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Buddhist Production, Feminist Effort, and the God of Work

January 14, 2011

It’s a gorgeous, crisp day outside: perfect for a ride on my pretty new bike, and no time to be stuck inside blogging til dark. So the thought-connections in this post will be loose. Maybe I’ll try tightening them up sometime.

The following are three excerpts from three different pieces: Buddhist, economic, and Marxist-feminist. All deal with the same theme: work. I’m simply interested in thinking about parallels and dissonances among them, and working toward a more holistic understanding of how work operates in reality, and how we might want it to operate.

1. Buddhist Production

Let’s start with the Buddhist one, from Tricycle Magazine online:

When explaining meditation, the Buddha often drew analogies with the skills of artists, carpenters, musicians, archers, and cooks. Finding the right level of effort, he said, is like a musician’s tuning of a lute. Reading the mind’s needs in the moment—to be gladdened, steadied, or inspired—is like a palace cook’s ability to read and please the tastes of a prince.

Collectively, these analogies make an important point: Meditation is a skill, and mastering it should be enjoyable in the same way mastering any other rewarding skill can be. The Buddha said as much to his son, Rahula: “When you see that you’ve acted, spoken, or thought in a skillful way—conducive to happiness while causing no harm to yourself or others—take joy in that fact and keep on training.”

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Joy of Effort”

Okay. In one sense, I really appreciate the down-to-earth quality of this explanation. Taking spiritual practice out of the nebulous, ‘just feel and act spiritual’ realm and letting it be, you know, a practice. Getting our hands dirty. Just yesterday, after a mentally spasmodic morning sit, I was struck with gratitude at the specific articulations of The 5 Hindrances (common obstacles to proper focus in meditation): craving, aversion, agitation, sleepiness, and doubt. Oh, so I was dealing with some agitation. Comes with the territory. Millions of other meditators have encountered the exact same obstacle in their efforts toward mastery. Somehow, becoming familiar with the terrain of mediation sweetens the feeling of effort for me. Like stumbling through the last four bars of a song on the piano, and practicing again and again, gladly. As Bhikkhu puts it, “if you can approach difficulties with the enthusiasm with which an artist approaches challenges in her work, the discipline becomes enjoyable.”

So great, good, effort: we already associate (Right) effort with Buddhism. But how about work? There’s something about Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s example, and the paraphrasing of the Buddha, that, to me, feels disconnected from reality. Like, does the palace cook really derive so much joy from the effort of pleasing a finicky prince? This palace cook might be a slave, for all I know. One overspiced daal, one bout of royal indigestion, and it could be curtains for him!

Generally, artists’ lives — the carpenter, the musician, the cook — are easy to romanticize, but they are, of course, steeped in material, economic, social and political realities. We talk a lot about effort in sanghas, but not a lot about production. Let’s pay attention to that, too! All I’m saying.

In fact, there’s much to be learned by noticing the differentials between “work” and “artistry,” or between effort and production. One friend of mine who’s employed as a cook describes her job as “the kitchen bitch.” She works 6am to 6pm, typically five or six days a week, with short-tempered men bellowing at her all day. She’s constantly exhausted (But totally bad-ass and strong.) I offered to cook her dinner a few nights a week or something, since I figured she’d want nothing to do with a pot, pan, or stove by the time she gets home. But no, she said: cooking for herself is still a pleasure. Preparing a meal leisurely, yet with skill and precision. Like an artist. Like a human. Particularly like a woman-trained human. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

* * * * * * * *

2. The God of Work

The second piece, Buddhist Economics, written by economist E.F. Schumacher in the 1960’s, explicitly takes up this distinction between artisan craft and “production,” or what we might typically think of as work.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave. How to tell the one from the other? “The craftsman himself,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to to talk about the modern West as the ancient East, “can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s finders; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”[5] It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.

Characterizing the “modern economist’s” view of work in contrast to a Buddhist one, Schumacher hails back to the old pinhead example:

If the ideal with regard to work [from the “employer’s”/owner’s perspective] is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the workload” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.[4] Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.

. . .

[From a Buddhist point of view,] to organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal . . .

While I appreciate the attention to the spiritual dimension of work, and the difference between human-nourishing labor versus human-degrading labor (a distinction that Marx himself was down with, I think), a couple elements seem off.

One, Schumacher’s analysis is totally apolitical. He treats differences in the organization of production as simple matters of differences in opinion. Are they? Who has the power to mechanize work for others in degrading ways? Why do the “modern economists” conceive of work as they do? Whose interests do their conceptions serve? And why, despite their supposedly diametrically opposite views on the nature and purpose of work, do Buddhist nation-states, as Schumacher himself points out at the beginning of his article, “invariably assume that they can model their economic development plans in accordance with modern economics”?

Schumacher advises the people of these Buddhist countries to stay true to their own heritage:

Before they dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics is likely to lead them to places where they really want to be.

But do regular Buddhist working-class folks and poor people have all kinds of say in how to structure the economy of their countries? Are they running shit? Not the last time I checked. Ideologies about work don’t just compete on a level playing field. Under globalized capitalism, even heads of state don’t just automatically have autonomy, free from geopolitical repercussions. So implying that it’s a matter of persuasion, and chastising “those people in Buddhist countries who care nothing for the religious and spiritual values of their heritage and ardently desire to embrace the materialism of modern economics at the fastest possible speed,” just sounds condescending, untethered to reality, and gross.

Secondly, the picture of “Western” work that Schumacher draws, though familiar, is flawed and masculinist. The factory. The assembly line. The speed-up. Certainly they’re oppressive and deadly realities for a significant part of the world proletariat, even in today’s “information age” and “post-industrial society.” (And especially in Asia, and especially among women workers.) But there’s a whole other, invisible sphere of “Western” work missing from the equation. Housework. Or, in Marxist terms, reproductive labor. The work of the family. And this type of work is a different beast entirely.

* * * * * * * *

3. Feminist Effort

Marxist feminists changed the game on analyzing social relations, economics, and work when they pointed out that in order for “the worker” (classically a dude) to be able to sell his labor-power, he needs to be kept alive, and maintained against the damage and degradation of the waged job. This task — this invisibilized, unwaged, reproductive labor — has historically been forced upon women. Whether or not they themselves are employed in wage work, women are typically expected to also maintain the family (including children, the sick, and elderly), as well as perform physical and emotional labor that keeps working-class people and communities going from day to day. Keeps them able to sell the commodity they must sell in order to survive: their labor power.

Selma James writes, in a meaty introduction to an article by Italian Marxist feminist Maria Dalla Costa:

The ability to labor resides only in a human being, whose life is consumed in the process of producing. First it must be nine months in the womb; must be fed, clothed, and trained; then when it works its bed must be made; its floor is swept, its lunchbox prepared; its sexuality not gratified but quietened; its dinner ready when it gets home, even if this is eight in the morning from the night shift. This is how labor power is produced and reproduced when it is daily consumed in the factory or office. To describe its basic production and reproduction is to describe women’s Work.

Though we should be wary of reinforcing a gender binary (the idea that only men and women exist, or matter as gender categories), I think the category of women’s work is still useful in describing the hegemonic (dominant) skill set that girl-socialized people people, as a group, are disciplined into learning and performing. Negotiations of gender, whether they register as gender-nonconformity, tomboyishness, transgenderism, cisgenderism, or what have you, all have to contend with the hegemonic norms around the gender binary, including labor socially associated with women.

Politically, this labor serves a different function from the traditional God of Work model described in Schumacher’s piece: the kind of “man’s work” that forms “character.” Women’s work doesn’t form character, so much as fulfill prerequisites for social survival and legibility. Some women might get props for their reproductive prowess, but the compliments ring hollow when women have no choice (read: social and economic autonomy) but to care and nurture. If you succeed at reproductive labor, you are simply fulfilling your (supposed) biological destiny. Not like you had too many other options.

Women’s work is so ideologically naturalized as a gender role that its unsatisfactory execution gets interpreted as a personal and even sexual failing. Under the dominant racist, heterosexist framework of popular culture in the U.S., women who underperform in cooking, cleaning, beauty maintenance, and tending to male egos have only themselves to blame if they can’t “keep a man.” And in the popular compartmentalizations, all this stuff falls under the “personal” and “private” rubric: filed in the Style section, not Economics.

We can see, then, that not only is this sphere of labor usually omitted or occluded in accounts of production and work, but it also has a very different flavor to it. “Women’s work,” though certainly physical, often arduous, and aided to a certain extent by efficiency, is by nature more holistic than industrial work. Its ideal is not, and has never been (I don’t think?), the super-specialization and pro-automation of Adam Smith’s pin factory. (Fem-bot fantasies notwithstanding.) On a spectrum, we might say it’s more like providing a service than assembling a product, though DIY production inevitably factors in, too.

So what interests me about “women’s work” in the Buddhist context is how it troubles this mechanistic-vs.-artistic dichotomy we’ve been looking at. It occupies both sides. Yes, it is work, and sometimes it sucks. Especially when you’re socially forced to do it. Selma James’ stoic portrait of reproductive labor is helpful for de-romanticizing the role of wife and mother, and putting the work on par with other known drudgery outside the home. She and Dalla Costa also argue that the social production that women as a caste perform for capital gives them the power to subvert capital, too: “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.”

On the other hand, what does it mean to “refuse to produce” when this particular form of production entails loving and caring for others? Certainly, within our own households of all sorts of configurations, we should resist gender-oppressive divisions of labor: consciously reorganizing, bringing balance to, and thus revolutionizing the reproductive labor that is ours as a community to do. But this doesn’t have to be a cold and calculating process. (Though, again, I understand that given the history, painting housework in cold and calculating terms is a smart rhetorical strategy.) Maybe the labor of reproducing people is special. Maybe it harbors more potential for the sort of holistic, full-hearted effort that we eventually want to bring to all kinds of socially necessary work. And maybe radicals and revolutionaries can take advantage of this opportunity for practice. Not only can we organize our own reproductive work more fairly and equitably, we might also use it as a training ground for mindful effort.

Like zeno said here on the thread about Panther Beach,

i think this blog and those who participate in it yearn to build a society that allows human activity to – like the ocean’s relationship to the coast – be guided not by productive imperatives (as it is in capitalism), but by harmless interaction. such interaction still would flow, change, evolve (like the coast), but at a rhythm checked by every action’s reaction, in balance, timelessly.

* * * * * * * *

But maybe I’m all wrong. What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts. Now that I’ve spent way too long writing these ramblings, it’s finally time for that bike ride.

Have a great weekend, friends — see you Monday.

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