.

Although social expectations of standards may have dropped slightly as capitalist needs have drawn more women into the workforce over the past few decades, After Work argues that the “historical promise of technology for reducing the burdens of socially reproductive work” has “largely failed to be realised”. Individualisation has had a major impact on the design of domestic technologies. The only significant invention since the 1950s is the microwave, the rest have just been modifications of existing ones. And, the authors surmise, the technology behind the much vaunted ‘smart home’ – networking devices within the household – is more orientated to convenience than labour saving: “The drive to make all household tasks ‘smart’ is less a response to need than a reflection of the economic and technical capacity for collecting data and producing computer chips”. “Technology alone”, they conclude, “is insufficient to reduce work; individual devices exist within a broader sociotechnical system, and their impacts are mediated by this context”.

Family policy

The reality is that it’s not just the development of domestic technology which has been shaped by the traditional nuclear family, organised in a single household; that family model has also been at the core of state welfare policy since the second world war. And, as the authors write: “While there is considerable lived diversity in terms of how people actually organise their domestic lives, this paradigmatic form continues to be widely celebrated in Western countries as a cultural ideal reinforced by a broad set of policies”. State policies regarding housing, welfare benefits, public services etc, have not kept pace with changing family forms, whether that is lone parent households or women with young children working outside the home in increasing numbers.

The family remains what the authors aptly call “the carer of last resort” – and women the “shock absorbers” within it. This was dramatically underlined during the Covid pandemic, when women in particular had to take time off work, and even leave jobs, in order to take on extra-imposed caring responsibilities. Years of relentless austerity have pushed the shock absorbers to the limit. Caring for elderly, disabled and chronically sick family members, looking after very young children, “the absence of sufficient non-familial resources – whether through affordable market-based care, public provision, or voluntary efforts – means that the family takes on the brunt of this work”. Trends in health care such as towards ‘virtual wards’, where technology allows ill people to be treated at home rather than in hospital, will only acerbate this.

After Work recognises that over the past few decades there has been an expansion of state support for childcare, flowing from the capitalists’ desire to encourage more women with young children into the workforce, but that support falls far short of what is necessary. At the same time, social expectations of ‘motherhood’ and parenting have risen. Between 1965 and 2012, the time mothers spent on childcare actually increased. “For now”, write the authors, “we can say that there are profound tensions across the reproductive regime as it stands, with the ghost of the breadwinner/homemaker model continuing to butt up against more recent assumptions that everybody who can work for pay will work for pay”.

However, the authors don’t explicitly make the link between inadequate resources and the underlying economic contradictions within the capitalist system that lead to crisis and limit the capitalist class’s willingness to forego part of their profits – by either paying the taxes that would be necessary to fund services through the state or the higher wages that would enable workers to purchase them through the market. “A system of privatised care overburdened by the demands placed upon it”, as the authors aptly characterise the nuclear family, is clearly not fit for purpose. But what is the alternative? The authors write that “it is hard to see any route out of the current reproductive crisis that doesn’t extend to a fundamental rethinking of the familial reproductive regime”.

Changing family forms

Marxists have been accused of wanting to abolish the family by legal decree, which is complete nonsense. We make a clear distinction between the family as an economic and ideological unit geared towards capitalist interests, and most people’s perception of family as caring relationships: it plays a dual role, and that explains its continuing appeal. A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner in Britain, Family And Its Protective Effect, while noting the “dynamic and evolving nature of modern family life” – increased co-habitation, more mothers than ever in work, blended families, children living across more than one households, same-sex parents, lone parents etc – finds that the words people identify with family have remained consistent: “loving and strong relationships”, “practical and emotional support”, “shared experience”. In other words, it’s the quality of relationships that are important, not the structure or composition of the family.

Of course, as Hester and Srnicek write: “The family is often idealised as a safe space, a harbour in a hostile world – but for millions of people it is far from that”. The family can also be a place of violence and abuse. This is underpinned by ideology stemming from emerging class societies, thousands of years ago, when the family unit first became the organising basis of society, within which women and children effectively became the private property of fathers and husbands, under their authority and control – including through the socially accepted and sanctioned use of violence.

The solution to the ‘social reproductive crisis’ is not to ‘abolish’ the family but to end, as Engels argued, its economic and ideological function. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ‘Utopian socialists’ were involved in experiments with communal living within the emerging industrialised capitalist system, which in most cases broke down, and in no way challenged the historic gender division of labour in social reproductive work. As the century progressed, socialists and Marxists began to campaign for the ‘socialisation’ of that work, for the provision of publicly funded, communal facilities – ‘collective housekeeping’ as Kollontai posed it. Why, she argued, should restaurants and cleaners be only for the rich?

Revolutionary experiments

The 1917 Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, which overthrew feudalism and capitalism, provided an opportunity for those collective policies to be put into practice and, to quote the authors, “transform the organisation of social reproduction in its entirety”. The workers’ state immediately set about decreeing the legal and formal equality of women – with rights in advance of the more economically developed capitalist countries at that time, such as the right to vote, to equal pay, to civil marriage, and to divorce on demand. It also granted the right to free, legal abortion on demand, made domestic violence a crime and ‘counter revolutionary offence’, decriminalised homosexuality, abolished the legal concept of illegitimacy, and introduced important protections and reforms for pregnant and nursing women. However, as the Communist Party’s 1919 programme stated: “Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc”.

Leon Trotsky outlined “two paths leading to the transformation of everyday life: from below and from above”. From above, the state or local soviets would establish workplace and public dining rooms, childcare centres, creches and nurseries, communal laundries, and repair shops, mostly in the main urban areas. From below, families were encouraged to combine resources – kitchens, laundries etc, in ‘collective housekeeping units’. The one was to supplement the other, with efforts made to involve women as much as possible in the democratic organising of collective services, as well as the general running and administration of the state.

Kollontai promoted the advantages of such collective organising for women, the state, and the environment: “Food and fuel will be provided by local soviets, which will mean immediate economies for the government. Instead of two hundred stoves, fuel for one central oven. Instead of feeding two hundred hungry children from two hundred separate pots, one collective pot. And what a huge saving of time and energy it will be for mothers. Instead of each standing at her stove, she can take her shift in the communal kitchen once a week, even once a fortnight, knowing her children will be well fed. Or she may prefer to take meals home, whichever is more convenient for her”.

Young people in particular experimented with new ways of forming relationships and sharing spaces. The civil war had been a great disrupter, tearing people apart and throwing others briefly together. But, as the authors point out, the new social arrangements could not be divorced from the material limits of the initial post-revolution period.

In the wake of the ravages of war, imperialist invasion, and civil war, the economy was in ruins. Poverty and international isolation placed objective limitations on what the workers’ government could achieve, notwithstanding the will and the enormous efforts expended. Housing was cramped and overcrowded: “House communes rarely had the space or the resources to set up adequate common facilities”. While most of Petrograd ate in communal dining rooms, that was not necessarily the case elsewhere. Trotsky lamented clothes that returned from communal laundries torn and stolen. If the food in public canteens or care in state nurseries was inadequate, then those that could would fall back into the old way of doing things through the individual family unit.


In the context of the extremely low level of economic productivity and technology in Russia at that time, miracles were achieved, but they were, in the words of Kollontai, “evidence mainly of our determination to bring about socialism in the future” – a glimpse of what could be possible if the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism could be extended to the more economically developed capitalist countries in the West. When the revolutions that did break out ended in defeat, the workers’ government was forced to make a partial retreat – what Lenin called a “breathing space” to defend the revolution – launching elements of capitalist relations into the state-run economy through the New Economic Policy in 1921. Firms curtailed investment in communal services and many were forced to close. Women lost their jobs.

Poverty, want, and international isolation were fertile ground for the growth of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy, which, as Trotsky wrote in his book, The Revolution Betrayed, went “infinitely farther than iron economic necessity demands” in rolling back the gains of the revolution as they regarded women and the family. Re-establishing the economic and social role of the family unit suited the needs of the bureaucracy as they sought to defend and extend their privileges through economic expansion and authoritarian repression. “The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family”, continued Trotsky, “is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of forty million points of support for authority and power”.

It was the unique factors of economic poverty and revolutionary isolation which eventually led to the destruction in Russia and the Soviet Union of the hopes of, amongst many other things, a new way of organising social reproduction that could liberate women and transform their lives. Today, amongst the poverty, inequality and injustice of the global capitalist system it is still possible to imagine how even existing technology and resources could be deployed to bring about that liberation in a differently organised society, in which private ownership of the means of production and the profit motive are eliminated.

Hester and Srnicek envision a ‘post-capitalist world’ – a vague term they never really define – which “presupposes people’s basic needs are met” and which will “expand the realm of freedom”, something Marxists would clearly agree with. What they don’t explain is how such a world could be brought about, leaving ambiguity about whether a fundamental revolutionary change is necessary, as begun in Russia in 1917, with the working class as the central force, led by a revolutionary party, or whether they believe it could be achieved by some other means.

Socialist possibilities

One of the most important aspects of socialism would be maximising the control that working-class people have over every aspect of their lives, and their involvement in how decisions are taken, whether it be in the planning of the economy, the functioning of individual workplaces, or how communities are organised locally. Like the authors, we don’t have a complete blueprint for how a future society could be organised differently. When writing about what form the family and personal relations would take under socialism, Engels said, correctly, that this would be left for future generations to decide.

Most importantly, democratic working-class control and management of society would present real choices that are not available in a capitalist system in crisis. Working hours could be cut, government policies could, as the authors suggest, accommodate non-nuclear living arrangements, if that is what people wanted. There has been some media publicity recently about ‘co-living’ arrangements, where people have their own individual housing but share some communal facilities. It’s not difficult to see how this form of living arrangement could have a very wide appeal to many different groups of people, whether it be for environmental or time-saving reasons, or because of a preference for wider social interaction. But under a capitalist profit-oriented system, in which hundreds of thousands are homeless or living in temporary or substandard accommodation, it’s clear that such arrangements will only be available to a small minority.

With more communal facilities, and under democratic control, technology could be deployed more efficiently, and in an environmentally friendly and labour-saving way. High-quality, flexible, universal childcare, employing well-paid, specially trained staff could become a reality, as could quality, flexible, eldercare, and communal provision of many of the other public services that have been undermined through years of cuts, privatisation, and inadequate investment. Kollontai’s dream of teams of professional, well-paid cleaners could easily be realised, and maybe even the self-cleaning home, which, according to the authors, was invented by Frances Gabe in the 1980s!

Communal eating options could be provided through free, quality meals at school, in the workplace and in local communities, saving the time and headache of meal planning, shopping, food preparation, and cleaning up. Or for those who want to eat at home, ‘meals on wheels’ for the elderly and housebound, and, more recently, digital platforms such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo, have shown what could be possible if these were publicly owned and democratically organised. And, of course, people would still be free to cook from home if that was their preference.

We would agree with the authors that “the family cannot and should not be the sole mechanism by which we seek to meet our society’s needs”. If even existing capitalist technologies can give a glimpse of the benefits of a different way of organising society, imagine what would be possible if we had full democratic working-class control of the means of production and a democratic planned economy. Our time, our relationships, and how we organise our lives, could be transformed: drastically reducing the hours spent on both paid and unpaid work; giving everyone the economic means to live without poverty and want; ending the gendered division of labour and inequality within the family; allowing all of us much more freedom to relax, socialise, develop our talents, reach our maximum potential, and play a full role in building a more equitable and cooperative society.