May 28, 2020 - 11:53am

Peter Franklin is critical of a political analysis he describes as “Wokenomics”, and I agree with him — mostly.

Proponents of this analysis (“wokeonomists”?) are wont to describe almost all activity as a form of “labour” which must be itemised and monetised, stripping away meaning and intimacy from human relationships. Sophie Lewis, for instance, author of a recent book on the family, argues that the surrogacy industry should be understood in coldly economic terms, with surrogates as workers, babies as products, and abortion as a form of wildcat strike. Franklin is quite right to describe such an approach as “moral madness”.

Lewis is elaborating on an idea that has existed within feminism for half a century: that childcare and housework should be viewed as forms of economic labour and that these labourers should be financially compensated by the state. Franklin is wary of this proposal:

[T]he state, in taking responsibility for payment, would thereby take control. That, after all, is the thing about getting paid — your employer decides what you do and how you do it. They also get to own what you produce. Is this really an arrangement we want to apply to motherhood?
- Peter Franklin, UnHerd

True enough, but there is a problem with this argument. Traditionally it is already the case that mothers are vulnerable to an “employer”, of sorts: their husbands. Perhaps “patron” would be a better term, since this system depends upon one person (typically the father) financially supporting a mother while she’s pregnant, nursing, or otherwise unable to earn enough money to support herself and her children.

For some people, this patronage system works just fine, and those people might well resent the intrusion of the state into their private affairs. But it does not work for single mothers (roughly a quarter of UK families with children are headed by a single mother) nor for women in abusive relationships. Without a dependable partner, these women are acutely economically vulnerable, and so might very well prefer patronage by the state, which in the UK has been available in a very modest form for more than a hundred years in the form of child benefits.

A Universal Basic Income might provide a way forward, allowing us to negotiate a compromise between the ‘“Wokenomics” ideal and the current model. The key advantage of a UBI system is that, by offering everyone the same degree of unconditional financial support, we are not required to tally up every hour of “labour” performed, at mothering or anything else, thus avoiding some of the pitfalls that Franklin identifies.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.