The invisible hand of Adam Smith's mother

May 5, 2019 (439 words) :: The sphere of social reproduction is a counterpoint to the capitalist idea that people will only be motivated to produce things by money.
Tags: ideology

This post is day 125 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is one of those book titles that answers its own question. It’s an entire joke and punchline in a mere 5 words. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to actually reading this 2012 book by Katrine Marçal, but the premise is intriguing, and I liked this New Republic review by Malcolm Harris. As Harris suggests in his review, we could see the book as a riposte to an oft-quoted line from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, one often used to justify markets as natural:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

But who made Adam Smith’s dinner? While he was writing The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith lived with his mother, in Scotland, and he certainly wasn’t paying her to make him dinner or do his laundry. Instead, she was motivated by something entirely outside the sphere of the market. You could say that she was doing it in self-interest because she loved him and wanted him to love her back, but that just raises the point that self-interest is socially constructed. And if people are willing to work for free because they love their children, or at least feel like they’re supposed to love their children, then why else would they be willing to work for free? What sort of social relations make this sort of division of labour possible (and so widespread), and how could they be tweaked so that people are motivated to work for reasons other than access to material resources, or to maintain the lives of their offspring?

Economists (and even some Marxists) often dismiss the sphere of social reproduction altogether, as if it’s just a tiny edge case that doesn’t really matter compared to the mode of production at large. But social reproduction is fundamental to the continued existence of capitalism (capital hasn’t yet figured out to grow and maintain workers in labs), not to mention society at large. Sidelining the issue can lead you to draw dubious conclusions about how society functions, as the case of Adam Smith shows.

I’ll end this here, as I sadly know very little about social reproduction theory. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve heard good things about this book of the same name from Pluto Press. I would also recommend the work of feminist theorist Nancy Fraser - check out this interview transcript in Dissent, this article in the New Left Review, and this episode of the podcast The Dig.

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