Swimming In It

It’s more surprising that we so often fail to notice it. (Capitalism, I mean.) Eula Biss’s new book, Having and Being Had, chronicles the feelings she traced in herself once she and her husband bought a house, her uncomfort with a comfort that she knew in time would become neither comfortable nor uncomfortable – would simply become ordinary. She is enraged at having to own a gravy boat for Thanksgiving dinner, and at the impossibility of investing her pension in any equitable way; she’s bemused when she buys a $200 necklace and feels satisfied with the day, as if an act of consumption is work done; she is embarrassed when a Mexican woman with four children asks to rent the front room of her Chicago bungalow, because it lies empty three months after Biss’s family moved in. Our awareness of the untenableness of the system we’re living in rises and it falls; it goes undercover; we accommodate ourselves to it. But what, Biss’s book asks, if we didn’t get used to it?

The rules Biss set herself for the writing of Having and Being Had are one way she has of not getting used to it: she promises herself she’ll talk about money, exact amounts (in interviews accompanying the book’s release, she told interviewers she’d been paid $650,000 for this book and one to follow) and that she’ll start every section in the present tense, in a moment drawn from her life. The only books she’s allowed to read are ones a friend has recommended, so that she has to think about the ways her social capital and cultural capital intersect. (This rule has an odd consequence in the book, causing Biss to rely on canonical reading turned hazy since college, or to faux-innocently ask a parent in the bleachers, ‘What is capitalism?’ and hope they start talking about Galbraith.)  Perhaps there must always be rules if you are to stay with the trouble – and Biss has form with trouble: her first book, Notes from No Man’s Land, was an exploration of race; her second, deeply prescient book, On Immunity, is about the fear, particularly the type that creeps over you when you have a child to protect.

The effect of the rules is to fill the book on the one hand with figures – a necklace is $200, a gallon of paint she can’t afford is $110 and the bungalow costs $500,000 – and on the other with conversations where she can never quite grasp this thing called capitalism. (As people say about love, you know it when you see it.) Here is a list of people she asks to help her define it: her friend Bill, an economist in a bar, a mother also waiting at a skating lesson, Scooby-Doo, her friend Dan, Thomas Piketty, Max Weber, Silvia Federici, her old student Eric, a father on the playground, David Graeber, her own father, Lewis Hyde, Beyoncé, Gerard Winstanley, a friend from work called Will. She is talking about it all the time, and in the talking, she realises she doesn’t know what it is. It takes a while for this pose to become refreshing rather than faux-naif – I kept imagining a Deliveroo rider or a worker in a Teesside vaccine factory or a care worker answering her question, with the hard-won knowledge that it was a system that made more money out of their work than they do – but it eventually has the alienating effect she’s going for, particularly when she begins to think about work. 

One of the reasons she finds the acquisition of a mortgaged property so unsettling is that she used to live her life very differently: her aim was to earn enough money, at waitressing or at the Parks department or temping at a publisher or posing for life-drawing classes, to buy time to write, and when she’d accumulated enough money, she’d quit the job and write. She now has a steady job in the university and on the days when she’s not teaching, the work of writing – practicing piano, writing, eating lunch, gardening, writing again – feels to her like the life of an 18th-century aristocrat. Later in the book, a glass of wine in, she tells a friend that she’s afraid to admit that she doesn’t want to work: ‘I would still have plenty of work, I say, even without my job. I would have the work of writing, the work of research, housework and yard work, and the work of caring for a child. Work, in fact, is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work.’ You could call capitalism the set of ideas that values some of these forms of work over others, but more than that, you could call it the thing that decouples work and dignity. ‘I don’t see much evidence’, Biss adds later to her husband, ‘that what anyone gets for their work has anything to do with what they deserve.’

It is at this point in her investigation that Biss starts circling back to her own life. If she values most the work that is not her job – the practice of art, the cultivation of care – she must change her life. Can she? What would that look like? A friend commiserates when Biss admits she doesn’t know how to end her book: yes, she agrees, to end this book, you would have to burn down your house. She would also have to give back her Guggenheim money, because fortunes have never yet come from anything good. She turns back to her garden, when a friend who’s temperamentally a collector asks her what she collects, and she realises that her plant wishlist – cornelian cherry, red lake currant, scarlet prince peach – isn’t what it seems. ‘My garden isn’t a collection. It’s a place where I practice care, and where I take time. Time being, in the end, all I ever wanted.’ (This last sentence riffs on the line of Browning Emily Dickinson riffed on in reply to a neighbour’s observation that time must move slowly for the Amherst poet. ‘Time, why, Time was all I wanted!’ she said.) How should she value her time, particularly to those who want to buy it from her? Earlier she quoted Adam Smith on water. ‘Nothing is more useful,’ he said, ‘but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it.’ Diamonds, by contrast, aren’t useful, but can be exchanged for many things. ‘The things that meet our most urgent needs’, Biss writes, ‘are often worthless.’

It says something about capitalism that Biss comes closest when she speaks not just in metaphors, but in paradoxes. Just as we swim in it all day every day but rarely notice it. But when we do see it, it’s dizzying – and you can’t go back. I have felt this once, and not in any of the cooler places Biss sees it in operation, like the playground Pokémon card market, or the video for ‘Work’ by Rihanna. I was at the ballet, watching Giselle for the nth time. In the first half, a prince dresses as a pauper and falls in love with the village beauty, Giselle. She dies of madness when the king and queen turn up with the prince’s fiancée, and her rosy future crumbles. Giselle’s death is hard to believe, willed as it is by fairy-tale logic; I’d found that whether I could swallow it or not depended on who was dancing. But this time the melodramatic death spoke up: like the worker for the boss, the village girl was quite simply expendable to the royal court, and it is exactly her death that reveals this relation of power for what it is. (In Akram Khan’s modern version of the ballet, Giselle works in a factory, of course.) It’s not a broken heart – or not just a broken heart – but a broken system. Having and Being Had takes a feeling like this, the trouble of it, the exhilaration of it, and anatomises it. It is the sort of feeling that can be the beginning of something, if you let it.

Read on: Susan Watkins dissects Kate Manne’s feminism of the privileged.