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.

Building a mass movement

[Content note: mentions of transphobia, sexual violence and violence against people of colour]

This was a line of thought which fell out of yesterday’s post, but that was getting quite long enough.

The article I quoted from, with its laundry list of stupid, trivial, oversensitive, left-destroying complaints, went on to lament that we’re not building a “mass movement” on the left. It’s a common question: post the glory days of compulsory unionism, how do we get thousands of people to march on Parliament and demand social change?

I have a question in response, though. How on earth do you folks expect to build a mass movement when you insist on ignoring – or not just ignoring, deliberately rejecting – issues faced by the majority of people in society?

“But we’re not!” they protest. “We just want to focus on things that really matter, material issues!”

As I’ve blogged about a lot previously, there are two problems with this “analysis”.

In no particular order, the first is that many of these “symbolic or linguistic” issues do really matter. It does really matter to trans people that they can be outed by airport security scanners, and that their bodies are publicly described as “anomalies” when it happens. The choice is: Travel, and be outed. Travel at the expense of being physically assaulted by strangers. Or refuse to travel, and lose your job or never see your family or go to Disneyland or do a hundred other things which cis people would consider “living a normal life”.

It does really matter to people of colour that ingrained, unconscious attitudes affect whether or not they get shot walking through their own neighbourhoods or arrested entering their own house.

It does really matter to women that society reduces us to sexual objects and promotes attitudes which allow our rapists or abusers to walk free – and to have those attitudes reinforced in a hundred different ways every day.

The second problem is that identity is a material issue. The labour of women and people of colour is undervalued – deliberately. Queer and trans people are marginalized in order to reinforce capitalist norms about heterosexuality and child-rearing.

Karl Marx and Friedrich bloody Engels had this stuff figured out.

And to get personal for an instant? When high-profile leftwing men call me crazy or irrational, or stroke their chins musing whether I’m a liability to the organisation I work for, damn straight sexism is a material issue for me.

Class is an identity. Identity is inextricable from class. The working class in New Zealand isn’t just a row of white dudes in cloth caps any more. It’s Pasifika women cleaning office buildings on the graveyard shift and Maori men and women in the meatworks and young people on zero-hour contracts at fast-food restaurants.

We have to treat them – and everyone else – as people. People with lives and families and interests and needs. Not just “workers” whose existence begins and ends at the shop door.

It’s not easy. But what should be easy, for people who are committed to fairness and justice and who can see that the imbalances of power in our society have to be overturned, is to be aware of the fact that life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t a one-dimensional foe. And if we’re open-minded to change and willing to acknowledge we’re not perfect and have plenty to learn, maybe people will start to see the left as a relevant political project again.

If that isn’t step one in building a mass movement, I don’t know what is.

 

I’ll drop identity politics when you present a solution

Life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t simple. And the ways we talk about oppression aren’t simple. Yet several times this week (this month, this year, this lifetime) I’ve seen concepts about identity and sexism and racism boiled down to practically nothing, by people who should know better.

Like trying to shut down a conversation about people of colour Anglicizing their names to succeed in white society – by co-opting trans activists’ arguments about name and identity. Forget the very real threat of violence or trauma which is posed by deadnaming trans people – it all boiled down to “it’s impolite”.

We don’t call trans people by their names because Miss Manners advised that it wasn’t proper. We do it because people’s lives are literally at stake.

Then there was this list presented as an exemplar of claims made by those of us on the left who stand for social justice issues.

Claims that doing yoga is impermissible cultural appropriation, arguments that we should drop phrases like “I see what you mean” because they’re ableist, the assumption that linking to Tweets constitutes violence but harassing and degrading people to the point of suicide is noble activism, filing Title IX claims against people for writing essays in major magazines, allowing your position to become synonymous with attacks on the right to free expression, claiming that you can fight capitalism and the state with hashtags — this is the behavior of a movement that cannot win. We cannot win that way.

Do some people say “all yoga is racist” or “all Twitter replies are abuse”? Probably. There are extremists, opportunists and downright silly people in every movement. And there are always people who don’t want to or can’t discuss these issues in a nuanced way.

But you know who else doesn’t get nuance? You on the left, who keep misrepresenting complex discussions about imperialism, commodification and global capitalism – when it applies to women or people of colour, at least – into “you’re ruining the left with your stupid over-sensitive demands.”

It’s bizarre to see otherwise intelligent/thoughtful/analytical people suddenly forgetting how to think. It’s like the spectre of “no white man can EVER criticise a black woman!” which gets raised every single time a white man is asked not to be horribly racist. There’s an absolute refusal to read past the headline and consider another perspective.

But let’s play that game. Let’s drop those trifling ~identity~ concerns like “is my labour undervalued because of my gender” or “am I at higher risk of physical violence because of how I look”. There’s a bigger failure here. Every time this “the left has lost its way because someone asked me not to be casually sexist at them” argument is raised, the lament is the same: we can’t win that way! We need to win!

And what’s missing, every time, is how you think we can win.

We hear a lot about finding out what people are comfortable with – meeting them where they are – but not what that actually entails in terms of strategy or tactics.

We hear that this approach won’t involve sacrificing our core principles – but never which principles you actually think are core.

I’m happy to talk about possible solutions, new strategies, different ways of doing things. I blog about Big Serious Sexy Material Politics all the time. But I don’t see new ideas coming from the complainers. I see a bunch of people in privileged positions whining that less-privileged people would like us to stop trampling them underfoot while we pursue The Great Leftwing Project.

I’m not stupid. I’m well aware that a lot of (but not all) political progress can only be made through electoral success. (Everyone is. Stop being a patronizing douche about it.) But the only suggestion I ever see from the centrists, from the white dudes, from the hand-wringing old guard, is: “shut up, you don’t understand that we just need to win, okay?” And then we keep chasing the centre and losing elections.

The way we’ve always done things isn’t working, chaps. So besides complaining about the fact it’s 2016 and the world has moved on from your comfort zone, what exactly do you propose doing?

You might want to talk about rebuilding the mass movement of the left. Let’s have a chat about that in tomorrow’s post.

Labour, identity, class and winning

Andrew Little’s speech to conference has had great feedback, topping off a pretty good weekend for the party. I was there when he delivered it, and the response in the hall was thunderous.

A few people who covered the conference have put their own framing onto it. Bryce Edwards declared “Andrew Little is killing Labour’s identity politics”. Martyn Bradbury pronounced “identity politics put on the naughty step for some time out”.

Perhaps we were at different conferences. Believe me, plenty of “identity politics” was discussed, openly, happily and constructively. The reason there’s no headlines about it is the people having those discussions did it away from the spotlight – for obvious reasons.

It’s the same old misunderstanding about identity politics and class politics: that identity isn’t a real thing, but class is an objective, clear determinant of someone’s place in society.

But it’s rubbish. One of the biggest challenges leftwing parties face these days is that pretty much everyone thinks they’re middle-class. People who are poor don’t want to be told they’re powerless victims, and people who are comparatively well-off just want to think of themselves as “ordinary people”.

To shamelessly steal an idea from Pablo Iglesias:

One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

Class can be a core part of who people are, or not important to their lives, just like any other facet of identity. More so, since the right have spent decades eroding class identities with their bootstraps analogies and framing – happily adopted by the left – of “middle” and “ordinary” New Zealanders.

We can’t reject a class analysis. We wouldn’t be the Labour Party without one. But in 2015 it isn’t the be-all and end-all of political thought.

I took two points from what Maryan Street said at conference. We can do more than one thing at a time, and:

Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.

I’ll go one step further. Not only are class, inequality, wealth and work un-distinct from gender, race, ability and all those pesky “identities” – they are the same thing.

How will Labour eradicate poverty in our country without addressing the fact that women are systemically paid less than men and are over-represented in many of the poorest paid industries? When women are still the primary caregivers of children, expected to put careers on hold for parenting?

How will Labour make sure Kiwis get the care they need when they need it and give our doctors and nurses and health workers the funding they need to do their jobs without looking at the infantilising red tape around abortion, or the utter lack of meaningful support for trans health care?

How do we modernise our education system so our kids are better prepared for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet without mentioning children with special needs or the entrenched disparities for Māori and Pasifika kids?

You won’t get very far changing the fundamental inequalities created by modern capitalism if you don’t understand that those inequalities, and the “identities” you want to kick out of the debate, are the same problem.

Why are women treated as a separate class? So we stay at home and have babies create new economic units, and if we wander accidentally into the workforce, we’re paid less to put downward pressure on all workers’ pay and conditions.

Why are gay or lesbian or trans or genderqueer people treated as separate classes and singled out for abuse? Because they mess up the whole heterosexual family structure which has babies creates new economic units.

Colonialism, and the impact it has on indigenous people of colour, is part and parcel of the capitalist need to constantly grow and consume land and resources.

I oversimplify greatly. But if you believe we can take serious action on poverty, on jobs, on the future of work, or on people’ aspirations for a better life without discussing “identity” politics, you don’t understand capitalism. And you certainly don’t get how to fight it.

Andrew said in his speech:

New Zealanders are sick and tired of a politics that’s defined by cynicism and devoid of ambition.

I’m sick and tired of the cynicism which says “women and minorities, go away, no one wants to hear you whining.” I’m sick and tired of the lack of ambition from so many leftwingers who say we can’t do more than one thing at a time, and we can’t care about anyone who isn’t like us.

Take what you like from Andrew’s speech. What I took from it is this.

The experiences I’ve had in my working life have taught me the type of leadership you need if you want to fight and win for progressive causes.

I learnt that it isn’t about making everyone happy or trying to avoid confrontation and disagreement.

Instead it’s about taking a stand because it’s the right thing to do.

Repost: Life isn’t fair. But it should be.

(Originally posted at On The Left.)

I was not an angelic child.

My mother has retconned her memory of my early years since I became an adult, and my grandmother delicately phrases it as “you were a little troubled”. The truth is I was a terror. When I thought something wasn’t fair, you heard about it. And when I was told “well life isn’t fair, Stephanie” it only made things worse. And louder.

These days, I blog.

It may be that Mum and Grandma only have themselves to blame. They raised me with far too strong a sense of justice, which revolted at any suggestion of accepting unfairness as an immutable fact.

Well before I could put it as eloquently as I hope I’m doing now, I knew it wasn’t good enough to say “that’s just the way things are” or “life isn’t fair”. If something was wrong, it was wrong, and importantly, it didn’t have to stay that way.

All the issues which resonate with me today – like workers’ rights, reproductive justice, poverty – are issues of justice and fairness. Because it isn’t just that workers be expected to exchange their labour for inadequate wages, and it isn’t just that people, predominantly women, are denied the right to choose whether they have children or not and under what circumstances, and it isn’t just that children go to school with empty lunchboxes while the CEO of ANZ gets paid $11,000 per day.

Those things simply are not fair. And I didn’t – and I don’t – care if life isn’t fair.

The structure of our society, the relationships we have with other people, and universal experiences we all go through – none of these things are set in stone, however long we’ve lived with them or how ingrained they are in our psyches.

So that was where I started, with a strong sense of justice and a belief that things can and should change.

That only got worse once I figured out the next step: those unfair structures aren’t accidental. The fact that they reinforce the power of the powerful and keep the oppressed oppressed certainly isn’t.

We live in a world designed so the powerful can maintain their power. And this is unjust.

This is the major reason why I’ve always been confused by the inherent conflict some people on the left see between “class politics” and “identity politics” (the second reason is because I think there’s a good case to be made that class itself is an “identity”, especially in the 21st century.) In the frame of justice, in the context of power structures conspiring to keep the majority down so the minority prosper in extravagance, we are all the same in the eyes of the powers that be. The only difference is that some of us are denied the fruits of our labour, and some of us are denied bodily autonomy (and get even less of the fruits of our labour), and many, many of us are kept hungry and desperate and alienated – far too preoccupied with the necessities of life to give a damn about deeper questions of political philosophy.

(There’s also the issue of intersectionality, i.e. the way the different oppressions and power structures of our society combine/multiply/reinforce themselves against many people.)

At the core, the oppressed are united in their oppression. It just takes different forms (and some of those forms are much worse than others.)

Of course reality is much more complex. The sad reality is that many people who are staunch activists on one axis of oppression can be pretty terrible on another (misogynist leftwing men, my god, you’re a problem.) And as someone who’s relatively privileged myself – Pākehā, cis, hetero, upper-middle-class, university-educated, currently able-bodied – it’s very easy for me to say “we’re all in this together”. So I’m not saying that. A lot of people have very good reasons not to throw their lot in with activists like me.

What I am saying is this: I’m on the Left because I do believe in justice. I know we can fight for it. I know life will always have its ups and downs. But by god, it should be fair.