For centuries, the patriarchal symbolic order conceived households as private kingdoms of fathers who were entitled to control them, as a naturally functioning basic unit of the state that was indeed necessary, but considered irrelevant in terms of theory. In these households female and male slaves, wives, children, and domestic animals had to fulfill the material (Latin materia from ancient Greek meter: „mother”) needs. They should thus produce and ensure—preferably as invisibly as possible—the citizens’ „independence.” What was accomplished in households beyond the bare fulfillment of needs—for example making and fostering of meaning, relationships, culture, and love – remained invisible, too.
Today, households generally count as private units of consumption which are dependent on markets and incomes. The activities performed in them are not seen as work but as „life” that individuals must conduct along with their professional duties, through the personal efforts of the so called „work-life-balance.”
When households are de-trivialized through post-patriarchal thinking, they can emerge as spaces in which humans, in their distinctive and ever-changing realities, fulfill their basic needs for eating, protection, dwelling, conviviality, meaning, and play by using their competence of existence. They do this based on the division of labor appreciated and acknowledged by their communities.
Unlike the market, the household does not have another institution beneath it to which it can delegate the task of fulfilling basic human needs. Although households, too, are embedded in the given abundance of nature—air, water, soil, animals, plants—they are the basic institutions of human communities and economic activities. This means that the market is secondary with respect to the household as it manages and distributes surpluses. In its original meaning economics (ancient Greek oiko-nomia: „the rule of the household”) could be understood as the doctrine of the good global household.
According to this post-patriarchal definition the household becomes a model for the whole world since the world is a habitation which, like the household, imposes certain limits on all humans through natality, mortality, neediness, and vulnerability, while, at the same time, it opens up for them a plethora of possibilities to act freely in dependency.
If the market is perceived as a secondary institution once again, it stops being a threat to a well balanced ecology and to human wellbeing. Restricted to being a useful agent of distribution, it can find new appreciation. Even a globalized market is not frightening when it is clear that the basic needs of seven billion dignitaries who inhabit the one earth together with innumerable other living beings, will be fulfilled elsewhere: in households, thus in local, for instance state organized or assisted, communities of gift-giving or exchange that do not envision themselves as markets but are bound to their members in their diversity and neediness—for example through an guaranteed basic income.
Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, Beyond Economic Man. Feminist Theory and Economics, Chicago and London 1993
Ina Praetorius, Thinking of the World as a Household. Questioning Myself about a Philosophical Experiment, in: Feminist Theology 17 (1) Sept. 2008, 118-127