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Preface to Delphy's For a General Theory of Exploitation

Miri Davidson25 August 2015

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A resurgence of interest in social reproduction theory has presented new ways of understanding gendered labour under capitalism. The political economy of Christine Delphy offered an important starting point for such questions, but remains little known in the Anglophone world. 

A translation of the Preface to Delphy's 
Pour un théorie générale de l’exploitation [For a general theory of exploitation] (2006), by Isabelle Courcy and Melissa Blais, is below. Translated by David Broder; original French text here

The different forms of exploiting labour today

In Quebec, Christine Delphy is often presented as one of the first feminists in France to have denaturalised ‘sex’, and consequently as a pioneer in conceptualising gender. Less common are the presentations that emphasise her contribution to political economy.

And yet, beyond identifying the pitfalls in Marx’s theories of economics and the relations of exploitation, Christine Delphy also counts among the first people to have thought through the articulation of the patriarchal, capitalist and racist systems of exploitation, underlining what many forget: the persistence of the feudal mode of production and of serfdom.

Targeting the blind spots of any conceptualisation of the patriarchy as a ‘system of oppression, period’, Christine Delphy insists that the family is also a site of economic exploitation. Women are not only oppressed, but also exploited in the domestic economy. The sociologist does not only confront ‘bien pensant’ Marxism, but also re-questions certain feminist claims, notably those concerning ‘reconciling work and family’ or ‘sharing tasks’, and even dares to say that the system of subsidised childcare is a mirage from the viewpoint of women’s liberation.

That is the whole power of Christine Delphy’s analyses: she is tenaciously committed to making the invisible visible (notably the exploitation of women and of slaves), and she shakes up policies that seem almost universal in the feminist milieu by showing their other side, refusing the comforts of any ‘ready-to-go’ feminism. Reading this collection, you can be sure of a consistent focus on the utopia of a world without exploitation. So it is with rigour, pertinence and a good dose of polemic that Delphy lays the basis for a general theory allowing a true (re)thinking of exploitation.

Confronting ‘bien pensant’ Marxism

Right from the start, a shock-phrase attacking dogmatic Marxism with full force: for this dogma, ‘it’s surplus-value or nothing’. Christine Delphy specifies that the theory of surplus-value is a particular theory that allows for the mechanisms of a particular exploitation (wage-labour) to be brought to light. She thus criticises the pretence – at least in French progressive circles – that this can be generalised, when in fact it has the effect of silencing discussion of systems of exploitation other than capitalism, or rather, other than exchange in a market economy.

More broadly, Delphy delves into the conditions that determine the inscription of this theory as a ‘progressive’ perspective. Indeed, the sociologist reminds us that Marx subscribed to the notion of ‘progress’; if he reduced exploitation to capitalist relations alone, this was because his interpretation of history conveyed the idea that from the Middle Ages to modernity, class conflicts had allowed the transformation of economic structures such that serfdom and other ‘archaic’ forms of the extortion of labour were doomed to disappear. This supposedly left the terrain open to the only system where the appropriation of labour is realised by way of the wage exchange: capitalism.

Christine Delphy aptly demonstrates how Marx’s search for a modern ‘scientific’ understanding led him not only to base his thought on a view that saw human societies in terms of ‘progress’, but also to mobilise the vocabulary and analytical framework of modern economists. The development of an ‘economic-scientific’ language effectively encouraged a certain ‘Marxist positivism’ among his successors, in which the explanatory model is taken for the reality. The model is thus itself sufficient – and moreover, it is very difficult to verify empirically. Christine Delphy successfully demonstrates the weakness of such a theoretical edifice based on adding one element on top of another.

But that is not the essential part of her critique. As we mentioned above, the problem is that placing capitalism at the centre of the analysis of exploitation masks the other forms of domination, thus reducing or even denying the significance of gender and racism; as such, the viewpoint of dominated people other than wage-labourers is also diminished, and their struggles are at best considered secondary, and at worst denigrated or consigned to oblivion.

Moreover, Christine Delphy shows that slavery in general and domestic slavery in particular (the corvée, forced labour, etc.) are modes of extorting labour for free, which have reigned and continue to exist in updated forms. The sociologist thus warns us that feudalism is not dead – far from it! As such, the contemporary instances of slavery or even of the extortion of women’s labour within the family are evidence enough of the need to shift our analysis away from exploitation in capitalist terms, and to challenge the universal applicability of the notion of ‘surplus-value’ as the unique ‘measure’ of exploitation.

According to Christine Delphy, this positivism also contradicts Marxist epistemology – that is, standpoint epistemology. The resonance of this epistemological critique comes from the proposition that she in turn suggests: in adopting the standpoints of the dominated, why not go back to the general framework of ‘class societies’? The appropriation of labour as read by Marx thus becomes one of the touchstones of the general theory of exploitation that Christine Delphy enjoins us to consider.

Thinking exploitation in all its forms

Christine Delphy’s contributions are rich and numerous. Even if she had limited herself to the critiques that we have mentioned briefly above, her contribution to feminist studies, the sociology of labour and political economy (to mention only some fields of study) would be a considerable one. But on the contrary, Christine Delphy has committed herself to a project to lay down the necessary bases for elaborating a general theory of exploitation.

Basing her thought on a materialist reading of social relations, she emphasises the need to delve into the whole ensemble of relations that concern the appropriation of labour. A sine qua non condition for this is to take account of the modes of extorting labour that do not enter into the ‘economy’ in the modern Western sense of the word, and which could wrongly be considered a matter of the past. Here, these oft-unconsidered forms of extorting labour underline the importance of the sociologist’s proposition that the definition of exploitation be liberated of its economistic blinkers.

According to Christine Delphy, one thing needs to be recognised right from the outset: namely, that all kinds of exploitation use – of course, to differing degrees – similar mechanisms linked to the extortion of labour. For her, the pertinence of a shared vocabulary emerging from the general framework of class societies is impossible to ignore in comparing the different systems of exploitation and drawing out their common principles as well as their specificities. But the sociologist is careful not to impose another explicanda in turn: there may be mechanisms that are common across one or another system, but the modalities of the extortion of labour implemented in each case are more often than not particular (at the same time as they are comparable).

On the one hand, there is the labour that is appropriated in exchange for remuneration (the capitalist system), but there is also, on the other hand, the unpaid labour for which the ‘direct’ producers receive nothing in exchange other than their upkeep (or little but that). A general theory of exploitation has to expose these different modalities of the extortion of labour (patriarchal, slavery, serfdom) without however trying to present them a priori in a unifying theory that is only structured around their similarities.

In her theorisation of the domestic economy, Christine Delphy aptly demonstrates how work in the household is a modality of patriarchal exploitation. With numbers to the ready, she eloquently emphasises that the more tasks there are to be carried out within a heterosexual household, the less – proportionally – that men do them. Christine Delphy’s exposition forces us to admit that this is a labour carried out for free, and that this is a question of appropriation. As she emphasises, to say that women’s work in the domestic economy has no value is an illusion, because it is accorded a value when it is exchanged for wages in a market economy. Indeed, the fact that it is done for free – and thus the absence of exchange – is what makes it appropriated labour. It is not the capitalist class, but the class of men, that here appropriates women’s labour.

Christine Delphy adds an indispensable element to the previously established bases for elaborating a general theory of exploitation: namely, the porousness of the borders between the different forms of exploitation and thus the coexistence of social relations. Her contribution in this regard is a substantial one, as becomes clear from her works on the imbrication of capitalism, serfdom and patriarchy [1].

Refusing the comforts of ‘ready-to-go feminism’ 

Christine Delphy deplores the fact that feminists – taking the model of Marx and his successors – reproduce the pitfalls of reducing all forms of exploitation to capitalist exploitation only. Not only the domestic economy and the exploitation of women’s labour, but also the different forms of so-called ‘modern’ slavery and serfdom – whose scope is widely underestimated – thus go ignored. Indeed, not only do serfdom and slavery continue to exist in Africa, Latin America and Asia, but they are particularly present in agriculture, which employs 80 percent of the world's population. These people, the majority of them women, but also children and men, are not exploited by the capitalist-wage form. Rather, they owe their labour to a husband, father, brother, uncle or boss, who ‘in exchange’ gives them nothing more than their upkeep, that is, the basic necessities of their survival.

More specifically, Delphy elaborates on the question of household labour and her egalitarian feminist reading of the ‘asymmetrical distribution’ of domestic tasks among men and women. For example, to state that the problems related to ‘sharing tasks’ in the family can be explained by men’s ‘lack of time’ – occupied with earning their wages – is to ignore entire aspects of social reality. Delphy retorts, ‘[This explanation] considers only the male population, ignores women, and constructs a theoretical model on the basis of the particular case of the married-man-who-does-nothing-or-almost-nothing, a model that suggests that all the worker’s time (a supposedly unsexed worker, but in reality a very gendered one) is absorbed by paid activity’ [2].

The persistence of the unequal division of domestic tasks cannot be explained by factors of a psychological order; rather, it ought to be explained on the basis of social institutions (the state, marriage, heterosexuality) and the gendered culture that prop up and perpetuate the sexual division of labour. Christine Delphy’s exposition unambiguously demonstrates that the tax system and numerous ‘pro-equality’ policies in fact contribute to the extortion of women’s labour in the family or the heterosexual couple. She dares to point out the dubious relationship between the French system of subsidies for childcare and the class of men, aptly denouncing what the state is really subsidising, namely ‘men’s capacity to devote all their time to their work or their goods without it costing them anything financially’ [3].

And she doesn’t stop there. Delphy proposes paths of activity in order to shake the institutional pillars that generate and reinforce the asymmetrical distribution of household labour among men and women. Fundamentally, it is still necessary for the feminist movement to recognise that ‘men enjoy privileges that are by definition unwarranted ones, and it is necessary to strip them of these’ [4].

While Delphy bases herself on measures introduced in French society, her exposition necessarily incites us – activists and people working in the university – to reproduce the same exercise for the Quebecois state. This is a crying necessity, considering that year after year the statistics show that women are doing more than men, whether they are employed or not and whether they are single or in a couple. Delving into the figures we can see that women without a job devote – on average – 166 percent more hours a week to household tasks than do their male partners who are employed. Whereas men without a job whose female partners are employed in full-time paid work devote only 4 percent more time to household tasks than these women do [5].

Reading Christine Delphy’s arguments, there is every reason to think that despite the specificities proper to each case (France, Quebec), the dominant factor is the similarities in their complicity in the extortion of women’s labour. In Quebec, this is still open ground to be built on.

In short, Christine Delphy’s analyses presented in this collection are an absolute must for whoever refuses to reproduce the pitfalls of an analysis of labour reduced to the wage relation alone, contributing to edifying a general theory of exploitation.


[1] See, among others, Christine Delphy, L’ennemi principal, Vol. 1, Paris, Syllepse, 1998.

[2] See the first part of this book, ‘Par où attaquer le “partage inégal” du “travail ménager”’, p. 51

[3] Ibid., p. 62

[4] Ibid., p. 66

[5] Évelyne Couturier and Julia Posca, with the collaboration of Chloé Dauphinais, Tâches domestiques: encore loin d’un partage équitable, IRIS, October 2014, p. 3,

Mélissa Blais is a sociology PhD candidate lecturing at the Institut de recherches et d’études féministes, and a researcher at the Groupe interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l’antiféminisme (GIRAF) at the Université du Québec in Montreal. She has published J’haïs les féministes! Le 6 décembre 1989 et ses suites (Remue-ménage, 2009). She also co-edited the books Le mouvement masculiniste au Québec. L’antiféminisme démasqué (Remue-ménage, 2008) and Retour sur un attentat antiféministe,
École Polytechnique de Montréal, 6 décembre 1989 (Remue-ménage, 2010).

Isabelle Courcy has a sociology PhD from Montreal’s Université du Québec. She is currently carrying out a post-doc at the University of Ottawa. She is a member of the Réseau québécois en études féministes (RéQEF). Her research interests concern social inequalities, domestic labour and women’s health. She has published numerous articles on the ‘invisible’ labour of mothers of children who have received diagnosis of autistic-spectrum disorders (see among others Nouvelles questions féministes, 2013, 32, 2).

Pour une théorie générale de l’exploitation was published by Syllepse and M éditeur.

Information and screening dates for Florence Tissot and Sylvie Tissot’s films, ‘Je ne suis pas féministe, mais...’ and ‘L’Abécédaire de Christine Delphy’ are here.

Christine Delphy is author of Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror.