Interrogating the domestic: COVID and the collapsed home

“Me mother learned us… She got the work up… When we got it all right, we ad to make chain”

(Myra Hall, Cradley Heath chainmaker, speaking in the 1975 documentary Nothing to Lose – The Women Chainmakers Strike of 1910 Cradley Heath)

It is important to recognise that when we speak of housework we are not speaking of a job like other jobs, but we are speaking of the subtlest violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated against the working class” (Federici, 2020:12)

A picture of the Christmas tree taken one evening in December 2020 from my living room – a space layered with domestic/reproductive labour, education work, and the task of returning a ballot for industrial action

 

A snapshot: December 2020. BCU UCU are balloting members for strike action and action short of a strike in defence against on-site working in a growing second wave, with the ballot due to end in the early days of January. My son plays games on his Xbox in the corner of the room. I play Christmas songs on a mix out of the laptop which my daughter is sometimes singing to, at the same time running through a spreadsheet to text members who have not yet responded to check on ballot receipt. All around are books for my doctorate, half-written cards for the children to take to school, crumbs, discarded worn school uniform, notes from teaching, mugs and glasses, dust, dirt. My working environment is now saturated with the intimacy of the home, but the intimacy is lost in the detritus, a distraction. I am engaged in the work of trying to create and sustain digital collectivity, to somehow build inorganic intimacy in new terrain, with the immediate goal of protecting each cluttered (materially or psychologically) household for children to play and sing while mothers and others work.

Survival is work, and prioritised work, but by locating the project of the everyday in my/the labour- condensed COVID household I do not seek to limit myself to the immediate political project of survival. I hope that the exposure of disruption provides the cracks to imagine a future where education is nourishing, a future of “not only bread but roses”; a re-identification of how the neglect of the household has repeatedly limited the struggle against capitalism and the possibility of something different.

The material labour and the fire and heavy iron that made up the hazards of the Cradley Heath home/chainshops may be a distant memory for most of the Black Country, but the COVID pandemic has seen a large-scale return to the household as a collapsed site of education, paid and domestic labour. Like the Cradley Heath hearth, the COVID household is atomised, not (industrially) organised, and set up to compete rather than collaborate wherever it recreates the ideology of competition which runs through formal education and paid labour. The household has taken on a huge workload under COVID, including symbolic labour as an emblem of “society” and “the public” playing its part and receiving protection from the state through “staying home to save lives”.

My situation as a researcher is the “collapsed” household under COVID 19. The arrival of a global pandemic brought huge scale disruption of the state. Under COVID the state revealed itself as incompetent in relation to how everyday life is organised in every aspect of its role other than the disciplinary and punitive (Bhattacharyya et al., 2021): arguably as the pandemic unfolded the state has reconfigured with strength as a site of discipline, even while the virus exposed its gross incompetence in management of its other arms (including health, education and social care). Central to this disruption and renewal was the household: the site of multiple, competing layers of labour: for me, mothering, housework, teaching, studying, strike-building. The household is not a static site but an everyday which includes time as well as space: it generates our future as well as being formed from our past. Our action in the everyday is crucial in defining what comes next. As D’Atri (2021) identifies, whatever emerges from COVID (including what post-16 education looks like as it emerges from the pandemic) is not confined by the limits of the virus (which is the general scope of our imagination), but instead depends on the behaviour of the ruling classes and our opposition, and the impetus to organise on domestic labour is vital.

References:

Bhattacharyya, G., Elliott-Cooper, A., Balani, S., Nisancioglu, K., Koram, K., Gebrial, D., El-Enany, N., De Noronha, L. (2021). Empire’s Endgame: racism and the British state. London: Pluto Press

D’Atri, A. (2021) Bread and Roses: gender and class under capitalism (3rd edition). London: Pluto Press

Federici, S. (2020). Revolution at point zero: housework, reproduction and feminist struggle (2nd edition). Toronto: Between the Lines books.

Nothing to Lose – The Women Chainmakers Strike of 1910 Cradley Heath (1975 documentary). Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zvm8Adm_MSY&gt; [Accessed 12 March 2021].#

Blogs in this pilot study sequence:

5 comments

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