10 February 2012

Freedom to earn a living as the core of emancipation?

In her 1938 essay, Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf writes, "... the right to vote, in itself by no means negligible, was mysteriously connected with another right of such immense value to the daughters of educated men that almost every word in the dictionary has been changed by it, ... You will not think these words exaggerated if we explain that they refer to the right to earn one's living. That, sir, was the right that was conferred upon us less than twenty years ago, in the year 1919, by an Act which unbarred the professions. ... Whatever the reason, whether pride, or love of freedom, or hatred of hypocrisy, you will understand the excitement with which in 1919 your sisters began to earn not a guinea but a sixpenny bit, and will not scorn that pride, or deny that it was justly based..." (Selected Works 2007 p.794)
Woolf zeros in on precisely this freedom to strive for an income as core to her conception of the emancipation of women. One could say that this is a bourgeois-liberal, indeed, capitalist right that unleashes individualism in yet one more sector of human living by infecting also the so-called female sex. Or one could point out that the right to earn an income is merely a reified kind of freedom because, after all, income is nothing other than reified value, and such is the element of nihilistic consumerism. Or one could object that the right to strive to earn a living guarantees no specific outcome, that is, that a woman will actually earn enough to live off for herself and her dependants, so that the freedom is hollow. All these objections could be and have been made from the Left. So wherein lies freedom? In the potential to risk a free life-movement? Or in material security, i.e. in the so-called 'freedom from want'? The word 'freedom' seems to be very adaptable (words can be twisted this way and that) to saying entirely opposed and contrary conceptions of what freedom is supposed to consist in. Woolf's thought on the bourgeois-liberal emancipation of women gives us something to chew on.


  1. Hi Michael, I think that if we do see such freedom (from, to) as a value then I would suggest it matters what the employment is itself for (what it makes or serves or does) and not just that a (fe)male is employed and earning a wage (whether pittance or banker-bonus-sized) and thus part of the labour market. That is only a valid (or invalid) comment as long as we see employment in terms of value (i.e., in terms of the market). The nihilistic sense of employment comes from the fact of the gestell (total mobilisation of the world, the industrial-military-technological complex), whereupon work is largely (if not only) pursued in order to order and secure further work. Same goes for war/armed peace. Work as the real war of the world: World War Zero.


    michael pennamacoor

  2. Hi Michael and thanks for your comment. Yes, the Gestell, and even the very thought of it, is totalizing, leaving no room for individual freedom of movement mediated by reified value (money, income, wages...).