Housework in Utopia
The immediate reason for this post is the Crooked Timber discussion of my previous post on world meat supplies which morphed into a (mainly First World) arguments about cooking. But my bigger concern is the need for the left to offer a feasible utopian vision as an alternative to the irrationalist tribalism of the right.
My idea of feasible utopia is prosaic compared to some of the utopias that have grabbed attention in the past, but have led either nowhere or into disaster. On the other hand, it’s positively, well, utopian, compared to what’s on offer from Obama and Romney, or their counterparts in other countries. In essence, it’s an extrapolation of the course we seemed to be on from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, a mixture of social democracy, feminism and environmental sustainability applied to ever broader spheres of activity.
The central element of my idea of utopia is that everyone should be able to live decently, without being forced to spend a lot of time doing crappy jobs. That brings us pretty directly to housework, something most of us spend quite a bit of time on, and which involves a fair amount of crappy work, literally and figuratively.
If my conditions for utopia are to be feasible we need two things to be true. First, the total amount of crappy work has to be small enough that the average amount per person is not too large. Second, the work has to be organized so that no one actually has to do a lot more than their share.
The second condition is the one that’s politically interesting, of course. But unless the first, primarily technological condition is satisfied, there’s no point in talking about utopian politics, at least in the way I want to talk about it. So, I’m going to focus on the technology of housework.
For any of the tasks we think of as housework, there are four possibilities I can think of,
(1) we can do it ourselves, as a crappy chore
(2) we can do it ourselves, as an enjoyable and fulfilling avocation
(3) we can do it using a technological solution that involves little or no labour
(4) we can contract it out to a specialist worker, who may in turn either (a) enjoy the work or (b) find it just as crappy as we do
In the case of cooking (or food preparation more generally), which caused a lot of angst in the previous thread, all four possibilities are easy to see. I’ll spell them all out in comments if necessary, but for the moment it’s enough to treat the typical fast-food restaurant as the exemplar of 4(b). My view of utopia, contrary to quite a few people in the previous thread, that all of these possibilities except (1) and 4(b) are fine.
A lot of the angst around cooking concerned the idea of eating food produced through industrial processes that don’t involve much labour. It’s true that, under current circumstances, such food is likely to be unhealthy. But that doesn’t need to be the case – even now there are plenty of alternatives that make a point of being healthy.
Moreover, it’s easy to improve on the basics with a combination of the options. A typical low-effort dinner at our house might combine a meat item bought ready-to-cook from the butcher (say, a rolled roast, beef wellington, or kebab), microwaved vegetables (a combination of fresh and frozen) and baked vegetables (fresh onions and frozen potato mini-roasts). Someone who enjoys cooking and is willing to put in an hour or two of effort could doubtless do better. But I don’t see that I’m failing as a human being if I take the easy option I’ve described. And the effort required for the butcher to prepare the meat item is much less than the same job would take at home.
Looking a bit more broadly, the picture is mixed. The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the 1950s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on), eliminated a huge amount of drudgery, but technological progress for the next forty years or so was pretty limited. The only truly significant innovation I can date to this period is the microwave oven.
At the same time, the great decline in inequality freed lots of working class women from doing the chores of others, as well as maintaining their own homes. Those same tasks, eased by technology but still burdensome, were shifted onto middle-class women who would previously have employed servants.
How likely is it that new appliances will resolve the remaining problems of household labor? We just acquired a vacuum cleaning robot which is a real boon, and there are versions that are supposed to clean tiled floors as well.
In other cases, there are less direct solutions. Technological progress in the clothing industry means that it no longer makes economic sense to sew your own clothes, or even to mend them. So, these are now jobs that fit into category (2) – to the extent that we do them it’s because we enjoy them. Similarly, while the bugs still need to be ironed out of online shopping, particularly for groceries, it won’t be long before no one needs to visit a physical shop unless they enjoy the experience (once every three months is about optimal for me!).
That still leaves a number of inescapably physical and essentially crappy jobs, for which technology has yet to offer a solution. The obvious examples for me are cleaning (surfaces, baths, toilets etc) and ironing (not such a problem if, unlike me, you can do it while watching a video/TV). Something these tasks share, and which is true of a lot of crappy jobs, is that we do a lot more than is actually necessary. Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.
So, a final part of my idea of utopia would be the institution of social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work. In my utopia, a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch – a mixture of anachronistic admiration with disapproval of the process by which it was produced, with the latter element predominating over time.
I haven’t done the numbers yet, but it seems to me that with a bit of technological progress and a sensible attitude, we could get the requirement for household crapwork below an hour a day, which even utopians should be willing to live with.
fn1. For this post, I’m going to ignore childraising, which raises a whole lot more issues, and which seems to have changed a lot since I was directly involved.