Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Efficient families

Family is the enemy of efficiency. There is nothing particularly convenient about child care or housework. And to foster a sense of family takes patience, open-ended committment to doing nothing in particular, being mindful and respectful of each member's different rhythms. It takes a lot of time to build a core sense of family identity; this can't be rushed, and no commodities offer a legitimate shortcut to this. The processes of intimacy are simply inefficient. There's no way around it; in fact, we may understand and recognize intimacy through noticing our sudden willingness to be inefficient.

But as workers absorb the values of their workplace, begin to cherish efficiency and convenience as ends in and of themsevels, they start to hate their families and their home as a source of ceaselesss hassle and whining, and see the workplace as a relative haven. Sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild discusses this at length in The Commercialization of Intimate Life. The workplace suddenly seems to have room for joking and reassuring and praising that the home, squeezed for time like never before by two-job households and whatnot, has no room for. Thus they work longer hours, to avoid having to be at home, which, of course, only exacerbates the time squeeze on the family. And they look for shortcuts, ways to replace the time needed for intimacy with goods. This too perpetuates the sense that the family is harder work than work is. Writes Hochschild:
"Consumerism acts to maintain the emotional reversal of work and family. Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisments though a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to 'need' more things. To buy hat they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues."

Consumerism thus exacerbates the problem it is supposed to cure: Goods cannot provide the happiness that comes from relationships, they can only serve to replace those relationships, or mediate them so as to reduce them to merely instrumental exchanges -- to make them efficient. And capitalism, voraciously sucking up all prodcutive energy in to its profit machine, leaves no energy behind for the production of family space, family life. No one has the time to make real families, so they end rapidly in divorce. Hence, as Hochschild points out, many people have more spouses then they ahve jobs over their lives, amking family the source of upheaval and insecurity while the workplace remains stable and comforting. Never mind that the workplace initiates the pressures that ultimately blow apart families.

The reactionary traditionalism of American family-valuies advocates stems from a wish to reverse this by freezing time at the point before which women were sucked in to capitalism and their labor became doubly exploited. But by allying themselves with the plutoratic right, they have assured themselves of continual failure and more outrage as families will continue to split apart, exploded by economic pressures unameliorated by any kind of pro-family national labor policy.

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