Household labor: the least alienating of all

Household labor refers to things like cooking dinner, cleaning the floor, doing laundry, and so on. Historically, it has generated all sorts of gendered oppression. Volumes and volumes have been written on the gendered issues involved in household labor; so I wont expound further here. Instead, I want to bracket the gendered stuff and talk about household labor in itself. Or for those who fundamentally reject bracketing things, imagine household labor carried out by a single man.

It appears that household labor is the least alienated labor at all. When I talk about alienation here, I am specifically referencing the early Marx stuff about alienation that the species-being Marxists (as I tend to call them) are so fond of. The following are the ways in which household labor is very non-alienating under that specific Marxist definition:

  • The product of household labor — for example clean floors, cooked food, cleaned laundry — is retained by the person creating it, not an external capitalist owner.
  • The household labor production process is entirely self-determined, not imposed by external bosses.
  • The means of production for household labor tend to be owned by the laborer, e.g. dishes, pans, brooms.
  • Household labor is purposively done to satisfy needs and for its use-value, not to satisfy the wishes of an amorphous market or for its exchange-value.
  • Household labor is not competitive, and therefore does not create impediments to constructive cooperation with fellow humans.

For all intents and purposes, household production is one of the most non-alienating kinds of production there is. It is not, as I have been reminded, totally non-alienated. After all, when you do household labor, you use commodities made in alienating conditions (i.e. the cleaning fluid, brooms, and other tools of the trade). So the good-feels that come from those commodities having been made purposively, with pride, and to meet need instead of for trade are absent. I don’t consider that a big deal for the purposes of the point I am making here, but presumably some do.

If household labor is actually as non-alienating as I think it is, then the general dislike for it should stand as somewhat of a challenge to certain Marxist views. Although somewhat falling out of fashion, there is the old-school Marxist thought that people really love to labor, and it is only the perversion of capitalism and the alienation it engenders that makes it so awful. The alternative view, which I think the household labor example provides support for, is that people actually just don’t like working, generally speaking. Some jobs are nicer than others, but the dominant reason people don’t like to do most jobs is because doing work is just not a fun thing to do, whether alienating or not.

If that alternative view is true, then reducing work becomes the way to make things better, while de-alienating the work will generate few if any positive boosts. For the most part, it seems like people in the circles I read are headed in the work-reduction direction anyways; so this is probably somewhat of a moot point. But there are still some of those labor-celebrating Marxists out there, and this is for them.