Over the weekend, while browsing the shelves of a bookstore, I picked up a book with a promising title: Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. Its author, Shannon Hayes, argues with passion and with telling and appealing examples that families should step out of our badly-oriented, self-destructive consumerist culture, and seek to achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency within the contexts of community by eschewing the consumptive ethic and the corresponding felt need of both spouses – or, indeed, either – to “succeed” in the corporate rat-race. She recommends a shared life of living and working mainly within one’s own household: growing and making one’s own food, repairing one’s modest possessions, living frugally, and creating one’s own entertainment. While framing her argument as one drawing from “progressive” impulses aimed at “social justice,” it might easily be categorized as a companion volume to Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, essentially a traditionalist rejection of a modern utilitarian, consumptive ethos.
In an article explaining the book’s thesis, the following is excerpted:
The Origins of Homemaking: A vocation for both sexes
Housewives and husbands were free people, who owned their own homes and lived off their land.
Upon further investigation, I learned that the household did not become the “woman’s sphere” until the Industrial Revolution. A search for the origin of the word housewife traces it back to the thirteenth century, as the feudal period was coming to an end in Europe and the first signs of a middle class were popping up. Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains that housewives were wedded to husbands, whose name came from hus, an old spelling of house, and bonded. Husbands were bonded to houses, rather than to lords. Housewives and husbands were free people, who owned their own homes and lived off their land. While there was a division of labor among the sexes in these early households, there was also an equal distribution of domestic work. Once the Industrial Revolution happened, however, things changed. Men left the household to work for wages, which were then used to purchase goods and services that they were no longer home to provide. Indeed, the men were the first to lose their domestic skills as successive generations forgot how to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood.
As the Industrial Revolution forged on and crossed the ocean to America, men and women eventually stopped working together to provide for their household sustenance. They developed their separate spheres—man in the factory, woman in the home. The more a man worked outside the home, the more the household would have to buy in order to have needs met. Soon the factories were able to fabricate products to supplant the housewives’ duties as well. The housewife’s primary function ultimately became chauffeur and consumer. The household was no longer a unit of production. It was a unit of consumption.
That is, what we today call “freedom” or autonomy is a kind of enslavement to outside powers, the replacement of old lords (aristocrats) with new corporate lords (“meritocrats”). Our cognitive dissonance comes from the fact that we confuse being “bonded” to the home as a kind of bondage, when in fact it is the true source of our freedom. Only by being productive and relatively self-sufficient within our households and communities are we truly liberated from those outside powers that see us only as fungible asset collections to be bled. The current rage of the Tea Partiers, and even that by some increasingly on the Left who begin to understand that Obama is a pawn and enabler of those corporate powers (e.g., Frank Rich), have not been able to adequately explicate the precise form of our bondage, because the language of freedom and autonomy to which they would appeal has been so degraded for the past half-millennium. The Tea Partiers, in particular, direct much of their rage against the government, which – while a proper object in many particular respects – misses the more fundamental target, which is the perverse and destructive wedding of big government and big business in their shared effort to make us new serfs. Their rightful rage needs a better articulated object.
The only major shortcoming of the book that I have so far detected is a confusion of categories – throughout the book, Hayes claims that her argument in defense of the home is essentially “progressive.” What she calls “progressive” is, in fact, profoundly conservative, reaching back to the arguments at the heart of Catholic distributist theory at least since the 19th-century. Unfortunately, it appears that she has read neither Chesterton nor Belloc, nor has had any exposure to Christopher Lasch, all of whom are absent in her bibliography, and could have offered her a healthy corrective to this confusion. I think it’s more than a verbal mistake to call her argument “progressive,” for at the heart of her excellent case against modern organization is a rejection of nearly every aspect of what is today called “progress.” Hayes rejects growth, autonomy, expansion of human dominion, and wealth as what are purported to be the central goals of modern humanity (though, to be fair, hers is also a strong argument against much of what today passes for “conservatism,” in its “progressive” embrace of a corporate society aimed at “equal opportunity,” social mobility, and wealth expansion based on maximal extraction from and degradation of the natural world). Instead, Hayes would put the family, the household, and the community at the heart of our activities, and asks not how those forms of human association can serve the economy, but how the economy best can serve our shared lives. But for some philosophical confusion, it’s an excellent book, and one that points to a promising coalition of new feminism and traditionalism.