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Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had is a flawed take on modern capitalism

Biss’s complaints about having “too much” seem – and there is no other way of putting this – very white.

By Otegha Uwagba

“What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying?”

So begins Eula Biss’s latest book, Having And Being Had, a carefully crafted blend of memoir and cultural criticism that considers the contradictions and injustices of modern globalised capitalism. That initial question, posed by Biss’s husband as the pair return home from a disappointing trip to a furniture shop, neatly introduces her concerns. Over the subsequent 300-odd pages, Biss proceeds to interrogate by turns the low-level malaise that consumer capitalism frequently provokes, and the unease she feels at her own participation within it; how the continual accumulation of stuff can leave you feeling oddly dissatisfied, even as we are led to believe it should do the exact opposite; the notion of ownership and how what we own defines us; how we establish value (of people, of things, of time) in the context of an economic system that defines individual worth according to one’s ability to generate income; and how artists are to operate under these conditions.

Biss’s investigation is ambitious in its scope, though it takes shape around one clear organising theme: the author having bought a home – her first – and her subsequent discomfort with her own comfort, her awareness that the prosperity she enjoys as a middle-class white American is directly predicated on the impoverishment of others. But despite her self-awareness, Biss’s complaints about her unease at being a homeowner, and her frustration at having “too much”, quickly start to grate. “I’m upset about the gravy boat”, she announces; next, “the comforter is too big for our washing machine”. Though these gripes are accompanied by acknowledgement of their triviality, the caveats feel insufficient to counter their inclusion in the first place.

One of the great strengths of Biss’s writing lies in her willingness to confront difficult emotions, and admit to things that few others can bring themselves to. In her 2009 essay collection Notes From No Man’s Land – an elegant and powerfully informative meditation on race, privilege, and the legacy of white America’s ongoing transgressions – there is a passage in which she admits to being scared of a group of young men she passes in the street, because they are black. Given how desperately white people will often contort themselves to avoid admitting to any form of racial bias, I find it strangely gratifying that Biss would be so frank about hers, so I’m reluctant to shame her for displaying that same honesty in Having And Being Had. But still – it’s irritating.

No doubt my irritation is coloured by my own circumstances. Having recently clawed my way onto the housing ladder after years of anguished pining, I feel only sheer, intense, blinding gratitude at my good fortune. To see someone else gripe about theirs is maddening, and would probably be more so were I still shut out of homeownership.

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Biss’s complaints also feel – and there is no other way of putting this – very white. I find it hard to picture the black and brown people I know handwringing about homeownership the way Biss does, likely because we are largely excluded from it, so when it does happen it is something to be celebrated. (The home ownership rate in the UK is 20 per cent for black Africans and 40 per cent for black Caribbeans – compared to 68 per cent for white Brits; in the US, where Biss lives, it is 42 per cent for black Americans compared to 73 per cent for white Americans.) Perhaps these juxtapositions – that I go from reading about racist redlining policies and the gentrification of predominantly black neighbourhoods on one page to Biss’s upset about her gravy boat and having “too much” on the next, only to learn of how Native Americans were cheated out of their land a few pages later – are deliberate. Perhaps she is aware of how absurd these contrasts are.

[see also: How UK house prices have soared ahead of average wages]

I suppose the discomfort Biss is expressing is a form of guilt, which seems an unhelpful lens through which to examine her status, particularly as that guilt never seems to spur her into any more decisive corrective action. Her resistance to the circumstances that have created her own privilege feels feeble, and never translates into anything more than intellectual philosophising. Biss, quoting Melville’s Bartleby, “would prefer not to” invest her pension in the stock market, which she describes as “a system that extracts profit from other people’s labour” – but she does so anyway. She wonders where the money from a grant given to her by the Guggenheim Foundation comes from, but avoids finding out until after she has spent it. At one point she suggests “we shouldn’t ask our rich to be good, in other words, we should ask our economic system to be better”. But what about personal responsibility? Perennially emphasising structural limitations over the potential of individual action to redress inequalities looks like a get-out clause that Biss is determined to deploy at every turn.

Still, there are many revelatory insights dotted throughout, particularly on how money can alter one’s perception of self. Biss, having graduated from struggling artist to a homeowner with a pension plan, is wincingly perceptive on how changes in economic status can force you into uneasy concomitance with those from whom you had previously set yourself apart. She imagines her new neighbour, an affluent bank regulator, to be a vampire – but she feels herself becoming one, too. She is wary of the other women in her neighbourhood, wealthy women who seem to lack self-awareness, only to realise – when she discovers that they are all members of the same gym – that she has more in common with them than she would like. “These women and I, I realise, belong to the same club.” She is also wryly funny about how the items we fill our homes with are as much about signalling to others as they are aesthetic choices: as in her devastatingly accurate description of Farrow & Ball’s paint colour “Sulking Room Pink” as a “moneyed pink”.

Throughout the course of the book, Biss relies on a huge number of sources to support her own work – Silvia Federici, John Kenneth Galbraith, Thomas Piketty, Virginia Woolf – yet the effect of all these references, interesting as they are, is to make the book seem a compendium of other writers’ thoughts, rather than a convincing summary of Biss’s own. There is no overarching thesis other than that “capitalism is bad, and makes co-conspirators of us all”, an analysis that feels slightly too obvious for a book published in 2021. The reader finishes Having and Being Had feeling – much as Biss herself clearly does – quietly unsatisfied.