Our word “culture” finds its root in the Latin cultus, meaning caretaking or worship. Every human culture is powered by some sense of what is highest, most valuable, most worth pursuing or preserving. This sense forms the background of our days, often slipping by unexamined. In a sick culture like ours, there might be an ambient, ill-defined sensation of futility, anxiety, fear, or rage humming just beneath the surface. There might, depending upon the available technology, be a widespread, half-conscious flight to the psychic distractions and chemical sedations most able to dull the subterranean current of dread – opioids, smartphones, social media, porn, junk food, etc. But even more darkly, this misery and these flights might be the point, the beating heart of our culture, a vital, necessary call to prayer, buzzed out twenty-four hours a day from a million cellphone towers and satellites.
But what is this culture that contains and forms us? Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century, Max Weber announced that under our modern economic regime, “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.” Weber writes, almost mystified, that money seems to have escaped the utilitarian role we would naturally imagine for it. The tool has become the master. The rage for acquisition has only grown in the intervening years, spreading its roots ever deeper into the soil of our society. The historian Eugene McCarraher has recently written that our current instantiation of capitalism is:
A form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity. With money as its ontological marrow, it represents a moral and metaphysical imagination as well as a sublimation of our desire for the presence of divinity in the everyday world.
If this is right, what is the divinity that we’re chasing? And why do we want it? If money is the highest value in our culture, the one most influential in shaping our practices, the one that we tacitly worship, we should try to figure out what in the world it is.
But of course it isn’t anything, exactly. It can be transformed into a boat, a new suit, a house, prompt service, favorable legislation, a vacation. It’s precisely nothing, and that’s the point – it is infinite changeability. It allows me to slide a card through a groove and alter just about anything, or so the promise goes. This, then – the wide open space of indeterminacy, the capacity for infinite adaptation – is what we worship in our culture: simply not to be fenced in or tied down. If there’s an archetypal name for this god it is Proteus, the Greek god of water, famous for his ability to change into any shape at any moment. This is protean freedom – frictionless change –is what we take for excellence, and those who possess it are accorded the highest status.
It makes tidy economic sense, among other things. A system premised on perpetual, limitless growth must be characterized by infinite liquidity, in the hands of an infinitely needy population. As the historian Christopher Lasch puts it,
In a simpler time, advertising merely called attention to the product and extolled its advantages. Now it manufactures a product of its own: the consumer, perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored. Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life. It “educates” the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment. It upholds consumption as the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction.
Lasch wrote this in 1979. The pattern is much the same now, but enacted using far, far more effective and pervasive technologies.
The late British cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote in 2009 that Western societies were shifting from a discipline model of power to one of control. The truly powerful would no longer exercise control via force or threat – or not so much at least. Instead, they would simply form our desires for us; 1984 would give way to Brave New World. Fisher wrote that while the archetypal subject of a discipline society was the “worker-prisoner,” the subject of a control society like ours is the “debtor-addict.” Fisher looked around and saw a society so absolutely dependent on screens and spectacle that it would hungrily hurl itself into debt to get more of them, which then bound it into perpetual remunerative work. Always, the logic of addiction whispers, there must be more; always happiness hovers a purchase away, or on the other side of this one last video I need to watch before bed, this one last scorching comment on a social media post. When, inevitably, this promise of happiness is shown up as a lie, we are offered the dulling embrace of mood-altering medications, a few more Amazon boxes, and another manic swirl through the machine of online sociality.
A protean culture like ours is ultimately a nihilistic one – nothing here and now, nothing visible or graspable is worthy of my commitment. The only thing I’m sure of is that I need to maintain my ability to wriggle free of any belonging, to trade this thing I have for that, should future inclination demand it, which of course it will.
A protean culture like ours is ultimately a nihilistic one – nothing here and now, nothing visible or graspable is worthy of my commitment.
This culture cuts hard against many of the things that we actually need the most. A spouse, offspring, a family, a community – these things, if pursued well, involve long duration and deep commitment. Like anything real, they are necessarily imperfect, not quite as you wish they were, and not infinitely changeable. Decidedly illiquid. To treat them with any kind of decency, you must make your peace with being tied down, kept from other possibilities, restricted. A money-centered culture such as ours rebels against such confinement.
It’s not just a simple matter of shaping our desires; many or most of us find ourselves pulled into the hot, desperate pursuit of money also by forces beyond – or seemingly beyond – our personal control; we act as we must to survive, and in the process, we come to value what we must. Worship is enacted both by belief and action – what we value and what we do. As a culture develops, these two aspects continually morph and intensify each other, in a marvelous feedback loop. Our default living and working arrangements are a prime example, designed for maximal mobility and change, shaped to the demands of the market, and helping to shape good consumers and workers in turn.
The nuclear family – a home populated by mother, father, and children alone – has for a while been considered the human norm, but this is not so; it’s actually of comparatively recent vintage. The earliest example of this norm seems to be thirteenth-century England, which was for many years an outlier even in Europe, and certainly worldwide. This arrangement didn’t become widespread until after the Industrial Revolution, when new economic conditions made this smaller, more concentrated form of family economically advantageous.
Prior to this, the norm had been the extended family – multiple generations living together and sharing the burdens, pains, and joys of domestic life, and working together to support the family through farming, craftsmanship, cottage industry, and so on. In America, the multi-generational family only became truly marginal after World War II. As the Pew Research Center reports, in 1940, 25 percent of Americans lived in multi-generational homes, “defined as including two or more adult generations, or including grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25.” This number shrank quickly in the wake of World War II, when the expansionist boom made suburban nuclear family homes the norm. The percentage of multi-generational homes continued to shrink through the sixties and seventies.
As Christopher Lasch describes it, our modern model of family life is founded on what sociologists have called “companionate marriage, on the child-centered household, on the emancipation or quasi-emancipation of women, and on the structural isolation of the nuclear family from the kinship system and from society in general.” This model is now under considerable stress. Kay Hymowitz, a present-day admirer of the nuclear family, keen to defend it against nostalgic evocations of a more pastoral, communal past, writes:
Far from being weaker than an extended family clan . . . the ordinary nuclear family was able to adapt superbly to changing economic and political realities. In fact, the family arrangement so common to England helps explain why it and other nations of northwest Europe were the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the launching ground for modern affluence. The young nuclear family had to be flexible and mobile as it searched for opportunity and property. Forced to rely on their own ingenuity, its members also needed to plan for the future and develop bourgeois habits of work and saving.
This is precisely right. The nuclear family arose as a successful adaptation to changing economic realities, which were pulling more and more men from farm and cottage industry to factory and beyond. As this happened, affluence grew, and domestic duties fell entirely upon wives, who were now alone as caretakers of home and children.
As the feminist scholar Nancy Fraser writes, in human history there has very often been a relative division of labor, wherein women do a larger share of caregiving work like raising children, caring for the elderly, and nurturing neighborhood friendships – work that Fraser calls “social reproduction.” However, she explains, “The rise of capitalism intensified this gender division – by splitting economic production off from social reproduction, treating them as two separate things, located in two distinct institutions and coordinated in two different ways.”
The nuclear family is agile – it provides enough adult managers to sustain the activities of a household, while allowing for quick movements from place to place, in pursuit of economic opportunity and advantage. The long hours demanded by utility-maximizing managers can be satisfied by a single breadwinning parent, because his wife is shielded from any responsibility for economic production, which has been moved entirely out of the family homestead.
As grandparents, uncles, and aunts faded from the domestic sphere, left in hometowns by opportunity-chasing parents, the productive, shaping energies of women zeroed in on their children, who were now their responsibility alone. As any modern economist will tell you, division of labor leads to specialization and efficiency. Whether it leads to well-rounded, flourishing humans is an entirely separate question. There is in fact precious little reason to believe that a family structure led by a work-consumed public father and a child-consumed private mother is natural, necessary, or even healthy.
But it is good for business. A hiring manager in 2020, looking to fill a high-wage, high-status position, has access to a broad swath of the American (and international) labor pool. As Christopher Lasch writes in Revolt of the Elites, “Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads. Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.” If the advancer in question is the sole breadwinner for a nuclear family, then his spouse and children can move with him, and adapt to their new climes. This is excellent news for management. A larger labor pool means not only better candidates to choose from, but per the law of supply and demand, lower wages.
There is in fact precious little reason to believe that a family structure led by a work-consumed public father and a child-consumed private mother is natural, necessary, or even healthy.
As the writer Wendell Berry succinctly puts it in Life Is a Miracle, “the context of professionalism is not a place or a community, but a career.” Children do not, however, grow up in careers, at least not yet. An adult world that by turns encourages and forces the choice of career over growing up surrounded by family and friends, in places you know and understand, is an adult world that has not, contrary to the rhetoric, focused its attention on the nurture of children.
A geographically fluid labor market where families are compact, mobile, and headed by one dedicated breadwinner and one dedicated caregiver is very good for the capitalist class. What’s even better is a labor market where families are compact, mobile, and headed by two dedicated breadwinners, who use their wages to pay others to watch their children for them.
During the World War II, women flooded into the American workforce out of necessity, replacing the labor and wages of breadwinning husbands who’d been deployed to fight against fascism in Europe and Asia. When the men returned, the labor force became once again male-dominated, but now with a larger share of women than before. Soon feminist authors would begin to vociferously advocate for female labor-force participation, as a matter of equality and economic independence. The victory of this argument has been astonishing. Today, 47 percent of the American labor force is female.
This seems, perhaps, like a triumph. In some ways it is, but worth examining more closely. Many important feminist writings on these matters are authored by those in the highly educated, professional class, and assume a type of work (like feminist scholarship, for instance) that is deep, rich, and rewarding. But this is not, of course, an accurate picture of wage-earning work writ large. The black feminist writer bell hooks attacked Betty Freidan’s seminal feminist text, 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, on similar grounds. hooks argued that Friedan’s wildly influential call for female entry into the workforce had succeeded by painting a tendentious, class-and-race-blind picture of home, family, and work. hooks writes:
Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.” That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.
Despite these significant omissions (or perhaps in part because of them) Friedan’s was a book whose time had come. It became an instant classic, and many of its guiding images – such as the idea of the suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp” for homemaking mothers – did much to set the aspirations and expectations of women after the Second World War.
It was, on one level, a remarkably easy case to make. Anyone raised in a country so enamored of money will be easy enough to convince that remunerative work is the real, true, important kind of work, that non-remunerative work is for flunkies and pushovers. This value hierarchy is ham-fisted and foolish, of course, and few people would agree to it so formulated. A good human life contains multitudes – care and competition, sensitive nurture and hard-nosed realism, children and money, private and public. We all know this, of course. The practice of choosing all of one or all of the other is an unnecessary artifact of the modern, factory-minded division of labor. Earlier economies of family farm and cottage industry had many faults, as all human arrangements do, but allowed for a richer array of mixed lifestyles and shared roles. But if we are forced to choose, our culture presents us with pretty clear ideas about which way we should go.
What’s more, for many families, the choice to rely on two breadwinners is hardly a choice at all. Some of the dynamics leading to what Elizabeth Warren called the “two-income trap” made their first appearance in the wake of World War II. As women flowed into the labor market, both working women and middle-income men – those with a high school education – saw their wages fall as the pool of available labor swelled. A limited but significant group of American men and women could now no longer count on a single job to pay what had been called a “family wage.”
This was not, however, the only pressure pushing wages downward in the postwar period. Just as women were expanding the workforce, the capitalist class received a complementary tool from the invisible hand of the market, one made in collaboration with the visible hand of the policy establishment. As management gained new technologies of communication and transport, it took advantage of new globalization-privileging trade policies, shifting production overseas, where human resources were cheaper. Fraser writes:
Today, of course, the family wage ideal is dead. It’s a casualty, on the one hand, of the fall in real wages, which makes it impossible to support a family on a single salary (unless one belongs to the 1 percent); and on the other hand, of the success of feminism, which de-legitimized the idea of women’s dependency that was built into the family wage. As a result of this one-two punch, we now have the new norm of the “two-earner family.”
For those Americans who are not positioned to earn an advanced education (and many who are!), the reality is often now very simple. It is just not possible to afford a middle-class life on one salary. Fraser thinks this new norm has wide-reaching consequences not just in fiscal matters, but in psychological and social well-being. Because the care work she calls social reproduction is absolutely vital for a society’s continuation.
Even as the two-income family became the default, the neoliberal ideology of the 1980s and 1990s led to the slashing of social welfare programs that might have deployed public funds to help carry the private burden of social reproduction. It did not thereby make social reproduction unnecessary. Rather, it forced working people, especially women, to not just “have it all” but, in theory, to do it all. Alas, this is impossible. Whatever the ideological and economic realities of the moment, children and the old need to be cared for – they don’t go away simply because the realities of work have changed.
The encompassing, civilizational promise is that just around the bend, just after the next promotion is earned, just after the next Amazon package arrives, in the next car we buy, in the next pill we pop, in the next meme we see, we will finally gain the relief we need.
That increasingly means a turn to professional caregivers, especially for those households on the upper end of the income spectrum. These domestic workers tend to be women, often immigrants, who then must find (often lower-quality) childcare for their own children while they provide bespoke care for the children of the more well-to-do. The rise of the two-breadwinner home has created a sort of pass-the-baton situation in caregiving, where a majority of parents are spending their time working for wages and relying on someone else to raise their children and care for their aging parents.
Some (especially women) with public platforms have complained – loudly, convincingly, futilely – about the manifold miseries of this situation. But it makes so much sense, contributes so richly to the economic growth that has made contemporary America the richest nation in history. Our current arrangements work on multiple levels at once, simultaneously ramping up both supply and demand for goods and services. They do this by pulling us away from each other, sapping the warmth and belonging that might still some of the profitable psychological disquiet that Lasch and Fisher describe. We need – most of us literally need – to devote our adult lives to working outside the home, and answering work emails into the night. This dominance of work, and the loneliness, anxiety, and absentmindedness it produces – I should be accomplishing something right now! I should be more productive! – in turn calls for ever-present laptops, smartphones, tablets, and social media participation for mother, father, and children.
These purchases add handsomely to the bottom lines of Silicon Valley, and heap incalculable piles of personal data into the arms of advertisers, who then tailor every successive session to make us ever hungrier for more things. A crop of eager, smart college graduates hurl themselves into Silicon Valley every year, applying all that brain power and long hours to the project of making our gadgets more addictive.
The encompassing, civilizational promise, once again, is that just around the bend, just after the next promotion is earned, just after the next Amazon package arrives, in the next car we buy, in the next pill we pop, in the next meme we see, we will finally gain the relief we need. Here and now never matter nearly as much as what might soon be.
It’s almost a beautiful thing, to see a system so perfectly designed, stretching its tentacles to so many corners of the human experience. The medieval Great Chain of Being was no more elegant than this. That system, in time, was unable to keep apace of new developments, and it fragmented into a hundred pieces. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course – beauty is only the symbol of immortality, not its sacrament. Our contemporary culture has made a remarkable claim on the inner and outer lives of its adherents, remade us into relentless, restless, isolated strivers. Many will remain in its thrall till the end of their lives. But not all. Let’s hope that among its dissenters there exists a critical mass of stubborn, exasperated, self-impressed heretics, a cabal able to gather up the widespread misery of the current system, and turn it like alchemists into another enlightenment, another, doubtless very different, reformation.
A longer version of this essay appeared at Capita.