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The broken contract

The broken contract

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This is a partner piece to Lisa Muggeridge's series on the economic challenges facing the welfare state today, the first of which discusses the economic relationship between men and women as embodied in Beveridge's original concept. The original version of this piece appeared on Still Life With Paradox.

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So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

This is from the story of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3, and it has fascinated me for a long time - and particularly now. For I believe we are at the end of this story. We stand, as never before, at the point where this broken contract can be made new and its terrible consequences consigned to the dust of history.

The Fall essentially is the story of the change from predominantly hunter-gatherer societies to farming communities. The "garden" is the abundant landscape that our hunter-gatherer forbears inhabited: the fruits of the earth were there to be picked, without effort and without pain. It is a beautiful picture expressing the nostalgia of the people who had abandoned that lifestyle in favour of one which gave them more control of production - enabling them to plan, and perhaps to save, for the future. And even more importantly, gave them the ability to expand the population far more than could be supported by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: indeed, the need for workers to cultivate crops made population expansion essential. The writers of this story look back at the hunter-gatherer period as a golden age: they do not choose to remember the frequent episodes of starvation, or the need to move around constantly as sources of food were depleted - as is still the case in nomadic communities today. 

This is what the Fall tells us. For the first time there would be a hard division of responsibilities between men and women. Men were to till the ground and make it produce food for the growing population: the work would be physically demanding and painful, and nature would fight back against the rape of its resources. And the principal food that would be available at this time would be "the plants of the field" - i.e. crops. Not fruits, as had been the case before the Fall. The poignancy of Jesus' prayer to "give us this day our daily bread" should be set against the backdrop of the Fall: no more would food be simply there for the taking. It had to be earned through hard work. There is evidence that the diet of early agricultural communities was less varied and less nutritious than the diet of their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Food could be produced in greater quantities, but it was not necessarily of better quality.

The consequences for women were far-reaching. Far from being the equals of men, they were to be in a subservient role. And their principal job would be to produce children - the future workers needed to till the ground and cultivate crops. This work would cost them similar - or greater - pain and effort to that experienced by men in providing food. 

So the Fall outlines the new contract between men and women, and between human beings and nature. Men were to produce the food in the present, providing for women and children. Women were to produce the workers who would produce food in the future. And nature would fight back against the efforts of both men and women. Conflict, inequality and suffering would be the hallmarks of the fallen world. 

Since woman's primary job was to produce children, barrenness was a terrible thing. In many societies, barrenness was (and is) grounds for divorce. After all, why should a man provide food for a woman who is not keeping her side of the bargain? If a woman could not produce children - ideally sons, who would produce food in the future - she was worthless. And equally, a man who was disabled or sick was worthless, since he was unable to produce food for his family. 

This division of responsibilities has shaped human society in much of the world: most religions have something akin to the Judaeo-Christian legend of the Fall. The imperative to "multiply and fill the earth" has driven men to limit women's access to jobs, education and healthcare in case they choose to do something other than having children. And with good reason. The evidence is that when women have access to education, when they are able to work to support themselves rather than being dependent on men, and when healthcare is available for themselves and their children, they have fewer children. Considerably fewer, actually - to the point where birth rates barely achieve replacement level.

The drive to "multiply and fill the earth" has caused the human race to expand to a point where it dominates nature. Human activity destroys ecosystems around the world. Human use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. In short, human behaviour now threatens nature. 

To me it is no accident that this point has been reached at the same time as women around the world are starting to choose other paths. For the human race actually has no further imperative to expand. It has reached its natural limits and now needs to contract down to a more sustainable level. And it is women - in choosing not to have children - who are driving this change. But in making that choice they are breaking the contract between men and women that was established at the Fall. For according to that contract, a woman choosing not to have children is equivalent to a man choosing not to work. It is a fundamental breach. No wonder powerful religious and social institutions - all male-dominated - are fighting back, trying to prevent women gaining access to the education, the jobs and the healthcare that enable them to make that choice. It is all about preserving that contract: the dominance of men, the subservience of women....the responsibility of men to provide food in the present (and women to be dependent on men).....the responsibility of women to provide workers for the future (hence prohibition of contraception and abortion). And by extension, of course, about preserving the damaged and antagonistic relationship between humans of both sexes and the natural world. 

On the other side of the fence, men too have the opportunity - as never before - of choosing whether or not to work. We have abundance in goods: we no longer need men to struggle "by the sweat of their brow" to provide food for their families. Food can be produced at little or no cost. Yet we are still obsessed with the idea that people must work in order to eat: we make a virtue out of unnecessary and unproductive work, we force people to do degrading and menial work in order to qualify for food stamps and we castigate those who choose not to work. But work itself is increasingly in short supply, because we no longer need the jobs that men in particular have traditionally been paid to do. It is no accident that the biggest rises in unemployment have been among men, particularly the young unskilled and older production-line workers. 

So women are choosing to break the contract - and men are being forced to do so. A man who can't find work isn't able to support his family. Many men find this degrading, because for so long we have valued men by their ability to provide for their families.  

The contract of the Fall has been with us for so long that we have come to see its provisions as virtues. So when those provisions seem to be breaking down, we see it as a moral failure. The gradual disappearance of traditional marriage; the emergence of new, more fluid forms of human intimate relationship; the severing of the relationship between marriage and procreation, and between sexual activity and procreation; the inability and/or refusal of some people to do degrading and menial work; all of these are seen as evidence that the moral foundations of society are breaking down. But if what is breaking down is the old contract established as a consequence of the first moral failure, why should we resist that change? After all, if conflict, inequality and suffering are the hallmarks of that contract, why would we wish to keep it? It surely isn't good enough to justify keeping a contract born of pain and maintained through suffering purely on the grounds that the alternative might be worse. It is up to us to work out what a better contract might look like - one more appropriate for a world in which women can choose whether or not to have children, and men can choose whether or not to work.

The values we attach to men and women are changing. We no longer value women by their ability to produce children, and in particular sons - at least in developed countries we don't, though in poorer areas of some developing countries this view of women may still be current. And we need to stop valuing men by their ability to work and produce - in particular, by their ability to "make stuff". Making "stuff" increasingly isn't done by the hard work of men. It's done by robots. The traditional role of man as "provider" is becoming obsolete. Both men and women now are becoming primarily nurturers, of each other and of nature, and creators of clever and beautiful things.

This is tough for many people, both men who feel emasculated by taking on nurturing roles that have traditionally been done by women, and women who feel threatened by men taking over some of their caring responsibilities. In some ways the attitude of women is even worse than that of men: women who regard men who work in nurturing roles as "not real men" can do immense damage to the self-esteem and capability of those men. But to some extent the fears of both sexes are understandable. If they are both now to be nurturers and creators, how will they divide responsibilities between them? There are no clear guidelines any more. The social roles of men and women are no longer clearly delineated. They must negotiate with each other - and that requires them to communicate openly and honestly as never before. The story of the Fall is one of lies and betrayal: Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, God - exasperated by their refusal to accept responsibility - threw them out of Eden and locked them into a contract in which all three paid for their crime. So the new contract must be founded on honesty, openness and willingness to accept responsibility.

Much of the female suffering caused by the Fall has already been alleviated in developed countries, although there is still a long way to go in developing countries. Due to medical advances, pregnancy and childbirth are no longer the painful and dangerous experiences that they used to be, and due to improvements in sanitation and nutrition and the introduction of universal healthcare, infant mortality is very low. Women no longer need to have lots of children to compensate for those that will die: they no longer spend most of their childbearing years either pregnant or lactating, and although in many families women remain principally responsible for childcare (reinforced by government policies emphasising the importance of mothers and downgrading the significance of fathers), this too is changing. For some time now, government statistics have shown a decrease in women who claim to be "economically inactive" because of caring responsibilities, and a corresponding increase in men. We are gradually moving towards a more equitable share of domestic and childcare responsibilities between men and women. And we are also becoming more aware of male bad behaviour: domestic abuse remains a considerable problem, but at least it is now recognised as a crime and there is some help available for women experiencing domestic abuse. As a society, we are becoming less tolerant of male domination and female subservience, especially when enforced by brutality. This is progress.

In developed countries, the sort of male suffering envisaged in the Fall no longer really exists. We simply don't plough fields or harvest crops by hand any more. Farming is high-tech and intensive, and increasingly dehumanised. And other jobs that involved suffering and danger for men, such as mining and fishing, are also becoming high-tech and dehumanised. Men now need to use their brains, rather than their brawn, in their productive work. And because women's brains are as good as men's, and women no longer need to spend all their time caring for children and doing housework, women and men can now share productive work as never before.

But there is still a long way to go, even in developed nations. The Fall created institutional inequality. Women became dependent on men: men controlled financial and physical resources and held the reins of power. Even now, powerful social positions are far more frequently occupied by men than women. This is beginning to change, but nowhere near fast enough. If true equality based on mutual respect is to be achieved, there must be greater representation of women in powerful positions, and the world of work - currently organised to suit white Western males - needs to be fundamentally reformed.

And we have not yet really addressed the desperate need for humans to develop a more harmonious relationship with nature. Perhaps this is not really possible while the relationships between humans remain disrupted. A new model of human relations founded on equality and collaboration, rather than inequality and competition, must come first, and a new model of shared productive work: then, when humans are healed of the disruption caused by the Fall, men and women can together exercise their God-given responsibility to be stewards of the natural world, conserving and protecting it and using its resources wisely.


Related reading:

Institutions, inequality and instability - Lisa Muggeridge, Pieria

The changing nature of work - Frances Coppola

Accepting inequality - Stumbling & Mumbling

We need quotas for women at the top - Richard Portes (Pieria)


Genesis 3, NIV - Bible Gateway


Image is The Garden Of Eden With The Fall Of Man by Rubens.


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