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.

Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

books
It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.