The Duty of the Moment: Retooling the Agrarian Model of Work/Home Integration

Published May 8, 2024

Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy

In his 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi offers an influential account of the historic shift from premodern to modern economies, famously writing that the industrial era “disembedded” economics from social relations. Polanyi is joined by a diverse array of thinkers, including the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, that critique the materialist and consumerist values that accompanied the exclusive shift to the profit-motive in the market economy. Though the magisterium has well appreciated the myriad ways modern markets have substantially improved material conditions, every pope since Leo XIII has expressed deep concern with the deracinating impact of capitalistic values on society and the family.

The nature of human work is a consistent theme running through the social encyclicals and is a central inflection point in Polanyi’s analysis, too. In Laborem Exercens (1981), Pope Saint John Paul II focuses on work from a personalist perspective, writing that work is “probably the essential key to the whole social question.” In the encyclical, he maintains that theory and practice can overcome the “fundamental error” of modern “economism” by elevating “the person over things, and of human labour over capital.” Almost in passing, he writes that work and family “must be properly united and must properly permeate each other,” later suggesting a “social re-evaluation of the mother’s role” to ensure that her “irreplaceable” caregiving and nurturance in the home does not suffer from societal ill regard or discrimination in the workplace.Though the interdependence of work and family is always assumed in Catholic social thought, there is much we might learn about the nature of human work–for women and men–before “the great disembedding” of economic from domestic life: that is, when these now conceptually distinct spheres totally permeated each other.

Although scholarship in recent decades has analyzed the impact of industrialization on the decline of the patriarchal family, less attention has been given the fact that the new wage-earning men and women who went out to work in the industrial (and now post-industrial) workplace were (and are) “bereft for ever [sic] of the feeling that work, a family affair, carried with it.” The home, with industrialization, was transformed from the chief locus of work and productivity to the chief locus of consumption, and this has had untold consequences that remain with us to this day.

In an effort to respond to Laborem Exercens’ insistence that solutions to modern conditions of human work are key to “making life more human,” this article will cull inspiration from principles and practices that Aristotle and others understood to have governed the pre-industrial locus of work: the deeply productive, economically interdependent, solidaristic, childrearing household. Though I well acknowledge that we will never return to the deep embeddedness of the pre-industrial era—nor indeed would we wish to relinquish the enormous material gains that truly have “relieved man’s estate”— I will suggest that the modern family, and each member of it, would be well served by recovering a properly embedded understanding of work as a deeply human and as such familial, and indeed gendered, affair. To be fully human, work and home need to be better integrated and responsive to what I call the concrete duty of the moment, for both women and men.

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EPPC Fellow Erika Bachiochi is a legal scholar specializing in Equal Protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, MA, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Her newest book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, was published by Notre Dame University Press in 2021.

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