Constraint and utopia

by CarlD

There’s a dataset for constraint causation making the pop culture rounds right now, emergent from long-existing elements but catalyzed by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter quit a bigtime job at the State Department because she found it pretty much ate up her whole life. From this she concludes that the ‘women can/should have it all’ narrative of [second wave, liberal] feminism (or, more accurately, the marketing spin on the entitlement movement of which that feminism is a part, as Stephanie Coontz astutely notes) is still not enabled by the intentional decisions of our society, culture and economy.

I’m not sure how much blood and treasure I want to spend on this, so I’m going to frontload the thesis here and say that Slaughter is simply correct, but that her simple correctness is utopian in at least two ways: because ‘having it all’ is a fantasy of infinite resource; and because specialization is enabling in ways that have to be accounted for in rejecting it (again as noted by Coontz). I should say that by ‘utopian’ I don’t mean ‘bad’, I mean ‘analytically irrelevant and of only a certain limited rhetorical utility’. Anyway, I take it as virtually axiomatic that all serious conversations about what’s haveable start from a ground of raw possibility (structural conditions) and then get right to trade-offs (intentional decisions). Those trade-offs then structure the possible into one or another actuality, enabling some things by disabling some other things and creating in part the structural conditions for the next round of intentional decisions.

So it should go without saying in serious conversation that no one has it all: because no one commands infinite resources, because there are some havings that are contradictory to other havings, and because some havings are simply impossible. The I-can’t-have-it-all critique is a give-up critique, a blast of generic anomic discontent that’s always true but only trivially so. And gratifyingly the conversation about Slaughter’s article has swiftly coalesced around this point. Everyone seems to get it that resources are not infinite and that choices inevitably involving trade-offs will be required. As Coontz concludes,

It was a great victory for gender equality when people finally stopped routinely saying “she’s awfully good at her job — for a woman.” The next big step forward will be when people stop saying, “It’s awfully tough to balance work and family — for a woman.” It’s tough for men and women. We need to push for work-family practices and policies that allow individuals to customize their work lives according to their changing individual preferences and family obligations, not just their traditional gender roles.

I like this, but let’s look at it. One of the really neat things to come out of feminist analysis over the last few decades is the observation that men’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of women – as the ruling class’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of the working class, white people’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of race/ethnic minorities, colonial cores’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of colonial peripheries, humans’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of the ecosystem, etc. etc.. To enable some, others are constrained. When Coontz talks about individuals ‘customizing’ their lives, she is talking about the kind of relative autonomy that historical elites have enjoyed only at the cost of heteronomy throughout the rest of the system. Of course as Hegel and his followers have explained, this carries significant costs and constraints for the elites as well, which we can notice without feeling any need to sympathize. In any event, on this account choice has historically been a luxury that comes at great cost. Making it available to everyone is not a trivial exercise of moral will but a world-historical transformation of the fundamental operating dynamics of our lives.

A cautionary tale, this. As humanists we have to worry that constraint is behind every enablement. Furthermore, every enablement (every choice, if you like) becomes a new constraint on future possibility. The exercise of freedom is inherently constraining; every choice is an exclusion. When I chose my wife I chose against every other woman in the world. All of whom were, of course, available to me – albeit not simultaneously, for reasons having to do with culture, biology and physics….

But we also have to look carefully at what’s enabled by constraint. My happy marriage, for one. Slaughter rues the home-life she had to abandon to devote her every waking moment to the business of running America’s foreign affairs. She is grateful to her husband for enabling this by taking on management of home and family. She imagines, Coontz imagines and we can easily imagine a more humanely balanced work/life system in which Slaughter and her husband both do their jobs at a level of intensity that enables significant and shared effective participation in family life. What we can’t imagine if we do that is either of them being optimized for either their job or their home life. If we want people to be really, really good at running America’s foreign affairs we need to enable them to do just that by providing a small army of support staff to take care of everything that isn’t on task, in the process disabling all other attention and effort. That is, we have to radically constrain that life in order to bring it to its fullest targeted development. Perhaps creating monsters. And if we want people to be really, really good at managing home life, we need to both enable and constrain them accordingly, by providing for their material maintenance with a staff of other persons so dedicated (breadwinner, plumber, grocer, mechanic, etc. etc.). Making it their choice does not change this basic fact, once that die is cast it’s cast, and no one in such a system has or can have it all. So as another datapoint, Rachel and I trade off a basically entropic home life for greater dedication to our respective careers as artist and educator. Wives are useful things – we wish we had one.

Choosing at the individual or cultural level for gender equity and balanced lives is therefore unavoidably a choice against the full advantages of focus and specialization, and therefore as feminists have also noted about men with dedicated domestic staffs, it creates a disabling competitive disadvantage. It is a luxurious choice in this sense, dependent on enabling constraints elsewhere in the system, a plenty that had to cost someone (else) something; or at least a judgment that we can afford to have the task in question performed suboptimally. It may be that we can evolve new systems (Marx envisioned this most explicitly in “The German Ideology”) that either don’t require constraint to enable excellence, or that are so exquisitely distributed that everyone’s excellence is joyously enabled by everyone else’s. I’m all for that, in principle. In practice I think the best we can do for the next little while is to distribute both constraints and enablements more equitably, and accept the costs of foregone excellence that follow.

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3 Responses to “Constraint and utopia”

  1. I really like the observation about enablement creating constraints for others (rather than just the tradeoffs for the person making the choice). I think the now-internet-wide discussion about the issue would be better for that consideration.

    I have to admit it felt very ironic to me to read a complaint like Slaughter’s coming from a person who has far more freedom of choice than the vast majority of people. She ends up being a sort of spokesperson or cheerleader to people for whom her story is essentially a fairy tale.

    Speaking of irony, one social change that might end up affecting things for the better is divorce followed by re-marriage. In the optimum situation, a child has twice as many parents.

  2. Yeah, Slaughter herself works better as an account of white women’s full participation in class privilege – her entire trajectory through elite education to Princeton Dean to State Department is 1% kind of stuff, and when a career-supporting, home-making academic husband and a fallback named professorship at Princeton are the stuff of feminist angst we have officially entered bizarro-world. It’s the kind of monstrous cluelessness to be expected from highly constrained/enabled hyperspecialization, however, and thinking about how we get the exquisitely sharp but excruciatingly narrow points she represents, whether we need them and if so, how we could get them some other way is a good thing that could come out of the whole discussion.

    Re: parenting and divorce, I agree with Vonnegut’s old crack to the effect that the nuclear family is a sociological nightmare (Coontz is great on the weird history of that), and I hope we get over it soon.

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