Betty Friedan interviewed the unhappy housewives, their human potential unfulfilled by a lack of vocation outside the home. I wonder if her claim was just a premise of the lawn being more manicured on the other side. The book received criticism by reviewers asking who was really oppressed and what perspectives were ignored. I’ve been on a few lawns, and I am here to confirm there is no true green grass anywhere. Mostly it’s either covered with the blood of women who die in the Global South because of the poor working conditions that pay them too little to support their families or laced with pesticides for profit or sheets of concrete to the dismay of our feet. I suppose there might green grass somewhere, but it costs more than some of us can afford, meaning a woman would have to earn more than what is only enough to rent a room in someone else’s house, an apartment of her own being too expensive much less any sort of fund for a cabin in the woods.
I also want to talk about the middle class. Work is important. I agree with Friedan to the extent that we need something to do that inspires us, that gives us purpose. Marx liked work too. But he critiqued the capitalist tendency to cause an imbalance in the lives of the working classes. In The Grundrisse, he says, “The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power.”
Time and time again, I hear others echo my own thoughts about how we are stretched to the limits, how we work for 9 hours a day, come home exhausted and starving because we are hardly given time to eat during the day, and fall asleep after dinner because at 6 a.m., we wake to do it all over again. We cannot just work for the weekend because when we do, we find ourselves scrambling to fit personal development and our hobbies and social lives, or families if have them, into the waking hours of that weekend that never seem to be enough.
A healthy system subjects itself to critique. In most businesses under mindless capitalism, even those in the education system, there are a few people benefiting excessively at the top and a massive number of workers at the bottom not. I doubt the people who might be disappointed at such a critique because they are in administration/leadership would like to exchange places and be reduced to what some of us see in our bank accounts each month.
I love work. Without it, I get depressed. I need something to do. I want a purpose. People gain self-worth and confidence by seeing tasks accomplished through discipline and a consistent practice. I almost think work is a spiritual imperative. It feeds the soul. The Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Dhammapada, Rumi all talk about discipline being the medicine to a life of indulgence.
But as in all areas of life, there must be a balance. We must find moderation and the middle way. This is where true wisdom lies, according to these same spiritual traditions.
Leisure time is the space in which, as Marx claims, individuals develop themselves. When people spend 75% of their waking hours at a job, regardless if they are privileged to have a pillow to sleep on and food in the refrigerator, the system that causes the current human predicament should be questioned. Dismantling the mindless capitalist system should be on everyone’s minds for the oppression it causes on all levels, some much more egregious than others.
Most of us want to work hard, but while being reasonable about it. Being reasonable means having adequate leisure time for self-development and being fairly compensated with a living wage. What is fair? To be safe. To have the time and the space to create and fulfill our human potential. I mean, we can do it, Rosie, sure. But do we want to. . . like this?
Friedan had a point. She just shouldn’t have (or been assumed as having) universalized it or held such romantic notions of how accessible for everyone an ideal job with a true work-life balance where one would not have to prioritize among aspects of their life (or, in the case of the most oppressed, their actual lives) because their work gives them little opportunity to attend to all of them sufficiently or literally survive.
A part of our environmental crisis is that too many people find themselves exhausted and frustrated with their excessive work lives that they cope by buying cheap items with the money they have, drowning ourselves in excessive consumption because that IS accessible. Another portion of humanity, albeit a smaller one, is also coping by excessive consumption of material goods because they are bored and have nothing to do. And the largest portion of humanity is dying in factories and foreign-bought farms to make the materials and goods the rest are buying. And isn’t that all just perfect for capitalism, every level of it? Yes, some of us buy into the advertisements that say we have a lack because we indeed do. A lack of free time that might be spent in self-discovery, developing values and ethics, becoming more informed about how we might be perpetuating greater injustices in the world. Because of this lack, we decline into a fussy, immature, reactive, grasping, uneducated species who know the names of the Kardashians more than the names of the recent Nobel Prize recipients and end up electing a Trump for our representative because he mirrors our atavistic regressions most aptly. “Trump” is simply a personification of what we can no longer deny about ourselves. Let us work hard, but let us work well and honorably, approaching life holistically, and not at the expense of others or ourselves.
The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1972/78. pp. 290.
Lache S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures.