Workplace - Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek - Shelter Against Communism

Shelter Against Communism

Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek

Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Levittown houses. Peg Brennan, residence at 25 Winding Lane, 1958. Source: Library of Congress.

Workplace
December 2021

Women, War, and Work

While housing has long been intimately connected with capitalism via speculative finance, mortgage debt, and property development, there is another, less remarked upon connection between these two.1 As the 1940s property magnate William J. Levitt pointed out, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.”2 Beyond just economic impacts, housing has also been used to perpetuate a particular configuration of values around hard work, busyness, individualism, self-reliance, and family structure. In other words, housing—specifically home ownership and the American model of single-family residences splayed out over large suburban areas—has been a key linchpin for capitalism not only through its economic functions, but also through its impacts on temporal autonomy and the domestic organization of reproductive labor.

Levitt’s remarks came in the wake of World War II, when many of the orthodox ways of organizing social reproduction had been thrown into upheaval. While many women in America (particularly working-class women of color) had long been engaged in paid employment outside the home, millions of others obtained their first experience of work in the marketplace at this time.3 This influx of women into the workforce was supported by both material and ideological scaffolds, which were explicitly intended to facilitate women’s labor force participation. These wartime experiences gave many people a taste of what comparative economic freedom and somewhat more satisfying paid employment might look like, all supported by a significant transformation in how social reproduction was organized. According to Stephanie Coontz,

[The United States government] spearheaded a large and rapid shift in attitudes toward the employment of married women and mothers. The state also financed child care for mothers working in defense industries. At their peak, these centers served 1.5 million children, more than were in all other kinds of day care combined as late as 1974. The war eliminated many barriers to the employment of wives, mothers, and older women. It also gave thousands of women who had already been working their first experience of occupational mobility and the rewards of challenging, well-paid work.4

This momentary glimmer of an alternative approach to reproduction, however, was not allowed to flourish beyond the interregnum of the war into a full-scale reappraisal of the gender division of labor. Rather, as the war ended, “men’s solidarity was called upon in opposition to femininity,” and skilled women workers lost their jobs to demobilized white male soldiers.5 Wartime workplace supports for reproductive labor, such as cafeterias and nurseries, were swiftly dismantled.6 In Europe and America alike, further “experiments in socialized domestic work were hampered by an unwillingness to replace women’s unpaid work with waged work and a lack of acknowledgement of the strain which women experienced in combining housework, waged employment and child care.”7 Every effort was made to ensure that gendered order was restored, both in the waged workplace and at home. Central to this process was the postwar suburb, the single-family home, and the expansion of mass home ownership.

Making Space for Family Time

The postwar baby boom spurred on the expansion of housing. In America, this new housing largely took the form of single-family dwellings, often designed without input from architects, social reformers, or prospective residents, and typically offering little in the way of access to neighborhood resources. Instead, “these houses were bare boxes to be filled up with mass-produced commodities.”8 Labor-saving devices which had once “been architectural, such as built-in compartments with brine-filled pipes for refrigeration or built-in vacuum systems for cleaning, both used in many apartment hotels,” were increasingly scrapped, and replaced with discrete household appliances.9 These consumer goods, proliferating as they did across innumerable atomized single-family homes, were capable of securing their manufacturers a significant profit, all while entrenching the privatization and individualization of housework.

In a now famous study, Ruth Schwartz Cowan found that despite all the ostensibly labor-saving devices that had infiltrated the home in the mid-twentieth century (washers, dryers, dishwashers, vacuums, etc.), the amount of time being spent on unwaged domestic work was unchanged.10 One of the core reasons for this was that work which had once been done collectively—the sharing of laundry work across a neighborhood, for example, or the outsourcing of this labor to specialist launderettes—was instead delegated to the figure of the individual housewife. New domestic technologies didn’t so much save time as make it possible for one person to take up more responsibilities. The suburban American dream home encouraged a massive duplication of social reproductive work. The proliferation of work and the wastefulness of this model was immense:

Several million American women cook supper each night in several million separate homes over several million separate stoves… Out there in the land of household work there are small industrial plants which sit idle for the better part of every working day; there are expensive pieces of highly mechanized equipment which only get used once or twice a month; there are consumption units which weekly trundle out to their markets to buy 8 ounces of this non-perishable product and 12 ounces of that one.11

When it came to the domestic imaginaries of the post-war suburbs, then, there was precious little acknowledgement of the spatial elements of social reproduction. Indeed, the commercial housing industry was hugely successful in promoting a particular (and highly limited) image of home—one capable of displacing some of the previously ascendant ideas of shelter which prioritized not the single-family dwelling but the city, the neighborhood, and the residential cooperative.12 On top of this, as Levitt well recognized, owning a single-family home was a major source of new demands for work. Owner-occupiers now had to worry about repairs, were incentivized to think about how to spend time improving the home, and in suburbia, found a growing need to take care of sprawling lawns and gardens. The sprawling nature of suburban design also meant a growing amount of time had to be spent driving to distant supermarkets and department stores. Owning a home, in Levitt’s ideal, precisely meant being too busy to think or act politically—too much free time might lead to communism!

Exporting the Home

As the twentieth century rolled on, postwar American domesticity itself became a weapon in a propaganda war. In a famous 1959 meeting, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev visited a “model ranch house containing a well-equipped kitchen that was part of an exhibition in Moscow to show the Russians how well ordinary Americans lived.”13 It was a General Electric show kitchen that sparked the so-called Kitchen Debate, with the two men using the exhibit as a means via which to espouse the ideologies of their respective countries. Khrushchev highlighted the in-built obsolescence of American design: “Your American houses are built to last only twenty years so builders could sell new houses at the end.”14 Nixon, meanwhile, stressed capitalist individualism, consumer choice, and labor-saving innovation, declaring that “In America, we like to make life easier for women.” He also asserted the importance of “Diversity, the right to choose, [and] the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses.”15

These claims about America’s supposed achievements evidently don’t hold much water. The cultural position of the cut-and-paste suburban dream home is influenced precisely by its ability to make work for idle hands and to occupy critical minds. Nevertheless, this moment of ideological conflict and national self-imaging served to cement the kitchen “as a symbolic site of social, technological and political cathexis,” while foregrounding some of the ways in which the house could be positioned as a defense against communism and unamerican values.16

American home ownership was used for more than just ideological posturing during the Cold War, however. In the wake of World War II, there was a global housing crisis, one caused by a lack of new construction, the mass movement of people, and the large-scale destruction of buildings, shortly followed by a surge in births.17 Housing supply was undergoing a severe shortage, and many countries were looking for ways to rectify this problem. Into this breach, American foreign policy looked to export the idea of mass home ownership as a way to ingrain capitalist values within developing economies. While many other developed countries offered assistance and advice for building housing, American programs were uniquely focused on expanding home ownership (as opposed to collective ownership or the improvement of living standards) and market-led construction (as opposed to government-directed construction).

Interventions into housing were chosen on the basis of their strategic importance in the battle against communism. Taiwan, for instance, was deemed a key bulwark against Chinese communism. Here, American-supported housing aid was structured in ways which were supposed to jumpstart a local housing industry as a foundational sector that might lead to more capitalist development. Housing aid was also targeted towards crucial segments of the workforce—those who might revolt and shut down logistics networks, for instance—with the goal of expanding home ownership among these workers and demonstrating what “capitalism” could provide.

Central to the planners’ vision was the idea that home ownership would instill a “self-help” mentality in owner-occupiers that would foster a capitalist culture of individualism and self-reliance.18 And in an echo of Levitt, the expansion of home ownership was seen as an important way to keep potentially restless workers busy—by giving them incentives to focus on repairs and improvements to their home, rather than political agitation.19 In Taiwan, at least, the programs were partly successful; offering housing support to model workers encouraged employees to significantly increase their productivity while simultaneously reducing any inclination to sabotage and steal from their workplace.20 The American export of home ownership was therefore, in no small part, an expansion of capitalist social relations.

Conclusion

Single-family residences and home ownership have been mobilized as tools to expand and consolidate capitalism against communist ideals. The house and lot are not only economic assets but also subjectivity producing technologies. They function to induce and sustain generalized political compliance through highly individualized (but widely distributed) distraction. Levitt himself explicitly understood the suburban residence as a tool of material hegemony. In his comments, the particular constellation of capitalism, endless work, and domestic space are laid bare. But this does not mean that home ownership is intrinsically anti-communist, and the left should be wary of sweeping aside the real desires for privacy, space, and control that contemporary home ownership affords (albeit in often perverse, unequal, and unsustainable forms). After all, the current primary alternative to owner-occupation is having a private landlord; not a proposition many of us would welcome.

But the postwar period in the US does show some of the ways in which home ownership can all too easily become an infrastructure that shapes possibilities, constrains opportunities, and actively builds consent to an existing capitalist order. If we are invested in dislodging domestic realism and in creating housing that is responsive to different kinds of human needs, we will need to undermine the various cultural, political, and legislative supports that artificially bolster and “preserve the privileged status of the male-headed family and the single-family house,” and which work to suppress the possible flourishing of any alternatives.21 How can we enable people’s choices without allowing that particularly narrow vision of shelter to rigidify into the dominant model? How can we recognize and respect the pull that housing and residential planning has over all of us, while also finding ways to better acknowledge that the home is a (highly gendered) workplace? It is these sorts of questions that need to be asked if we are to reconstruct relationships between work, the home, and our mode of production.

Notes
1

See, for instance: Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy (Cambridge: Polity, 2020); David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (London: Verso Books, 2006).

2

Richard Lacayo, “Suburban Legend: William Levitt,” Time, July 3, 1950, .

3

Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 504.

4

Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 209–210.

5

Marion Roberts, Living in a Man-Made World: Gender Assumptions in Modern Housing Design (London: Routledge, 1991), 103.

6

Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing and Family Life, 2nd Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 25; Rebecca May Johnson, “I Dream of Canteens,” Dinner Document (blog), April 30, 2019, .

7

Roberts, Living in a Man-Made World, 103.

8

Dolores Hayden, Grand Domestic Revolution: History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods and Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 23.

9

Hayden, 23.

10

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (London: Free Association Books, 1989).

11

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims: Women and Technology in American Life,” Technology and Culture 20, no. 1 (1979): 59.

12

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), 18.

13

Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, 357.

14

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, “The Kitchen Debate (Online Transcript)” (Moscow, Russia, July 24, 1959), .

15

Nixon and Khrushchev.

16

Sylvia Faichney, “Advertising Housework: Labor and the Promotion of Pleasure in 1970s Domestic Interiors,” Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry, September 22, 2017, .

17

Nancy H. Kwak, A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 53–54.

18

Kwak, 51.

19

Kwak, 60.

20

Ibid.

21

Leslie Weisman, Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 132.

Workplace is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Canadian Centre for Architecture within the context of its year-long research project Catching Up With Life.

Category
Labor & Work, Communism, Urbanism, Architecture
Subject
Cold war, Domesticity, Housing & Real Estate
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Helen Hester is Professor of Gender, Technology and Cultural Politics at the University of West London. Her research interests include technology, social reproduction, and the future of work, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Fight for Free Time (Verso, forthcoming, with Nick Srnicek).

Nick Srnicek is a Lecturer in Digital Economy at King's College London. He is the author of Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016) and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2015 with Alex Williams). With Helen Hester, he is currently writing After Work: The Fight for Free Time (Verso, 2022).

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