Casaubon's Book

Reinventing the Informal Economy

As I gear up to finish my Adapting-in-Place book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the informal economy in supporting a culture that can’t keep growing and consuming resources at the same rate. As those of you who have been following my work for a while know, the informal economy represents the larger portion of the world economy (3/4 of all economic activity) and includes a wide range of important activities. When the formal economy fails, the informal economy is needed – and yet we have stripped the informal economy over the last decades. How to rebuild is a huge question – and one whose radicalism can’t be overstated. It involves completely reinventing our economy, among other things, since the domestic informal economy stands against industrial growth capitalism and undermines the idea that we can have economy based largely on consumer spending. If you make, rather than buy, well, that changes a lot of things.

One of the most important things to know, I think, is that the growth we depend on is virtually always fed by taking something from somewhere else. That is, we tend to talk about growth as though it comes, magically, from nowhere – we all of a sudden wake up and realize we need VCRs and then, the VCR industry emerges, the economy grows, we move on to DVDs and Blu-ray or whatever, and on and on.

But this is not all the story. Many people who read this will be familiar with one part of the story that was left out – the energy equation. That is, all growth depends on energy as a master resource, and the assumption that energy consumption can always grow, is, well, a problem. Those of you who are peak oil aware will have seen many versions of this account, revising the classic economic assumption that we’ll just find more energy when we need it.

But there’s another piece of the story that doesn’t get told quite as often – that energy is only part of the equation. In order to grow, we have to use a lot of energy, of course, but that energy use *has never* come without also bringing many more people into the economy as well – while energy does reduce human labor in some ways (ie, one guy can do with a tractor what 40 guys did with horses), the net demand for human labor in growing economies is always positive – you need more and more people.

More importantly, those people have to come from somewhere, and they have been doing things that *also* have economic value. Think of it as a law of conservation of human energies – that is, whenever you build a new industry and create growth, you take people who have been *WORKING* at something, contributing something, and you shift them from one sector of the economy to another.

I realize this sounds obvious, but our society works hard to convince us that that’s not true – that in fact, the people moved into the formal economy weren’t actually doing anything important. The culture has tended to dismiss or trivialize their work, but that’s how you get them to move, not based on any empirical knowledge. Think about how much energy was devoted, say to talking about “unproductive” farms in the years of industrialization, or the amount of energy people have spent convincing us that cooking is “drudgery” and should be left the corporations. Ff course, Mom doesn’t need to spend time cooking, she should be an administrator for, because she can open a can, and that work is mindless, boring and pointless anyway. Of course you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after the war has taken them off to see Paree – what’s on the farm? Just shit, right?

Because the US and other developed nations operate almost entirely in the formal economy, enormous efforts have been made, through industrialization and globalization to bring billions more people into the formal economy, where money is everything. The growth of the formal economy at the expense of the informal economy and the ecological economy has been the whole project of the last 70+ years.

It is presently considered normal to need a lot of money for everything – everything from things once supplied by the commons (water, education in crappy school areas) to things once supplied by the informal economy (cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc…). And since we are presently in a period of great economic difficulty, this is already a scary and troubling situation for many people. It is only likely to become more-so as we go forward.

I wrote in _Depletion and Abundance_ about the distinctions between the formal economy – the world of GDP statements, income taxes and salary and benefit equations, which constitutes about 1/4 of the world’s total economic activity; and the larger (that it is larger comes as a surprise to most Americans, who live entirely in the formal economy and are often barely aware that the informal economy exists, much less vastly exceeds the value of the formal economy), economy which covers subsistence and domestic economies, criminal activities, under the table work, barter, family labor etc…

One of the effects of the last 70 years or so of industrialization is to pull everyone available into the formal economy. First came the farmers, black and white, many of whom did most of their work in the subsistence economy, often needing very little income. The Depression/Dust Bowl pushed many of them off their land, and World War II took them away from home, and they never went back to the farm. Whole families were moved to the cities, to serve the war effort, and their land was left behind. After the war, the future was in the suburbs, the factories, the new, more formal economy.

For African-Americans particularly, this often was framed as a new kind of freedom – and in some measure, provided one. Factory wages were better than servant and sharecropper wages. In the short-term particularly, it did seem a road to greater freedom. There are, however, many good reasons to critique and question whether the disruption of rural African-American community structures was, in fact, good – and we’ll see this situation replayed with less-free peoples all over, as their “liberation” into the formal economy comes both with benefits and costs. Unfortunately, if the formal economy cannot or does not support them, however, we tend to see only costs.

Next came the women of the Global North. We tend to think of this as a product of the women’s movement, a conscious choice by a generation of women to move into the formal economy, away from the drudgery of domestic, informal economy life. And there’s a degree to which that’s true. But the story is more complex than that. First of all, women first went into the workforce during the war, and despite our vision of the 1950s housewife at home, in fact, women continued to work in rising numbers after the war years. Quite a few women never left the workforce, and still more entered the formal economy during the 1950s.

Both my husband and I had four grandmothers who worked in the 1950s and early 1960s, not because of the women’s movement, but because of their class and circumstances – two were single mothers, one divorced, one widowed, both worked at the phone company as operators. One was a recent immigrant whose household needed both incomes – she sold Fuller Brushes door to door. Another went to work in a department store to pay for college for her daughters. Rather than viewing feminism as creating a radical break between a past in which women mostly did not work, we can see the war and the subsequent shift of laborers from the subsistence economy as a gradual progression that served to expand the formal economy, at the cost of the labor that sustained the informal one (it is worth noting that almost all “commons” are in some large measure sustained by informal economy work – volunteer efforts, for the most part, and that this was part of the destruction of the commons.)

We should also note that the important distinction is less between women doing economically remunerative work and doing non-economically remunerative work, but between women working from home and out of the home. Historians have found that “women working” is far more normative than most of us have grasped – indeed women were routinely major household providers throughout history. But by necessity (as Judith Brown has described) their work was mostly out of and from the home. It isn’t so much that women began to work, but that they began to work away from home in much greater numbers – gaining higher salaries often, and requiring more education, which were good, but also privatizing more domestic activities and consuming more resources, which, we know, weren’t so good.

I have argued before, and continue to argue that while the project of feminism itself is a great one and I am a proud feminist, the version of feminism that succeeded and prospered was the one that served the larger goal of stripping the informal economy and the commons to feed the formal one. Feminism was coopted from an early stage.

While many feminists critqued the popular version of feminism we got, it is no accident that corporations were happy to describe domestic work as mindless drudgery, unworthy of women, even before they moved en masse into the workforce – it is no accident that Betty Friedan and Campbell’s Soup were working towads the same goals.

The same can and should be said of many of the liberation movements of the period and since – this is not a maligning of the importance of the civil rights movement – the early civil rights movement focused on access to the commons – to the public square. This is why water fountains, buses, schools and lunch counters were so important. But the later versions of the civil rights movement have emphasized not the strengthening of the commons, or investment in the many African Americans who did subsistence and informal economy work on small farms or in local economies, but in the idea that freedom and justice are tied to greater access to corporate and factory jobs and the formal economy. Every social movement, in the end, is coopted by the need for growth – and growth in one part of the economy is never natural – it is stripped from ecological capital and the informal economy. That is, we do not grow, in the sense we mean – we reallocated resources from one sector to another.

By the 1990s, about as many American women were moved into the formal economy as were going to go – it has hovered around 60% for years, and this is probably something of a cap, because the minimal informal economy work never actually went away, and went on being done largely by women (and non-white men). While much of the work was stripped off, outsourced into the formal economy (ie, shifted from people cleaning their own toilets to hiring poorer people to do it), or simply no longer done by Americans (either it was offshored or abandoned), the reality is that someone still had to nurse the kids, do the laundry, maintain minimal civic culture, etc…

So the formal economy needed more natural resources, but since natural resource can never be separated from the people needed to use them, also more people moved from other sectors of the economy into the formal one. The next step was globalization. In it, millions and millions of agrarian people were moved into cities, and set to doing industrial labor. Where once they grew food, and after meeting most subsistence needs, they sold their surplus – and where many struggled to make ends meet and to feed themselves, now they work for a living and move into the money economy – which is great, as long as they’ve got money. The problem is that rising food and energy costs and falling incomes make them vulnerable. For most of the global south, we’re in the “obvious benefits” stage for most of the poor who now have income, can send daughters to school, buy more meat. On the other hand, unlike the relatively idyllic period in which this happened in the US – when climate change and environmental consequences of industrialization weren’t as obvious or acute as they are now, the pollution and environmental loss is obvious already. Indeed, official sources in China have suggested that the environmental costs may make industrial growth in China a losing battle in the comparatively near term. Whether this is true or not, the Global South certainly has had to confront costs more quickly than the Global North did.

The vulnerability of people wholly dependent on the formal economy puts both new entrants (who cannot generally go back to their land) and those of us who live wholly in the formal economy at fairly equal risk. During the last great economic crisis in the US, more than 1/4 of the population lived in large part in the informal economy. Now, it is a minute portion of US workers – it was once possible for families in the Depression to go home to the family farm, and at least eat, even if they had little else. It was once possible for urban communities that relied on informal sector labor to support themselves minimally in some ways. It was once possible for most people to rely on the commons to provide for some needs. Most of those resources have been heavily stripped away.

The single most significant project of the next few decades will not be dealing with “peak oil” or “climate change” or “financial crisis” – or rather, it will be all of them. In large part the practial response to all will be rebuilding the informal economies. In difficult times, the role of the informal economy cannot be overstated – for example, economists all over the world couldn’t figure out what the Russians weren’t starving en masse during the collapse of the Soviet Union – the reason is that the informal economy, as Peasant economist Teodor Shanin and others have documented, arose to take the place of the formal economy.

Now the informal economy isn’t perfect. Unless you join the criminal parts of it, or are a natural scrounger, you probably won’t get rich off of it. Most of us will never live wholly in the informal economy. But the truth is that the informal economy is more resilient (being vastly larger) than the formal economy – markets, as we all know, long preceeded “the market.” That is, human beings always have economies – they are simply not always formalized and organized with the levels of complexity that we have today.

In most cases, people live partly in the formal economy, partly in the informal – the formal economy is needed for the paying taxes and debts, for some projects, while the informal economy meets other needs. The more cash money you have, the less you may rely on the personal ties and subsistence labor of the informal economy, but also, the more unstable, complex and vulnerable the formal economy is (and these are the defining characteristics of modern finance), the more the informal economy is necessary – family ties take over for retirement accounts, barter for when neither of you has any cash, subsistence labor replaces money labor for some people, so that you need to earn less. In the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa, economic historians have long documented that formal economic models suggest people should be starving to death – even when they aren’t. The question “how do people in collapsed societies or societies in great crisis live, when the formal economy cannot support them” is answered by the informal economy. It is literally ilfe and death.

I do not believe that the formal economy will disappear – but we are facing falling incomes, increasing insecurity and instability, and more and more of our formal economy incomes being used to serve enormous, and unsustainable debts. We already know that safety nets are being undermined and debt levels rising rapidly – this is a long term problem, whether there are green shoots or not. And most of us are vastly overreliant on the formal economy.

Which means that we must rebuild the commons, and the informal economy – and that means reallocating time and resources and labor away from the formal economy. The law of conservation here requires that just as we have rapidly taken our commons and informal economy labor and placed it in the service of economic growth, we must equally rapidly begin shifting our resources to the informal economy – we need to spend more time volunteering, we need to return to domestic labor that saves us money, like gardening, mending, making things. We need cottage industries that can operate under the table, if necessary, and barter. We must take things away from the formal economy to build new commons – new water resources, new food resources, new community resources. Mostly, what we need to take is our time and labor – because we can’t do it all, to the extent we can, we need to use the destruction of the formal economy to make new and better work for ourselves in the informal economy.

Don’t think that I believe this is easy – your mortgage lender won’t take chickens, and most of us can’t pay for our day to day life without formal economy work. Which is why what we’re doing now is so very hard – most of us are trying to fit our gardening and canning and other work around our jobs, and our other projects. We’re stuck in the formal economy, unless it casts us out. But that is a necessary transitional reality – again, don’t think I think it is easy, don’t think I think you aren’t tired – me too. But the truth is that if we are going to rebuild public, communal, domestic and informal economies, that time and energy will have to come from where we can spare it best – and we’re going to have to push ourselves. For some of us, time will be forthcoming when lose our jobs, or when we get enough benefit from our activities to be able to take one earner out of the equation, or when we consolidate households and resources to need fewer earners. But in a world without growth – and whether growth ends now or as we come up to absolute limits of natural resources, it is ending – we have no choice but to rebuild the informal economy.



  1. #1 Wingnut
    June 27, 2011


    You DO see the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA one dollar bill, right? You DO see the servitude infestation in capitalism, right? And do you see the “pay up or lose your wellbeing” Chicago mob-like felony extortion widespread within capitalism? Do you see the “join or starve” felony extortion done to the 18 year olds… by this ugly competer’s church called capitalism? See how forcing competer’s religions onto 18 year olds… kills membership in the cooperator’s church (Christianity/socialism)?? Do you understand that AmWay (American Way) (New World Order) got “the exclusive” (legal tender) on the TYPE of survival coupons (money) accepted in supply depots (stores) and leverages 18 years olds into the organization via that felony activity as well? (It puts AmWay-coupon slaving requirements called price tags… on all the survival goods). Do you understand how farmyard pyramids work… from your childhood?? Remember?? Upper 1/3 are “heads in the clouds” while the kids on the bottom ALWAYS GET HURT from the weight of the world’s knees in their backs? Still with me? Do you see anything illegal, immoral, or just plain sick… in any of this pyramid scheme’s activities?

    Us American Christian socialists are still patiently awaiting the natural fall of the pyramid-o-servitude, or the busting of the free marketeers felony… by the USA Dept of Justice. Us Christians are VERY CLOSE to issuing a cease and desist order until the servitude and inequality goes away… which means it turns into a commune. Commune is a word we LOVE when used in the word “community”… but its one the caps HATE when used in the term “commune-ism”. Go fig. PROGRAMMED!!

    Do a Google IMAGE SEARCH for ‘pyramid of capitalist’ to see a full color picture made way back in 1911, when capitalism was first discovered to be a con/sham instigated by the Free Masons/Illuminati. Folks sure bought into the thing… hook, line, and sinker just the same. The caps didn’t even check if a string was attached! Now THAT’S easy fishing, eh?

    Time to level the felony pyramid scheme called capitalism. Abolish economies and ownershipism worldwide, and hurry. Economies just cause rat-racing, and rat-racing causes felony pyramiding. BUST IT, America! Look to the USA military supply/survival system… (and the USA public library system) for socialism and morals done right. Equal, owner-less, money-less, bill-less, timecard-less, and concerned with growth of value-criteria OTHER THAN money-value. Quit doing monetary discrimination immediately, and make it illegal. There are MANY measurement criteria of “value”… not just dollars. Try morals, efficiency, discrimination-levels, repairability, etc etc. Economies are cancerous tumors, and to cheer for their growth… is just insane. Profiting causes inflation, so if caps LIKE inflation, and if they LIKE a terrible time in afterlife when they meet the planet’s ORIGINAL OWNER before caps tried to squat it all with ownershipism, then keep it up with the felony pyramiding. I dare you. While us Christians are finally bulldozing that pyramid scheme back to level, lets make servitude and “join or starve” (get a job or die) illegal in the USA, and lets level the architecture seen in USA courtrooms, too. Right now, USA courtrooms are church simulators or “fear chambers”, by special design. Sick.

    Isn’t that back-of-the-dollar pyramid… a Columbian freemason symbol? And WHERE is the USA gov located? District of Columbia? (Not even part of the USA!). How much more blatant can ya get? Wake up, bud. The “Fed” runs a pyramid scheme called the free marketeers. If you’re using the “federal reserve note” certificates, or using no-other-living-thing-on-the-planet entitles of ownership, you’re bought into a servitude/slavery con/sham… called capitalism. Pyramiding 101.

    Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
    Bessemer MI USA

  2. #2 mad the swine
    June 27, 2011

    Wow, you don’t see that very often. Larry’s sovereign citizen copypasta is so far left it ends up to the right of Ron Paul.

    Also, RON PAUL.

    That being said. I agree completely with much of this post (Sharon Astyk’s, not wingnut’s), but I would draw a somewhat different distinction.

    The distinction is between, essentially, ‘local’ and ‘global’. Money (which seems to be the distinction between the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ economy) is linked with this as a token of value that’s accepted ‘globally’ with very low transaction costs, whereas ‘locally’ (in-household, in-village, whatever), production is linked with social ties and obligations that make money redundant.

    Money comes in from outside the community; in order to pay for things with money, you need a network of extra-community connections (employers, traders, shipments of goods, etc.) which are relatively fragile and easily broken. That’s the shift that occurred as women transitioned to working outside the home; their labor became part of a national or global network (in which money is the medium of exchange) instead of the local family/community network.

    (Side note: a part of modern feminism that has been often ignored is the attempt to valorize traditionally feminine work in the ‘informal economy’. Yes, cleaning and cooking and raising children is economically productive activity; yes, women who choose these roles should be supported every bit as much as women who choose to work in the business world. The important part is the choice, not the activity. But that goes far afield.)

    What I’m saying is: there’s nothing wrong with money. There have been times and places where local currencies spring up as media of exchange when the official government currency is unavailable or valueless or mistrusted. And there are times and places where the global network of economic transaction that money allows is vital – what happens to local communities, relying on the informal economy for food, after several years of drought, if they don’t have access to the ‘formal economy’ to draw on the resources of distant places where the harvests aren’t so bad?

    Also: Growing food locally, etc., is excellent, but some communities should remain part of the ‘formal economy’. If water, for instance, is ‘provided by the commons’, with populations as they are now, a tragedy of the commons is the inevitable result. If the people upriver take all the water they want to use for farms and gardens and whatever, California becomes a desert. There are places in this country where rain barrels are regulated and limited – and for good reason.

  3. #3 Donna Welles
    June 27, 2011

    I just wrote in my blog about a local example of an international issue. It’s a widespread phenomenon to not take into account factors outside of one’s cirlce when making decisions. In this example a neighborhood assoc wants to maintain property values by closing a dog park so they can rebuidl a single house. I argue that not only are they disturbing the City and its quality of life, their not going to be successful in the property value goal.

  4. #4 Robin
    June 27, 2011

    I feel like too many people are willing to accept the cookie cutter products our formal economies produce. Virtually no one is willing to take the time to find a tailor get measured, and have custom fit clothes, some people are willing to seek out local farm produce, but not many. Indeed Americans like to sit on an assembly line and wear triple X clothing, and eat TV dinners. It is a problem, because without going this extra mile to consume products that are tailored to your needs you are playing into that industrial game of unbalanced supply and demand, the informal market may in fact lead to greater life satisfaction for many people, due to the necessity to plant food that they want to eat, wear clothes that they want to make, and consume products they are willing to produce.

  5. #5 mad the swine
    June 27, 2011

    “I feel like too many people are willing to accept the cookie cutter products our formal economies produce. Virtually no one is willing to take the time to find a tailor get measured, and have custom fit clothes, some people are willing to seek out local farm produce, but not many. ”

    It’s not time, it’s money. And that’s messed up too. There’s something profoundly odd about a society where clothes made by serfs in China can be shipped halfway around the world and still be two orders of magnitude cheaper than clothes made in the USA. That being said, I’d be happy to get custom fit clothes made if I could pay my tailor in chickens…

    Your larger point is wrong, though. It’s not that people *like* low quality mass produced crap. It’s that, the way the rat race works, people don’t have the time or money to afford better than low quality mass produced crap. The single mother working 60 hours a week in a urban center doesn’t have access to land to farm, or the time and energy to farm it. If she wants to buy cheap, unnutritious, ag-subsidized crap that keeps her kids’ stomachs full, so she can spend the rest of the money on things like rent and clothes and schoolbooks, good for her.

    And the “may lead to greater life satisfaction” is a weasel-word falsehood. People who rely on the ‘informal economy’ for food don’t have the luxury of growing whatever they want, unless they happen to ‘want’ those staples which grow the best in their particular region and climate. ‘Wanting’ to make clothes is the same thing. If the choice is between wearing homemade clothes and going naked, you’ll wear the clothes no matter what you want to wear. And if I (and most people in the world) only consumed products I was willing to produce, I’d pretty rapidly wind up dead. The ‘informal economy’ is a good thing. Radical self-reliance is nasty, brutish, and short.

  6. #6 Nicole
    June 27, 2011

    The only grand scheme afoot I see is businessmen wanting to make money, and cheap workers make money, whether they be women, blacks or immigrants — whoever is most deperate to enter the workforce.

    Og the Caveman started it when he convinced someone a rock in a different color, but no more inherently useful, had more “value.” In economic terms, yes, “value” is created entirely independent of reality. The trick is not to be the sucker holding the bag when the reality hits and the “value” drops. Beanie babies, anyone?

    Robin – Curiously, I *have* purchased locally tailored clothing. It was 5x the cost, in the end didn’t fit that well and sadly lasted nowhere near as long as off-the-rack from a quality brand. Local does not equal quality. It *may* — but the two are not synonymous.

    Let’s not over-romanticize self-sufficiency. There was never a time when there were humans and there was not trade, often over astonishing distances. The important part is if you can provide what you NEED locally.

    What I find twisted is the Chinese deliberately making junk for resale in the US. It certainly isn’t the limit of their skills. It feels like the roughly-made tourist trinkets you’ll find in places which have been made by craftsmen with a wealth of skill and talent… but the ugly and poorly-made versions are the one that put food in the table.

    Sharon – I like the contrast with the post on the same subject over at your other site.

  7. #7 casus kamera
    June 27, 2011

    The single most significant project of the next few decades will not be dealing with “peak oil” or “climate change” or “financial crisis” – or rather, it will be all of them. In large part the practial response to all will be rebuilding the informal economies. In difficult times, the role of the informal economy cannot be overstated – for example, economists all over the world couldn’t figure out what the Russians weren’t starving en masse during the collapse of the Soviet Union – the reason is that the informal economy, as Peasant economist Teodor Shanin and others have documented, arose to take the place of the formal economy

  8. #8 Neil Craig
    June 28, 2011

    A fine example of Luddite thinking. It was this sort of rubbish that convined Ehrlich to take Julian Simon’s bet that commodity prices would fall, in real terms, over time.

    He lost, heavily.

    Since then the Luddites have continued to spin this, though the fact that none of them are prepared to put their own money behind such a bet shows they know it is a lie.

    Or are you willing to take the bet again?

    In fact the growth rate has been increasing throughout human history and is now at 5% worldwide. The continuing applixcation of Moore’s law and similar in other fields suggests it will continue increasing.

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    June 28, 2011

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  10. #10 Sharon Astyk
    June 28, 2011

    Mad, good to see you commenting. I find the most pernicious error on Hardin’s thinking to be his assumption that “commons” and “unregulated, unmanaged commons” are precisely the same thing. The Tragedy of the Commons can happen – but it isn’t an inevitable outcome, particularly when everyone has an investment in managing the commons well for collective gain. BTW, I think your rainwater example is a poor choice here, although there certainly are plenty of things people do that need to be regulated and can degrade the commons – generally speaking, most dry places in the west lose more water to storm water overflows than they ever will to rainwater cachement. Rainwater cachement actually means capturing more net water, and doesn’t reduce the availability of riparian water at all – the contrary – as cities like Pheonix, Tucson and Denver have all had to acknowledge. There is a reason why most of the driest cities in the US have changed their permission to permit and encourage rainwater capture.

    Neil Craig, in a total coincidence, substantive human economic growth happens to coincide entirely with the development of fossil fuels. Hmmmm….what could those two things have to do with one another….


  11. #11 Dunc
    June 28, 2011

    First of all, women first went into the workforce during the war, and despite our vision of the 1950s housewife at home, in fact, women continued to work in rising numbers after the war years.

    I know I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it bears repeating: this is a myth. Who provided the cheap, unskilled labour for the cotton mills and other factories at the birth of the Industrial Revolution? Women. Who worked underground alongside the men until the passage of the Mines and Collieries Act in 1842, and then continued working the most laborious, back-breaking and physically demanding above-ground work at the mines (work which was never mechanised), until the 1950s? Women.

    Women (working class women, anyway) have always worked in the formal economy, for as long as there has been a formal economy for them to work in, and for much of that time, they’ve been labouring as hard as the men, but for less pay.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    June 28, 2011

    You are right, Dunc – what I should have said is “middle class” women (although working class and middle class aren’t exactly the right terms here) and *married* householding women. Because after all, the factory laborers were mostly young women, so were the school teachers and the mine workers, and the fisheries workers. That’s not to say working class married women never worked, but the US cultural barriers to married women working were so high that unless you were black or Irish or otherwise class marked it was virtually impossible – and often illegal – to work in the formal economy.


  13. #13 Dunc
    June 28, 2011

    I should perhaps note that I’m speaking from a UK context here… We never really had those sorts of cultural barriers, at least until the latter part of the 19th century. It’s interesting that the otherwise useless troll there mentions the Luddites… It’s a very complex issue, but one aspect of it which is often overlooked is that the “skilled” hand-loom weavers (who formed the core of the Luddite movement) were all men, whereas the “unskilled” factory workers who replaced them were all women. (I’m not sure exactly how “unskilled” simultaneously running 6 power looms at full steam actually is…)

  14. #14 Richard Eis
    June 28, 2011

    … and for much of that time, they’ve been labouring as hard as the men, but for less pay.

    …and then they went home and fed and looked after the kids…

    This was an interesting article…and i do wonder if your government will desperately try to stop the informal (untaxable) economy if it gains enough ground back.

  15. #15 Neil Craig
    June 29, 2011

    Astyk I didn’t say it was a coincidence and doubt if it was. All that coal and oil had been there since the cavemen, indeed a lot longer, but were obnly used when the technology had developed. You have confused cause and effect. Equally nuclear could not have been used by the Victorians and solar power satellites were not available in the 1940s.

    Dunc despite the gratuitous rudeness it is a fair point that the Luddites were maintaining male privileges. The liberation of women has always been technology dependent. Something which I assume the female members of the “green” movement are ignorant of. The Luddites were also reflecting the interests of the middle class of the time – skilled cloth workers – who saw their skills outmoded. The modern “environmental” movement is equally, notoriously, middle class and represents the same trend.

  16. #16 Dunc
    June 29, 2011

    My rudeness is not gratuitous, I’m quite familiar with you, your absurd views, and your long and ignoble history of world-class trolling. You should have given up back when you were trolling spEak You’re bRanes.

  17. #17 Stephen B.
    June 29, 2011

    @Neil Craig,

    Stewart Staniford had an interesting post this morning on the coming of some supposed “singularity” of human knowledge by looking at the steadily diminishing returns of $$$ spent on research and development. He says:

    As you can see, productivity in this area has been dropping very fast – it’s getting harder and harder to come up with worthwhile new drugs. It looks to me like the spend per molecule increases by a factor of ten about every thirty years – about 8% per year. So that’s much faster than just salary growth – most of it is dropping productivity.

    This makes a similar point to what I made in Moore’s Law vs the Flynn effect. Apologists for proceeding as rapidly as possible to a singularity like to claim that there’s nothing to worry about because we’ll use all this fantastic AI to integrate with and augment human intelligence and make being human more and more fun and fantastic. But whenever you look at actual trends on making humans better/healthier/smarter etc, you see very modest progress and/or diminishing returns, while the progress of the machines is much faster. To me, that suggests the main symptom of the approach to the singularity will be to render a larger and larger fraction of the human population unemployable. And that’s been going on for a few decades now:

    Assuming Humanity will constantly enjoy ever advancing lifestyles due to ever advancing technology will be your (and all of our) undoing.

  18. #18 Greenpa
    June 29, 2011

    I want to argue again for a change in terminology. Briefly. :-)

    Nobody knows better than I the difficulties of changing language use. But it is sometimes critical to do so; and can mean success or failure.

    For example: just how far do you think Rob Hopkins great stuff would have gotten if it had remained named- as he did, initially- the “Energy Descent Movement” – instead of “Transition”? My own belief is “not anywhere”. And how desperately has the world been hurt by the adoption of the phrase “Global warming” – for a much more complex climate phenomenon?

    “Informal Economy” is another pat on the head for the little ladies; and deprecates the importance. I believe. The phrase was invented by economists; and was intended to belittle. It may cripple the ability of many to understand how hugely important it is.

    As I’ve argued at excruciating length before ( – I greatly favor either Primary Economy; or perhaps Primal Economy.

  19. #19 Jennie
    June 29, 2011

    I was recently commenting (in defense of the work ethic of my generation I believe) that I feel like I’m working harder than any other worker in history.
    Not only do I have 50 hours of work in the formal economy every week, but I have the brunt of the preservation, gardening, cooking and sewing duties at home. Add to that the volunteering and exercise I do, and I find myself with free time that measures in minutes. Sometimes these things overlap, and that helps, but most of the time I feel like I’m running a marathon, and I *wish* I only had to work in one of the economies. I feel like I’d be a lot happier as a subsistence farmer at this point. At least I’d get to see my husband and son more often.

    (Yes, I know I enjoy the benefits of the formal economy, we can afford pizzas a few times a month and trips to the zoo, and pretty fabric for my sewing. The downsides are just weighing on me right now. )

  20. #20 libramoon
    June 29, 2011

    Aren’t ya glad pharm junk
    cleared out that black funk
    stinkin’ like a dead drunk
    out of work and out of luck
    sad, mad, disarmed, stuck
    wondering why ya chucked
    your dream

    No mo’ soul to sell
    Savings down a wishing well
    You wished; you slipped and fell
    Now you know you roam through Hell
    listening for Pavlov’s bell;
    blisters make your heart swell
    and bleed

    Promises made broken
    Solace words unspoken
    Worth measured as token
    No where to be folk in
    commiseration finding hope and
    sharing coping
    to succeed

  21. #21 Brad K.
    June 30, 2011


    This is a complex puzzle. American farms (my dad raised hogs in Iowa) have migrated, technologically, away from the image of “Old McDonald had a farm”. Not that many, outside Amish communities and those that deliberately chose to live “small farm” lives, still practice the low-energy and manual skills.

    There have been some that follow that allure of a life away from the rat race. The Small Farm Journal out of Sisters, OR, and Rural Heritage Magazine are two resources, not for transition or adapting, but for restoring the self-sufficient farm approach that is lacking today.

    The super-productive farmer and rancher, pride of American agribusiness, is focused on new herbicide releases, Monsanto’s latest games and price gimmicks for crop seeds (that cannot be grown back after harvest, by law), and equipment maintenance that would make many small business owners blanch. What they cannot do is make time to re-learn (or learn) the life of the informal economy. And as they continue aging, with the average American farmer 55 to 60 years old, they won’t be continuing as they are for much longer.

    I hope that Congress, or the President, or some state, moves into the business of leasing available farm ground for homestead-like use, by people needing a place to put their available time to use, when they have been cast out by the formal economy or when they choose to move into the life of the future.

    Because the traditional use of too many unemployed folk, and economic woes, and politically unsustainable crises, is to gather a big army and go adventuring, with promises of conquering enough resources to make everyone rich. Such lies have kept other leaders in power.

  22. #22 Neil Craig
    June 30, 2011

    Stephen 17 I would agree that the progress in human well being is slower than that of Moore’s law (prob arithmetic growth compared to gwometric) but it is still progress. Despite Jennie 19s thoughts nobody in America is working as hard as Chinese peasants, who would spend 10 hours a day stooping in a paddy field planting and harvesting rice shoots, used to.

    The extension in human life, of nearly 25 years over the last century is no small thing. On the particular example you give – medicine is a notoriously regulated field – drugs could be brought to market far faster and more cheaply without the ever growing regulations. That not technology is the limiting factor.

  23. #23 Nicole
    June 30, 2011

    @Jennie – I totally sympathize! Ironically, one of the biggest suckers of what little free time I have is medical issues caused by my role in the formal economy… and the very culprit is also the only way I could possibly pay for the (temporary) remedies.

    I continue to work on dismantling my economic rodent wheel, but it’s slow and frustrating going. We’re not really working harder than anyone else ever has, probably not even close, but I do think our modern work lives are more psychologically stressful. Our stresses may not be the adrenaline jolt of imminent danger, but we also very rarely get to turn the stress off to recover.

  24. #24 Wingnut
    July 1, 2011

    Nicole… why did you join the “economic rodent wheel” in the first place? You see the pyramid (of servitude) symbol on the back of the USA dollar (assuming you’re in the USA). You know that having ONE SINGLE ORGANIZATION printing the survival coupons (money) is wrong. And guess what. Its the same organization that invented price tags… the blockades that keep you from the survival goods… UNLESS you have that ONE SINGLE ORGANIZATION’s survival coupons. The very same organization that invented the problem, invented and owns the exclusive rights to the solution. (Almost like the computer virus makers and sellers of the preventions, eh?). Hand-me-down programming, anyone? Ain’t servitude wonderful? Its a tradition here in the USA… and with any other part of the planet that’s addicted to the beloved pyramid scheme called capitalism. Now you’re belly-up to it. Notice how you were forced to join, or else (or starve)? Sure ya do. That’s called felony extortion and forced religion (into the competer’s church). Go read my big fat rant above… if that much text doesn’t scare you.

    @Mad, you can call it leftist, or communist, or anything else your little heart desires… but I’m still right. Paint-on left/right labels until you vomit, but it won’t make me incorrect.