Thursday, October 06, 2005

Reading the Introduction to the Second Edition of Marilyn Waring's Counting for Nothing

Now I must say, it is a joy to be well rested - this morning I gave into temptation and stole a couple of extra hours sleep, and what a difference that makes!

I have just re-read my first blog entries, in part inspired by the nice ego stroke from Hammy Goonan (who has also linked to me from his own blog Goonanism), and I cannot believe how many typos I have made. Note to self: use the fucking spellcheck!

Last night i started to read Marilyn Waring’s Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. A few words on Waring, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

In 1975 general election, she became the New Zealand National Party member of Parliament for the Raglan electorate. She fell out with Prime Minister Rob Muldoon almost immediately.

During her period in Parliament, she served as Chair of the Public Expenditures Committee, Senior Government Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and on the Disarmament and Arms Control Committee.

Waring made history during her political career when she withdrew her support from her party over the issue of a nuclear-free New Zealand, precipitating a snap election in 1984. Her action brought down the government, and led to New Zealand becoming the first country to ban nuclear ships from its harbours.

So Waring was the the woman who brought down the government, but in 1984 she left politics and became an academic, developing a critique of economics from a feminist and ecological perspective. That work led to this book.

Having many personal connections to Aotearoa, i remembered who Waring was and the dramatic results of her actions in ’84, so she’s of interest already. But more importantly, a “feminist critique of economics” is something that strikes me as having much interest – and i look forward to seeing what Waring has to say.

Now last night i only got through her lengthy “Introduction to the Second Edition” (hereafter ISE), and i had mixed feelings – though overall i was pleased.

Waring’s basic argument – as i understand it before having read the book – is that unpaid labour and informal work around the world are at least as important to the economy as waged labour, and that the reason they are kept “off the books” is in order to make it look like men (who are over-represented in the formal sector) do more work than women (who are over-represneted in the informal sector).

I imagine Waring’s argument might bhe similar to that put forward by Maria Mies in her groundbreaking book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale:

“the law of exchange of equivalents must not be applied when it comes to women’s work. Therefore, this work is separated out of the (capitalist) economy and obscured. Women do not stop working in the houses, in the fields, in the factories, they do not stop giving birth to children and bringing them up but this work is no longer considered socially productive work, it is made invisible.” (p. 160)

This argument has been made by other women too, especially those around the International Wages for Housework Campaign, and by now the novelty has worn off: it’s true, it’s obvious… it’s nothing new.

So what i liked about the ISE is that here Waring takes this argument to the next level, which i would argue is necessary if it is to retain its radical potential. Waring notes here that in the twelve years between Counting for Nothing being written and the second edition coming out, there has been a strong move to recognize and impute (which means give monetary value to) women’s domestic labour. Similarly, monetary value has been imputed to environmental “assets”, so that things like “carbon trading” and “environmental accounting” are now being championed by government economists, as ways of integrating the value of natural resources into economic figures and projections.

So, seemingly spurred in part by criticism from progressives, bodies like the United Nations and the International Labor Organization might seem to have heeded feminist and ecological arguments. Yet as Waring points out, without changing the actual basis of the economic system, such a “victory” is really anything but – as she writes of her own calls to integrate nature and women into national accuonts, “My short-term policy needs for visibility were at odds with my passionate desire to bring this system to its knees.” (pp. xx-xxi)

The problem with integrating women’s labour and the environment into standard economic models should be obvious, for we are not dealing with a sensible or just system which merely needs some technical improvements. Nor – and here i am not sure whether Waring realizes this – are we dealing with a case of fraudulent accountants “fixing” the books in order to deny women a wage. The system, finally, cannot simply be criticized for “creating inequality”, although this is one half of the story. To truly grasp what we are up against, it must be stressed that capitalism is fuelled by inequality – if everyone was equal, or even if everyone in the world had their basic needs met, then the entire economy would lose its dynamic pulse.

When national accounts are corrected, and women’s labour and environmental assets are included, what we get is the spread of capitalist values to new areas, legitimizing what has happened before in new ways. For instance, let’s say a cruise missile costs $1 million, and an old-gowth forest is imputed to be worth a billion dollars – according to market mechanisms, a country which logs the entire forest and sells the timber in order to buy 1000 cruise missiles neither loses nor gains a thing!

Or for an actual, and actually sickening, account of how economics merely legitimizes the brutality of capitalist relations without actually mitigating them in the least, consider the approach the World Bank has taken to HIV/AIDS in the Third World. The following is from Nana K. Poku’s essay “Confronting AIDS With Debt: Africa’s Silent Crisis”, in the book The Political Economy of AIDS in Africa:

Consider this cruel irony: the World Bank – as a sponsor of UN/AIDS – is charged with funding strategies to alleviate poverty and to reduce HIV infectivity in the developing world. Yet it could write concerning the pandemic that ‘if the only effect of the AIDS pandemic were to reduce the population growth rate [in developing countries], it would increase the growth rate of per capita income in any plausible economic model’. Moreover, the Bank has developed the idea of ‘disability-adjusted life year’, or DALY, to measure the number of years lost to illness and death. ‘By this calculation,’ reported the Washington Post, ‘a country that spent US$1,000 a year to save the life of someone earning US$500 a year would suffer a net economic loss.’

Here is capitalism in all its uglyness, there for all to see, not hiding behind anything all – and yet one fails to see how imputing monetary values to work in the informal or subsistence sectors could do more than increase the worthiness of some lives, and perhaps decrease the worthiness of others – either way, the cold calculus of dividing between those worthy of life and those worthy of death would continue, only in a more “rational” guise.

Or how about this example, which Waring gives on pages xlv and xlvi: in 1998 there was a clash at the World Bank regarding a $2.6 billion, 1,600-kilometer pipeline from Chad through the Camerooon to the Gulf of Guinea. The economists were pointing out that the pipeline would double the size of Chad’s economy within ten years, whereas the environmentalists were pointing out that not only would it endanger the survival of the black rhino in the Deng Deng forest, and seriously disrupt the lives of pygmy tribes in Cameroon. As Waring points out, “there is simply no way to commodify the lifestyles of pygmy tribes, or the endagered black rhino.”  (to which i can already hear a thousand suits saying “oh yeah, just watch us!”)

What Waring suggests instead of merely adding women’s economic worth to pre-existing models is a more thorough overhaul of these models, “triangulating” the data with non-monetary assessments of environmental worth and data from time-use studies. She states that this would give an accurate accounting of how productively people spend their time and whether national economies were actually producing or depleting resources:

“In this transparent picture of reality, the range of knowledge and expertise across disciplines can be brought to the policy process. Economics no longer has us by the throat. Politicians will be required to exercise transparent judgements and find no simplistic and cowardly retreat behind growth-rate indices.” (p. xlviii)

Here i suspect Waring is going off the rails, and this is probably related to the fact that she has not yet used the word “capitalism” or “exploitation” once, for she still seems invested in the idea that someone has been playing with the books, and all “we the people” have to do is fix these books and shout “Aha! We got you!” and the guilty parties will be shamed into doing us right.

She has not digested – perhaps has not even swallowed – the uncomfortable fact that this is the same system which condemns between 13 and 18 million people to die every year as a result of starvation, the same system that spawns military conflicts around the globe, the same system which (as we have seen) believes the calculator is the best tool to use when deciding who gets anti-AIDS drugs in the Third World, the same system which grew out of the Witch-Hunt, the kidnapping of Africans, the genocide of indigenous peoples around the world… and this is the system that can be “brought to its knees” once politicians stop acting “cowardly” and the real economic realities are made known to all?!?!?!

I prefer Butch Lee’s observation that:

“Every inch of this country and every body & blade of grass in it is owned by patriarchal imperialism, a killer culture which will butcher you, me, our kids, too & 10,000 other women the day they think it necessary.” (The Military Strategy of Women and Children, p.74)

Or as Maria Mies pointed out in her groundbreaking book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale:

“All these efforts to ‘add’ the ‘woman question’ to existing social theories or paradigms fail to grasp the true historical thrust of the new feminist rebellion, namely its radical attack on patriarchy or patriarchal civilization as a system, of which capitalism constitutes the most recent and most universal manifestation.” (p. 13, emphasis in original)


So, having only read the introducition, i am getting ready for a liberal book with radical insights. You can do a lot worst in life, i know, and i didn’t expect a whole lot better. The whiting out of women’s work is a very important question, and it does help explain some of the major sexist weaknesses of the traditional left, so i imagine much of what Waring wil be discussing will be relevant and of interest – it’ll just reqire a bit of anti-capitalist contextualization. Nothing unusual about that…

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