Sunday, March 14, 2004

Wages of Wealth: All This Progress Is Killing Us, Bite by Bite

The litany:

When Americans have more than enough money to buy food, they buy more food.
When they have more than enough money to buy cars they buy SUVs.
When they earn enough to live comfortably they work longer hours.
And, one might add, even when they're healthy enough they obsess about their bodies, frequent chiropractors and acupuncturists, and dose themselves with herbal teas to get even healthier.

The problem isn't American affluence but American puritanism which obscures the obvious truism that when the necessities are taken care of you can stop thinking about them and enjoy yourself. When you have enough food to live, you can stop thinking about food; when you earn enough to live comfortably you can buy leisure.

The whole purpose of affluence is liberation from those miserable necessities: eating, working, getting from place to place, dealing with the dull business of life, so that you can engage in "liberal pursuits"--literature, the arts, travel, crafts, sports and learning for its own sake.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Spain united in sorrow and anger

Who done it? Islamic revolutionaries? Basque nationalists? Or a bunch of working class youths out for a good time? At least the spontaneous mass demonstrations send the message that most of the world is thoroughly sick of terrorism: revolutionary chic is over.

For the past four decades cute little revolutionary groups could count sympathy and support from right-thinking left-wing Americans and others intent on registering a protest against colonialist imperialism, capitalism and white, western, male hegemony. Any nationalist movement could be squeezed into the Revolutionary Template as an oppressed racial-ethnic-religious minority fighting for independence against colonial-oppressive-privileged overlords. Jewish settlers in Palestine against the British mandate, Algerians against the French, Irish Catholics against Irish Protestants, Mau Mau against the colonial government and, more recently, everyone against the American Cowboy. Any street gang or band of thugs could gain support by making ideological noises, preferably Marxist, as the Black Panthers discovered.

Now it's wearing a little thin. Spain is a respectable EU country and the Basques are not an oppressed minority group struggling for independence against an oppressive racist, colonialist regime.

I have nothing against violence per se: if the benefits outweigh the costs so be it. But what have these revolutions accomplished and how do the states of affairs they're brought about compare with other possible worlds? Without Soviet subsidies, Cuba is an economic basket case. Israel is a land-hungry racist state, perpetually at war. Kenya is an impoverished, corrupt, crime-ridden hellhole. The US, with all its natural resources and other advantages, is a socially backward anomaly amongst affluent nations where 40% of the population is functionally illiterate and there are beggars in the streets. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are doing much better. As for the goals of the Islamic revolution , there is nothing to recommend them: the aim is to expunge Western influence and turn the Islamic world into a puritanical theocracy.

Anyway, I'm making a bet now, though not a big one: I don't think that Eta or Al-Qaida as such was responsible for the bombings in Spain. I think it was a group of young lower-class males, a street gang, with a few romantic middle class hangers-on, who picked up an eclectic assortment of ideologies and possibly some financial support from "revolutionary" groups.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Atlantic | March 2004 | How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement | Flanagan

This is yet another wallow in liberal guilt about what is supposed to be the Original Sin of feminism: shifting the burden of domestic work to poor women, immigrant women and women of color. It rehearses the stock confession of the aging Yuppie (if that isn't an oxymoron): I hired a nanny, but I knew what I was doing, am ashamed of myself, and do all I can to be nice to my nanny to make up for it.

What is uniquely bad about domestic work is that, for the most part, it hasn't been captured by the capitalist net. Women who hire nannies, "housekeepers" and cleaning women don't regard what they're doing as an impersonal market transaction. They construe it as part of an archaic quasi-feudal arrangement of patronage and servility and, if they are right-thinking liberals, exascerbate the feudal character of the arrangement by striving to be good patrons.

We don't worry about hiring gardeners to mow the lawn or plumbers to unstop our toilets or dentists to fix our teeth. We don't feel that we have to make up for the arrangement by establishing personal, quasi-familial relationships with them. We don't take an interest in our plumbers personal lives or give our dentists cast off clothing or assume that we're doing gardeners a favor by chatting with them.

But domestic servants are another matter. Women assume that domestic work is inherently degrading, that it essentially involves a personal relationship of patronage and servility in a way that gardening, plumbing and dentistry don't, and that it has to be sweetened with compensation beyond monetary payment. Yet ironically what makes domestic work humiliating is precisely the fact that senoras and servants don't construe their arrangement as an impersonal market transaction.

Child care and cleaning are bad jobs, though not nearly so bad as most jobs women can get--data entry, waitressing or cashiering. But they aren't degrading unless we make them so--as we do when we attempt make up for the arrangement by being nice and taking an interest. We know that we're not doing the dentists, stockbrokers or lawyers whose services we buy a favor by taking a personal interest in their lives or making conversation with them: we know that if we do we're prying and wasting their time. It is the assumption of privilege that blinds us to the fact that when we do the same with nannies and maids we're not doing them a favor either, and that by treating them differently from other workers whose services we buy we perpetuate the system of patronage and servility.

There is no practical way of eliminating shit work. The best we can do is see to it everyone has a fair opportunity to avoid it and that those who can't avoid it are fairly treated and decently paid. As for us good liberal feminists, the best we can do is recognize that nannies are on a par with gardeners, plumbers and dentists, providing services for a fee, and that well-meaning attempts to sweeten the bitter pill are insulting, patronizing and burdensome to the women who do these jobs.