Abundance in material culture means the possibility of rediscovering ourselves in the things that we use as well as finding ourselves and others in their production.
Archaeologists use the term “material culture” for all objects that express a way of life and bring the relationship that a society has with Nature into everyday life. It is curious how unconscious we are of it, but from the house with a hearth to one with an “economical kitchen” with the arrival of the industrial era, and again from there to a house with electric freezer and stove, there’s a major leap in the development of science and technology. Material culture is the way the capacity for transformation and knowledge reaches our daily life.
In 1879, August Bebel, one of the last German guild artisans and father and theoretician of German pre-war social democracy, dedicated his major work to presenting a history of the place occupied by the women in the evolution of economic systems, showing how it wasn’t intellectual differences between the sexes or moral ideologies that had put women in a role of true domestic slavery, but the needs of the different historical systems of organization of production. It was the first work that embraced this kind of focus. It’s hard to imagine today how groundbreaking it was, and the impact it had across Europe. In Russia, it was spread tirelessly by Alexandra Kolontai, and in Spain, Emilia Pardo Bazán published it with her own funds.
The most interesting thing today about The Woman in the Past, in the Present and in the Future—re-published today as Woman and Socialism—is surely the final chapters. In them, Bebel tries to imagine a society in which domestic work disappears as a result of the application of science and technology to everyday labors. For the first time, he builds a vision for future socialism based on what are, at the time, advanced technologies that are very expensive and practically inaccessible.
The kitchen equipped with electricity for lighting and heating is the ideal one. No more smoke, heat, or disagreeable odors! The kitchen resembles a workshop furnished with all kinds of technical and mechanical appliances that quickly perform the hardest and most disagreeable tasks. Here we see potato and fruit-paring machines, apparatus for removing kernels, meat-choppers, mills for grinding coffee and spice, ice-choppers, corkscrews, bread-cutters, and a hundred other machines and appliances, all run by electricity, that enable a comparatively small number of persons, without excessive labor, to prepare a meal for hundreds of guests. The same is true of the equipments for house-cleaning and for washing the dishes.
It continues to be striking that, faced with the chronic malnutrition of the European workers and peasants of his time, Bebel’s view of the future has lost the hedonistic spirit of his friend Lafargue. But what he doesn’t forget is that domestic work is productive activity, that the social form of organizing this productive activity is what is cloistering the women of his time in a subordinate place, and that the key for their emancipation, like that of all of society, is to enact alternatives, which means creating and applying knowledge.
The preparation of food should be conducted as scientifically as any other human activity, in order to be as advantageous as possible. This requires knowledge and proper equipment.
Bebel is projecting the technological development of his time on to material culture. But he can’t imagine those technologies on a scale other than what is viable then. An electric kitchen… for hundreds of people. Dishwashers for large communal dining rooms. This limitation of scale, which is perfectly consistent with someone who imagined socialism like “the mail system,” leads him to propose “the abolition of the private kitchen” as a logical corollary to that of private property.
To millions of women, the private kitchen is an institution that is extravagant in its methods, entailing endless drudgery and waste of time, robbing them of their health and good spirits, and an object of daily worry, especially when means are scant, as is the case with most families. The abolition of the private kitchen will come as a liberation to countless women. The private kitchen is as antiquated an institution as the workshop of the small mechanic. Both represent a useless and needless waste of time, labor and material.
The birth of “cohousing”
Bebel understands that the home and production are linked by the degree of technological development, and therefore share the same logic of scale, scale that makes an efficient use of resources. In 1879, when the book was published, this scale was much greater than today, which is why the debate that began soon merged with the movements of “hygienist” urbanism—which, like Bebel himself, were influenced by the Fourierist experience of Guise–and ended up resulting in what is known today as “cohousing.”
And Bebel had many followers. In 1901, Lily Braun published Frauenarbeit und Hauswirtschaft, where she proposed the “Einküchenhaus,” a building with just one kitchen, as a way of liberating working-class women from the domestic work. Braun organized a donation campaign in the social-democratic press—a very typical form of “crowdfunding” at the time—that allowed her to commission blueprints from a team of architects and found a society to fund its construction, the “Haushaltsgenossenschaft.” But she never got the capital for the following phase: building a block of sixty houses with a common dining room, day-care and cooperativized kitchen that, looking back on it today, is the first documented “cohousing” project in history.
The reduction of scales and diversity
The reduction of scale in domestic technology would still take a while to arrive. The first prototypes of electric kitchens for the home came about in the ’20s. Then it wasn’t until after WWII that the first models of electric ovens and stoves, and later a swarm of new appliances like those Bebel imagined, reached working-class homes. There was no need for a social revolution for this, only technological development that allowed a general reduction of scale.
Because where Bebel was right was in seeing that the organization of leisure and the “reproductive” time of a society oriented towards abundance was going to reflect the logic and technology of productive organization. But time and scientific-technical development would lead the promise of abundance to a place very far from those big factories and post offices that he imagined. With the direct economy and P2P production, high productivity returns to the workshop, and in parallel, we can once again imagine domestic abundance on a small scale, far beyond cohousing and even today’s communitarian glimpses.
In fact, when there is talk about P2P production of cultural content in distributed networks—a world where abundance already walks on terra firma—it means that diversity is multiplied in abundance. It’s not that everything is “long tail,” it’s that the tail of the distribution of preferences tends to be greater than the surface around the average. The average tends to become little more than a reference.
The world of abundance, the distributed and diverse world, can be imagined as the opposite of the world of recentralization. We can intuit a transnational, multilingual, and communal world where the search for a significant way of creating for everyone saturates the design of things, and rather than try to substitute and compensate for the deficiencies and frustrations of an unsatisfying way of working, things try to serve the way that each person wants build his/her life.
So, while it’s certainly too soon to define the styles in the first products of direct economy and the first P2P industrial production, a certain pattern does already seem to be emerging. An underlying trend in which the idea of “no logo” and the search for a generic aesthetic in the ’90s has been transformed into minimalism and the vindication of “honest design.” So it seems that, in the abundant world, we would have “honestly” functional objects and a very long and powerful tail of community customizations and aesthetics.
What doubtlessly provides us with the experience of the new forms of production is that, the closer we get closer to abundance, the closer production and consumption are to each other. Let’s say I want a shaving machine. I produce it myself… or I participate in financing one I like, or if I don’t like any of them, I design it and I propose it for financing by others. When you take part in the production of something you want to consume, your relationship with objects changes radically: they become full of meaning, and are now “de-alienating.”
And abundance in material culture means the possibility of rediscovering ourselves in the things that we use, as well as finding ourselves and others in their production.