Though I’m radio silent, this email was important:
After reading your piece, I thought you may be interested in this article [from Dissent]. I doubt you’ll agree with everything, but certainly an interesting / similar take to yours on Lean In:
Where other feminists focus on articulating the amount of free or underpaid labor that women do, Sandberg places a priceless value on labor itself and encourages more of it, whether paid, unpaid, or poorly paid.
The loser in the Lean In vision of work isn’t one version of feminism or another […] but uncapitalized, unmonetized life itself. Just as Facebook relies on users to faithfully upload their data to drive site growth, Facebook relies on its employees to devote ever greater time to growing Facebook’s empire.
Sandberg is betting that for some women, as for herself, the pursuit of corporate power is desirable, and that many women will ramp up their labor ever further in hopes that one day they, too, will be “in.” And whether or not those women make it, the companies they work for will profit by their unceasing labor.
The quote seems right, but there’s an important difference between my article and Dissent’s, I am not splitting hairs, it’s fundamental.
The problem is that Dissent is just as fooled as everyone else is in thinking that Sandberg’s book is interesting/relevant in itself, “the fact that she is COO of Facebook is a sufficient resume to speak on women’s issues,” and so they think they need to address what Sandberg says…. because Sandberg said it. But that’s the trick. We don’t parse out what the (female) CEO of General Dynamics says, no one writes articles about her, because what she says can’t be used to promote the system, what Phebe Novakovic believes won’t motivate a future 9-5er to work overtime: she’s not pretty enough, she works in explosions, she’s not aspirational. That’s why there is no Time Magazine spread on her, even though she rules the world. To paraphrase the great Marshall McLuhan, the messenger isn’t the message, and the message isn’t the message. The medium is the message, properly massaged.
The crucial point is a meta one: Sandberg herself is being used in exactly the way Dissent says she is getting other women to be used. Whatever Sandberg believes she is doing, the system is using her as a battery (to get women to work harder, for less money, in exchange for the trappings of power– fame, titles, prestige.) If we believe Sandberg is earnestly trying to advance women in the workplace, then the system is using her (comparatively) cheap labor for the purpose of enhancing that very system, not changing it.
To illustrate why Dissent has missed the point, let’s take Dissent’s thesis and summarize it in one sentence: “Sandberg is a lunatic because she is asking women to work harder for the system, in exchange for titles/prestige/the trappings of power.” Not only is this thesis wrong, it is a defense against change, because if you don’t agree with Sandberg’s message, you find fault only with Sandberg. Meanwhile, the system proceeds unmolested.
I realize that “the system” is a nebulous term relying on an even more nebulous “unconscious”, lacking clear definition, so I’m going to try and define it. First, start with a single individual, and eliminate value words like “purpose” and “unintended consequences.” If a guy cheats on his girlfriend in a way that likely could get him caught, one might say, “he wants to get caught.”
Now add a few more individuals. I want an ipad, but I can’t afford the $10000 it would cost to make it in America AND generate to Apple the same nominal profit of $300/ipad, so then the ipad has to be made in China with cheaper labor. So while one can say, “the consumer wants an ipad,” and “Apple wants $300 in profit per ipad” the sum of those wants is “the system”: “The system wants cheap Chinese labor.” The system doesn’t want it because it’s awesome, it wants it because it added up the wants.
To be clear, the fact that ipad consumers don’t “want” cheap Chinese labor is irrelevant. All of their choices want cheap Chinese labor. You can say the same about renewable energies, something that everyone says they “want,” yet all of their choices sum up to the system’s want: the system wants to protect the oil industry. The CEO of ExxonMobil isn’t to blame, you are.
To go back to Sandberg, if the system wants cheap female labor, how would we change the system? Only by wanting different things. Simply, if the majority of women wanted to work less, that would be the game. But the majority of women do want to work less, but they also want to buy X, Y, Z aspirational products, and they want X,Y,Z way more then they want to work less. If you sum up those “wants,” and add in the wants of Nordstrom’s, Nine West, Whole Foods, Visa and Mastercard, etc, and throw in what the media wants, then it is technically correct to say: the system wants women to become batteries.
The final twist to this otherwise simple addition is that what you want is often taught to you by that very system. For example, in running through the above, what you didn’t say was, “maybe I don’t want an ipad.” That thought cannot occur to you…. because the system wants it. Try saying this to your friends and see what happens: “I’m not interested in a career, I just want to get married and have kids.”
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