Welcome to the fourth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.
There’s no set way for humans to take care of one another. The extraordinary diversity of community forms and population dynamics in human history underscores the point. At every turn, systems of tending to, caring for, and reproducing human life are connected with extrahuman natures. This existential connection not only encompasses the material and biological but extends to our belief systems and modes of thought. Every rite of passage, every springtime fertility ritual, from maypoles to bloodletting, signals the range of ways that human and extrahuman life form through each other. But when we talk of reproductive labor under capitalism, we’re referring to a very specific set of arrangements, ones that were rearranged through world-ecology and persist today. Under these arrangements, some humans were confined to new political, social, and ecological units—households—the better to engage in care work in capitalism’s ecology. Call this the Great Domestication.
Consider what appear to be entirely independent sets of observations. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 International Attitudes Project received a range of responses to the statement “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” In Iceland, 3.6 percent of people agreed, but in Egypt 99.6 percent did. Why the difference? The easy explanations are culture, religion, tradition, income level. Yet a study in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics points the finger at none of these things. Examining data over the past two hundred years, controlling for everything from religion to war to the presence of oil, the authors found that somehow, across a range of countries, a key factor associated with gender inequality is the introduction of a specific agricultural technology: the plough. Individuals who grow up in a society with a tradition of using ploughs aren’t just more likely to perpetuate gender inequality at home—it even sticks with them when they migrate. Like good economists, the study’s authors haven’t a clue why. It’s clear that problems of gender, inequality, and discrimination wouldn’t disappear if we were now to replace ploughs with some other agricultural technology. The deeper challenge is understanding not just how a particular way of tilling the soil comes to naturalize divisions between men and women but what might be done to move toward equality.
So why might a farming implement ancient enough to be depicted in 2600 bce Egyptian hieroglyphics be responsible for twenty-first-century chauvinism? At the sixteenth-century frontier in what is now Peru, the chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega reported something that might solve the plough-sexism conundrum. Indigenous People widely viewed the domestication and then harnessing of oxen as bizarre behavior, both for its interruption of the order of nature and for what it said about the domesticators. The Indigenous explanation was that the Spanish were too lazy to till the land themselves and had to train animals to do it for them while they sat around picking food from their teeth. The Spanish were also considered odd because of the land they chose to farm and the way they occupied it. Colonialists preferred the relatively flat plains for their haciendas, while Indigenous People embraced the terracing technologies that can still be seen in and around Cuzco. You can’t plough a steep hillside that everyone owns—physics and social convention both exert strong forces against it. It’s much easier to plough on large, contiguous, privately owned haciendas. In other words, it wasn’t just the plough that was odd—it was the constellation of transformations in work, relations to extrahuman life, and property into which the plough fit. And central to those ideas were newly forming ones around animal and human domestication.
The modern household and its membership have their origins in ecological changes in European capitalism. In The Working Lives of Women in the Seventeenth Century, Alice Clark argues that the nuclear household of husband, wife, and children emerged through shifts in the economic geography of care and production on the commons. Recall that women’s work on the commons included fuel gathering and gleaning, which made subsistence possible and sometimes provided a marketable surplus. If anything went wrong, social insurance came from networks of support—religious, personal, social—across the community. These arrangements were incompatible with the kinds of agricultural innovation that brought about the widespread use of the plough: larger and larger enclosed landholdings, monocultures, exclusive private property arrangements, and the creation of a workforce motivated by the threats of starvation and imprisonment.
Enclosure made it impossible for peasants to survive on their meager landholdings. Peasants became wageworkers forced to sell their labor to survive. This also set women and men into competition in the labor market. With the commons, dairying had been a way for women to engage in agriculture, sustaining the household through milk and dairy sales. Without a commons, no cattle could be grazed. The market for dairying skills became tight—sheep’s wool was far more lucrative than cows’ milk, and shearing was gendered as men’s work. Women were required only for the paid work of milking and calving cows in the spring. Spring ploughing and autumnal harvesting involved heavier labor and were also often coded as men’s work. This division of labor led to different prices for men’s and women’s employment. It is in the fields that we find the origins of today’s global wage gap, a phenomenon in which relations with nature were involved from the beginning.