making things vs making life

According to Tithi Bhattacharya, there are two types of value that are created in a capitalist environment. One is thing-making, and the other is life-making.

Thing-making at its essence is the meat and bones of making things – computers, furniture, clothes, money, products and so on. The effort of thing-making is easily described through a balance sheet.

Life-making is about improving the human condition. It’s the love and attention of a parent. It’s the smile and hospitality of a host. It’s the comfort of food, warmth and a safe place to stay. It’s the care and attention put into the things that make life worth living.

The effort of life-making is not easily accounted for on a balance sheet. In fact, we’d be outraged if we attempt to quantify acts of love, care, and attention – things that we believe there should be endless supply of.

Bhattacharya uses these two terms within a larger context she calls Social Reproduction Theory, or SRT. SRT articulates how capitalism uses an incomplete map of value-creation, one where thing-making is prioritized and optimized using thing-centric metrics (how many things did we do?), while life-making, the effort required to supply healthy labour to the capital market (a worker in good physical and mental shape to produce today), is mistakenly considered an infinite “free” resource at no cost to the capitalistic machinery.

Why does capitalism keep on wanting to keep wages, sick days and vacation low? It’s because these life-making parts are considered an extra cost, even though it clearly exists to replenish the worker.

It’s now suddenly very easy to see who, what and why a capitalistic system pushes, optimizes, and exploits the way it does:

  • When businesses steal culture (the OG life-making effort), merchandise it, and sell it for profit, without consent.
  • When we don’t pay nurses and teachers nearly enough for the life-making and life-facilitating work that they do for our young and vulnerable.

Thing-making has a tendency of ignoring that which is life-making, simply because it can get away with it in the short run.

But in the long run, it’s not sustainable, nor is it the end goal.

So much that I love about cities come from life-making efforts of society.

How can we name and support the life-makers in society, so they’re paid fairly and protected from exploitation by thing-making enterprises?

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