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[1], 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.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

27 thoughts on “Housework in Utopia

  1. As a house-husband these days I am a total inexpert on this subject. I noticed that if I was disciplined I could do all necessary tidying and cleaning on a 1 hour a day, seven days a week roster basis. This is for a family of four in a medium sized modern house. After doing this for several weeks and achieving a quite spotless and dustless house I became totally bored with it all and went back to my old slovenly habits. Now I do the bare minimum in all areas. However, we eat, are clothed in washed clothes, don’t trip over things everywhere and can usually find what we want.

    The bottom line (for me) is that housework, shopping, cooking etc. are completely tedious and unfulfilling so I do the bare minimum, live a bit messy and what the heck. I adopt the same policy for my small acreage. I save petrol by not ride-on mowing it to within an inch of its life each week. I let new self-sown trees and shrubs grow when and where they take root provided they are Australian natives (mostly gums and wattles) and not in totally inconvenient places. I let weeds and grass compete for the understory. Here I am a bit remiss as no doubt many of the weeds are introduced species. However, I feel spreading poison around or burning too much mower and slasher fuel would be a worse act.

    Left to my own devices (i.e separated, widowed or abandoned bachelor-curmudgeon) I would adopt an extreme minimalist approach to reducing housework. I’d have a small detached place with a roll-up, put-away futon to sleep on, virtually no furniture (certainly no lounge and dining furniture, no rugs, no ornaments, no knick-knacks, no pictures etc.).

    I would consider living with a “one of everything rule”. Thus whilst I would have one computer, one TV, one bicycle, one bookcase (bit of a cheat there) and one phone (maybe), I would also have only 1 spoon, 1 knife, 1 fork, 1 glass, one cup, one bowl, one dinner plate, one sandwich plate etc etc. I’d consider living within walking or cycling distance of a suburban shopping centre (ie almost anywhere in any suburb) such that I would not need to own a fridge. One could shop each morning and keep things in a home-made Coolgardie safe thru the day. But of course one would need to be a time-rich superannuated bludger like me to live like this.

  2. have you seen ‘Engines of Liberation’ by GREENWOOD, SESHADRI and YORUKOGLU?

    The dawn of the last century ushered in the Second Industrial Revolution: the rise of electricity, the internal combustion engine and the petrochemical industry.

    As this was happening, another technological revolution was beginning to percolate in the home: the household revolution. This introduced labour-saving consumer durables, such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. It also saw the introduction of other time-saving products, for instance, frozen foods and ready-made clothes.

    The impact of the household revolution was no less than the industrial revolution.

    At the turn of the last century most married women laboured at home. Now, the majority work in the market. they argue that technological progress in the household sector played a major role in liberating women from the home.

    Popular wisdom states that the increase in female labour-force participation was due to a
    narrowing of the gender gap or a change in social norms, spawned by the women’s liberation movement.

    This may well be true, but without the labour-saving household capital ushered in by the Second Industrial Revolution, it would not have been feasible for women to spend more time outside of the home, notwithstanding any shift in societal attitudes.

    p.s. tim robertson’s ‘worst jobs in history’ is an excellent show.

    p.p.s. my wife and sisters like to go to the supermarket. Men go to shop; women go to browse. an important early lesson in married life.

  3. I like the less is more approach of ALDI. Just about every store is identical and you can complete your shopping quickly because there is a hell of a lot less choice and floor space to traverse. It bets Coles where I end up pacing up and down the aisles trying to locate things amongst shelves with things like 50 choices of unhealthy breakfast cereals etc. I hate the minimalist trends in building exteriors, but I like interiors to be minimal for fast cleaning. Unfortunately I inherited a depression era habit of not throwing useless stuff away.

  4. To make things better for everyone in the medium term we should import more unskilled labour to do domestic duties — they would be leaving behind worse jobs than the ones they would free us from. Unless inequality is only acceptable when the poorer people are thousands of miles away.

  5. “Social norms”: The female fashion designers are ahead of your ‘no ironing’ objective, JQ. Crumpled and creased looks have appeared more and more during the past few years, first on summer skirts, now on jackets. On the other hand, the sari look has remained the same.

    “Feasibility”: A quite widely used definition of ‘feasibility’ is a state which is technologically possible and resource feasible. In the context of the ‘free market model’ with Pareto Optimality as the point of bliss, resource feasibility presupposes individual optimality for given preferences. Using this definition,

    Conditions 1, 2 and 4(b) mix technological possibilities with preferences (“attitudes”);
    conditions 3 and 4 may not be resource feasible for each and every member of a society.

    I assume it is the individuals’ resource feasibility condition you are driving at while other social conditioning approaches aim at changing preferences (eg adds showing happy looking faces of housewives using a particular washing powder or the many cooking programs). But then you seem to be wishing to change preferences too.

  6. Most interesting suggestions from Professor Quiggin. I could write for weeks about this.

    I think one means to reduce the amount of housework would be communal kitchens. In any community, where people get along and trust each other, why not have a communal kitchen and eating place and people take turns in cooking a basic, simple healthy, nutritious and appetising food without all the elaborate adornments found in á la cart restaurant menus or that people are expected to provide when they invite others to dinner?

    The economies of scale in food costs and necessary labour time would make this more than pay back the time and cost of setting this up …

    … except that what largely prevents this for now is that much of the publicly owned land and buildings that were once available to communities have been sold off in recent decades to private speculators and developers whilst the population-growth-driven Ponzi scheme has driven up the cost of land so much that it could now be prohibitively expensive for communities to obtain the necessary land and buildings.

    What would also help is for people to be able to grow their own food as many did in the now gentrified inner city parts of Brisbane when I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In parts of Australia where people are still able to live in free standing houses on fertile land and not in these insane and unsustainable high-rise prisons that are spreading over Australia (as a consequence of the afore-mentioned population-growth Ponzi scheme) there are communal markets where people can sell their own locally grown food to others.

  7. “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…”

    LOL! John! That’s hilarious! Only a “true bloke” could come up with such an idea, and presume it to be, on its face: A. Utopian B. Sensible C. Not generating howls of laughter.

    Reminds me of the philandering Aussie priest-professor’s jacket. I was offered it to wear on a visit, as I had not prepared for Melbourne’s cool days. Said priest-professor was appalled, nay, he was astonished and outraged, hurt to his core, that I, in my callow ignorance of “true bloke” customs, carefully did him a favor. I cleaned off the delectable mud that he had so carefully applied to said jacket over a couple decades of ownership by rolling in wallows, throwing it on the ground and tromping on it to give the proper fashionable patina granting him entry into bloke-dom.

    In a close second “only in Oz” debacle, I mailed said jacket home to its owner because I was dropped off at the airport in it, and forgot to hand it back before my host drove off. But, Aussie postal workers being dedicated to imitating decerebrate chimpanzees with Korsakoff’s, despite being clearly fairly intelligent members of the human race, they lost it, despite repeated visits to the post office looking for it. Months later it reappeared on my doorstep, correctly addressed, but marked undeliverable. I offered to resend by Federal Express. But by that time said philandering had been discovered. My contact asked if wannabe-ex (AKA philandering priest) wanted said jacket back, but lacking its years of delicious, blokeish mud, he declined to accept it. Turned out it was also a momento of their honymoon…

    It warms the cockles of me heart whenever I wear it. It warms me heart more deeply to know that said defiled “true bloke” jacket, is, in fact, a woman’s jacket. You see the zipper is backwards. 🙂
    I wonder if he ever knew?

  8. Shopping every three months? You shopaholic!

    OTOH, I quite enjoy ironing.

  9. I write sitting naked at my laptop in my one-bedroom flat, which is not maintained to 19th century domestic service standards, before having my morning shower and then donning my unironed track pants and t-shirt for work. This thread reminds me, somewhat drolly, of the dutiful Catholic Labor Right parliamentary staffer who blogged plaintively about having to iron a mountain of freshly washed t-shirts which were worn by the five children that his dutiful Catholic Labor Right wife had popped out before she was thirty.

  10. Said dutiful Catholic Labor staffer and wife were born on the cusp of Gen X and Gen Y.

  11. I happen to agree with JQ’s critique of ironing as it (the ironing) is bizarre, pointless, time wasting and energy wasting. Another contributor’s characterisation of late stage consumerism as “50 choices of unhealthy breakfast cereals” is spot on.

    There is a small window of hope that the looming resource and energy shortages will impose a true new productive austerity on us rather than the unproductive austerity of pro-cyclical budget policies. This new austerity will focus us on producing things we really need rather than well ironed clothes and 50 choices of unhealthy breakfast cereals.

  12. If you go to a modern dismembered carcasses of murdered slave animals shop, you’ll see that it’s designed to be quite easily cleaned. We could do the same for our bathrooms and kitchens if we wanted. Of course, there is an agency problem as the person buying the kitchen and cleaning the kitchen are usually not the same person. This is generally true even if the person buying the kitchen and cleaning the kitchen both inhabit the same body.

  13. there is a rosk-risk tradeoff:ironing as we know it will go away due to fabric treatments that eliminate wrinkles.

    formaldehyde-based reagents that have caused world-wide concern about their impact on human health and the environment.

  14. I guess your counter-intuitive Utopian vision of people in grubby houses wearing wrinkled clothes eating microwaved supermarket prepacks needs some kind of visual sexing up to catch on? It’s a tough brief. 🙂

  15. We can solve much of the ‘surfaces’ problem with oleophobic coatings that are much the same as on high end smartphones. Browsing around just now it seems that many such coatings are also hydrophobic. So now your bathroom tiles are almost cleaning free, and your other surfaces just need a wipe occaisionally.

  16. Lovely. Just lovely! 🙂 As a lesbian, that is indeed a vision. It is not quite utopia. That would be filled with a continent filled with lovely and so compliant ladies. But this vision of hordes of slovenly men making a fetish out of not doing housework – or even ironing?

    Delicious. I shall stand out all the better, standing willowy in a flower-wreathed doorway, my spotless home and garden behind me. In my pressed, form-hugging pants, perfectly ironed blouse and holding a silver platter dotted with chocolates I shall lure them. The Lovely, frustrated housewives, yearning for appreciation, I shall seduce them first with chocolate-orange-ginger sweets I made myself. I shall cluck and coo over them, hug them to my ample bosom and offer them a lavender bath in a marble tub followed by a sweet loll on the verandah surrounded by my flowers.

    They shall be mine, all mine, those myriad ladies crying out in desperation. I shall woo them, using every art, knowing the male of humanity to be cloddish, stinky, dirty and happiest when rolling in it.

    Sail on my bonzer lad! Sail on. More for me. 🙂
    La de dah dear!

  17. Each to their own, Ellen. I haven’t been on the market for a long time, but when I was, a well-stocked and thoroughly read bookshelf more than made up for the absence of gleaming benchtops and nicely-pressed shirts, at least for the women I was interested in.

  18. @Malthusista

    This exists in some form particularly in Nordic countries. The only quick ref I could find is Collective Housing

    It’s been a long time since I read anything about the topic but IIRC there is no reason to think it is limited to older people.

  19. I sometimes enjoy utopian shopping at an open air market on the weekend… It’s inner Brisbane but delightful under huge trees… Excellent Musicians play… We get takeaways & sit on the grass… I got an ‘old lady’ style trolley recently which has done away with dystopian heavy bag strain. You have to wear mud-friendly shoes often, and parking near is an art form, but the walking and collecting of good veg & various treats inspires appetite for cooking and takes it into the realm of recreation not drudgery. In spite of that I’m not averse to microwaving and have embraced those bags of ready cut up veg.

  20. Blokes Utopia – the genie pops out of the lamp without cleaning it first and then does the boring chores. I have been in those houses and it is always hard not to give offence when proferred a cup of tea in a chipped mug – which has just been rinsed out and wiped with a teatowel that may have seen the washing machine sometime in the last 6 months. Some have ideas of perfectly hygiene if it is just short of bubonic plague.

  21. Well, there you are, John.
    Nice to know thereare men about who appreciated the warmth radiated from a well stocked bookshelf. Wooster, being a lady, isn’t too bad in the housekeeping department, but she finds sublime delight in a bookish interior and a cozy lived-in atmosphere.

  22. Utopian slobs of the world, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your ironing and bathroom scrubbing chores!

    I think you’ve definitely got a concept with mass appeal here, JQ!

  23. @Jill – it doesn’t take a lot of time to replace chipped cups, or to pop them into the dishwasher from time to time. Ditto the teatowel. There’s a big gap between that and scrubbing surfaces until they gleam.

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