Tag Archives: parenting

Shadow or subsistence?

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.

– Kristin


Cat Question Mark by Retta Stephensen



Shadow Work by Ivan Illich

In my previous post, “Mothering in the Shadow,” I introduced some concepts from the book Shadow Work by Ivan Illich, published in 1981 and available in full online. Overall, the book is a mixed bag, but it introduces groundbreaking concepts that have serious potential for feminist, environmental, and anti-capitalist movements. So I’ll give a short introduction to Illich and his ideas, briefly touch on their flaws, and then move on to a discussion of how the ideas could be used.

About Ivan Illich

Among other things, Illich is a medieval historian. It gives him a unique perspective on modern life: much we take for granted about the world around us is socially constructed. Although he has a tendency to glamorize past societies, he can see economic systems in ways others don’t.

How he defines work

Most basically, what he’s saying is that wage labor created another kind of labor: unpaid activities that make wage labor possible in the first place, or shadow work. There is also a third kind of labor, subsistence work, which competes with wage labor.

Shadow work includes all kinds of unpaid labor: transportation to and from a job, the maintenance of automobiles, the work of purchasing commodities, the housework and other supporting activities a wife does to enable a husband to do wage labor, and childrearing, which supplies future wage labor.

Subsistence work would be playing a guitar instead of buying a record, growing a backyard garden instead of going to the supermarket, and feeding a baby at the breast instead of from a bottle.

How he defines economies

He sees economies as having three dimensions. The first is a continuum between left and right — communism and capitalism. To him, they’re flawed in the same way. Both do what he calls “welfare” – though meaning something different than our current welfare system. To him, “welfare” means distributing industrialized products that are ultimately inferior to their subsistence counterparts, but which then take the place of those counterparts.

The second is a continuum between hard and soft — that is, most technologically advanced to least. Again, he doesn’t necessarily see a difference in value between the two.

The third is from consumption to production — that is, from market economies to subsistence economies. This one is very important to him. Illich believes people are better off “when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline . . .” (p. 14)

The flaws in his ideas

Don’t take me as an expert on Illich, because I’ve only read one of his books, and only one time through. But as far as I can tell, he’s much too taken by subsistence economies. In his body of work, he disparages modern medicine and universal education in such a way as to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

He is also naively unaware of how power operates. Any attempt to convert a market-based economy to one based on subsistence is going to be opposed by the ruling class, which has military and propaganda on its side. Wage labor and shadow work won’t decline on their own.

Next up, although he says he doesn’t see much difference between capitalism and communism (“the capitalist and the commisar”), most of the book deals with the market economy and wage labor.

Finally, as much as I love his separation of shadow work and subsistence, there’s a relationship between them that he hasn’t parsed. If shadow work is everything that supports a wage laborer, subsistence work like backyard gardening would also support a wage laborer, by making the person cheaper to feed.

The takeaway for feminism

So yes, Illich’s analysis has flaws. At the same time, it was groundbreaking to observe that there is a whole category of work that our economy ignores.

Feminists have been talking about this for a long time but with a slightly different focus. Feminists have complained that men work for pay and women do housework and childcare without pay. But that leads to an easy mistake: the idea that making men and women equal will somehow make this unpaid labor go away. But we’ve found that it doesn’t. Women have entered the workforce and men have stayed at home, and the unpaid labor is still a problem. Because women bear children and are their first caregivers, no matter how much we work toward gender equality, we are still saddled with work without pay.

So what happens if we take a good, hard look at all the shadow work that gets done? Not only childrearing and housework but transportation, volunteer jobs — everything? People of every gender should be outraged at all the free labor we’ve been snookered into doing for the benefit of the one percent, without getting even our basic needs done in return.

The takeaway for anticapitalist work

I’ve spent a lot of time with people who want to abolish capitalism but don’t have the least idea how to go about it. They’ve put a lot of work toward that end, but they’ve still been stuck with myths about how our economy works. Without a clear understanding, how can they know whether what they’re doing is actual resistance, or just shadow work under a new guise?

Meanwhile, the unchecked growth of the economy is continuing to lead toward environmental devastation and the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the 1970s that sometime within the next hundred years we will suffer a collapse of our economy and our population. Capitalism might well abolish itself, in which case we need to be ready to replace it with a workable replacement. And subsistence has to be part of it.

Failures of capitalism to provide for the common good of countries are already happening, of course. What happens then? Does a subsistence economy step in? For example, in 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina and communities found new ways of coping–the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin, tells that story. Where else has the economy failed, and what have communities done to make ends meet? We can look at history all we like, but we won’t understand the answer until we know how subsistence work plays a part.


Worth the read

All in all, this book is well worth the read. Absorb it with a grain of salt, or maybe a teaspoon. And a glossary. (He makes up words, or takes words from contemporary thinkers, and uses them without properly defining them first. He also takes words with commonly accepted meanings and assigns them new meanings, also usually without defining them. )

In keeping with his opposition to the commodification of labor, he doesn’t appear to have copyrighted it, and it is available for free download here.

Picture of a shadow on the floor

from tardis.wikia.com

Mothering in the Shadow

My last post “The Economics of Parenting” touched on the unpaid and unacknowledged labor of parents. Feminism has long seen it as a problem but has entirely failed to produce workable solutions. An early demand of “wages for housework” went nowhere because, under capitalism, there is no answer to the question of who should pay. Meanwhile, Marxist feminists in academia did a good job of defining the problem but otherwise mostly left it alone.

The labor movement also hasn’t been much help. Collective bargaining only makes sense if there is an outside entity invested in whether or not the work gets done, and when it comes to our children, that’s mostly not the case. Other peoples’ kids are usually regarded as “other peoples’ problems” and that’s that. Strikes make no sense, either. What are you going to do, not take care of your kid?

There’s a name for this job: “shadow work.”Australian historian and philosopher Ivan Illich coined the term  in the 1981 book Shadow Work. I’ve only just started the book, but it’s fascinating. Here’s an excerpt.

In a commodity-intensive society, basic needs are met through the products of wage labor – housing no less than education, traffic no less than the delivery of infants. The work ethic which drives such a society legitimates employment for salary or wages and degrades independent coping. But the spread of wage labor accomplishes more – it divides unpaid work into two opposite types of activities. While the loss of unpaid work through the encroachment of wage labor has often been described, the creation of a new kind of work has been consistently ignored: the unpaid complement of industrial labor and services.

That’s parenting and housework right there. They complement wage work because they free somebody else to spend more hours in the workplace.

Feminists have been talking about the concept for some time, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it so tangibly expressed. It’s also part of a coherent theory that directly addresses a question that feminism gave up on: How do you change the system?

I’ll save that enormous question for another blog post, but believe me, I will get to it. In the meantime I’ll just touch on why I personally am in love with the term shadow work.

It’s all about respect, baby. Time and again, as I was staying at home with young children, people asked me “Are you working?” Of course, they meant wage labor. Usually I let it pass. Sometimes I said “Yes, I’m working in the home” and sometimes I said, “No.” What can I say? I was seriously sleep-deprived. My best answer was to the question “I mean, are you working outside the home?” when I said, “No way! I don’t want two jobs.”

But now I can say. “Definitely. I’m performing shadow labor.”

The term fights back against the disrespect I feel whenever I hear I’m “not working” or “not in the real world.” That disrespect gets at the core of me, whenever I perform housework or similar jobs.

Also, the term is beautifully consistent with Jungian philosophy.  The shadow, in Jungian terms, is everything that is a true part of our nature but that we repress, hide, push away, deny, negate. At the same time, the more we repress it, the stronger it gets. There is power in shadow.

I have to end this post now. My shadow labor workday began around seven a.m. and will end at nine p.m. Things to do. People to see. Boats to float.


The Economics of Parenting

Economists study things and make theories, and based on what they say, lawmakers set policy. That’s just one of the things that makes the world go round, and we don’t think about it too terribly much, or at least I didn’t, until I started seeing the phrase “human capital,” but now that I have, I pay attention. And I come up onto statements like this:

While such policies may increase the size of the next generation, their impact on the generation’s total human capital are unclear, since per person human capital may change as well. . . . This paper explores a potential national policy tradeoff, embodied in motherhood timing, between the quantity and quality of children.

This excerpt is from the article “Motherhood Delay and the Human Capital of the Next Generation” by Amalia R. Miller, American Economic Review, 2009. It looks at whether standardized test scores, an indicator of the future economic value of children (a.k.a. “human capital”), are affected by whether or not mothers delay childbearing. The answer to this question is intended to help countries decide whether or not to set “pro-natalist policies” — that is, policies that encourage women to have lots and lots of babies.

(A quick note on human capital, if you’ve never heard the term: it is the set of skills, education, and expertise of a worker or a labor force. Sometimes the term is used to refer to something the worker owns, and other times it means an asset a company owns, or a nation.)

I should mention I’m pretty creeped out by now. First off, I thought my kids were, well, children, not wealth. Next up, it’s disturbing that legislation surrounding childbearing should be affected by the wealth a nation is expected to reap from the children’s future labor. It means that human capital considerations could affect anything from anti-abortion legislation, if a nation is perceived to be running out of human capital, to forced sterilization, if the cost of raising a child is perceived to be higher than the human capital reaped.

But there’s one more thing that stands out when I look at articles regarding mothering and human capital. The unpaid labor mothers do, when we are perceived to be “not working,” has economic value to somebody outside our family, and people in power have measured that value. That’s interesting.

The United Nations is conducting a study called the “Inclusive Wealth Project.” There’s a 2012 report and a 2014 report. It is about the development of a new measure of the wealth of nations, on par with the gross development product (GDP) and human development index (HDI). The new “Inclusive Wealth Index” includes natural resources, produced resources, and human capital.

Here’s a taste of the math, from page 30 of the 2012 report:

Wealth = Pmc * Manufactured Capital (MC) + Phc * Human Capital (HC) + Pnc * Natural Capital (NC)

(Don’t ask me about the Pmc, Phc, and Pnc, because I have no clue. Nor do I have any desire to have a clue.)

The math for calculating human capital is laid out also on page 30 of the 2012 report and is too long to include in this post, but here’s a taste of it:

. . . measuring the population’s educational attainment and the additional compensation over time of this training, which is assumed to be equivalent to the interest rate (8.5 percent in this case) . . .


The shadow price per unit of human capital is obtained by computing the present value of the labor compensation received by workers over an entire working life.


. . . for each nation we computed these shadow prices for every year within the 1990–2008 time period, and then used the average of this rental price of one unit of human capital over time as the representative weight . . .

It must be strange to be an economist. The people who made this report are focused on “social value” — attempting to make capitalism work for the health and well-being of our people and planet, by reducing said health and well-being to dollars and cents. I’m skeptical, but I’m glad at least that somebody is trying to account for the rapid depletion of our natural resources.

Anyway, back to what I said about somebody measuring the economic value of the unpaid work of mothering. That’s not exactly what they’re doing. They’re measuring the value of educating. Here’s a widely-used graph, from a Science Magazine article “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children” by James D. Heckman (2006).

Graph showing that investing in preschool has great benefit to future earnings. Source: http://jenni.uchicago.edu/papers/Heckman_Science_v312_2006.pdf

Source: Science Magazine


The article has a curious blind spot when it comes to the job of the earliest education, the contribution of the parents. A lot of studies focus on “disadvantaged children” and “children in developing countries.” Here’s a quote:

Research has documented the early (by ages 4 to 6) emergence and persistence of gaps in cognitive and noncognitive skills (3, 4). Environments that do not stimulate the young and fail to cultivate these skills at early ages place children at an early disadvantage. Disadvantage arises more from lack of cognitive and noncognitive stimulation given to young children than simply from the lack of financial resources.

The assumption here is that a normal environment, which somehow appears naturally and out of the blue, provides adequate stimulation to cultivate skills needed later in life. Actually, no. Somebody made it happen. A parent.

And it was a hell of a lot of work.

Here’s an estimate of the unpaid labor value of a mother’s work:

If paid, Stay at Home Moms would earn $134,121 annually (up from 2005’s salary of $131,471). Working Moms would earn $85,876 annually for the “mom job” portion of their work, in addition to their actual “work job” salary.

(From “What is Mom’s Job Worth,” by Salary.com.)

(Note: there’s a serious omission here. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of stay-at-home parents who are dads is up to 16%. I don’t know if anybody’s ever run the numbers for dads.)

Never mind the costs of raising a child. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says that “a middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about $245,340 ($304,480 adjusted for projected inflation*) for food, housing, childcare and education, and other child-rearing expenses up to age 18. Costs associated with pregnancy or expenses occurred after age 18, such as higher education, are not included.”

By “middle-income family, they mean “the middle third of the income distribution for a two-parent family with children.” This is the “normal environment” referred to in Science Magazine, although the number of single-parent households in the U.S. has jumped from 19.5% to 29.5%.

And the annual income at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is only $15,080.

On a family level, the economics of parenting just makes no sense. Wages are far too low to raise children.

It makes no sense on a societal level either. What happens, I wonder, if you take the cost of raising a child, plus the cost of a formal education, plus the unpaid labor of the parents, and compare it to that person’s “human capital” over a lifetime? You could calculate it. But honestly, I’m afraid to even try.

The problem here isn’t with the children. And it isn’t with the parents. It’s with the way we understand (or don’t) understand our own economy.



Lego People by Joe Shlabotnik from http://www.flickr.com



Stuck at Sears and Followed by a Rude Stranger

Blast from the past: Here’s a post from several years back, when Boy was a rambunctious three-year old and Girl was a rambunctious baby.

On Being Stuck at Sears and Followed by a Rude Stranger

My plans for Wednesday morning: hang out with M__ and N___, who will be moving to Cambridge all too soon.

 My car’s plans for Wednesday morning: produce for my enjoyment a dead battery and alternator.

 It was too late to call the car dealership, which is an easy 10‑minute bus ride away. Alas, I wasted twenty minutes on the phone trying to get through, then felt rejected because no one wanted to talk to me. So I decided to spend “a half hour” at Sears.

 Oh, sorry, I meant to say “two and a half hours.” Yep, that’s how long it took before I was outta there. What exactly do you do with two small children for two and a half hours at Sears? I found a long, narrow hall and let Boy run down it, then clapped as he reached the end ‑‑ but after four or five times, he was done. We hung out in the women’s sitting room, but then Girl played the “I want to touch the outlet cover” game, and Boy followed suit. We had lunch, and Girl played the game of “I don’t want pizza, crackers, or water, no, no, no! I want pizza! Please put me down, I want to be picked up!” while Boy played the game of “feed Girl,” which is okay as long as Girl wants to eat but turns into my game of “Mommy sits between the two children” after that.

 In the middle of all this, Boy ran around a corner and I followed, leaving Girl by the stroller. Not the sort of thing I would normally do. Then I heard a man say, “Excuse me!”

 I grabbed Boy and returned to the stroller. “Yes?” I said.

 “You need to be watching your baby!”

 “I was,” I said.

 “No, you weren’t. You were behind the corner. Somebody could grab her and run!”

 “Thank you,” I said, in a firm conversation‑ending tone, then shepherded the kids out of Sears to get lunch.

 The man followed me!

 He sat at a table facing mine throughout the whole lunch. I watched him while pretending not to, ready to yell for help if he approached, because any way you slice it, that would have been a really aggressive thing to do. Fortunately, he finished lunch, went out to the parking lot, and drove away.

 Was he a scary creep or just a jerk? I don’t know, but overall, I’m creeped out.

 So . . . where exactly is the balance between letting your kids roam at will, and attaching them to you with a tot‑leash? If I let Boy run down the aisle at the supermarket, might someone grab him and run? What if I let Girl play in the wood chips at the park while I go down the slide with Boy? Et cetera? 


Online marketing to kids

Our school’s Tuesday afterschool class had an offering that was basically sewing things for a stuffed animal called a Webkinz. If you took the class, you got a stuffed animal . . . with an activation code for an online experience. In a moment of parental inattention I now regret, I said “yes.” I had absolutely no idea how aggressively an online site could market to kids. Now I know . . . and I realize that there is a whole brave new world of predatory online practices.

Of course once you get on there are a bazillion other stuffed animals you can buy and things you can sign up for, and there is a lot of advertising. That part’s pretty easy to say no to. One part that’s not going to be so easy is when a year’s up and the activation code expires . . . from what I’ve heard, you can only get a new one by purchasing another stuffed animal. But that’s still not the hard part.

The hard part is that the site has mechanisms to keep kids coming back for more . . . and more . . . all of them having to do with Kinzcash. You can use Kinzcash to buy clothes and food and furniture and toys and rooms for your Webkinz, and for a host of other things as well, like a movie studio where you can make your own animations. How do you get it? By playing games, or by doing gambling-type activities, or by logging on every single day of the week. I can’t even begin to say how many bad messages this is sending our kids.

What are we going to do? Limit its use? Quit cold turkey? Turn off the modem and pretend our Internet is broken? Let it expire? Let them use it but pair it with information about how they are being manipulated? Offer the kids a hundred dollars to quit it? Look for an online game without the gambling/cash component?

Anyhow, as parents we’ve learned our lesson. If kids want to do something online, vet it beforehand. It’s scarier out there than we thought.