Demography and Women's Rights

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This email is from John Riddell, co-editor of Socialist Voice. He has given permission to republish it here. He stresses that these are informal notes, not a worked out article or analysis.

The June 29 New York Times Magazine features a significant article on population trends, entitled No Baby?

Discussion of demography is notoriously beset by racists, male chauvinists, nationalists, Malthusians, right-wing fundamentalists, and cranks. Nonetheless, the Times raises points of significance to women and, more broadly, working people. Here is what struck me:

  1. Birth rates in some advanced imperialist countries (Italy, Japan), some countries hit by economic disruption (Russia and eastern Europe) and some third-world countries with expanding economies (South Korea, Thailand) have fallen so low that societies face a disastrous decline in population: roughly, a fall of 50% in 40-50 years. A fall this rapid is historically unprecedented over such a lengthy period, and it is so extreme that it is not easy for the population to restabilize.
  2. This decline is not caused primarily by a desire among women not to have children, or by consumerism, moral decay, etc. The causes are mainly economic. The decline is sharpest in societies where the families of working people require two full-time incomes for survival, but where economic and social conditions also dictate that the mother has to stay at home to raise the children. In other words, economic forces are denying women a choice in whether to bear children.
  3. Experience shows that the most effective way to assure women’s right to choose to bear children is to implement longstanding women’s demands with respect to maternity and paternity leave, job flexibility, subsidized child care, and financial support of the costs of child-rearing.
  4. Immigration into the affected countries provides some relief to the capitalist economy by increasing the work force, but does not represent a permanent solution, since immigrants soon conform to the patterns of behaviour dictated by social and economic conditions in their host countries. And, as always, the ruling class is erecting ever-higher barriers to legal immigration while building up right-wing hysteria about Blacks, Muslims, Latinos, Asians, etc.
  5. Marxism claims that under capitalism, workers’ wages tend toward a historically determined subsistence level sufficient to maintain the workers and their families and raise a new generation of workers to replace them. Given the population statistics, we can only conclude that in many countries, workers’ wages (including social and educational benefits) have fallen below that subsistence level. This is happening not only in parts of the Third World but in some imperialist countries.
  6. Capitalism can find a possible solution for this problem that is not mentioned by the New York Times: the use of migrant labour. This is foreshadowed by Adriana Paz’s article on migrant workers in Canada in Socialist Voice.If the work force needed to keep up profits is imported as migrant contract labourers, this has many benefits for capitalism. The migrant workers contribute to taxes and retirement and other social programs, but have no entitlement to receive benefits from these programs. They have no families and thus do not require educational services. They are present in the host country only during their prime of life and thus place little demand on health services. If they get seriously sick, they are quickly shuffled off out of the country. If this is done on a sufficient scale, it would keep a capitalist country running as a going concern on the basis of semi-slave labour, even if the non-migrant documented work force fell to very low levels.

Finally, it’s worth emphasizing again that justified concern on this issue does not relate to the need to protect the so-called white race or European culture or family values. The issue for us is women’s right to choose and more broadly the rights of working people live free of exploitation.