Marx might have been right, too strict a division of labour is making us worse off in an important respect: we cannot but fail to develop core human abilities, and this failure cannot but affect our sense of wellbeing, of being at home in the world. Not that we should, or could, fully undo the division of labour such that you and I can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” But is it really unavoidable, or good for us, to have to live by a radical division of labour where the main social roles are an all-or-nothing business?
Consider: you either enter politics, dedicating it a large amount of time, or you have virtually no say in any public affairs. You’re either a parent or someone who can have children in their lives only very sporadically and precariously. You typically either have a full-time job (for many over-engulfing) or an unsatisfying one, which you can all too easily lose, and which probably doesn’t pay enough to live. You’re either in a monogamous relationship, or else your relationship(s) are not socially sanctioned as serious, meaningful, worthy of protection – as marriage and civil partnerships are.
Yet, nobody has the time and energy to be, at once, a fully participating citizen, and a good full-time parent, and a competent full-time worker, and the kind of partner who can be present in every way for another human being. All these while mustering enough patience, attention and generosity to be a decent person. But most of us need work, engagement with the wider community, and loving relationships. So, many people are in frantic and constant rush to be all these things (usually leaving out politics, proper participation into which seems most hopeless to combine with filling the other roles.) The result is a lot of anxiety for those who think they have a shot at “having it all”, possibly depression for many who don’t, and quite a bit of exhaustion and disappointment for the vast majority of us.
Yet, must it be so? It is up to us to reorganise our world such that we can do things more communally, and to make it possible to take up more modest shares of these roles for those who would rather combine them. Some people, indeed, do something like this here and now: they get involved in grass-roots movements, go part-time in their jobs, share life and parenting with more people and live in polyamorous groups where several people are there for each other. But given the general structural constraints, these people are necessarily on the fringe, and come from a relatively privileged, fairly educated, materially well-off urban minority. Most could not afford such a lifestyle.
For this life to be available to all who want it, we’d have to change the structural constraints – laws regulating the political practices and institutions, working lives, legal parenthood and marriage and, at least as importantly, examine our own expectations. This would be a world of more modest aspirations – where we relinquish the power to exclude others from “our” beloved – children and adults – and where we don’t aim at the kind of status and power now associated with high-flying full-time jobs and party politics. A world closer, in spirit, to the Marxist utopia, where we could better enjoy our complex humanity. Or is it a mere illusion that we need all these various goods in order to be complete?