Cleaning. Tidying. Words that bring to mind work. More work on top of the work you do to pay the bills on your messy apartment. Chores that sap the few precious hours that you guard for yourself.
Cooking. Sweeping. Dishes. Mopping. Laundering. Washing. Repairing. Words that come with accompanying expectations of cleanliness. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” goes the phrase. So if your house is a mess what does that say about you? Contaminated, sullied, impure. In a capitalist society deeply influenced by Christianity the appearance of our living spaces is reflective of our personality and morality.
Women’s work. All of this is deeply gendered. The folks who were assigned female at birth and yet failed home economics back in high school know the sting of being failures of our assigned sex, as well as moral failures.
Is this all there is to the domestic domain? Just mind-numbing chores that we, as modern people of all genders, have been liberated from? With tools like robot vacuums, dishwashers, send out laundry services, meal kits delivered to your door, landscaping companies that will mow your water hungry and impractical lawn, and home cleaning franchises making it easier to access home cleaning service, those with enough cash can be freed from the mundane inanity of housework. Who would willing engage in all that drudgery?
Abandoning domestic drudgery frees you up to go out to bars with your friends, to be more fully engaged with your job. You are at liberty, no longer trapped in a cycle of endless work within the home, to live your fullest life out in the outside world, out in the REAL world.
The domestic sphere, the place were life is made, reproduced, made worth living, is un-real. It is private, internal, invisible, unvaluable. It is no longer where we go to live, but where we retreat to, where we hide, where things disappear and are forgotten.
I like to joke that I failed Italian-American housewife school. And I did. I never learned to knit or sew with any skill in my adolescence. If you saw me as a teenager you would be excused for thinking that I was allergic to cleaning. All of this, of course, much to my grandmothers’ despair. Unwilling to be seen as a future housewife, a good girl, a girl of any sort at all, closeted non-binary teen me was in a revolt against the most obviously oppressive aspect of my assigned gender. It was a rebellion continued into my adulthood.
Half a decade ago I was working on my PhD in engineering, living in a tiny apartment in very expensive Southern California. I cleaned that apartment maybe twice in the three years I lived in it. It was always a mess. The expectations of my program and the pace of life meant that I was usually too exhausted to do any cleaning, even if I had wanted to. I knew I was doing good work in my PhD: I was studying the reliability of renewable energy systems. But doing that work meant I had to outsource all the chores. I had to hire people to clean my apartment when I moved out; I was usually too tired to cook for myself so I ordered food that was not nourishing for the “convenience”; I had no time to mend my clothing when it wore out. I certainly couldn’t garden. I was too tired to care for myself, let alone care for my partner, whose job was so stressful that their blood pressure was so high that at just 28 years old their doctor was recommending medication. We were in a bind, however,: without that stressful job we couldn’t have afforded that apartment, the takeout meals, all the ways we outsourced the things necessary to continuation of life.
The things necessary for the continuation of living are what I now like to call the stuff of living. The stuff of living is anything we do that makes living good, anything that makes life able to continue. The stuff of living is cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, gardening. It is intimacy and love and lovemaking. It is caring for your loved ones when they’re sick and accepting their care when you are sick. It is mutual aid and showing up for community meetings and so much more. The stuff of living is the work of caring – caring for the earth, caring for yourself, caring for your loved ones, caring for your community.
Sometimes this is called reproductive labor. Reproductive labor is care giving; it is domestic work. It is the domestic work that produces something of value for capitalist, much as productive labor produces value. Only this value, in the form of (historically) freeing men to labor in factories, producing and rearing children for factories and war. Capitalist society (our society) prizes productive labor over reproductive labor. It rewards one with a wage, and the other it characterizes as unworthy of a wage, for it is something which is done by those who do it (women) as a result of their nature. But there is a very clever slight of hand here. For without the unwaged reproductive labor, the capitalists would have no new bodies for their factories. Without the unwaged reproductive labor, those who would engage in capitalist productive labor would otherwise be forced to worry about cooking, feeding, cleaning, and clothing themselves. Reproductive labor is the labor, the work, that is most essential to life and living. Yet it has been devalued, derided, and hidden. Reproductive labor is the work we most often consider to be drudgery, chores, yet another thing that must be done, how dull and meaningless this life. Yet, reproductive labor is the work any of us must do to live. It is so precious, so valuable. But we roll our eyes at it, we resist it, we hate every minute of it. This is the stuff of living and, considering it to be yet more work, more labor, we eschew it.
When my partner and I outsourced the stuff of living we paid for that outsourcing with our money thereby creating a loop where the pace of the work we did for a wage exhausted us, which meant we needed to pay others to cook for us, to clean for us, which meant we needed to engage in work that exhausted us. But we also paid for it in our energy and in our quality of life. When you outsource the things necessary to continuation of life you don’t actually get to engage in the aspects of life that are life-giving. Meals become less nourishing, less life-giving. Rest is less restorative. Everything about living becomes less life-giving.
Our outsourcing of the stuff of living wasn’t just a forced choice made out of desperation. It was an expectation of the capitalist culture we were immersed in. Why spend time engaging in domestic work when you could pay someone else to do the drudgery, thereby freeing up more time for the “real” work of your job? The stuff of living is what all of our pre-capitalist ancestors did every day. Essentially, the stuff of living IS living. Nowadays, however, most of us find ourselves spending most of our time engaged in our careers, our jobs, our paid work. We don’t see the value of work that doesn’t lead to career gains, to some storied narrative of where we are going with our lives. As one of my PhD peers so directly put it: “If you’re not working your way to the top of the your field, what’s the point?”
Even as I felt I was doing good work in my PhD, I also knew that the work, in the way it was being done, fueled capitalism. And I knew the ways I had to outsource the stuff of living to complete my PhD research also fueled capitalism. Eventually, the contradiction of the capitalistic ouroboros that my life had become was too much. As much as I valued my PhD work, I knew my anti-capitalist values were stronger. I couldn’t feed capitalism in my work life and then go home and feed it there, as well.
I decided to commit myself to the stuff of living. The decision and the change started small: I started to clean my apartment. I was far from where I’d grown up, in a place that never felt like home. I yearned for the comfort of the home spaces I knew growing up – clean, well tended, cared for, full of nurturing meals and laughter. In the working class, Italian-American community I grew up in homes were nests for dreams, gathering places, spaces that nurtured life. I hungered for it in my soul and I could no longer suppress that yearning, no matter how much I abhorred what I thought of as the gendered, oppressive nature of housework. But that small start spread: weekly tidying became weekly cleaning. The apartment became clean and I started to make it feel like home: some decorations finally unpacked after years in a box, a candle, a framed picture. Slowly the little things made it feel like home and I began to feel like I had a life. Feeling like I had a life, I started to want to do something with it. And feeding a capitalist ouroboros wasn’t it.
Capitalism has raised us, inculcated us with its ideas: that productive labor is good and valuable, that it is the way we prove our worth to the world. This is woven deeply into our psyches. It guides our actions, manifesting as a burnout, an eschewing of “work” that doesn’t win us capitalist prizes. And so the floor remains unswept, the kitchen remains so dirty we opt to order in again.
Part of creating a world beyond capitalism is cleaning these cobwebs of capitalist programming from our brains. Engaging in the stuff of living is both a choice to engage in life beyond the grip of capitalism and an antidote to the drive to this burnout that only feeds capitalism. Housework’s cyclical nature is part of the reason it doesn’t meet our definition of good, productive labor. You spend 20 minutes to wash dishes, and oh wow, look at them all sparkling clean. Then you grab a dish to make a snack. 20 minutes effort is lost, wasted, because there are dirty dishes once again.
Housework is cyclical. That is beautiful, not a failure. Housework is a life-giving cycle. It is its own ouroboros, an antidote and counterpoint to the ouroboros of capitalism. Rather than endless growth, we have endless tending, endless caring, endless loving. A cycle where we endlessly fill cups and endlessly have our cups filled.
When I started engaging intentionally with the stuff of living it lit up my life and I knew which cycle I’d rather be engaging with. It was clear to my partner and I that we could no longer feed the cycle of endless work, endless growth, endless capital. It was time to set aside chasing endless growth, endless achievement. I left my PhD and we moved to a place where we could grow a life, nurture a community, have our cups filled and fill other’s cups. We chose to live.
Capitalism has been called a death cult. When you eschew the stuff of living what else could it be? And when you devalue and invisibilize the domestic and the internal it’s no wonder that folks with disabilities and the elderly, two groups who spend all or most of their time at home, are forgotten and devalued, as well.
I am chronically ill. Oftentimes, I find myself unable to keep my house as tidy as I would like. But the cleaning I am able to do is a joy. It is a joy because it is this work that facilitates my life. It is not women’s work, it is not a reflection on my moral fitness, it is not pointless, not not even “work”. It is the stuff of living.
If we seek to overthrow the death cult of capitalism we must reclaim that tools that perpetuate, continue, and support life. We must reclaim care giving and domestic work. We must embrace the stuff of living. We must embrace the magic to be found within our own homes.
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