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.


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.

The base is what you build on

all your base

An easy way to dismiss the success of a staunch leftwing candidate (like Jeremy Corbyn, who is evidently providing all the inspiration for my posts this week) is to write off their internal supporters as “just” party diehards – not real people.

The local “centre-left commentator” peddling this line will not surprise anyone.

The basic tenet of centrist politics is the centre is fixed; we must move to occupy it. The left disagrees: we think the centre can be moved; the question is how.

That’s where the base comes in.

We’ve all heard the eye-rolling dismissal of bloggers and Twitterati and “social media echo chambers”. And it’s correct, to a small extent. There’s a certain type of person who has the resources, time and inclination to gabble on about politics online. They aren’t legion. They don’t represent ~the average voter~.

But for Labour, they’re the base. They’re the people who talk politics away from their keyboards, with friends and family and coworkers. They’re the people who give up evenings running phonebanks or weekends door-knocking or putting up hoardings or waving signs at the side of the road.

The National Party provides an interesting comparison. We’ve only recently started to see the rumblings from their base (at least, the Auckland chapter of it). But they can’t be happy. Key’s popularity is built on slick media management, invisible dirty politics, and swallowing plenty of dead rats. He hasn’t been benevolent, by any means, but despite our worst fears, he hasn’t gone all-out on the privatisation/extinction of the public service/strip-mining the economy for foreign interests front either.

That’s got to be pissing off the kind of Tory who after nine long years of Clark’s rampant socialism longed for some union-smashing poor-bashing environment-obliterating vengeance. Instead, classic National policies like Jami-Lee Ross’ strike-breaking bill have been shut down out of sheer pragmatism: it threatened the reasonable, even-handed facade they used to push through unfair employment law reforms.

Why doesn’t National worry about annoying their base? What they have, and Labour doesn’t, is money.


National can buy every billboard in the country. They can run super-slick ads all over the place (even if they don’t apparently pay musicians for the use of their intellectual property.) They can hire as many local halls and drive as many branded buses around the streets of their electorates as they like. They can pay off stale old MPs to ensure lots of fresh faces are coming up through the ranks.

Visibility isn’t the only thing that matters in an election, but it does matter. And where National can get its message across with money, Labour has traditionally done it through sheer, well, labour.

It’s basically a metaphor for the whole left/right worker/bourgeois struggle, innit?

Let’s accept the idea that Labour activists don’t reflect the views of enough voters to form a government. Let’s even accept the idea that we can magically convince those voters that we agree with them on everything without compromising our basic principles. The point is that Labour can’t reach those voters without its base. No point agreeing with them on everything if they never hear about it.

But why would Labour’s base, those silly lefties with their silly principles, keep grinding on trying to sell a moderate/unfrightening/uninspiring message which has only led to increasingly terrible election results?

Here’s another thought: more and more Kiwi voters aren’t showing up on election day. Maybe they skew left, maybe they align with the voting population as a whole. But they need a reason to turn out, and turn out for Labour. Unless someone dies and leaves a whopping bequest, the people giving voters that reason will be Labour’s base. They’re going to work a lot harder for a leader they believe in, who gives them a reason to be proud of their party and hopeful for the future of their country.

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has seen 15,000 new members join the UK Labour Party in a single day. Maybe he will have a big job ahead convincing ~average voters~ that he’s not a dangerous threat to national security. I doubt it, but if so, it’ll be a hell of a lot easier with that many people to help him.

And now, a song that got unaccountably stuck in my head while writing this post.

The focus on paid work

We talk about paid work a lot in NZ politics. It’s the cure for any societal ill you care to name: poverty, mental illness, economic growth, domestic violence. But the reality is, many people cannot be in paid work. And  it’s not the be-all and end-all of a person’s life.

I was reminded of this by a recent Captain Awkward post about the anxiety created for people who aren’t in paid employment when faced with the small-talk staple of “so what do you do?” or “where do you work?”

There are some great suggested responses, and also a few ideas for those of us doing the asking – what about saying “what do you do for fun?” or “what keeps you busy?” if you’re looking for something innocuous to talk about?

But there’s a wider political point. The focus on paid employment – especially full-time, permanent work – has a tremendous impact on our attitudes and policies. That’s where you get phrases like “the deserving poor” – because we can’t want to help everyone living in poverty, just the ones who make the grade.

That’s what gets dogwhistled by the phrase “hard-working Kiwis” – it’s not a line used to talk about people who volunteer at local charities or are at home raising children with disabilities. When a politician says “hard-working Kiwis”, they’re inviting you to compare yourself to those other people who don’t work hard (and just want a handout, and spend it all on fags and booze, etc etc).

Paid work is important. But so are the many unpaid forms of work which people do. Raising kids. Volunteering at community organisations which provide vital services for families, victims of crime, migrants. Organising local events and helping maintain our environment. Some of those services probably should be provided by the government; they’re not luxury extras. But for now, they rely on unpaid labour, and a lot of the time it’s actually not feasible for it to be done by people in full-time paid work.

It is possible to talk about helping people into paid work – when it’s feasible for them – and about the importance of secure jobs, good wages and conditions, and job creation. But it’s also possible to do that without implying that people who can’t or don’t work are less worthy of dignity and self-respect.