In yesterday’s post I talked about the difference between two forms of unpaid labor: shadow labor and subsistence labor.
Subsistence labor is the work that provides for basic human needs, and shadow labor is the unpaid complement to wage labor. It makes it possible for a worker to enter the market economy.
I made the observation that there’s a relationship between shadow and subsistence labor, using the example of backyard gardening. It would be subsistence work, because it provides for basic human needs, but also shadow work, because it makes a wage laborer easier to feed. So the same activity qualifies for both. How do you make sense of that?
I’d say it depends on which economy you’re looking at: the household economy or the market economy. We hardly ever look at the household as an economy, but it is.
In understanding the world around us, we need to look closely at shadow labor and subsistence labor, understanding them separately, in connection to each other, in connection to the household economy, and in connection to the market economy.
When you start to do that, you see some things that were hidden. The household economy includes both wage labor and shadow labor. This is true whether it is an economy of one person or an economy of ten. The market economy skims a little off the top of the household economy, both in the form of wage labor and in the form of money spent on consumer goods and services.
Curiously, this holds true for communism as well as capitalism. The theory behind communism was “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” In practice, though, some people ended up getting more than others. Skimmed off the top.
Overall, state-run communism was a failure. But curiously, even in a market economy, a household economy can be run in communist fashion. That’s how ours is. All the money earned by the wage laborer is deposited in a joint account, and we decide democratically how it is spent. On the level of the household economy, I feel proud of myself and an equal to my spouse.
But the underlying communism of our household economy does nothing whatsoever to stop capitalism. There’s a little skimmed off the top, or a lot. And on the level of the market economy, I am seen as nothing.
The underlying communism of our household economy also does nothing whatsoever to challenge the inequality between households. Our household makes enough money to meet our basic needs and then some. Other households struggle to make ends meet, even though the people within it work just as hard. As for ours, if we lost the wage labor, we’d be right there struggling to make ends meet.
In theory, though, could the values of a household economy be used to transform the wider economy? It’s worth a look.