Putting women and the family into economics

Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?:

A Story of Women and Economics

Margaret Douglas was never famous. Her son, Adam Smith, was a renowned eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and political economist whose book The Wealth of Nations is considered the founding text of modern capitalism. He taught the world that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Smith’s dinner involved another economic actor: his mother, with whom he lived all his life and who cooked his meals and cleaned up his messes and took care of daily life so that Smith might be free to philosophize. Yet he never considered her labor, which she performed without pay, out of some combination of love and social obligation, in his models of rational economic man.

That’s the premise of Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics, which—unusual for a book on feminist economics—made waves in the mainstream press this year.

For those who slept through high-school economics, here’s the basic model we’ve inherited from Smith:

Economies consist of people, who act autonomously as individuals and move in and out of economic relationships that are defined by competition and organized through rational decisions based on self-interest. These individuals, “economic man,” are, as Marçal writes, “bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individuals without family or context” . . . “All that existed were free individuals and their families. No community or collectivity.”

If this doesn’t sound much like your life or mine, there’s a reason for that. Real people have bodies, communities, emotional attachments, and complicated lives. So why do economists cling to this model?

Marçal argues that we like the idea that there are always rational answers, even for irrational questions. We want to believe that we can fix anything if we just work hard enough, conform to the logic closely enough, and view ourselves from a distance. “The body, emotion, dependency, insecurity and vulnerability . . . the world becomes predictable.”

What’s more, the concept of economic man—rational, objective, intelligent—just happens to fit neatly with patriarchal ideas about “masculine” as opposed to “feminine” traits: nature, base instinct, the emotional, the unpredictable. Economic man, of course, is held to be “above” gender, free as he is of bodies and relationships—but in the real world, cis men are the only ones capable of escaping the body or gender. (Marçal does not acknowledge any complexity beyond binary gender, a gaping flaw, but a charitable reader can fill in the gap and conclude that nonbinary and transgender people are trapped in bodily and gender structures as much or more as cis women are.) To be outside gender is a gendered state of being, much in the way only white people can remain blithely unaware of their racial or cultural identities. (Racial, ethnic, and cultural analyses are also left entirely out of Marçal’s discussion.)

Economic man is most definitely a man, and basing our economic analyses on him writes women and our labor right out of the picture. How can we possibly make things better when the dominant economic models “ignore what half of the world’s population is doing half of the time?” We can’t, of course.

Marçal advocates for an economics based primarily on human need. Quality of life, security, environmental impact, and meaningful work must be part of any plan to make things better. We must see dependency and care work as economically valuable. We need “tools and methods” that help us conceive of the complexity of human relationships, she argues, or we’ll keep chasing greed until we destroy one another and our planet.

True enough. So what should such an economic and political theory look like? How can it take these things into account? What structures would better serve humanity? Marçal never gets that far. Are these changes that we could make in the current system, or do they require some form of revolutionary transformation? This isn’t discussed—a wise marketing decision, perhaps, but a serious limitation.

Nor does Marçal pay much attention to the enormous bodies of work that have attempted to do just that. She gives about two pages to behavioral economics and about the same to Marx. Socialist-feminist theorists on reproductive labor don’t make the cut; nor does Engels himself—Marçal informs us that “the Chicago economists were the first to take women seriously as part of the economy.” Who knew? This isn’t an academic manuscript, but even so, the research and analysis are thin. The arguments, too, tend to circle back into repetition, giving the distinct impression that this is a good essay artificially inflated into a book.

A few stylistic matters in the translation from Swedish deserve mention. It is a strange decision, in a book arguing that we can’t assume male realities are universal realities, to use the term mankind to refer to all human beings. Even more strangely, the pronouns he, she, and it are all used with mankind. Furthermore, the sentence structure employed throughout the book consists to a comical degree of sentence fragments. Like this one. Over and over. Making what should be an easy narrative to follow surprisingly opaque.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner is imaginative, with some entertaining stories and asides; it could be a starting point for someone who’s grounded in classical economics but beginning to question its basic assumptions. Those who are looking to learn more about radical economics and reproductive labor, however, are unlikely to glean much new learning from it.

Issue #73

September 2010

From Reform to Rebellion

Image and reality in the Bolivia of Evo Morales
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