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Home is where left and right meet

Russell Arben Fox has a completely fascinating essay about bringing Shannon Hayes’ work on radical homemaking to a Mormon women’s group. He writes:

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of putting together a panel discussion (at this conference, with the wonderful people you see on the left) which took off, in many different directions, from Hayes’s insistence upon thinking seriously about just what “making” a simple, sustainable, spiritually-edifying “home” truly consisted of. What I wanted to do was plant some seeds of discussion (seeds which grow in surprising directions in Hayes’s book), presenting the “home” as something other than a unit of consumption, other than a place where individuals rest their heads and eat their meals and watch their television shows, all of which require ever-increasing (and often debt-driven) economic participation to keep going. In preparation for that, I asked a Mormon audience exactly what kind of “homemaking” and “enrichment” activities their local congregations still participate in, if any. The answers were, to say the least, revealing. And they should be–for some decades, extending for many years out beyond Mormonism’s 19th-century pioneer period, the ability to live frugally, to share resources and skills with family and friends so as to become self-sustaining, to basically dissent from the pursuit of wealth and growth, was an unstated principle of a great deal that Relief Society did. Enriching the home meant making it more tendable, more nuturable, more amenable to (one might say more “organic to”, but such language is unfortunately foreign to most American Mormons, whether in the 19th century or today) the work and production and play of those who live there, rather than more dependent upon the size of the paycheck brought home and the caprice of the market in general. That distant ideal remains a half-life existence throughout much of Mormon culture (and not just Mormons–Laura McKenna, who confessed herself highly attracted to much of Hayes’s call, has made clear her own disposition to the “pioneer virtues” of “making do or doing without” before as well).

Part of this story, of course, can’t be told without talking about Mormonism’s ultimately mostly abandoned effort to develop a truly alternative–more communitarian, more egalitarian, more localized–culture and economy in Utah. This is part of why I’d love to see Hayes’s book be the centerpiece of a Relief Society lesson: because in the mostly conservative, mostly middle- and upper-class white American Mormon church, Hayes’s righteous attacks on capitalism as an economic system which drives us to debt and competition, invades the sanctity of the home which consumer values and fears, and commodifies and individualizes our most intimate and emotionally connective choices…well, it might not go over too well. But then again, if it was stated by way of quoting 19th-century church leaders and passages of scripture which make essentially the same point, maybe some real enrichment could be possible.

What struck me as fascinating about Fox’s analysis is that it reveals the deep compatibility – and underlying anti-capitalist sentiment that structure what are often seen as antithetical parts of the political spectrum. Now this is not news in a way. Anyone who has joined a homesteading list, or attempted to study self-sufficiency skills, particularly traditionally female domestic skills like preserving food, fiber arts, and other domestic labor has probably noticed the confluence of hippies in peasant skirts with conservative Christian women in modest dress, anarchist women in black and orthodox Jewish women in long denim skirts, Republican farmwives from Montana and left-leaning urban farmers from New York City or Chicago, older women from churches in their crowns who kept the skills alive and young women trying to grasp them and learn.

The internet makes these comings together more possible, of course, but they aren’t the whole of the thing. My neighborhood knitting group (which admittedly I rarely have time to attend) runs the political and religious spectrum, and ranges in age from an 11 year old working on her first scarf to a 55 year old also on her first scarf (her grandmother tried to teach her) to a recent immigrant in her 20s from east Africa on her first scarf (her first winter in upstate New York made evident the benefits of knitting) to a host of experienced knitters ranging from 14 (we have two extraordinarily experienced and gifted young teenage knitters – one the daughter of a conservative Christian family who has been knitting since she was 7, the other the daughter of leftist Waldorf devotees knitting since she was 5 – both of them are best friends, and both help me with complicated cables and knit about as easily as they breathe) to 92 and able to claim that she has knitted more than 500 sweaters in her lifetime!

The affirmation of the domestic sphere, of the informal economy and of women’s work is itself a radical act in a culture that assumes that one should purchase all goods and services once provided by the informal economy. Any of you who have read _Depletion and Abundance_ will know that I consider the dismantling of the informal economy (which is the larger portion of the world economy, represent 3/4 of total economic activity) in the developed world and the undermining of the Global South’s informal economy to be a disaster in the making, as we run out of the fuel (and the ability to safely burn it, if such a thing can ever be said to have existed) that permitted this.

Fox’s article, with its exploration of the different ways that different communities speak of this loss, the different languages that add up to the same thing – a recognition that the privatization of the domestic sphere has undermined our basic safety. Whether you speak in terms of conserving the past, of spiritual arguments of many kinds or in terms of peak oil and climate change, there is something fundamentally radical about every attempt to reclaim the home as a site of productivity, a place where economic security is created, rather than a sink for resources.

It is hard to overstate how radical this is – consider, for example, the economic implications for housing of a culture that values the land that houses are built on for their potential economic productivity. Consider the danger to a consumer economy of a culture of making do and making it yourself – 70% of our economy is consumer activity. The affirmation of the home as the center of things, as a site of complex resistance to the totalizing formal economy’s attempts to claim all of us is truly radical – and it is being affirmed on right and left, by Mormons and Pagans, by atheists and the orthodox of many stripes, by feminists and by traditionalists.

The transformation of the home into a site of production, redistribution and community is a threat to a totalizing formal economy that claims it needs all of everyone’s productivity all the time. It is a threat to a model that says that neither men nor women can be released to stay home with a sick child or an elderly parent (yes, nominally you can, but only if you can afford it), to nurse a baby or even be there to cook dinner. Both adults must be working at all times to increase productivity. All children must be being trained at all times for future productivity. The formal economy has claimed us, devoured the time we once spent on other things, and claimed our future as well.

The problem, as we have seen in the last few years is that the formal economy is very vulnerable – it depends on things that no one really controls. Historically speaking as peasant economist Teodor Shanin and other economic historians have documented, in times when the formal economy fails, the informal economy – made up of domestic work, untaxed barter, volunteerism, family exchanges of resources and even the criminal economy – rises up to keep people fed. It was the informal economy that in Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union averted starvation – even though conventional economic models argued people should be starving.

What Transition calls “reskilling” – what other people call by other names, including Christian homemaking and radical homemaking, and “doing it like Grandma used to” is actually the reinvention of the most important resource we may have for our future – the restoration of the informal economy. It is a hugely political and hugely important act, being done by multiple ends of the political spectrum at once, and this matters.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real and significant differences between how this is framed and established that matter a lot. They matter to me personally obviously (for example that gay families not get short shrift and that women have the right to control their bodies) and they matter politically. It isn’t the case that the Quiverfull Moms and the anarchists Moms are always going to agree – or that there aren’t some deep issues to be worked out if there is common ground to be found.

At the same time, given the critical importance of reinventing the damaged informal economy, this work is worth doing – moreover it already going on among people on each end of the political spectrum, through the middle and by people who could care less about politics but just want healthy food, a garden and a nice warm quilt to sleep under. The very fact that this work is being done across the spectrum suggests that it is a site for organizing and work that could be expanded upon, grown and produce fruit – not easily or without considerable work, but then nothing really worth having ever comes but with that hard labor.

Sharon

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