the work of living vs the work of capital

parenting as labor

recently i was thinking about the commodification of parenthood and home-labor. by this i mean: the feminist movement to assign a monetary or economic value to the work done by parents and by people at home. cooking, cleaning, caretaking, raising children, managing a household, and so on fall under this umbrella. under capitalism, commodifying all types of work is inevitable and, to a degree, useful. by commodifying the labor of the home, people whose work has been un-valued and un-paid can (hopefully) gain economic value and social recognition. under capitalism, this is a good thing. under capitalism, unpaid work is exploitation. unpaid home laborers are very often women, and low-paid home laborers are very often women of color (house cleaners, nannies).

(disclaimer: i discuss parenting as a non-parent teacher, so someone who sees a lot of parents and children and thinks about parenthood a lot, without actually being a parent.)

parenting under capitalism is a zero-sum game. wealthy parents run themselves (or their nannies) ragged trying to ensure that their children will come out on top, i.e. grow into adults who are also wealthy. middle income parents attempt to do this as well, albeit with fewer resources. tutoring, extra curricular activities, and volunteering opportunities may fill every spare moment a child has in these families, essentially preventing them from doing what children need most to grow — play, spend time with friends and families, and explore the world around them at their own pace. poor parents and middle income parents alike likely struggle to afford childcare, especially when children are young and need care full-time before they begin school (or, as i like to think of it, America’s answer to free childcare). children in all brackets are stressed, over-scheduled, over-exposed to social media, and likely subject to nonsensical pressures from the nonsensical capitalist hellscape they are set to inherit.

compounding this stress on parents and children alike is the astronomical cost of raising a child from birth to adulthood — it costs over $230,000 to raise a child to the age of 17 in the united states.

with the very real cost and effort of raising a child, it absolutely makes sense that many advocate for this labor to be economically recognized under capitalism. but is putting parenting, human relationships, and home-labor under the umbrella of the work of capital actually a good thing for us as people? should this be a major feminist goal as we work to build a more just, equitable future on earth?

the work of living

under capitalism, everything is commodified, including relations between people. in a non-capitalist world, human relations and home labor are really just part of what i think of as the work of living (thank you to Leigh Bardugo for that specific phrasing). 

the work of living, as i conceive it, is the natural work that goes with being alive and belonging to a community and a family. cooking, cleaning, caretaking, child-raising, sewing, making art, baking, gardening, even scientific invention and discovery… — these are the acts of creation that we do to stay alive and to bring things of beauty into being.

caring for children, for example, should be a pleasure and a relaxation and should not take undue joy or time away from parents. it should be a communal enterprise, meaning that children should be raised by multiple adults within an extended family or community network. children are communal, meaning that neither the labor that accompanies raising a child nor “ownership” over a child should belong to a single person or set of people. nuclearizing our family structures results in over-stressed, unhappy adults and children. relatedly, children are people and are not the property of the adult who cares for them, and because nuclearized families are more insular and stressed, this creates an environment ripe for child abuse (poverty and economic stress also contribute to this). parenting and child rearing is, to me, the work of living. 

in the US, parenthood is treated as a personal choice, a self sacrificial slog that individuals sign themselves up for. we are blamed for becoming parents. parenthood is not seen for what it is: a social good. we need people to have children, or we will soon run out of people. because parenthood is categorized as a choice rather than a social good (and in fact, a service), our government does not feel pressure to offer support, and we as people do not feel that we deserve support. we do. parenthood and the caretaking of children is one of the most important jobs we do. some people do not love children and need not be caretakers of children, but children should have a cultural protection around them. we should expect that adults treat children with respect, kindness, and decency. 

we do not have a society that allows for the “work of living” conception of family structures and child-raising. we live in a capitalist world that relies on the unpaid exploitation of home-labor that fully supports the paid economic work we do outside of our homes. as a result, most americans are emotionally and financially stressed and have little free time to enjoy the work of living. so, we reject it. this rejection of the work of living is an inevitable result of our exhaustion with the work of capital. we have no time and energy left after our work-day to do our work of living, so, when we can, we outsource it. even the rejection of children (the child-free movement) smacks of a culture too exhausted to contemplate laboring for free for another person — but under another model, parenthood would look fully different. we should all be caretakers of children, even and especially if we have none of “our own.” children are communal, and children are people who are integral parts of our communities and our future.

instead, we have only the language of capital, and so parental labor is nuclearized and commodified (necessarily so, as it becomes capital-labor and is devalued and unpaid for most). we think we are digging deep into equity by discussing how mothers do unpaid labor constantly, and protesting that they should be compensated — but this conversation only makes sense to begin with under capitalism, because parenting and living would be so entirely different under another system.

as with most things, reform of a unjust system is not the answer. reform is a nonsensical concept. if something is unjust to its very roots — like the entire american capitalist project — then no “tweaks” or “adjustments” can change the system in a meaningful, just way. we must abolish the systems we have and build together the systems we know we need — many of which are as old as human society and have simply been overwritten in modern history by the capitalists.

if you ask me, the way forward is simply to begin building what we wish to see. every day we create the future, whether intentionally or not. we should work together and build what we want to see in 5 or 10 or 20 years. with parenting, this could mean intentionally building networks with friends, family, or community members to ensure your children have a number of adults they can turn to and use as models. it means demanding community care networks from our local governments and building what we need anyway, getting as many members of the community to participate as we can. i’m not saying it’s easy, i’m just saying the american government will not save us. they were never going to save us. this country is a on a death march that is moving ever-quicker as we continue to hasten the global climate apocalypse. but we can still build what we need and reject what doesn’t serve us — and i think we should.

the goal of schooling

(painting by Elaine Duras)

as it is…

what are the goals of modern education, as it stands today? generally i think people know that schools provide skills and organization to children. people think of school as the place children go to prepare them to be productive, functional adults, and this is definitely true. less explicitly, they serve as childcare to the working class — which is why free pre-k has been such a big movement. childcare costs in this country are inaccessibly high, and free care is needed so that people can do the work they need to do to survive.

what does it mean to prepare children to be productive and functional adults? what does it mean to be productive, to be considered functional? i would argue that productivity is measured by how much we labor for our bosses under capitalism. to be productive means to be working — to hold down a job, to labor all day and then do the labor of living at home. perhaps to have a “side hustle,” to monetize even those cherished few hobbies to make ends meet. to be functional means to do this without pause, without complaint, without question. disabled folks, mentally ill folks, anyone who cannot function in our grind-forever culture, are considered non-functional and therefore a drain, unworthy of support.

a primary goal of The School has always been social reproduction, i.e.: schools necessarily must create citizens that function as the ruling class needs them to. in our world, that means creating worker-bees and bosses. children are used to punishment and confinement because those things are employed by schools. school is an incredibly structured day where students move quickly from subject to subject (often spending as little as 30 minutes on each subject) unable to delve into content deeply or explore their own interests. science and social studies are taught at the elementary level in an incredibly cursory way because learning math and reading (as vacuum subjects somehow assumed not to interact with other topics) is paramount. content is completely subsumed to skills, though research shows that children pick up skills best when learning interesting content. children of the working class go to school in particularly regimented, punitive environments, as they are being trained to become worker bees like their parents (or forced into the carceral system through the school-to-prison pipeline). these are primarily low-income children of color, and the schooling system both reflects and reproduces the racism that is a central tenet of capitalist america’s functioning. children of the bourgeois, primary white wealthy students, go to schools which support their independence and primacy, as they are being trained to follow their parents as the next CEOs, financial planners, and so on — the bosses.

students are expected to sit still and be quiet, and are rewarded when they do so and punished harshly when they cannot. cultural expectations in families vary greatly; generally speaking, the type of students that “thrive” in this environment are white girls, who are trained at home to sit still and be quiet from a young age. anyone who is not a white girl (and not all white girls, anyway) is punished for behavior that is natural to children, like socializing, focusing deeply on an interest, or moving their bodies. race and class are part and parcel with this dynamic — high poverty schools are the most punitive environments, and punitive in the highest stakes way, as in-school cops take punishment from something being doled down by a (generally white woman) teacher and turn it into a punishment from the state, which forces children to engage with and be punished by the carceral state.

all this to create the ideal capitalist citizen: either those who exploit the labor of others, or those whose labor is exploited (the far end of which is the free labor extracted from incarcerated people). under capitalism, workers are worked to the brink of complete exhaustion to prevent them from agitating for a more equitable system. laws are created to punish those who do manage to agitate (hence why union strikes are illegal in many states, etc.). bosses maintain their power and wealth because it affords them comfort and stability. they are critically aware of the suffering the working class faces and know that within capitalism, they must either choose to continue to exploit others or to give up their own comfort and suffer as well.

…and as it could be

knowing this (and the above absolutely does not cover the many dimensions of white supremacist capitalism and its education system), what would schooling look like in a radically equitable, community-oriented, ecological future? perhaps it is clear that i advocate for an anarcho-communist future — one in which people own their own labor, are in charge of themselves, and work together in consensus-based cooperatives to make the things and organizations we need to thrive.

in radical imagining thought exercises, one often starts from the end (what does X type of society look like?) and moves backwards (what do we need to get to that point?), which i find extremely helpful in planning how we can move forward in the present moment.

i asked myself the following questions: what are the purposes of life? (community, pleasure, and creation.) what are the challenges our world faces? (health challenges, climate challenges, lacking social and physical infrastructure that allow us to thrive.) why are we facing these challenges, i.e. what root things must change? (global white supremacist capitalism is the economic and social structure from which all of this flows, so we need to build a new economic/social system.)

here is what i imagine schooling to look like in an ideal case scenario, and i invite you to share your thoughts (or poke holes in mine!) as well:

  • i picture a model based on unschooling and anarchist principles. basically, schooling based on the understanding that children are people who are capable of making the choices that feel good to them and that help them learn skills and content that interest them. the caveat to this is that, as adult facilitators (using that word intentionally in place of “teachers”), we should actively guide children in their interactions with one another. working cooperatively, supporting one another, being kind to others, etc., are natural instincts of humans but ones that are subsumed by the natural self-centeredness that occurs developmentally in children. we should also ensure that the content available reflects the radically equitable new world we are trying to build (books, learning materials, etc.)
  • adult facilitators should reflect diverse skillsets (emotional, technical, artistic, scientific, mathematical…) so that children have a number of people who can help them develop the skills and capabilities they need.
  • the things i imagine useful to know: engineering, plumbing, cooking, baking, woodworking, painting, sculpting, crafts, building websites or models, music, dancing, statistical analysis, empathetic listening, city planning, cleaning, healthcare work, reading, writing, mathematical models, growing foods and plants and herbal medicinals, chemistry, physics, biology, botany, ecology, animal science/husbandry and land management, psychology, storytelling… and so on. hands-on, practical things, in addition to creative work, all geared toward creating a thrive society not based on exploitative capitalism.
  • school days could be shorter, though children would always have the ability to rest when they need. if labor changes to be voluntary association-based, then children would not need to remain in on school grounds for a specific period of time as they do now, but would be able to spend time with loved ones more freely.
  • children should always be actively engaged with the broader community. older children would apprentice with local adults in the community to learn further skills and find out what they might like specialize in. elders would be invited to share in the school, creating crucial inter-generational bonds between children and elders. the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is utterly true, and our modern nuclear-family structure doesn’t allow us to engage in collective child rearing. raising children in a collective, communal structure gives them access to people with all kinds of social-emotional and practical skills to share — children can’t get all they need from 1-2 parents, and 1-2 parents cannot alone do the labor of raising a child.

these are the beginnings of how i think we should begin to restructure our schooling system — as one single person, i don’t pretend to have all the answers or the best ideas, but this is what i am thinking and i’d love to engage with others thinking about this too. the reality is, our current education system isn’t “broken” in the sense that it is doing exactly what it should be doing under white supremacist capitalism. but we do need to question whether the way education works is capable of building a better world, or only able to recreate more of the same exploitative, inequitable systems we have now. if our education system as it stands can’t be part of building something better, it’s time to start building a new education system.