Own-use production work & co-responsibility

Own-use production work
116. Production of goods and services for own final use is one of the oldest forms of work. Prior to the spread of markets for goods and services, households mainly produced their own food, shelter and other necessities, caring for the household members, premises and durables. As these products have become increasingly available through markets, the prevalence of production for own final use has steadily declined. Nonetheless, it remains widespread in countries at different levels of development. Such production, as in subsistence agriculture, continues to be central to survival in impoverished and remote areas throughout the world and is also a common strategy for supplementing household income, as in the case of kitchen gardens in many urban and rural areas alike. In more developed settings and among higher income groups, it predominantly covers unpaid household services, do-it-yourself work, crafts, backyard gardening and suchlike. (Report II Statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation, ILO 2013)

Last Friday I went to have a coffee and a talk with Sophia Lawrence, a recently retired statistician for the International Labour Organisation. We met thanks to her daughter, a friend of mine who told me that for the good of my research I should talk to her mom. How right she was. Below is the transcript of our discussion as it related to my interest in the aforementioned form of work that I now know labor statisticians call own-use production.


SOPHIA: I’m so happy to hear that there are young people thinking about these things, because this is something I’ve been trying to push through the UN system for years now. I was a statistician with the International Labour Office, so with the agency that’s responsible for setting international standards on labor statistics. What we actually adopt are resolutions. They’re not legally binding, unlike the conventions of the UN, but they do set up standards and best practices for labor. There are seven core conventions on labor, which, if you become a member of that agency those are, you could say, the basic rules of labor.

ME: Is the US a member?

SOPHIA: Yes, and the US has adopted the fewest conventions. The US, Saudi Arabia, and one other that’s slipped my mind. It’s very sad, pathetic really. Anyway, those are the conventions of the ILO, and those are ratified and do become law. Resolutions, on the other hand, in statistics, are a good best practice, and they do really help countries to align themselves to a system, but they are not ratified and they are not binding. Nonetheless, in the statistical world, we do have a very strong weight with countries, and they all do look to these standards, because they are established on the basis of best practice in the countries themselves.

So, unfortunately, until 2013 most of the resolutions on statistics were very much in line with the problem you’re working on. Our resolution on work statistics has just changed, and the missing part that you’re looking at had also been missing in the resolutions. The simple definition of employment was very much based on GDP, based on the so-called idea of production, which was minus most of the kinds of contributions you’re looking at. It made sense to align employment with GDP calculations because you want to know what’s going into making those goods that you’re qualifying as being part of national production. However, because national production was ignoring all unpaid household work, all volunteer work, for example, employment was ignoring it, too. Which, in the end, we’ve decided is actually an okay thing — employment is what it is — but we have now said, employment is not all work. In 2013 we finally got a new resolution on work statistics adopted, which is bigger than employment and unemployment, and looks into and defines all those types of contributions that interest you, and others.

That doesn’t mean that the world today is beginning to measure all this, though some countries have been measuring it already. But the standards and objectives are there, and countries should start working on changing their national statistical programs. Because of course, it’s a question of how do you measure it, and that will require a certain amount of input, and financial input, for countries to change their surveys, their questionnaires, to begin to address these other issues. In the resolution we made it quite forceful, and it became a bit more watered down through the negotiation process in the conference of labor statisticians — which takes place every five years and all member states get together, with their national statistics office representatives, and we debate — so it became watered down to some extent, a bit forced by the industrialized countries, which already have strong systems [for labor statistics] put in place. And statisticians can be very conservative people, so it’s been a battle to change their ideas. But now that resolution is out there and that’s what I would recommend you read.

Continue reading…    

A straw house for all!

(My translation of an article I came across in La revue des Livres n°013 Sept/Oct 2013, p. 77-79.)



By Charlotte Nordmann

Collectif Straw d’la bale: La Maison de paille de Lausanne. Pourquoi nous l’avons construit. Pourquoi elle fut incendiée (The Straw House of Lausanne: Why we built it, why it was burned). Paris: La Lenteur, 2013, 210 p., 12 Euros.

August 2007, Lausanne, a public park in the middle of the city. In a few days, a straw house surged up from the earth, built illegally by activists. Four months later, after the municipality, directed by a member of the Green Party, had tried in vain to impose its demolition, the house was burned to the ground during the night in what could only have been a criminal act.


The story might appear to be anecdotal, a tall tale testifying at most to the audacity and inventivity of idle youth, but not suggesting any way to confront “real” societal and ecological problems; anyway, not everyone is going to go build a straw house on every street corner in the city. Of course not. But even so, there was something important that happened here.

A diagnosis

At the beginning of the straw house project, there was an analysis of some of the major problems that affect our societies, and there was the affirmation that ecological questions are intimately linked to political and social ones. Coming from the squatter’s movement, the builders started off with a triple diagnosis.

The first diagnosis was the intentional organization of housing shortages in the capitalist city that allows for guaranteed profits for investors. Faced with capitalism’s intensive investment in urban space (1), we could try to go elsewhere — to go live in the countryside, in a collective house, for example — or we could also band together and look for ways to invest in the cracks of the city, picking up the tattered pieces. That’s the aim of squats — and it was also the aim of the straw house.

The second aspect of the analysis was the fact that the societal model that rules today is directly contradictory to the needs of ecology — needs that come from the fact that the natural resources upon which we depend are limited, and that their indiscriminate use has catastrophic consequences (with the major problem of course being climate change). In the domain of housing, this is shown in a flagrant way by the intensive use of cement, a main culprit in the disappearance of sand (2), for example, and also by the inefficient use of energy for heating buildings, and by the use of such a fundamental resource as fresh water for toilets.

The third was the fact that we are today in a relationship of heteronomy with the world in which we live, to use Ivan Illich’s words (3); we are “put up,” we don’t inhabit the space where we live; “they” provide us with a space in which to live (if we have the means to pay), which, it goes without saying, we don’t have the right to modify. “Please leave the premises in the same state in which you found them” seems to be the general principle, for the renter as for the passer-by (who of course shall not do anything more than “pass by”) in the street or in the neighborhood park. This rapport of heteronomy to our fundamental needs (to have housing, to feed ourselves, to move freely) results in a radical dependence on an ecologically non-viable system founded on exploitation.

To build oneself a home

One response to these problems is to build oneself a home, without administrative authorization and without having “legitimately acquired” the land on which one builds, and to build in a way so as to have minimal impact on the environment and reduce one’s dependence on infrastructure. That is a conclusion drawn from the diagnoses, to become aligned with one’s principles. From there the choice was progressively made to build with straw: a light material, easy to handle, that permits one to build quickly and with only a few helping hands; whose production demands little energy and whose materials are produced locally; which employs a mode of construction without lasting impact on the land (no need for cement foundations thanks to piles); insulated, conserving heat and permitting one to reduce the need for heating systems. If we add dry toilets and a natural waste water filtering system, the dependence on city infrastructure is minimal — which, in the case of an imbalanced power relationship with the mayor’s office, isn’t a negligible issue.

The approach here is the same as in the squat movement from which the initiators of the straw house came; collectively take that which we need and which capital refuses us, and organize in order to better resist attempts at reappropriation by the powers that be. To this may be added something that is in fact already present in squats, but less visible and above all less developed: the capacity to acquire know-how, to transmit it, and to accumulate it. The book (La maison de paille de Lausanne) participates itself in this diffusion of knowledge by indicating a number of resources (web sites, books, films) about DIY(T) building, and in attempting to explain in detail the construction of the straw house, thanks to which we might learn a whole vocabulary, useful and poetic — from “pisoir” (note: I’ll let you decipher that one) to “l’enduit de corps” (can’t figure this one out… something spackle??) by way of “chaux aérienne” (whitewash?). The construction of the straw house was in this way preceded by the experiences of autonomously run spaces, Lausanne squats, and notably the organization of a squatted garden in the same park where the straw house was built (an experience that itself led to a new relationship with the spaces we inhabit) — but preceded also by several “learning by doing” house building/teaching sites, as well as the experiences of the “temporary villages” of climate camps and anti globalization movements.

Too much collective power?

The efficiency with which the project got going is clearly remarkable — to build a solid and livable house in a space of two days, out of recuperated material and bales of straw, was quite a feat in itself. What this shows is at once the value of know-how acquired by the people who conceived of and carried out the project — know-how that was partly of traditional techniques, today considered to be outmoded — but also their capacity to work together, to coordinate, and most of all the power of the collective intelligence called for by this project. (One might make the connection between this and the Transition Town (4) projects with their techniques of empowerment and mobilization of group intelligence.)

We can therefore say that, in a sense, the straw house was a rousing success — and at the same time, we must add that it was as well a failure, and a failure to be expected. The attempt to create something long-term — several years at least — in which to live, and in particular to live in an alternative way, and to have this space be a long-lasting center for discussion, exchanges, and knowledge sharing: this attempt failed. The allowance taken by “the power of the people” from capitalism’s investments in space, from grid-like compartmentalization, is always precarious and in this case was, without a doubt, too visible — right in the heart of Lausanne! — to be tolerated for long. Such an example of reappropriation of public space clearly must be erased right away; it suggests that there might be an alternative to the privatization of space and the wholesale delegation of its management to a power supposedly catering to the interests of the general public (5) — a power that, on the contrary, makes clear each and every day that its goal is to guarantee the continuance of the capitalist system. Projects of the sort of the straw house also without a doubt show too clearly the lack of grounding there is in the belief that we are incapable of meeting our needs in a more autonomous way.


The attacks

The straw house sustained three sorts of attacks.

The first — and the most clever, as it seemed at first glace to be friendly support — was when certain media outlets contrasted the straw house to the squat movement; on the one side, a constructive project, inventive and “positive,” and on the other side, the “antiestablishment,” without respect for the well-being of others. In artificially isolating two sorts of action, and in disappearing the critique of the capitalist city, which was the very grounding for the house’s construction, we see sense being turned upside down.

The second attack was carried out by the municipality and consisted in demanding — nearly at the same time as its construction — the demolition of the illegally built straw house. It was enough to call up the all-powerful specter of anarchy — “Imagine if everyone started building his own straw house wherever he wanted!” — and to invoke the importance of the rules of urbanism, “the sole protection against an excess of real estate developers,” to make the situation understood. As we’ve already mentioned, the municipality of Lausanne is led by a member of the Green Party, the head of a pink-green coalition. (Note: “pink” refers to the Socialist Party.) In this case as in many others, their position well illustrates what we can expect from a party upholding the ideology of “sustainable development,” which defends a “balance between ecology and the market economy” (in the words of one elected official). We need not further explain the deception inherent in an “ecology” that has among its goals an allowance for the pursuit of “growth” (pardon us — “green growth”) in a world with finite resources.

This sort of reappropriation of ecological issues goes hand in hand with the growth of individual dispossession, of their heteronomy vis à vis their conditions of existence. Thus it happened — and this is the third attack that the straw house sustained, this time after its destruction — that the city of Lausanne inaugurated in 2011 its own “straw house”: a construction that claimed to be a “model” in the domain, built at a cost of 1.8 million Swiss francs! Built by professionals, with cement foundations, it was meant to show that the city of Lausanne is itself a model for “sustainable development” (no argument there, even if we still doubt the concept), and was but a cover for business as usual.


(The city of Lausanne’s straw house)


To return to the sense and value of the straw house, it’s clear that it is not on its own a “solution.” It will not be thanks to a proliferation of straw houses that we will halt the continuation of the capitalist system and the destruction it perpetuates. The idea that such projects can have ripple effects, that they might grow in number and send out shoots, is not enough to resolve the problem, because the temporality of this extension is not on the same scale as what is necessary to respond proportionately to ecological problems. Never mind that the capitalist system does everything it can to limit the multiplication of these alternatives, helped if necessary by regulations zealously imposed by the State (such as, for example, those who oppose the creation of local currencies, or who obstruct the development of CSAs.

Conversely, the importance of the straw house, and what continues in its own way in the book that came about from the experience, is that it created a margin in a space that tends to be saturated, by creating a space that, in addition to offering a roof to all those who lived there, allowed for knowledge sharing, experiences, discussions, and exchanges. The choice to build in the city, importantly, came from the desire for this sort of place, even if its continuation was of course much more difficult than it would have been had it been built elsewhere.

This place existed, as the book, photos, and sketches testify — and it existed for a lot of different kinds of people, evidenced by the variety of stories scattered throughout the book — as the incarnation of a place in which to live differently. I said further up that this place demonstrated the power that can come from a collective, that it contradicts the belief in our individual and collective impotence. But the demonstration of power here is not only directed toward the outside. This power is important for those individuals — and I count myself among them — who believe in it and yet at the same time don’t, and who therefore need to have the experience in order to believe, and to act. Such a place demonstrates what we are missing by not living collectively in the spaces where we live, and what we have to gain through inventing new ways of being and doing.




(1) Described in detail by David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

(2) See the recent documentary by Denis Delestrac, Enquête sur une disparition (2013).

(3) Ivan Illich is a major reference for the collective. At a 2007 protest, a squatter’s movement in Geneva reedited one of his texts, “Tools for Conviviality.”

(4) See also my (Nordmann’s) review of the Manuel for transition by Rob Hopkins (Ecosocieté, 2010), which appeared in La Revue internationale des livres et des idées, “L’après-pétrole; survivre ou vivre autrement?” Article available online (in French).

(5) Contradicting the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968), according to which a resource used collectively is fated to disappear due to its over exploitation by all the people who use it.

Pills and Seeds and Death: What We Did

Last week’s workshop was in the context of a weeklong, countrywide event of workshops for students in master’s of art programs. This happens twice a year, and when Mas and I were master’s students, it was sort of the bane of everyone’s existence. I always thought of it as losing a week of my life, because in most of my (and Mas’s) experience, the “workshops” were didactic lectures or else someone presenting his or her portfolio, all in a very hierarchical sort of way, a bestowing of knowledge upon us, and the students attending generally didn’t interact much. There was room for so much more experimentation and creativity in the fact that for these two weeks out of the year, students have opportunities to go to other art schools and see what’s going on there, to meet people from other programs, to do things together. We felt this was not happening, so we decided to organize a workshop in the hopes that it would. I think I can say that the project succeeded in many ways, with some areas where there could have been room for improvement.

This is how it went: We decided to propose a sort of reading group of Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, which did not mean read Guattari for four days. We wanted to propose the text for reading and discussion, but to focus on how the theory could be used to act and to create. This is the course description that students saw:

This workshop is inspired by Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, which maps out the author’s vision for a uniting of the ecology of the mind, social ecology, and the ecology of the environment. The fundamental integration of the three ecologies – creating what Guattari calls ecosophy– is the key toward reversing current trends toward individual alienation and isolation as well as looming environmental disasters. The themes in The Three Ecologiesare arguably even more relevant and pressing today than they were when the text was first published in 1989; it is for this reason that we have chosen it as our foundation and starting point for discussion.

Over the course of three days (with an optional fourth day for those who wish to go further in the activities and discussions), we will explore the main themes in The Three Ecologies through theoretical discussions as well as hands-on experimentation involving in large part the practices of permaculture and the politics of seed sharing and saving. Modeling our approach on Guattari’s proposal of ecosophy, this experience has as one of its goals the mingling of theory and practice, of theoretical exchanges and concrete action.

One of the desired outcomes of the workshop is the creation of a collective project or intervention, to be determined by group members. We work according to principles of nonhierarchical organization, including consensus-based decision making. As such, we do not consider this experience as an occasion for us to “bestow knowledge upon” participants, but rather as an open platform for dialogue, debate, knowledge sharing, collective action, and collaboration among peers. We also believe strongly in a transdisciplinary approach to research and creation, and strongly encourage participants to come to the workshop with any texts, stories, images, or other tools and objects that they believe will help foster a richer exchange.

What will we all gain from this? Aside from new friends, a sense of glowing optimism for humanity, and a deeper connection to the cosmos, we hope that this experience will lead toward a greater understanding of Guattari’s thought, as well as provide inspiration for individual and collective work in the future.

It was obviously us who wrote that. But we were really serious. So were the students, it turned out, which was a good thing because since we were going with the idea of consensus-based organizing, the whole thing could have blown up in our faces if the students who signed up weren’t particularly passionate about permaculture or seeds or Guattari. Luckily, they were!

The first day we discussed the text and pulled out what for us were the main points, one of which was the sanitization of the individual, homogenizing desires and actions. From that we started a brainstorm list of all the sorts of small daily things we do that we only do because that’s just how it is. Constructed. Such as: brushing teeth with a toothbrush, dusting, cleaning in general (what do we consider dirty?), personal hygiene habits. When, why, and what we eat (how did the concept of mealtime come into being, and why?) and what we consider natural and industrial. This led to the decision that for day two everyone would bring something(s) to show and tell, including particular knowledge, images, videos, stories, etc.

Thus day two was a sort of show and tell of the tactile and the theoretical. We learned about homemade toiletries, the local impacts of mining in Peru, traditional medicine in South Africa, bread (from Erica, whose knowledge about wheat and baking caused an abrupt paradigm shift in my way of baking), and plenty more. At the end of day two we came to the decision that all of our sharing that day could be turned into a small publication, and that this small publication would take the form of those information notices you find in packets of medication. Information cure for alienation.

Day three and four, then, were busy putting together the publication through a mix of original text, detourned text, drawing, and collage. We were all quite happy with the end result, and if anyone reading this wants a copy , just let me know and I can email it to you. (It’s in English and French.)

Photos of the week.

Mas and I and a few friends of ours have been talking for several years about someday putting together a collaborative research/study/art institute focusing on ecology issues. This week was like a microcosm of what could be at that institute in the future. We must do it.

Precarious work

What question(s) exactly am I trying to answer with my research? That should be a pretty obvious answer to know, but I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. I can tell you what my research is about, but not what questions it’s trying to answer. So I’m starting to ask myself. This week we’re in the third of six pre-doctoral seminars, this time with three guest professors from the CCW Graduate School at the University of the Arts London, and one of them during his opening presentation posed this question to us. So what am I asking?

One question I’m trying to answer is about precarity. The International Labor Office identifies some common characteristics of precarious work (but does not give an all-encompassing definition, since definitions vary across cultures and countries):

In the most general sense, precarious work is a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities on to workers. It is work performed in the formal and informal economy and is characterized by variable levels and degrees of objective (legal status) and subjective (feeling) characteristics of uncertainty and insecurity. Although a precarious job can have many faces, it is usually defined by uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively.

Workers on temporary contracts of various durations, be they directly employed or hired through an agency, may benefit from a job in the short term, but live with uncertainty as to whether their contract will be extended. Temporary contracts often also provide a lower wage, and do not always confer the same benefits, which often accrue with time and are directly linked to the length and status of the employment relationship. The result is a condition in which workers cannot plan for their future, and lack the security of certain forms of social protection.

Another core aspect of precarious work is the lack of clarity as to the identity of the employer. Recent decades have seen the fragmentation of what was once the vertically-integrated enterprise into more horizontal arrangements involving other entities such as subcontractors, franchisers and agencies. Legislation in general has not kept pace with these organizational changes, failing to differentiate between these complex multilateral relationships and the traditional simple bilateral relationship between a worker and an employer. Workers who are hired by an agency or subcontractor but who perform their duties in or for a separate user enterprise are in a precarious situation when it is unclear who of the two parties should be held responsible and accountable for the rights and benefits of a worker. Weak legislative frameworks and impotent enforcement mechanisms create a situation in which workers in triangular or disguised employment relationships have virtually no means of protecting their rights.

(Interesting to note that many employees of the ILO itself, the ones at a lower level, are in situations of precarious employment, being given short-term contracts of a few months or a year with no idea of whether that’s going to be extended.)

In my opinion there is precarity in all work. I remember having a small crisis of conscience back when I worked as a freelance book editor. I was working in-house at the time for a school book publisher, and had gotten interviews at two other publishers for a full-time staff position. Both interviews went well and I wound up getting offers from both (which I eventually turned down, for various reasons), but prior to getting the responses I was telling one of my co-workers at the freelance job that I felt a bit guilty even thinking about leaving for another job because we were in the middle of a project. She raised her eyebrows and said, “Kate, they can fire you whenever they want. And you can fire them. It goes both ways.” Then she told me a story about how she once had been hired as a graphic designer for another publisher and they agreed that she would start after she got back from her honeymoon, in mid September 2001. When she got back from her vacation she was told that her position, which she hadn’t even started, had been cut. So it really does go both ways.

Except, it kind of doesn’t. I could quit my job in an epic way and post the video on YouTube, and maybe that will feel marvelous, but then what? Will I find another job? Maybe, but capitalism relies on a certain amount of unemployment in order to continue functioning; otherwise, competition for work is reduced. So quitting one’s job without another one lined up is inherently risky. What safety net do we have?

On the other hand, becoming a homesteader — growing your own food, making your life’s necessities and comforts — is precarious in other ways. But is that any more precarious than relying on a paycheck and hopes for a strong economy?

One of our seminar’s guest speakers was Chris Wainwright, and when talking to him about my research he rightly pointed out that homesteading was more precarious in the sense that in the current context all odds are stacked against its long-term sustainability. Political opposition, economic opposition, social opposition. This is sadly true. I get excited reading about new generations of people taking an interest in organic farming, canning, traditional craft skills, etc., but for every person like that there are who knows how many more looking to flee the family farm. Chris talked about his visit to the Isle of Eigg, a Scottish island owned by its residents, where all power is from locally produced renewables and people grow their own food. My idea of utopia, but then he said the island has the same problem that so many other rural places have: flight of the youth. They see images of other ways of living on TV or online, and they want that. Why they want that is a whole other research project.

In the end, Chris’s input was that these sorts of experiments need to avoid the binary, avoid moving wholesale from World A to World B. If that happens, World A is always going to continue to be degenerate, and World B is always going to be the start-up utopian commune existing in isolation. There needs to be some kind of permeability between A and B (and C, D, E for that matter).

But can experiments in more sustainable, ecologically sound ways of living coexist with a toxic consumer culture? They must for the time being but at some point the balance needs to tip out of the favor of the track this world is on, or else what? That’s not an answer I want to think about right now. Which brings me to my discussion with one of the other guests, Neil Cummings, on why we’re more comfortable with doing historical research and thinking about the past than we are with thinking about the future. Yet more to ponder.

This was not one of my more optimistic days, but a helpful one anyway.

Midweek reading & viewing

I’m filled with rage after seeing the video at the end of this post. I’m going to go for a walk in the woods to cool off.