The Baby Bust

Human societies have always sought to control fertility rates. Absent effective contraceptive technologies, abortion was widely practiced in pre-industrial societies, often at great risk to women. Painful and damaging mechanical methods were common, such as pressing a hot stone on the abdomen, jumping from high places, or inserting foreign objects through the cervix. Siraya women would abort all fetuses until they reached the age of 34 or 37, with some having up to 16 abortions in their lifetimes. This was necessary for hunter-gatherer societies since they lacked the productive capacity to accommodate a drastically growing population, and was a part of restricting birth rates to roughly replacement levels. Today we live in the most productive and technologically sophisticated time in human history, and yet advanced capitalist nations are faced with the opposite problem: sub-replacement level birth rates.

Much chagrin has been expressed over this decline. Low birth rates are viewed as a threat to economic growth, as economies require a yearly increase in labor and consumer pools. Capitalists struggle to identify the reason for this decline—with the ideological right blaming bourgeoisie feminism, and the left blaming the lack of a sufficient welfare state. But the real reason for birth rate decline is not to be found in any bourgeois analysis, which often barely pierce the surface of “choice” and “gender roles.” Instead, the answer lies within the contradictions of capitalism itself.

Capitalist production exists in direct antagonism to the reproduction of the working class as human beings.

Capitalist production and commodification exist in direct antagonism to the reproduction of the working class as human beings. Any activity that enables the worker to improve his or her health, to bring him or her joy, or to enable him or her to be involved in one’s community and to develop one’s capabilities, is cannibalized by it. As Marx has said, the capitalist produces the laborer, but as a wage laborer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the laborer, is the sine quâ non of capitalist production”—in other words, it seeks to supply the bare minimum for a person to return to work to produce profit, what is required to enable a person’s self-development, embedded in a community of peers. 

The working class has no intrinsic interest in whether its population is too large or too small for the capitalists, much less any interest in reproducing the capitalist economy. It may very well be that the global population could benefit from a slow and sustainable decrease in size (albeit through non-coercive methods and with maintained living standards). But this is ultimately of secondary concern, because birth rates are but a symptom of capitalist exploitation.

The working class does, however, have an interest in eliminating exploitation, and offering people, as Marxist theoretician Alexandra Kollontai once put it, “the opportunity for the fullest and freest self-determination, and the widest scope for the development and application of all natural inclinations.”

Despite bourgeois anxieties, the reality is that the vast majority of women still want to be, and eventually become, mothers. In fact, the percentage of women doing so is up 6% from two decades ago in the United States. The decline is primarily due to the fact that women are overall having fewer children—that is, fewer than they desire. Women are now having between 1 and 2 children, while reportedly wanting between 2 and 3. When asked about this discrepancy, women straightforwardly cite economic and time concerns. 

Women, perhaps more starkly than men, find themselves at the very heart of the antagonism between capitalist production and human reproduction. At this point in history, it seems clear that the declining birth rate represents working women’s diminishing freedom, not liberation. 

Women and Work

Throughout history, women of the dominated class have always participated in production. For instance, women in peasant societies produced goods and services that were essential for the economy. While it certainly cannot be said that these women were “liberated” under previous modes of production, it can be said that human reproduction and production were inseparable. As Kollontai has said of it, “work did not tear the women away from the cradle; there were no factory walls separating her from her children.” Since production, social life, and political life were integrated, she was always involved in all spheres. This is especially clear in the case of hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Mbuti Pygmies, which experience primitive communism free of patriarchy. Childbirth and child-rearing never stopped Mbuti women from participating as social equals to men in all aspects of their society.

Patriarchy had to be destroyed so that women, just like men, could be produced as a wage-laborer.

As the patriarchal household ceased to be a site of production, women left the home and followed production to where it moved: the factory. Patriarchy had to be destroyed for capitalism to continue to expand and gain access to larger labor pools and consumers, so that women, just like men, could be “produced as a wage-laborer.” The opportunity to be a housewife, therefore, was restricted to a relatively small share in the higher-income segments of the working class—and this for only a few decades in history. Today, half of the workforce is female.

Since the industrial revolution, women have suffered acutely from the antagonism between work and childbearing. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin’s wife, described the conditions of the pre-revolutionary industrial working mother as, “Without support and frightened to lose her job [carrying] on almost up to the eve of giving birth, and she returns to work before fully recovering.” Noting that, “Life with children is very difficult for [her]. Coming home tired from the factory she has to get down to do the washing, sewing, cleaning, feeding and washing the child.”

Decades of workers’ struggles have resulted in more humane working environments, at least in advanced capitalist nations. Most, but not all, make provisions for parental leave and other forms of support. Some capitalist nations, where the class struggle has been particularly strong, have even had some success in enabling motherhood. For instance, France, through substantive childcare and work flexibility, has maintained a birth rate of between 1.8-2.0 since 2000 (even accounting for immigration, birth rates remain relatively high in France). It remains to be seen how the gradual clawback of state provisions will affect this rate.

However, the contrivances offered by capitalism will never be enough. For working women, there will always be a tradeoff between working for a wage and doing the work of being human—that is, participating in social and political life, having children, and exercising control over one’s fertility. By working less, her ability to support her family diminishes, but if she works more, she finds she has less time to care for her family, not to mention participate in social and political life. Indeed, many women work as much as they can, and are still neither able to earn enough money nor find time to care for family. Such circumstances lead to high rates of stress and unhappiness (not even stay-at-home mothers are spared). Combine these factors with access to better and safer contraception and abortion, it is no surprise that women are “choosing” to bear fewer children.

Global capital can arrange other ways to achieve generational replacement. It could, for instance, keep living conditions and access to contraception low in developing nations, and import labor from these regions. It is only the working class who has a concrete and direct interest in reproducing itself for the sake of itself, which necessarily includes both participating in production and having children. 

What is the solution that the left has on offer? While some commenters have properly indicated that more social provisioning is required, an influential school of “socialist feminism” and “Marxist feminism” has grown to provide misleading and unhelpful analysis.

Gleaning from feminist theory, these schools of thought casts women as a separate group within the working class that, due to their biological features, have a different set of material interests; casting medical and childbearing-related social services as a concern exclusively or primarily for women. This analysis has led to odd prescriptions to address the antagonism between production and reproduction—such as wages for housework and paid surrogacy.

This analysis diminishes women’s position alongside men in the working class. Most of the hours of a working woman’s life is not devoted to childbearing and domestic work, but rather to productive labor. Pretending that pregnancy and housework should be productive labor does not make it so. As Rosa Luxemburg put it:

They [women] are productive for society like the men. By this I do not mean their bringing up children or their housework which helps men support their families on scanty wages. This kind of work is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent [. . .] As long as capitalism and the wage system rule, only that kind of work is considered productive which produces surplus value, which creates capitalist profit.

This brutal reality presents a key insight: any time spent reproducing the working class itself is time spent outside of societal concern under capitalism. 

If working women had a separate economic sphere in which they specifically created value apart, from, and possibly exploited by, men (such as pregnancy), then it would make sense for women to stake themselves out as a separate political subject. But working women and men are understood as a totality, as the working class, because they are both exploited. Capitalism infringes on the humanity of all working-class people.

Motherhood and the Realm of Freedom

It has always been the purview of the ruling classes to stress about “population,” as they have always viewed those in the productive classes as tools for the perpetuation of their domination. Bourgeois politicians have applied all sorts of draconian policies to push birth rates up or down. For instance, at the start of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, contraception was banned and abortion made mostly illegal in a pro-natalist policy approach. This initially pushed birth rates from 1.9 children per woman to 3.6. But economic pressures on women did not decrease, and as women began procuring illegal abortions and contraceptives, birth rates fell back down to 2.1. Not only did this approach fail, its punitivism resulted in the highest maternal mortality ever recorded in Europe; not to mention driving families to abandon thousands of children to state orphanages.  

Just as capitalists’ real concern is not with “population” but maintaining power, socialists’ real concern is neither with “population” but expanding freedom. Only the working class, as the universal class, can make possible to produce human beings instead of wage-laborers. Only a mode of production free of exploitation can deliver working schedules and working environments that suits the needs—biological, emotional, intellectual—of both working men and women.