Home centrality in time of pandemic. The relevance of Aristotle and the flaw of Adam Smith

La pandemia da COVID-19 ha contribuito in modo significativo a restituire centralità all’ambiente domestico: ma qual è il senso più profondo di questa innovazione, che si annuncia duratura? E come affrontarla al meglio, per evitare che produca effetti imprevisti, anche negativi? Il carattere prettamente informale dell’ambiente casa richiede, secondo l’autrice di questo contributo scritto per Scienza & Pace Magazine, un ritorno alla filosofia di Aristotele. Più specificamente, può essere utile un ritorno alla sua “economia”, intesa come gestione della casa e cura delle relazioni al suo interno. Al tempo stesso la nuova centralità dello spazio domestico, emersa durante il confinamento e presente anche nell’attuale situazione, mette in luce i limiti della visione economico-politica di Adam Smith, ossia uno dei paradigmi di riferimento della moderna economia di mercato. La home centrality, dunque, apre uno spazio di innovazione che investe anche la sfera delle categorie di fondo secondo cui, da alcuni secoli, leggiamo la realtà.

 

by Anna Woźniak

 

It is widely believed that the social distance, the ban on leaving homes, and the suspension of businesses and institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world on its head. A certain change also took place in the domestic life of societies: people locked in their homes, began to bake their own bread, teach their own children, clean up their own mess, plant vegetables in their own gardens. Aristotle would certainly have recognized that the world, in its economic and community dimensions, not only did not turn upside down, but finally returned to normal.

One of the most intriguing concepts that describe the changes that have occurred in the lives of individuals and communities affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the so-called home centrality. The authors of the concept, Daniel Isenberg and Eric Schulz, used it in order to capture the growing importance of the household as a center of communication and control, a center capable of meeting a wider range of human needs than previously imagined.

How surprising is the fact that the theme of the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, written in the 4th century BC, is home centrality, i.e. the art of managing a household. The philosopher describes it as economy (from Greek oikos “household” + nomos “management”). In his perception, the subject of economy is not the acquisition and consumption of material wealth. For Aristotle, economics is also a field that is fundamentally separate from politics, which he understood as the art of state management rather than economy. Although the two domains share common goals, they differ in the way in which these goals are achieved. Suffice it to say that for Aristotle, as for other Greek thinkers, “economic policy” would be an intrinsically contradictory concept.

Aristotle’s home centrality, like all Aristotle’s economic theory, goes far beyond simply controlling or satisfying human material needs. It includes not only the art of gaining the means needed to survive, but also the ability to build proper relationships with household members and work on self-improvement. For the philosopher, all three seemingly different competences constitute one coherent whole, from which it is easy to conclude that Aristotle’s economics is closer to ethics than to mathematics, statistics or political science with which it is commonly associated today.

 

Tearing down the walls won’t help

During the isolation caused by the Coronavirus, the transfer of professional life to home caused a revolution in many families. It was reported that being locked in one space with the loved ones led to increased stress, an increase in depression, anxiety and violence, all of which are the phenomena that are also observed periodically during Christmas and summer holidays.

Psychologists did not spare any advice to help reduce stress, from architectural tips (walls isolate, so it is better to remove them, but the lack of own space is even worse, so it is better to leave them in the end) to hygiene recommendations and routines stabilizing our psyche: “don’t spend the day in pajamas,” “take the shower daily,” “do the weekly washing”. It turned out that even those fundamental elements of human existence required precise guidance from experts.

However, the further development of events shows that home centrality is not only a temporary phenomenon, existing in isolation from other socio-economic spheres, which has ended with the end of the lockdown.

Arianna Huffington, an American consultant advising corporations in the field of well-being, suggests that before companies return to proper business, managers should interview each employee about their personal situation, ask about patients in family, relatives who have been dismissed from work, home education of children, and then prepare a program that will deal with factors causing stress to the employees. According to Huffington, such a strategy will help to increase the productivity of the company’s workforce.

The fact that even corporations seek to participate in their employees’ household and family life shows how accurate was Aristotle’s diagnosis, when he considered the ability to manage the household as a great common good. However, to the philosopher it was a personal good, which served the well-being of the whole community of non-commercial nature. The above-mentioned example shows that today corporate communities also seek to draw on its intrinsic value.

 

Home as a good consumed

The importance of the concept of economics, defined by Aristotle as the art of household management, was radically modified by Adam Smith, who was to give economics its present character. In Smith’s view economics is “the science of the wealth of nations” and primarily of the material wealth.

The distribution of accents is radically changed. The themes of creativity, production and action become less prominent than the element of consumption. If the butcher has more meat than he can consume, Smith explains, the baker has more bread than he can eat, and the brewer has more beer than he can drink, then they can sell the surplus for profit to themselves and others. And it is this second stage of their activity that is emphasized by Smith’s in his economics. In his speculations, Smith makes a gesture that is rarely noticed – he describes as the economic sphere primarily that human activity that explains one’s exchange of surplus, and not the act of producing good for oneself and others. According to this logic, “the good” becomes good when it can be sold, when it finds a consumer.

“Consumption is the sole purpose and rationale of any production,” explains Smith. Indeed, this relationship underlies many types of economic activity. However, the thinker transfers it also to philosophy, science, education and art. Work at home and for the household, considered from Smith’s perspective, becomes a commodity of little use, because apart from the household members, nobody is interested in its consumption.

According to Smith, the measure of wealth and poverty is the amount of labor a person can acquire from others. Therefore, the rich is the one who can pay for having his meal cooked, who can pay for having his children educated, who can pay for having his problems solved, rather than the one who can and is able to take care of all these things by him-/herself.

 

Home as a good created

The universality of the principle of consumerism makes the household also fall prey to it. It becomes a good consumed and not, as Aristotle argued, a good created – an object of human creativity. Like philosophy or art, work at home has an intrinsic value, regardless of whether and how it is consumed. It is good when it is deemed good by the person who carries it out.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for a person who has been formed by the reasons of Adam Smith to find meaning in homework. The house has been attached to the category of consumer goods, and when it lacks this value, it becomes redundant and burdensome. Smith’s version of economics is widely taught in universities and business schools, which explains why home is also usually considered in terms of consumption.

The theoreticians and practitioners of human resource management frequently remind us, that the most important and useful competence in the 21st century will be the flexibility of the employee enabling him/her to quickly acquire new skills and effectively retrain. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting restoration of the central importance of the household show that home management, or the economy par excellence, is a new direction of professional development with considerable potential.

 

Anna Woźniak is an independent researcher, writer and a lecturer.

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