Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale. In this post I will be covering the following topics: Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.
Offred: The Exploited Worker
Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor. What does this mean? On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced. The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point. Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger. Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary. For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself. If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.
Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value. Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars. Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour. His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either. What does this mean for Billy? In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased. Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor? McDonalds. As Marx explains,
The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.
So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss? Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions). Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens. In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:
[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labor.htm)
Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow. On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.
Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels. On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce. To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities. Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own. It belongs to someone else. During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her. While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered. This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care. Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity. Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products. When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer. Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others. These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers. From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:
The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature. He or she works to live instead of living to work. In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.
The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor. He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product. Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.
The worker is alienated from the means of production. The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions. These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.
The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers. The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working. Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital. Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.
By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids. You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander. While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children. These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth. The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163). Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).
What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers. They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have. As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […]. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176). Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product. She has become alienated from her essential humanity. This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids. She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to valued, girls. […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145). While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual. She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108). Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.
Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else. Products cannot care, after all, for other products. Someone else must consume the products. This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else. Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.
Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans. Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not. That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.
Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production. Sex occurs when she is most fertile. Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable. Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122). Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21). The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117). Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible. For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work. She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.
Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers. She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121). She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her. Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own” (95). The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires. There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life. Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.
There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”. Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander. Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women. Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood. Not that I expected it of him. Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]” (155). The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do. Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”. If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis. In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.