– Marx and prostitution

Marx and prostitution

by Saliha Boussedra*


Contrary to some pro decrim advocates, who defend prostitution as legal work compatible with Marx’s philosophy, an analysis of his writings shows that to him, there is no emancipation in prostitution.

Regulation advocates hold that a prostitute’s activity should be officially recognized, so as to be integrated into the general system of work, whether this work is performed by a salaried employee or independently. Some of these movements recognize prostitution as unfulfilling work, while asserting it to not be worse than other types of manual labor. These ‘regulators’’ reasoning amounts to the claim that the only difference between these two types of work is that one is legally recognized while the other is not. They also appeal to the Marxist analysis of salaried workers in order to claim that prostitution should be legally recognized so that prostitutes can improve the conditions of their work.

Concrete work, abstract work
Attributing a regulatory position to Marx stems in reality from a number of misunderstandings as to the Marxist conception of work. First, Regulation advocates overlook the historical determination of capitalist production, as well as the dual nature of work in general. When Marx conceives of work from an anthropological point of view, the individuals’s productive activity cannot be separated from the means of their work (tools and materials), nor from its products. This dimension, defined as “concrete work,” holds for all societies across history. However, Marx highlights a second dimension, specific to the capitalist mode of production: “abstract work.” This dimension reduces work to a single production of exchange-value, independently of the activity, of means of production and concrete products. As the Regulation advocates do not take these distinctions into account, it is only by exploiting this idea of “abstract work” that they are able consider prostitution as work.
With their perspective determined by our current mode of production, those who favor regulation project the capitalist point of view onto numerous social and human relations. As such, through their undeclared use of the Marxist concept of “abstract work,” the Regulation advocates end up promoting the commodification of vast swaths of productive human activities not yet monopolized by capitalism. By claiming a legal extension of abstract work so as to include prostitution, those who favor regulation promote nothing less than the management and regulation of sexual activity by the market. In this battle, the concern for rights and legality constitutes for capitalism an important stage on the way towards obtaining successful exploitation.

Materialist sexual activity and abstract work
Defining abstract work, Marx writes, “We may disregard the determined character of productive activity and thus the useful nature of work; it remains nevertheless a consumption of the human capacity for work. Dressmaking and weaving, while qualitatively distinct as productive activities, are by turns a productive consumption of cerebral material, of muscle, of nerve, of hand, etc., and thus are, in this sense, both examples of human work,” (Capital, book 1). It is this “etc.” that those who favor regulation think could include sexual activity in the Marxist conception of abstract work. Yet this extension is, to put it lightly, cavalier; had Marx, this great theorist of work, intended to include the commercial use of the intimate parts of the body, he certainly wouldn’t have left it implicit in an “etc.”
If we specifically consider the question of prostitution, we affirm that prostitutory activity – of all the types of “human work” Marx addresses – is the sole activity where what is sold is in fact sold nowhere else, in no other work. If the worker does “rent their body’ to the capitalist (with their muscles, their nerves, their brain, etc.), the prostitute, on the contrary, is the only one to authorize access to intimate body parts, which are on the contrary never included in the sale of work capacity for all of the workers discussed by Marx. Prostitution is as a result the only activity where the rental of the individual’s body includes one, or several body parts that are formally excluded from such transactions practically everywhere. We observe here then how, and in what absolutely specific way prostitution radically departs from the whole of “human work” discussed by Marx in the first book of Capital.

Prostitution and lumpenproletariat
In addition, those who favor regulation neglect to mention that Marx had explicitly spoken about prostitution. If it is true that in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx still seems to be searching for a position on the prostitution question, later and up until at least the first book of Capital, we discern the consistency of Marx’s stance on this matter. Whether in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, or in The Classes Struggles in France, or in the first book of Capital, we note that prostitution is systematically placed beside what Marx calls the “lumpenproletariat.”
According to Marx, this category is constituted of the impoverished proletariat and others fallen into misery, who had abandoned class warfare and ceased to resist. According to Marx, it was historically constituted as the enemy of the proletariat, although it in part originates therein. The lumpenproletariat is generally composed of “a mass completely distinct from the industrial proletariat, a nursery of thieves and of all sorts of criminals, living off of society’s waste, individuals without a chosen profession, drifters, people without vows and without home, differing according to the degree of culture in every nation, never belying the character of scoundrels,” (The Class Struggles in France). If prostitutes are in this category, we might retain then that, first, prostitution is not placed in a “positive” class of work, in that the work does not constitute an achievement for humans; and secondly, that it is distinct from the proletariat. In these conditions, it does not even fit the definition of a “negative” type of work, as it exists under the auspices of capitalism (in other words work paid with capital). This means that, even if Marx recognizes forms of prostitution paid for with capital and falling under the category of “productive work” – as is the case in the “brothels” evoked by Marx as an example in Theories of Surplus Value – he nevertheless does not integrate it into the realm of work.
Indeed, even in the first book of Capital, when Marx describes the fringes of workers, those most dominated, he speaks about the “lowest fallen” but does not include there the category of prostitute. It is doubtless useful to attentively read this excerpt from Class Warfare in France: “From the days of the court to the dim café, the same prostitution reproduced itself, the same shameless fraud, the same thirst to enrich oneself, not by production but by the filching of others’ existing wealth.” Marx evokes here a thirst to enrich oneself not by way of production but by the thievery, fraud, etc., that is characteristic of the upper class as of the lumpenproletariat. However, one cannot say that the prostitute “steals” from the client, nor that the client “steals” from the prostitute. In this case what motivates Marx’s classification?

There are several possible ways to approach this question. I will only propose one: prostitution is an issue that occupied Marx throughout his work, while always remaining on the margins. It is possible to understand that the prostitute, like the criminal, is for Marx the lowest degree to which capitalism reduces human life. If prostitution can be envisioned from a capitalist point of view as criminal activity (the latter Marx, in Theories of Surplus Value, says it is a “producer” in the sense that it grants work to the judge, the locksmith, the criminologist, the scientist, etc.), these being activities where the individual has finally accepted the degree to which capitalism wants to reduce him, by dispossessing him not only of objective conditions that allow him to work, as is the case for the proletarian, but also of all the elements that form the basis for his “humanity.” The individual of the lumpenproletariat is in a way a person who has “ceded” their humanity, who has given up on the fight and on the resistance which constitute, for Marx, the productive activity, “this rude, but fortifying school of work,” (The Holy Family). This is a person who is ready to sell all of themselves, and finds themselves in “the situation of the lone and ruined proletarian, the last degree to which the proletarian falls when they have ceased to resist to the bourgeoisie’s pressure,” (German Ideology). From this we can understand that there is not, according to Marx, any emancipatory perspective to prostitution, which constitutes on the contrary a radical loss of the link attaching this “living organism” to their share of resistance and of humanity.

Marx is perfectly conscious of the violence in the relations of domination exercised over prostitutes women. He writes: “Prostitution is a relation where it is not only the prostitute who is degraded, but also the john, whose ignominy is all the greater,” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). If to Marx prostitution falls under the category of the lumpenproletariat and not that of the proletariat, this is not a condemnation of prostitutes but on the contrary a condemnation of  harmful work to women and a call for their emancipation from a situation to which they have been reduced. This emancipation of women should notably be brought about by the worldwide abolition of prostitution, which will be accompanied by social measures as well as by a full recognition of women in the social world of work.

If children made up a part of workers in the 19th century, some societies chose not to wait until the recognition of children’s rights: they chose on the contrary to simply withdraw children from the labor market. A ban on children’s work and work “harmful to women”: this is the position Marx defended in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in December 1878. If we were able to abolish children’s work without the need for a labor law, it is more than ever time that our societies and our fight arrives at the same result with regard to prostitution.

*Saliha Boussedra is a PHD candidate in Political Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, France.

Many thanks to Sarah Myers who translated from French into English for us!

This article is also available in Spanish here and also here

There is also a version in Portuguese here.

Article original : http://projet.pcf.fr/93934