The Fall of the ‘Household’

In this post, I want to turn from the idea of home as a refuge from the public to consider the centrality of the ‘household’ to work, perhaps as the first tentative step towards a ‘history of the present’ of work. Remember the aim of a history of the present is not to look for the origins of something, but instead to look for its contingency – that is, to demonstrate that it was based on specific historical circumstances. If it has changed once, it could change again.

One of the first things I noticed about Arendt’s notion of the ‘household’ was its stark contrast to what she calls the polis, which is the life of the nation. Arendt is dismissive of what she calls ‘society’, because it blurs the lines between public and private:

“The distinction between a private and a public sphere of life corresponds to the household and the political realms, which have existed as distinct, separate entities at least since the rise of the ancient city-state; but the emergence of the social realm, which is neither private nor public, strictly speaking, is a relatively new phenomenon whose origin coincided with the emergence of the modern age and which found its political form in the nation-state.” (HC, 28)

The problem, Arendt argues, is a concentration in public political life on spheres of activity once relegated to households, namely, the economy: “…according to ancient thought on these matters, the very term ‘political economy’ would have been a contradiction in terms: whatever was “economic,” related to the life of the individual and the survival of the species, was a non-political, household affair by definition (HC, 28-9).”

The reason public concentration on ‘the economy’ writ large is a problem is that it is related to the concern for necessity, which is “primarily a prepolitical phenomenon, characteristic of the private household organization”. One essential consideration here is “that force and violence are justified in this sphere because they are the only means to master necessity … and to become free (HC, 31).”

At first, I assumed that Arendt’s use of ancient Greek concepts of household, despotism, economy and the public and private were a bit like Freud’s incest taboo. Most psychoanalytic theorists who use the incest taboo as a conceptual way in to the founding of the Self don’t really think that everyone wants to have sex with their mother; rather they use it as a metaphorical departure point from which to make some other point.

This is Arendt on the Greek model of the public sphere:

“To leave the household, originally in order to embark upon some adventure and glorious enterprise and later simply to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival.”(HC 36)

In her use of the idea of household  and more importantly, the metaphor of ‘leaving’ the household, I came to regard this reading of the public and private as an extended metaphor.

But then I came across something very similar in Komlosy’s Work: The Last 1,000 Years. Across her 6 slices of time – 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900 and now – Komlosy charts a fascinating history of the literal leaving of the household, not of a courageous Athenian public citizen, but of a humble factory worker.

In 1250, Komlosy describes the average Austrian peasant household like this:

“Peasants working as serfs on manorial estates took their orders from estate stewards … On the side, most engaged in subsistence farming on the land apportioned to them by the feudal arrangement, known as fiefs. In this sense, peasants’ land-usage rights entitled them to an indirect form of ownership, and they largely determines the course of work on their respective fiefs themselves. A wide variety of work was generally performed in this context, as peasant work did not just mean agriculture and livestock, but also included the production of essential goods, building and maintaining housing, and providing sustenance for the households’ family members, lodgers and servants. Male household members were generally placed under the authority of the housefather, or patriarch, female members under the lady, the housewife. Paternal authority and community politics were matters for the male head of the family. Work was distributed among the household members according to status, skill and capacity. Although work allocation and provisioning were mostly of a habitual nature according to age, sex and marital as well as social status, changing demands could occasionally or even continuously affect the distribution of work. The household economy as a unified life and work form is characterised by a strong sense of community, which expects specific obligations from each individual as well as a large degree of flexibility and willingness to adapt.” (W1k, 99-100)

Pieter Bruegel, “The Harvesters” (1565). Public Domain. Artwork held by the Met.

This extended snapshot of the peasant household showcases Labour in the proper Arendtian sense. There is no mention of money; instead, households paid their rent in food so that their lords did not themselves have to spend their days fending off necessity, and could instead ‘leave the household’ and take part in public affairs (the irony here is that Arendt understands Feudalism as the beginning of the birth of ‘society’ as she sees it, as it is just an extended household). It also demonstrates that although there was definitely a gendered division of labour, it was nowhere near as ossified as it later became in the bourgeois family model.

The household was a small, self-managing unit that confronted the outside world as a whole, although it still had prorous boundaries through which money and people could pass. Far from the mid-20th century meaning of the word, ‘family’ here included adult children, those who married in (often only with the permission of the feudal lord and after payment of a bride price), servants, and temporary visitors.

This is far from an idyllic life. Even if it bears a passing resemblance to the imagined utopia many disenchanted Millennials share of a commune somewhere in the hinterlands, it’s not worth idolising, even a bit. Most medieval peasants lived to about 35, medicine was non-existent, and most people never travelled further than 20km from their houses. It goes without saying that gender was still very much a thing. It’s not for nothing that Arendt described the household head as wielding ‘despotic’ power. There was no running water, electricity, or internet access.

The eighteenth century presented a significant challenge to this way of life, with the advent of one of the precursors to later industrialisation, the rise of “putting-out work”. This is the beginning of specialisation, or the ‘division of labour’. The entire guild system had been based on the idea that one craftsman would perform each step in his work. Putting-out relied on carving the work up into a number of individual steps and farming each step out – literally – to peasant families, who would manage the work within their own households. Komlosy explains that

“…individual work processes … were performed in peasant farms and small rural households that worked independently and were paid for piecework, hourly wages or a combination of the two. On one hand, these household contractors functioned as outsourced company departments. On the other, putting-out work was only one of several activities they pursued, which fit into rhythms of daily or seasonal work and the familial division of labour.” (W1k, 140-1)

The important thing about putting-out work, is that it brought money into the household – a type of collective organisation that had preferred to fend off necessity with the labours of its many hands rather than by entering the market. Komlosy alerts us to the fact that this early model of the industrial division of labour helped to produce a shift in the ways people related to one another, and the ways that households managed necessity.

There was another shift in the labour relations of the European household in the early 19th century. Komlosy notes that “[t]he rise of centralised energy supplies moved work – and the workers – into the factory halls. Work remaining to be done in the households underwent an ideological reinterpretation: now it was considered reproduction, women’s work and motherly obligation, relegated to the private realm (W1k, 152).”

Arendt and Komlosy posit that as men began to cross the boundary of the household to work, and as this began to become the ‘norm’ (acknowledging of course that it has never been totalising), ‘work’ became split off from home life, establishing a variety of dyads: work/home, breadwinner/housewife, men’s work/women’s work, paid work/housework. This helped to institute a newly gendered division of labour in which the work women did within the household was bounded by it, but also understood as part of what was sold by the household via the man’s productive capacities.

Therefore one of the major ruptures caused by the industrial revolution the boundaries of the household. Prior to the industrial revolution, money would cross the boundaries of the household via putting-out work, there to supplement the products of subsistence labour. Once the man crossed the boundary of the household to chase money, rather than the money doing so to chase workers, something important had shifted.

The household that takes on putting-out work, conceptually at least, maintains a clear division of needs (subsistence work) and wants (money). The ‘breadwinner’ household makes no such delineation. Last week I talked about the fungibility of money being one source of politics because it makes wants and needs so hard to delineate – that has not always been the case.

Though my aim here is not to identify origins, it is incredibly tempting to argue that this is the founding of the gendered division of labour; that the bourgeois nuclear family of the Western 1950s is nothing more than a development of something that happened almost by accident in about 1800. But I will resist this temptation. After all, Komlosy acknowledges gendered roles within the medieval family, even if they might not align to those our modern eyes can easily see.

But it does show us that there was a time when people grew their own food, and made and mended their own clothes and houses, and bought and sold on the market in service or in addition to those activities. They did this in preference to engaging in the market. It’s not a time we should return to, but it is a radically different way of being to the one we are now in. The important lesson for contemporary readers is that the boundaries we draw around the home matter for what we think of as work, and have always had pretty massive ramifications for how we live our lives.


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