Does anyone remember a UK band called the Godfathers? When I was in college, in the late 1980s, they had something of a hit here in the States with "Birth, School, Work, Death". A glance at the lyrics reminds me that, though they mention Margaret Thatcher by name, the song isn't really political. Nevertheless, the title came rushing back to me as it neatly names topics I've been thinking and writing about for some time, and in its brief litany, captures something of the inevitability of our passage through these stages of life. Four big unavoidables, four areas over which most of us have very little agency, very little freedom. But four areas ripe for political activity.
Birth. We come into the world. But how does it happen? Where does it happen? At ladypoverty, our friend J.R. Boyd commenting on an article in the Wall Street Journal about the growing rate of caesarean sections in the United States, notes the unfortunate tendency for unpredictable vaginal births to infringe upon a doctor's personal life. How are pregnancy and birth treated? Who has agency here? Who do we trust? Who's in control of the process? What does that control say about what we value as a society? I've said more than once that I think it's crucial for women to have collective control over reproduction; I'll be expanding on that soon. But there is a lot bubbling up about birth in this country, people fighting back—women fighting back—in small but growing numbers, against the all-too-often unscientific methods of the establishment medical community. Why should we expect birth to be any different than the rest of our so-called healthcare "industry"?
School. Compulsory, boring, stultifying, stunting, counter-productive. Education seems like a good thing, right? But what is school really for? How is it made to conform to the needs of capital? Doesn't public education in fact exist because of the needs of capital? Its need for workers and consumers? Does it have anything to do with what children need? What if it were designed with children's needs and capabilities and development in mind? What would that look like?
Work. And we work. Few of us are able to avoid selling our labor to another just to get by. We are free to do so, just as we are free to starve. Our choice! Of course, some of us get by rather well on this deal, but are overextended, still essentially living paycheck to paycheck. I'd like to revisit the work of the Midnight Notes Collective. I remember, while reading the essays in their essential collection Work, Energy, War, being struck by remarks that striking workers were trying to avoid work. So completely had I internalized certain notions of work—that workers shouldn't go too far in their demands, for one; not because they might be punished (which they were, oh yes: the essays in question were written just as capital was deciding the post-war deal it had struck with labor was not cutting it any longer, and the class war was kicked into heavy overdrive; we call this process, an utter disaster for workers, neoliberalism), but because I unthinkingly bought into the logic of the system whereby labor is made to feel it should be grateful to capital for the marvelous living it provides. I was appalled. But the more I think about it, the more I see that, in fact, that battle was the correct battle. That it failed at that time does not make it wrong. But to have agency over one's own labor, one's own time, to work for one's own community, with active participation in real decisions: this is the kind of work we might defend as necessary and noble. Not what we have now.
Death. Can we, finally, die with dignity?