Abolish Housework: How to End Domestic Servitude

Photograph Source: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer – Public Domain

Today I found myself in the local supermarket counting the number of shelf feet displaying home cleaning products. The total came to 60 feet, four shelves tall. I then walked over to the shelves with kitchen utensils and gadgets – 25 feet. No, I wasn’t employed as a secret shopper. I was motivated to count the shelf space devoted to these consumer products after reading After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time.1

The authors, Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek, both advocates of Post-Work2 in the UK, note that historically industrial workers were the focus of the labor movement’s quest to limit the demeaning hours of waged toil. They, however, seek to question how to apply work reduction to the labor that mainly falls upon women to do – cooking, cleaning, and childcare. In other words, the tasks of social reproduction.

The authors, who have three young children, make the claim that the avalanche of appliances that define the modern home don’t reduce the drudgery of housework, but in fact intensify it. Specifically, the new powerful vacuum that can suck up the cat imposes a stricture of cleanliness beyond the rug that a previous less powerful model could never attain. And the same applies to the kitchen, where all those stainless steel, semi-automated servants demand to be polished weekly, if not more often. The historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan discovered in her research that time spent on domestic work didn’t decline at all from 1871 to the 1970s.

This fact has been called the Cowan Paradox3. This may seem incredible. It has been explained that previously other members of the family, usually the children, extended family members, and even adult men, helped with housework. After WWII housewives were pressganged, by an eruption in the marketplace of cleaning products and kitchen appliances, into doing all the housework. The triumph of domestic technology proved to be a fetter upon the life of women.

These gendered circumstances of domestic tedium call into question the traditional nuclear family. Hester and Srnicek outline the isolation, the exclusion, and the excessive labor of the stereotypical family and speculate about its continued existence. As they note, over a third of the households in Germany, France, and the UK are single-person households. It is only slightly less the case in the US. These facts lead to the speculation that living arrangements for these households are grossly wasteful of resources.

The authors turn to the issues of design to reduce domestic labor. I found this section most intriguing. They conduct the reader on an excursion of both practical and fanciful, structural and political remedies to reduce the waste of resources and labor. We learn about the Frankfurt Kitchen (a small galley-like space with everything is within an arms-length reach), the Feminist Apartment House (where all corners are rounded to ease cleaning), the Ansonia, a residential hotel in New York City, which featured kitchenless suites and a large communal dining room.

The unique innovative living arrangements surveyed provide examples of imaginative solutions to some of the most problematic domestic issues, however to scale these up for large communities have proven impossible. The better alternative has been cooperative housing where some essential services can be collectivized, like a laundry room, dining facilities, a gym, and childcare. New York City has the largest array of high-rise housing cooperatives in America. The first were built by Finish labor organizations in the 19th century. The garment unions built the second wave early in the 20th century.4

Almost all major cities in Europe have public housing arrangements, but the most outstanding development can be found in Vienna. After WWI, the Social Democrat Workers’ Party began erecting large social housing projects. Though the building program was interrupted during the Second World War period, social housing developments resumed afterwards. Today close to 500,000 units of social housing exist in Vienna and the apartments are so popular that many are occupied by middleclass families.5

Hester and Srnicek conclude their analysis by formulating demands based on three themes: communal care, public luxury, and temporal sovereignty. Communal care refers to those accommodations, for example, like child and elder care provided beyond what the family can manage. Ideally these facilities are nearby, if not incorporated in the family’s building complex. Communal care would encompass health care in a similar fashion – small clinics nearby not across town.

The aim of emphasizing communal care for the authors is to remove as many of the demands placed on the nuclear family as possible. The traditional nuclear family as it is now constituted with two working parents and possibly one or, at most, two children is at the breaking point. Statistics demonstrate the collapse of the family under the stress of too many expectations. Hester and Srnicek would like to see the family as now constituted not so much abolished as transformed. Communal care should encompass the care provided by the family while expanding that care socially.

Public luxury, their second theme, must strike Americans as a misnomer, if not a paradox. The city library, especially if it is an old stone and marble building over a century old, might come to mind for most people. But also, a well-maintained park, a public swimming pool, and a free museum fulfil the minimum definition of luxury as defined not by exclusivity, but by distinctiveness and accessibility. We can imagine a mix of public and private expenditures to create an urban environment that affords the populace a place, like a city square, to enjoy a diverse mix of cafes and small shops, but also workshops complete with tools for woodcrafts, printing, or whatever. And all this in a garden setting with trees, public art, benches and tables, like a common outdoor living room.

The consequence of easily accessible public facilities providing communal care and pleasurable activities is, of course, to free us to enjoy more free time. Hester and Srnicek, who unfortunately do not refer to Benjamin Hunnicutt’s path-breaking book Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream6, somewhat ponderously, refer to free time, their last theme, as temporal sovereignty. By that term they hope to solidly situate free time outside the domain of value, where we are constantly juggling trade-offs in our pursuit of pleasurable activities. Spending a few hours at a café with friends versus cooking a family meal, or taking a woodland hike versus shopping for that dinner. In both cases if cooking and shopping were removed from a sexist role and collectivized this wouldn’t be problem.

 Temporal sovereignty, for the authors is not freedom from society as in commercial leisure pursuits, but rather freedom to participate in social activities where we are peers and have the power to direct those activities. The false liberal version of “freedom from” has no place in a society that offers opportunities to engage in those pursuits that are available when we have control over our time.

While After Work evokes visions of a society free of the many constraints of capitalism on the individual, family, and societal level, there is an absence of concern for the ravages of environmental catastrophes. The bold speculations in the book deflate once we consider how we can manage to transform society when it is undergoing severe and sustained upheavals related to the cascading effects of climate change. Not to mention the related phenomenon of resource depletion that will precipitate energy loss on a massive scale.7

The remoteness of these concerns for the authors is all the more unfortunate because many of the remedies that address issues of social reproduction indicate paths to take that address the climate emergency. The architectural visions Hester and Srnicek present offer an obvious approach to reduce resources and to design spaces that accommodate rising temperatures. In the most general sense, alleviating gendered roles affords more time for pursuits to mitigate the detrimental effects of climate change, which may be the future form of civic participation.

Climate catastrophe deserves the attention of Post-Work advocates who don’t seem to be aware of the problems their analysis poses when confronted with the collapse of both a stable climate and energy resources8. The implementation of advanced technology could provide the basis for a reduction of the workday and maybe the elimination, or at least the significant reduction of toil if we weren’t in the midst of extreme weather disasters.

Automation coupled with the refusal of miserablism associated with laboring under algorithmic control could theoretically reduce the seductions of the work ethic, but how do post-workists deal with what increasingly looks like the need for massive amounts of work to maintain a livable world under conditions of a variety of civilizational disruptions?

The elements of a way forward, as with the reduction of the tedium of social reproduction, lay in the desire to free time, which entails a desire to pursue the pleasures of creativity in all its aspects. The demand then is to direct that pleasure-seeking towards the task of sustaining a livable world. Radical hedonism9, and not the faux hedonism of accumulation, needs to replace the domain of sacrifice imposed by enforced labor. A new form of communal activity that is premised on achieving as much pleasure in its pursuit as possible paradoxically offers us the means to contend with, and supersede, the collapse of the world as we have known it.


1 https://www.versobooks.com/products/496-after-work


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Schwartz_Cowan Cowan’s book More Work for Mother found that since 1700, “technological change shifted the burden of domestic labor from adult men and children to mothers and wives.”

4 https://cooperatornews.com/article/a-history-of-cooperative-housing-in-nyc




A short video produced by Dutch public broadcasting – https://youtu.be/3JB2-6S4SSM?feature=shared


Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at info@ztangi.org He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years. Essays at http://ztangi.org.