Want to sacrifice your life to the soulless Moloch of post-industrial capitalism? There's an app for that!
The recent news that Apple and Facebook have decided to pay for egg-freezing for their female employees has generated a bit of buzz and some amusement, but not a lot of serious critique. Yet this is enormously revealing news — about post-industrial capitalism, about the sexes, about the contradictions of feminism on the one hand and conservatism on the other, and generally about The Way We Live Now.
First, there is an obvious reason why this egg-freezing news is shocking: It is impossible to perform in-vitro fertilization without destroying embryos, and in-vitro fertilization is not without health risk and cost. This practice should pose real ethical dilemmas.
But that's not even the real issue here. The key thing is this: This is not only an admission that countless women are forced to push marriage and childbearing back further and further, often not without distress; it's an admission that we're going to pretend this problem isn't a problem, or that if it is a problem we can medicate it. (After all, medicating away problems is The American Way, which is why half of our total health spending is wasted. But no one wants to do anything about that problem either.)
Our incessant debates about the sexes are polluted by a cardinal sin, committed by both sides, which I will call essentialism. Anti-feminists will point to all the differences in behavior that exist between men and women and crow that this is proof that men and women have different intrinsic natures, and that as a result, women should fulfill certain gender roles. Feminists will then apoplectically counter that this is all hogwash, that there is no such thing as an intrinsic nature, and that if women insistently want some things, it is because of patriarchal propaganda and social conditioning.
Why not all resign ourselves to agnosticism about our true inner natures, and instead look at the actual preferences of actual existing women? Surely, anti-feminists can agree that at the very least, a great deal of our aggregate behavior is socially conditioned, and that this cannot be a priori above critique. Surely, feminists can agree that trying to change society so that it better respects the actual preferences of countless actual existing women is not exactly anti-woman, and that perhaps, 50 years into the sexual revolution, these women have real agency that it behooves us to respect.
Once we grant all this, we are confronted with the fact that while there are many, many women who genuinely want total independence and to work extremely hard, there are also many, many women who would like to get married relatively young, have children relatively young, and spend relatively more time at home with their children, even if this should damage their career. And these women's preferences are being frustrated.
While a big part of the problem is the post-apocalyptic radioactive Hobbesian nightmare we commonly call "dating," we have to face up to the fact that another big part of the problem is corporate America.
You see, if you're a big company HR department, you like nothing more than having all your little worker bees be perfectly interchangeable, and have the same needs and requirements. Everybody comes in at the same hour, everybody leaves at the same hour, everybody has the same drives and aspirations. So a post-sexual revolution settlement that says that men and women are perfectly interchangeable is very convenient for you.
But whether or not men and women are the same in some metaphysical sense, in the real world, this system doesn't work for millions of actually existing women. Back in the Mad Men era, work was really aligned according to so-called male values: If you were going to have a career, you were a man, and that meant that you wouldn't be doing much housework, you wouldn't be interested in spending much time with your kids, and it could be generally assumed that you would work eight hours a day, five days a week at least, and that if you had to work more on occasion, you had a wife at home to take care of the kids.
The feminist revolution only altered this basic paradigm at the edges; the paradigm is the same, it just shoved women into the conveyor belt of this pre-existing "male" paradigm, occasionally agitating for things like maternity leave and day-care, and occasionally throwing tantrums if the conveyor belt doesn't end up delivering an exact 50 percent of women top executives. This has been extraordinarily convenient for corporate America, which suddenly has an additional 50 percent of the workforce to suck blood from, without, in the main, ever having to rethink how it views work, and work-life balance. And in the end, it's women who get the short end of the stick. And if they don't like it, they can just "lean in." And if leaning in leaves no time for marriage or kids, here's a free freezer for your eggs. Ain't that wonderful.
Now, the right doesn't want to criticize large corporations because they're, well, large corporations, and if you criticize large corporations you're a socialist. But the left hates the right more than it hates corporations, and would rather be allied with corporations against the right, rather than with the right against corporations.
But this is a serious problem. What I am suggesting is not this or that policy, but something much more fundamental, and much more challenging to cherished assumptions both on the right and on the left. How should we conceive of work in the 21st century? Is it possible for some people (largely — but not only! — moms) to have a different career path, with more flexible work schedules, and sabbaticals, that isn't just some dead-end "mommy track"? What would that look like? Can people on the right admit that the interests of corporate America and "family values" can clash, and that when they do, we should fight for the latter, not the former? This shouldn't be the main focus, but are there government policies, such as tax breaks for families that decide to have one member be a principal home caretaker, that could facilitate such a shift?
We can have our meaningless partisan squabbles, and meanwhile Moloch keeps owning our lives and, now, our eggs, or we can ask these difficult questions.