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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Patrick, thanks for reminding me about this book. I’ve heard good things about it before, but haven’t ever picked it up. I probably should.

    Two points about the “progressive” confusion you highlight. First of all, the books is obviously–at least from what I can tell from other discussions of it, such as this one from Laura McKenna’s blog last year–designed to be fairly popular and untheoretical in how it approaches its topic. And it’s target audience is clearly people like Laura (and, to be honest, probably 90% of the people reading this website): average members of the educated middle- and upper-classes, looking for more balance in their lives, who want to be less subject to the pace and demands of modern life and recognize that such will require them to be more “intentional” in how they think through and limit themselves accordingly. They aren’t seeing themselves as being “conservative” (though they are); they are seeing themselves as challenging the culture and the economy. Hayes is, I think, an example of the same problem Rod Dreher encountered when he found it hard to persuade many people that conservatism can be “counter-cultural.”

    Second, though, I would argue that there is at least one important sense in which a home-centered movement is “progressive,” and that is that it is both egalitarian and feminist, in a very real–if narrow–sense. Most feminist and egalitarian movements have committed themselves to one or another version of liberalism, but they don’t have to be. As I’ve argued before, refusing as much as possible to conform to the market-dictated, child-abandoning, 24-7 working ideal, and turning back towards to the home as the center of one’s life, not only brings men and women onto a more equal level but also makes for a more equitable division of labor around the home. So, while I have no idea if Hayes actually sees things this way, one might say that radical homemaking is “progressive,” in that it allows for both family and gender empowerment.

  2. Russell,
    Part of my frustration is the greater amount of confusion that these labels engender than they dissipate. “Progressive” is used as often as not to describe the ideal of autonomous individualism as it is employed to defend egalitarianism, and even when it is associated with egalitarian aims, more often than not it is closely aligned with efforts to attain greater degrees of income equality mainly through redistribution shepherded and enforced by the central State. More often than not, “Progressives” buy heavily into the mobile, meritocratic, family-unfriendly, growth-based, open border, free-market ideology that they mainly want to tweak to ease their bad consciences. By calling a home-centered ethic “progressive,” it causes not a little cognitive dissonance.

    But, I’m also keenly aware that “conservatism” is a word so tainted and ill-used that it is also of little help, and likely more of a hindrance. If calling what I find appealing about Hayes’s book “conservative” is likely to be off-putting to not a few “progressives” (even ones who might be inclined to agree Hayes AND me), then the same goes for people like me who cringe at the word “progressive.” Maybe whatever coalition that might be in the offing needs another term of art in the first place, but more than that, a more fundamental recognition that we are substantively in agreement and should seek to forge a very different future for the nation.

  3. I’d heard of the book before but this reminds me to actually read it.

    Back in the 70’s whilst in grad school I spent some time in Ireland and discovered that “feminism” had very different goals in different environments. In Ireland at the time, the largely agrarian society was now permitting men to leave the farm and work outside the home. Since this left the women behind a major theme in Irish feminism at the time was the isolation rural woman experienced. The Irish government had encouraged cottage industries that these women did in their homes – weaving, lace making, pottery other kinds of skilled craft work. The solution to this isolation was to form small co-ops where women worked together and brought their children with them. I visited one of these co-ops and it was to my mind wonderful. The women were weavers and the looms with all this lovely colored wool filled most of the space but there was also a large sunny area that was a play room with an adjacent quiet nap room. Each women would take her turn with the kids while the other ladies worked. A small operation, it seemed such a much better way for the woman to bring in the needed extra income in a way which still allowed her to be with her children and have the company of other women. And of course these women were also expressing their gift – not a small consideration either.

    What struck me at the time was that this was not a solution that could work in the US in that it was about women who actually made things and also was a segregated work environment – women were weavers not men. Nor was anyone getting rich by weaving.

    The shawl I bought there is still in fine shape and has become one of my treasures – a testimony to the durability of pure wool and things made well by hand.

  4. Then again, at the turn of the last century, self-described “progressives” did seek to preserve the family (including the role of the husband in the home) against the abuses of the Industrial Revolution: unsafe working conditions, child labor, wages insufficient to support a family, and so on.

    Honestly, I find quite puzzling and disappointing the political attitudes and policy positions now associated with the progressive label.

    – KPE

  5. Wasn’t this all part of the Sixties and the Hippy movement to opt out out of consumer society except when you got real sick you realized you you needed that “bad” society for its body scanners and keyhole surgery, etc?

  6. […] I’ve expressed my unhappiness with the term “Progressive” as a label used to describe a stance sympathetic with many of the positions embraced and advanced here on FPR. However, just as often I and many here write critically about so-called “conservatives” – particularly of the mainstream variety – whose embrace of corporatism, militarism, and cheerleading for unfettered economic growth is just as repugnant. These labels hinder often much more than they enlighten. […]

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