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Adam Smith's mamma
I was very proud to celebrate the release of my fourth book yesterday. En finir avec la productivité can now be bought in book shops everywhere in France (and online elsewhere)! As it is only available in French, I want to translate a few passages in English in the Laetitia@Work newsletter.
Adam Smith is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher generally regarded as the first economist. He had a huge blind spot that shaped economics for centuries to come in a way that devalues women’s contribution systematically. The blind spot had to do with his mother, Margaret Douglas, who you can see below as painted by Conrad Martin Metz (1749–1827) (The painting is in Scotland’s Kirkcaldy Galleries).
👉 To find out more about my book, you can also read a previous newsletter I dedicated to it: Adios productivity. Laetitia@Work #46
Productivity is a concept that is now used in all sorts of ways, at work and in life. It's the kind of concept that seems simple at first but gets thornier as you get closer. What is really behind this word and its ubiquity? You can speak of both a country’s and an individual’s productivity. It is both an official metric of the national economy and a vague injunction to individual performance, a 'scientific' tool and a hazy goal of personal and professional development.
In this week’s newsletter I’ll share some thoughts on why you should care about Adam Smith’s mamma.👇💡
Adam Smith: the father or division of labour and productivity
Productivity owes much to the man who is now considered the first economist in history. Adam Smith, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, was as much interested in morality as in economics. In his famous book The Wealth of Nations (1776), he laid the theoretical foundations of productivity. According to him, it was the division of labour that would eventually lead to the enrichment of society. This came at the right time for the Industrial Revolution, which was just starting to disrupt textile manufacturing in the UK.
Adam Smith's century was not yet that of the ubiquitous factories. The first British Industrial Revolution occurred at the end of the 18th century but it took time for industrial work to become the norm. Long before everybody else, Smith saw the economic changes in his country. He was a precursor because the United Kingdom was still dominated by the rural agricultural economy and crafts. Very few thinkers before him had taken an interest in the nascent industry.
To illustrate the value of the division of labour for productivity, he used the famous example of the pin factory. Critics say he never set foot in a pin factory. It did not stop him from reasoning based on this example: when the same man does all the tasks necessary to make a pin, he can only hope to produce a few dozen a day. But when the tasks are divided into distinct operations carried out by several men, then thousands of pins can be produced. In the organisation, the output of each individual is increased tenfold when each person specialises in one task. This really is the beginning of productivity. By reorganising work around division of labour, you can produce much more and be richer.
It is true that the specialisation of tasks makes work more boring and repetitive. It causes workers to lose their skills. But for Smith, this is largely compensated by the increase in wealth that it makes possible. Plus you can count on something else for progress: the Invisible Hand, made up of all the individual actions of people who pursue their own interests and thus contribute to the common good.
This idea, which today might be seen as the most criticised trope of classical economics, has for several centuries constructed the fundamentals of economics as a discipline, as a way of seeing the world. The actions of individuals that count are those motivated by individual selfishness.
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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Adam Smith)
Homo Economicus is his creature
Thus was born the rational, maximising Homo Economicus at the heart of classical economics. This man (yes, he’s a man) has a boring job, but it doesn't matter because he produces more. He gets up in the morning full of energy with a list of tasks to maximise his earnings. When he interacts with someone, it is in his interest. But because others do as he does, it maximises the gains for society as a whole.
Critics will say that it is a bit too easy to mock Smith with our contemporary eyes. He was an innovator for his time. His work fuelled the liberalisation of a society where individuals were crushed by social determinism. And his philosophy did not ignore moral considerations and reflections on happiness. Smith's work is not just about division of labour and the invisible hand. His thinking was deeper and more complex than the summary I have just made here.
But through Adam Smith, it’s the foundation of classical economics that is at stake. Homo Economicus has been so dominant in history that it is still difficult to think of economics without him. History forgot the nuance and subtlety of Smith’s thought. It only remembered key concepts like the invisible hand, division of labour and Homo Economicus.
It’s true there is a new generation of economists who accept our limited rationality. We are irrational and we do not always maximise our individual gains. Behavioural economics studies this irrational behaviour of ours. But this trend is still called heterodox because it dares to challenge Homo Economicus. It had to borrow the conceptual and methodological tools of psychology to analyse economic behaviour.
You might think that behavioural economics marks the end of classical economics, but that is not yet the case. When it comes to measuring economic 'value', taxing it and redistributing it, Homo Economicus is still relied upon. Productivity and GDP, two concepts that emanate entirely from him, continue to largely guide our public policies.
Adam Smith’s mamma
Smith's thought has had such a profound impact on economics and our conceptualisation of the modern world that it is important to consider the huge flaw in his thinking. There is a terrifying blind spot. While he was writing his books and ranting about the benefits of individual selfishness, someone was cooking for him, washing his clothes and nursing him back to health when he had a cold —essentially out of love, without pay. What would Adam Smith have been without his mother, Margaret Douglas? asks Katrine Marçal in a book titled Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? Isn’t this son ungrateful? There isn’t a line in his writings about the indispensable but invisible work of the person who worked around him without personal gain and made his own work possible. The original sin of economics lies here, in this old bachelor who did not understand that behind every successful man there are women who toil.
Adam Smith's own question, "Where does our dinner come from?”, is a good one. What are all the exchanges, activities and networks that make possible the miracle of a meal composed of so many different skills (miller, baker, vegetable grower, brewer, butcher)? How are all the foods we eat produced and distributed? After all, the (fairly similar) question most people ask in the home is: "What's for dinner?” So it's fitting that the economy is concerned with this essential topic. But it does so by omitting all the work that is not done for money: that of the person who prepares the meal, sets the table, does the washing up...
Was Margaret Douglas a Homo Economicus? Did she prepare and serve Adam's dinner out of self-interest? Partly yes, no doubt. After all, it's not as if there were more lucrative careers available to her in 18th-century Scotland. She had to eat herself. But she probably also acted out of love and generosity. And then the miller, the baker and the butcher could only work and perform “miracles” because someone else was looking after their home, their children and the preparation of their meals. In other words, a huge part of what makes every dinner possible was regretfully left out of Smith's system.
The birth of the masculinist myth of productivity
Also why is it that all the traits taken into account by economics —rationality, independence, selfishness, competitiveness, ambition— are those that are culturally more readily associated with “masculinity” while those that it ignores — irrationality, vulnerability, dependence, sense of sacrifice, emotions— are those that evoke “femininity”? (I use inverted commas because none of these traits are genetically associated with one sex).
In the Enlightenment, at the same time as Homo Economicus was made the universal generic being that would instruct and shape the emerging science of economics, women were explicitly excluded from this universal and associated with what is natural and irrational. In the name of science, they were made subordinate to men. "Woman is made to yield to man and to bear even his injustice," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There is the Universal, but you women are not really a part of it, sorry. But don't ever accuse us of defending our male interests since we talk about the Universal! It's pretty effective rhetoric when you think about it.
The legacy of all this is that today the indicators that inspire our policies take little or no account of the unpaid work of mothers (and fathers), care, cleaning, cooking, and helping the elderly. As their proportion in the population increases sharply as the demographic transition continues, this unvalued work could become ever more important. This makes it all the more necessary to understand it better and to change the way we look at the economy. Even when these activities are paid, they are the least valued in our economy. What matters most — love, friendship, health — remains ignored or poorly measured. Homo Economicus and his productivity have definitely done us a lot of harm.
📚 My new book En finir avec la productivité was released on April 13! 🍾
⛰️🚀 Join me & my future of work buddy & documentary maker Samuel Durand on a special 2-day RANDO BOULOT DODO (hiking trips, workshops, talks about the future of work, exchanges with craftspeople…) in Annecy on May 26-27 🇫🇷
✨ A look inside LEGO’s new corporate headquarters, Anne Quito, Quartz at Work, April 2022: “After five years of planning and construction, LEGO officially opened its corporate headquarters in Billund, Denmark (…) Reflecting the beloved family-owned Danish toy brand, its architects designed a 580,00 sq. ft. campus to encourage productivity and playfulness. Klaus Toustrup, a partner at C.F. Møller Architects who designed LEGO’s campus, describes it as a “mini-city” with streets, villages, and courtyards for the company’s 2,000 local workers & visitors from LEGO’s approximately 17,000-member global workforce.”
💵 Thomas Piketty Thinks America Is Primed for Wealth Redistribution, David Marchese, The New York Times, April 2022: “When you say Americans don’t like redistribution, some certainly don’t like it, but in the 20th century, high, progressive taxation of income and inherited wealth was to a large extent invented in the U.S. That’s why it always makes me skeptical when people say, Americans don’t like this, don’t like that. Look at history! There’s no deterministic reason why a given country should be this or that.”
💷 Studying health inequalities has been my life’s work. What’s about to happen in the UK is unprecedented, Michael Marmot, The Guardian, April 2022: “Dignity. It is fundamental to who we are and our place in society. One way to deprive people of the opportunity to lead dignified lives is to take away the means to meet their material needs. It is undignified to have to resort to food banks to feed your children; to wear two coats indoors against the cold; to plead against eviction because of an inability to pay the rent; to deny children a birthday party because of cost. The poorest people in the UK are about to experience a fresh wave of such indignities.”
Until next time, give some thought to Margaret Douglas! And read my book 🤗