Book review: Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

It’s almost a year since I wrote,

I’m almost finished reading Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? which absolutely nails this topic. Hopefully have a review up shortly!

A year is “shortly” in geological terms, isn’t it?

This was a difficult book, one which had to be read in fits and starts then put down for a few days or weeks or months and taken up again after the waves of righteous validated fury subsided. It’s just that good.

The premise, as I’ve described it to possibly every woman I know over the past year, is, “Well, modern economics views everyone as a rational, individual economic actor. But did you know Adam Smith lived with his mum for his whole life, even though his economic theories erase the unpaid work of women and social drives which meant he never had to cook his own dinner?”

It definitely catches people’s attention. It explains the title, it’s a catchy hook, and yes, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is absolutely, as the subtitle puts it, “a story about women and economics.” But it’s a lot more as well.

It’s about women, and men. Tax and the environment, employment and healthcare, the language we use, our existence as embodied/biological entities, Robinson Crusoe and Florence Nightingale. It’s about everything, because it’s about how economic thinking has infected our whole world and suppressed vital parts of our humanity – our social bonds, our emotions, our intrinsic values – holding up as the ideal a flawed “economic man” who reflects no real human being.

It’s about how we cannot solve any of these problems when our answers remain rooted in the same old economic model:

So far only half of the feminist revolution has happened. We have added women and stirred. The next step is to realise what a massive shift this has been, and to actually change our societies, economies and politics to fit the new world we have created. Wave economic man off from the platform and then build an economy and a society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be a human.

It’s about challenging even the standard thinking which opposes the rightwing/neoliberal/economic model (and yes, I do love that it’s about how even good old-fashioned class struggle has bought into the marginalizing of “women’s work”):

Dependency has for centuries been seen as shameful. It was something that slaves and women were …

But the workers’ movement redefined that which was previously called wage-slavery as a source of pride. Independence came to be defined as having a job with a salary that could support a family. Then one was doing one’s duty. So one could also demand rights.

Woman, on the other hand, couldn’t do this – because she was still dependent.

That for working-class men to be ‘independent’ by working full-time they had to depend on women to take care of the home was not a part of this history. Just as Adam Smith failed to tell us about his mother.

All this, and then some. No 800-word review can do it justice.

If I have a major criticism, it’s that the book focuses almost exclusively on gender, ignoring other lenses and perspectives and often using very essentialist language around women, especially in the area of reproduction. But that’s kind of necessary to the case: when our economic system erases women’s roles and holds up a strictly gendered ideal of Economic Man, it’s difficult to describe the problem without using those same tropes.

The writing itself is beautiful and the tone scathing. Part of what made the book so hard to finish was how unapologetically blunt Marçal is in her statements, punctuating her paragraphs with snappy codas:

Housework is cyclical in nature. Therefore, women’s work wasn’t an ‘economic activity’. What she did was just a logical extension of her fair, loving nature. She would always carry out this work, and so it wasn’t anything that one needed to spend time quantifying. It came from a logic other than the economic.

Out of the feminine. And other.

Or:

In one single person we have managed to collect all the characteristics that we for centuries have called ‘masculine’. Economists say this is a coincidence. Economic man only happens to come across that way. And anyway, we can fit women into the model if we want. Essentially all people can be reduced to this abstract, rational economic consciousness. Irrespective of sex, irrespective of race, irrespective of culture, irrespective of age, irrespective of social status.

What is this if not equality?

Sometimes you need a cup of tea and an episode of Person of Interest to let your brain and your heart recover from such rightness.

In short: damn fine book. It’ll inspire and anger you, make you question your assumptions, and feel amazingly validated in your principles. Just don’t expect to finish it in a weekend.

What do you reckon?

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