Monday, April 6, 2020

A Time for the Vernacular

Rediscovering the home economy inside our COVID19 quarantines

My wife cut my hair this weekend. In recent years, I had become accustomed to the pleasures and precisions of professional haircuts. The home hairdo was a bit nerve-wracking for both of us. When your hairdresser says, “Well, there’s always hats. You like wearing hats,” you do not feel the same boost in your confidence and sense of your own handsomeness as when you walk out of a professional barber shop.

But it was fine. I looked in the mirror and did feel handsome. And loved and taken care of in a way I don’t get from the barber. That’s the difference between a professional haircut and what Ivan Illich would call a vernacular haircut.

My wife has been rendered unemployed by the COVID19 crisis, and my own work hours have shrunk to about 5 hours a week. Many, many others are suddenly in similar situations. But our un- or under-employment does not mean that we are doing nothing. It does not mean that we have no economy. Many of us are rediscovering the skills and joys of a home economy. I have a friend who is taking up beading again. Another is playing her violin for the first time in five years. Another has started a youtube channel and has taken up baking bread for his family. Prairie Flour Mill at Elie, Manitoba, is suddenly milling around the clock trying to keep up with the demand for flour as thousands of home bakers have suddenly rediscovered this vocation.

According to Illich, the vernacular used to refer not only to home-spoken dialects, but to the economy of the homemade, the homespun and the homegrown. For example, a vernacular cow was an animal that had been born on your home farm, as opposed to an animal you purchased at the market.

Illich reclaimed this term to refer to “activities of people…not motivated by thoughts of exchange,…autonomous, non-market-related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs—the actions which by their nature escape bureaucratic control…[and] that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation.” Illich noticed in the 1970’s (another time of economic “downturn”) that the narrative of progress and development was confronted by a force that had not been anticipated: the rich and the privileged were carving out spaces for themselves that were free of “the damages inflicted by development.”

Decades prior to the advent of telecommuting, Illich notice a trend in which “You have arrived if you can commute outside the rush hour;…if you can give birth at home…are rich and lucky if you can breathe fresh air; by no means poor, if you can build your own shack.”

Just this morning, my daughter passed along a youtube video of a 25-year-old British do-it-your-selfer who built her own tiny home with the help of friends and family. “This is my dream home,” Johanna said. “That’s what I want to learn to do.” Bingo, Mr. Illich.

I do not want to make light of the terrific economic pain that a predicted 30% unemployment rate will cause in this country, and the even greater pain it will cause in “the world's first rich failed state” on our southern border, where the social safety net is weak, polarization and inequality are extreme, and the private gun arsenals are vast. A kick at this darkness will not bleed daylight. We need to go gently, very gently into this dark night. The more fairly and evenly our governments can spread the burden and redistribute resources in this crisis, the better.

But I also don’t want to miss out on a rediscovery of the pleasures of a slower, more home-based economy that is underway on a massive scale. I was talking yesterday with a restauranteur friend who tells me that despite COVID19’s terrible impact on her business, she is hoping that we actually don’t return to “normal” as we knew it. She is reading about signs all across the world of animals and birds coming back, of eco-systems healing as the pollution and noise of “economic activity” abates. In her own life, she is experiencing a badly needed rest, and rediscovering parts of herself coming back out into the open, like shy woodland creatures long-banished by the noise and bustle of her business.

Another friend is suddenly much happier in his marriage. How much was the pain and alienation he had been locating between himself and his wife really just the collateral damage of the double income young suburban family structure that has become the normal formula in hyper-capitalist late modernity? When every morning is a frantic race to get everyone out the door, who can hold a space in which family can come home to one another? At the risk of committing a professional heresy, I have begun to wonder out loud whether some part of the drop in business in family therapy is not the fear of a Corona-virus infection, but the fact that just being in each other’s presence with few outside pressures is the healing balm that many couples and families have been aching for. I look forward to a bump in babies nine months from the onset of our self-isolation.

The last century has seen the professionalization and monetization of many, many tasks that used to be exchanged in the informal economy of human community. Decade by decade, we capitulated to the logic that it does not make sense to bake your own bread, grow your own garden, educate your own children, carry your own teachings, perform your own ceremonies, do your own healing work, if you can specialize in one of these areas as a professional, and get paid a rate that is worth more per hour than your time would be worth if you yourself did any of those other things for your loved ones. You can buy all that stuff with fewer hours of your time.

You could. And now perhaps you can’t. What are you discovering about the trade-off? Illich once calculated that for all the extra time and labour it took to pay for a car and the infrastructure of a car-based society, we weren’t actually getting anywhere more efficiently than if we walked or rode bicycles.

One more consideration. As it was in the 1970’s, the option of the stay-at-home economy is the luxury of a certain class. One of the greatest evils that Illich documented about our present age is that it has destroyed the world in which it was possible to live without money. This is perhaps the greatest injustice our present society has done to the poor. The poor among us are those who have lost access to both to the economy of “good jobs” and to the intact land base and the intact human communities inside of which the pleasures of the vernacular economy can be found. If you are finding a new satisfaction in your days at home in this strange time, do not forget about them.

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