I have been away from my blog for quite some days now as I plunge into teaching, writing, editing articles, and finalizing my dissertation. Anyway, with all of the intellectual cross-pollination going on in my life, I find myself thinking about the ways in which a number of the concepts I teach about and write about have value and meaning in my real life—yes, my other, mostly non-scholarly life, the one where I make extra strong lattes and watch the wind blow while hanging out with family and friends. I also inevitably end up thinking about just how limited and valuable time is. Both of these thoughts occurred to me the other day after teaching a Property class on "Market Inalienability."
"Market Inalienability" is an article in which the author, Professor Margaret Jane Radin, discusses the extent to which and whether society should ban (or continue to ban in the case of existing prohibitions) the commodification of certain human activities, aspects or attributes while allowing the non-pecuniary transfer of the same goods (if the use of the word "goods" doesn't beg the question). So, for instance, in the case of prostitution, there have long been rules that forbid such activities. In contrast, certain exchanges of sexual favors without direct payment, such as sexual intimacy in marriage, are completely permitted and even encouraged. Of course, a crucial question in the latter example is what it means to get paid for sexual services (how much marital romantic feeling is premised on the desire for general economic well being or even for more specific economic recompense, after all?), but for the most part our broad, modern social understanding of marriage marks it as the ultimate in sanctioned sexual exchange for non-pecuniary purposes. One significant reason for banning the sale of sexual services is, says Professor Radin, the notion that commodification of this deeply intimate, personal human capacity could ultimately lead to dehumanization. Hence, maintaining a system of non-commodification of sexual services (or, at least, "incomplete commodification" which may allow for some commercial activity in the realm of sex as an acknowledgement that values of autonomy and basic human need may require this) helps to promote "human flourishing" by preventing the objectification of human beings.
Well and good, I say. But does this still hold true when considering the "sale" of other forms of non-sexual interpersonal relations such as affection, caring, concern, or even attending to others in the form of working on their behalf? As to the latter point, isn't working for others for pay a form of human commodification? Indeed, working is one form of commodification that can have truly dehumanizing consequences. Thinkers such as Proudhon and Marx didn't call it "wage slavery" for nothing. We (mostly) non-Marxists in the Western world just call it a "job" and call truly dehumanizing situations "bad jobs." Ultimately, it's mostly all good if you can just get paid enough. "Get paid" has become one of the mantras of postmodernity.
This being the case, what's up with spending time on behalf of others and not getting paid? We generally call such actions by rosy euphemisms such as "volunteerism," "community building," "institution building," and even "homemaking." In what I perceive to be a far less rosy use of euphemism, we sometimes construct unpaid activities as actually being paid, either included in the pay you already receive ("it's a duty that's implied in the nature of your job") or being compensated by intangible, non-monetary personal benefits ("you will be incredibly appreciated if you do this.") But one woman's volunteerism or community building is another woman's unpaid and abusive labor situation.
Now, of course, there is significant value to labor performed without monetary compensation, and this is addressed by a number of scholars and non-scholars alike. Sometimes unpaid labor represents an investment that will pay off in pecuniary terms for the worker at some time in the future. Sometimes unpaid labor is what the worker "pays back" for societal benefits he or she has already received, often times in surfeit. At other times, unpaid "care work" (which I define as work promoting or supporting not just the practical needs of others but their aspirations, ideals or goals, and often heavily laden with an emotional, moral or ideological component) is, as some have argued, an operationalization of a broader "ethic of care" that seeks to address unmet community, institutional or personal needs.
However, in a perverse and inverse operation of the saying "you get what you pay for," all too often those who engage unpaid laborers in "care work" get far, far more than they would ever be willing or able to pay for. In contrast, sometimes unpaid workers in such settings, unless they hold prestigious, high profile positions, are not only uncompensated but devalued and frequently forgotten all together. In short, contributing to human flourishing via selflessness sometimes devolves into an absence of self. As one student said to me the other day after our class discussion of Professor Radin's piece and its implications: "What would Ayn Rand have to say about all of this?" (It was awesome to know that people are still reading Rand, even if, as the student said, he felt as if he had to hide the book from public view).
Is there room for the articulation of a principled Randian "ethic of egoism" in all of this, a positive affirmation of the worth of the individual in certain cases where that ethic is all too frequently being implemented only by the powerful? This is, I think, an especially trenchant question for women of color and women in general, as they seem to do an awful lot of the uncompensated work in our society, be it sexual, social or otherwise.
*This blog entry is a shorter version of one of my current working papers.