Being and Time


I could easily blog for domestic workers by telling some of the rather colorful and horrible stories about their treatment and circumstances which I have witnessed personally. We could shiver and feel virtuous at these illustrations of the way in which gender trouble at one economic level is solved through the exploitation of women at other economic levels, and often of other racial categories.

The first time I arrived in Brazil it was to a house with many servants – more than one per non-serving household member. The house had a porch with columns, and the servants, barefoot, wore turbans. In haze of my jet fatigue it seemed to me that I had arrived on an antebellum movie set, perhaps of New Orleans. By the end of the week I realized I was indeed in one, except that it was current and real.

I learned many amazing facts about the lives of servants during that voyage, and I kept exclaiming about them. Nobody else thought the topic was of the slightest interest, but I did and do, and I should write a collection of stories about these people one day.

A few months later, living on my own, I learned about manicures, pedicures, and facials – excellent things, especially when you do not have hot water at home. One might say I was corrupted but I think it is more complicated than that. What stood out there was that you could not hide from your place in the class system. You could try to run (and look silly) or you could learn to assume your role in as graceful a manner as possible. There was no other honest option.


A related strand of great interest is the cooperative nature of patron/client relationships – you hire someone to clean or wash clothes, but also get their expertise in folk remedies for tropical ills, and give them yours in reading, writing, and bureaucracy, and lend them your phone. I am not saying it is good, I am saying it is worth discussing.

Another irony is the double bind of the middle and lower classes. If limited scholarship funds and time to degree preclude both your doing your laundry by hand and your frequenting the prohibitively expensive landromat, you may well end up with a washerwoman whether you believe you should or not. If in a large, bureaucratic country where everything must be done in person and lines are very long, you do not have a car, a driver, or a runner, and you must therefore pay all of your bills and file any other necessary paperwork by city bus, you may well end up saying yes to the concierge who offers to do your grocery shopping for you in the meantime, for a very small fee. Or, as we know all too well, if your budget limits you to shopping at Wal*Mart, you are complicit in several forms of slavery.


There are principled reasons why one should not have domestic workers. But is it only housework a feminist should not hire out? What about yard work and general labor? What, if anything, changes when you figure in the fact that in this part of the United States housecleaners and yardworkers bill at $30 per hour, whereas construction workers are paid $9 and this professor, $19?

I recently spent four days as a home health worker because a friend took a fall which resulted in four fractures. It was my first full time stint at domestic work, and it was for a pleasant and self sufficient person, but it still demonstrated what we knew already. Housewives and domestic workers should not have to do the most menial of jobs for others, and they should get good salaries. They also need to hold authority, and to receive massages or whatever other wonderful services they need for their own renewal, because service work, especially of the house and home health stripe, wears you out and grinds you down.

Still I have my own house professionally cleaned whenever I can afford it. And I do not think that not to do so would appreciably change my degree of complicity with the current economic structure, nor that it would change the system. And that is how the Brazilians corrupted me – or more accurately, I think, put me face to face with my class position. But the question is complicity and how to effectively step outside its frame.


8 thoughts on “Being and Time

  1. I just read this last night and I thought I would pass it on. It is from the book “Four Noble Truths” by Geshe Tashi Tsering talking about right action and right livelihood. “It seems no matter what we do we are still complicit in harming others by what we consume. Of course, it is good to be mindful, but it is also good to be realistic. We are citizens of a world where big business has control, and I think only a fanatic could live without compromise in any way. The goal is spiritual development and fanaticism will not get us there. We have to live and we need material things to survive, and as far as possible we should get them without causing harm to others.”


  2. My sentiments exactly. We are complicit by buying shirts, and fanaticism only makes people self-righteous, which is antithetical to spiritual development. But on a feminist thread I saw where it was unconditionally bad to have anyone clean the house, but all right to have someone clean the yard because that was a “chosen career” and I was i.r.r.i.t.a.t.e.d.

  3. Fanaticism, self-righteousness, arrogance all tend to go with a distinct lack of compassion. It really is impossible to live in this world without being complicit in one way or another. Holier than thou tends to be a strategy that makes enemies not friends. The Buddhist have a term for this too “divisive speech” and it is one of the ten nonvirtues.

  4. Good post, Professor Z. I agree with your commenters: you can’t escape complicity, but you can choose the types of behaviors and actions in which you’ll be complicit.

  5. great commentary — i spent three weeks in brazil and totally understand the initial dilemma you had!

    seeing the shacks on the rivers, where people lived was heartbreaking for me

  6. I guess, under the circumstances you describe, I might hire as many people as possible for as much as I could pay them. And treat them as equals to the extent possible. But even when I’m living on veeeeery low wages (which sometimes happens to me), I do not shop at Walmart. I haven’t for years and I’ll go without rather than break that principle. I try not to judge others about it (though many of those I know that shop there could choose to go elsewhere, but call themselves “saving money”). I just feel very strongly about doing it myself, though.

  7. I remember you mentioning this about your Brazil trip, Azgoddess! And … yes. Of course I had not seen subtropical / fluvial U.S. poverty yet at that time. I met an American who said oh come on, this is not that much worse than rural Alabama, and I did not believe him. Now I see his point although it is all more widespread in B.

    CS, I am not sure Wal*Mart is all that much cheaper … cheaper than Sak’s, yes, but how much cheaper than Sears is it really … and it encourages the acquisition of Mo’ Stuff. Anyway, it is a lot more destructive to shop there than it is to pay an individual to do a job.

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