Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?
Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel
Portobello Books, 240pp, £12.99
We don’t normally think of unpaid work as relevant to the economy. Housework – the cycle of cooking, cleaning, wiping, soothing, ironing that forms the daily life of so many women around the world (and yes, the emergence of the New Man notwithstanding, it is still women who do the vast bulk of unpaid work) – is usually excluded from economic analysis. It is made invisible, seen as a limitless natural resource, and therefore as having no value.
But what if one day women all over the world put down their feather dusters? What if we had to start paying for all the free cleaning and childcare? Canada’s national statistical agency has already thought about this: it came to the conclusion that unpaid work contributed between 30.6 and 41.4 per cent of GDP. That is a not insubstantial figure. So, why is such a huge contributor to national wealth being routinely ignored?
That is the question Katrine Marçal sets out to answer in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?. She tells us the story of the emergence of Homo economicus, or Economic Man, the mythical figure around whom our world runs. Economic Man is rational. He is an autonomous individual who makes independent choices calculated to maximise his utility (economics-speak for well-being). Above all, he is a man. “[E]very aspect of Economic Man’s personality overlaps with every trait throughout history that we’ve come to call masculine,” Marçal writes. Besides, these traits are “those which we have understood to be superior to and worthy of dominating that which we call feminine”.
And what traits do we call feminine? Well, the opposite of everything embodied by Economic Man, of course. He is rational; she is emotional. He is independent; she is dependent. He is selfish; she’s self-sacrificing. She is everything he needs her to be so that he can be a GDP-generating island.
The thing is, not even man lives up to the myth of Economic Man. Behavioural economics has shown repeatedly that no one takes decisions in a “rational” manner. Our decisions are affected by how we feel at the time we take them, whether we are alone or in company, whether we are hungry. Even the way the choices are presented, or who presents them to us, can have an effect. All these variables can lead us to make decisions that would seem to run counter to our best interest. And yet these “irrational” decisions are the ones we are making every day. Why, Marçal asks, are we so bent on ignoring them?
As for the innately caring, dinner-cooking woman, she is exposed as little more than a rationalisation of inequality. For “the market is always right” fundamentalists, situations in which “women’s work” is unpaid – or where women are paid less for doing the same job, or where feminised industries garner lower wages – must have a rational explanation. Chicago economists, who in the 1950s were among the first to try to include unpaid work in economic models, hypothesised that because women were tired from all the polishing and scrubbing, they were unable to put as much effort as men into paid work. Therefore it was rational that they be paid less. On the other hand, they also reasoned that women did more housework because they were paid less. But then, economists aren’t always the most progressive creatures. The same Chicago economists also posited racial segregation as a rational solution to dealing with a racist workforce and clientele. And when Lawrence Summers was chief economist at the World Bank he defended the “impeccable” economic “logic” of dumping toxic waste from developed countries in the “LDCs” (least developed countries). Rich nations get rid of toxic waste: LDCs get enough cash to compensate for the rise in disease. “Let them eat pollution,” Marçal drily notes.
In this spirited and witty manifesto, she argues that we have allowed Economic Man to invade every aspect of our lives, to our detriment. The myth has even entered our sex lives: books such as Spousonomics advocate that wives control their husbands by “rewarding” them with sex if they behave well. There is no room in this analysis for a wife who wants to have sex because she enjoys it. There is no room in this analysis for anyone doing anything for any reason other than the most calculated self-interest. Love, passion and pleasure are relegated to the realm of the feminine – dangerously irrational.
“We cannot challenge Economic Man without feminism,” Marçal writes, “and we can hardly change anything of importance today without challenging Economic Man.” So, in commanding rhetoric punctuated with spiky wit, she does exactly that. It was Adam Smith’s mother who cooked his dinner: he never married, and lived with her for most of his life. Yet despite his dependence on her care she does not figure in his account of how meals are produced: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Unlike the Chicago economists, Marçal does not seek to yoke every last aspect of our lives to the tyranny of Homo economicus. Rather, she asks why we have fetishised the myth, and suggests that man denuded of his humanity is not such a figure to aspire to after all.
Caroline Criado-Perez appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 14 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com