The carefree society

by Rob Horning

14 December 2010


I attended this lecture at the New School yesterday given by economist Nancy Folbre about how capitalism has transformed patriarchy and how this has helped bring on the employment crisis. It wasn’t a discussion so much of the much-reported mancession of 2008-09 as it was a broader look at how the domestic and affective work long performed by women for nothing has increasingly become waged work, and also how such work continues to be performed by women who are also working other jobs. Women have gained “self-ownership” thanks in some part to the logic of capitalist individualism—they have been granted the opportunity to sell their labor power and hold property. This increased agency threatens the way capitalist societies have relied on women to do the work of social reproduction outside of the markets that are assumed to be natural to and rule all other forms of production and exchange. As women gain self-ownership, their view of the domestic work they perform becomes more capitalistic—they want to be paid for it, or rather pay other women to do it. The wages for such work is low, because the work itself is easily commodifiable and requires no formal education and can be performed by members of the underclasses.

In neoliberal ideology, it’s regarded as better to privatize welfare than use the state to pool risks associated with social reproduction. American society in particular has fostered an every-family-for-itself environment that intensified risks for everyone—if your parents lose the Alzheimer’s lottery, and you have to put them in a home, well, tough break for you. Don’t expect your neighbor’s tax dollars to help you out. If your company pulls out of the U.S. and lays everyone off, don’t expect anyone else to help put food in your kids’ mouths until you can’t find new work. Instead, you are presumably supposed to think about what gave you the right to have kids in the first place, if you couldn’t guarantee you could afford them.

As capitalism internalizes or subsumes more and more of everyday experience—as more and more of the traditionally unpaid work of social reproduction becomes reconceived as commodified, exploitable wage work—there’s less reason to want to do any of that for other ideological reasons (because it is fulfilling in one’s social role; because it’s morally satisfying; because it is pleases God; etc.). But someone’s got to do it, or else the system as we know it will inevitably end. The key question is who does this work, and for what reasons, for what sort of recognition. Capitalism—flying in the face of patriarchy, to some extent—tells us that money is the only form of recognition that matters.

In the neoliberal world, where the costs of social reproduction are not defrayed by the state but instead show up as costs carried unequally by every family (unless they can outsource it to cheap workers), affective labor—caring for children, the elderly, spouses, etc.; anyone other than yourself—becomes a sucker’s game unless you get some sort of payment for it. It represents an opportunity cost, especially since connectivity makes it so that we always can be working: domestic work is performed at the expense of the more lucrative work that is available to women with more-marketable skills. So the logic implies that the more mothering you do—the more time you spend parenting instead of something else—the poorer you will be. And birth rates drop. It’s easy to extrapolate these trends to a global capitalist world in which no one wants to be a mother and we all become inadvertent Shakers.

Of course, we may also try to get by with as little of this caring work as possible—to have a society where “caring” is automated in social networks as sharing self-broadcasts and pseudo-connection, but we spend as little time as possible actually caring for others in person. The friction of everyday life, ordinarily smoothed over by care work, could just ramp up and up, particularly if the online mediation of our productive lives sufficiently isolates us so that the friction doesn’t impede productivity. That is to say, there is no absolute amount of caring required to make capitalist society; it can always be squeezed, reduced, rationed with the price mechanism. As more care work becomes paid work and becomes priced, the more incentive we all have to economize on it. If caring is work—as capitalism’s logic encourages us to see it—then we have too much incentive to end it, and bring about a society in which no one cares about anything except themselves.

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