Asking for a Friend: Is It Me or Is It Capitalism?

Asking for a Friend: Is It Me or Is It Capitalism?

Asking for a Friend: Is It Me or Is It Capitalism?

In the first installment of our new advice column, Liza answers readers’ questions about depression and the ethics of cleaning apps.


Dear Liza,
Is my depression individual or political?
—Depressed or Oppressed

Dear Depressed,

Let’s not draw too sharp a distinction. Life under capitalism can be a profound bummer!

British psychotherapist Andrew Samuels explained to me via e-mail that “alongside the usual suspects like parents and trauma,” some therapists do think that the social and political world shapes our inner lives.

Take environment degradation. Dr. Samuels says depression is often caused by feeling guilt when we hurt someone we love. We love the planet, and as we’re bombarded with images of its imminent demise—­dying polar bears, mass migration, catastrophic oil spills—we may take upon ourselves the responsibility for having damaged it. Neoliberal environmental ideology pins responsibility on us as individuals who should be using locally fermented lip balm, rather than on the CEO of Exxon. This doesn’t help.

But depression also has roots in your particular psyche: How do you handle anger, Depressed? Dr. Harriet Fraad, one of the few Marxist psychoanalysts currently in clinical practice, told me by phone that “depression is anger unexpressed.” Following the news makes you mad. That is good; you are not a selfish asshole. But instead of turning that anger inward on yourself, Dr. Fraad urges you to turn it outward, toward the bad guys, through political engagement. Though the state of the world is depressing, she says, “fighting it is not depressing. It offers hope and connects us to others who feel the same way.” She emphasizes that “the basis of mental health is connection.”

You probably can’t fix serious clinical depression simply by joining the Portland bridge hangers—­please do also try whatever combination of talk therapy, drugs, and exercise is right for you—but the research does suggest that political participation boosts well-being, especially for women inclined to psychic distress. It can even help offset some of the mental-health risks of being part of an oppressed group; probably because, following Dr. Fraad, we (women, the poor, people of color, and the working class) have even more things to be angry about.

Dear Liza,
My roommate is a slob, and I don’t like cleaning up after him. The problem is, neither does he. When I suggested splitting a cleaning service, he told me the ones I researched—worker cooperatives with good labor practices—were too expensive. Then, without asking me, he used, a cheap start-up, before I could ask him to cancel. How should I handle this situation?
—Resident, Pigpen or Sweatshop

Dear Resident,

Partly because so much household labor used to be performed by slaves, domestic workers—nannies, housecleaners, and home healthcare aides—have been deprived of even the minimal labor protections accorded to most other workers under the law. They have therefore had to depend heavily on the good intentions of people like you.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) is the major national organization working to reform this industry. Another group, Hand in Hand, helps employers who want to treat domestic workers better but don’t know how to go about it. This organization’s website has terrific guidelines on wages, time off, and other matters to consider when your home becomes someone else’s workplace.

Reading Hand in Hand’s guidelines, I was struck by how much this voluntary reform effort depends on the employer and the worker having an ongoing relationship. The parties are advised to work on communication. The boss is advised to provide paid sick days, vacation time, and regular raises. Handy, an app to summon household help (Uber for domestic work), is antithetical to such well-meaning efforts. The customer, who swipes to summon a maid for a onetime job through Handy, not only doesn’t feel obligated to provide any of the benefits recommended by Hand in Hand, but structurally can’t.

What’s more, workers have sued that company for treating them as employees (dictating what they wear and what they say to clients) while also categorizing them as “independent contractors” so they won’t be entitled to any stability or benefits.

You can also tell your roommate that Handy gets terrible reviews on iTunes; even the convenience doesn’t seem to make up for the aggravations of bad service.

While the sharing economy is rife with exploitation now, domestic workers and their advocates don’t reject the possibility that such technologies could be made to benefit workers as well as customers. The NDWA has a department of “social innovations” working on ideas for making the sharing economy more just, and it hopes to persuade companies like Handy to endorse a code of conduct. And professors Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider—not to mention Mike Konczal in these pages—have been arguing that the sharing economy lends itself to a worker-cooperative revolution.

At present, though, you are right to avoid Handy, and your roommate is wrong to use it. The best way to find a cleaner is by supporting the movement for workers’ rights at the same time: hiring someone through one of the worker-run hiring halls affiliated with the National Domestic Workers Alliance ( has a list).

But also we need to talk about your relationship with this roommate.

Sure, some of us are cleaner than others, but I’m distressed that he made an important household decision without consulting you—especially one that he knew you wouldn’t approve. A friend of mine just ejected her roommate for leaving moldy dishes in his room and other degenerate behavior, but to me your roommate’s conduct is even worse. If you’re the one on the lease, try once more to explain what you need: He must clean, or allow someone else to be fairly compensated for doing so. If he won’t do that, kick him to the curb.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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