End of Work as Endtimes

Work, a topic that comes up a lot. The US is a society obsessed with work as identity and as a way of life, not just as a means to an end. We idealize work ethic, the greatest praise being that an individual is hard-working and the harshest criticism being that someone is lazy.

We broaden it as an entire cultural ethos, the supposed Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic Americans seem just as obsessed with work. The traditionally Catholic Hispanics used to be stereotyped as lazy, but I doubt that was ever true. The stereotype is now changing and Hispanics are perceived as hard-working, which is their ticket into mainstream American society and their pathway to assimilation not just as Americans but also into potential whiteness.

Black Americans, of course, aren’t given the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, no matter their real or perceived work ethic. It has been assumed by centuries of whites that blacks are inherently lazy, a justification for slavery and then later forms of prejudice and oppression, including the reinstatement of slavery through chain gangs. The reality, however, is that the whites who complain the most about others being lazy are probably projecting. This country was built with the labor of minorities, along with poor (often ethnic) whites, both supposedly being without the proper work ethic of upper class WASPs. I imagine many of those upper class WASPs wouldn’t know real work if they ever saw it.

There is endless weirdness, besides bigotry, around American notions of work and all that goes with it. In recent years, some have begun to worry about the end of work. It is through work that we have defined our society. The end of work sounds like the end of the world as we know it, which I suppose is true. If machines took over most human work, then what would we do? The fear is the lazy masses, without anyone forcing them to work for survival, would just laze about and do nothing productive at all. We better build work camps to keep the masses occupied or else they might start thinking about creating a free, democratic society.

Even many left-wingers can’t seem to imagine anything genuinely different. Labor has been the pillar of left-wing politics for long before Marx was born. We talking about the lower class as the working class. That is what they are. They are what they do, work. They have no inherent value beyond that. Organizing the masses inevitably means labor organizing or so it has meant in generations past.

I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.

To give this some contrast, consider hunter-gatherers. They don’t worry about work. In fact, they do as little as possible for survival and they probably never think of it as work. Almost everything hunter-gatherers do is a social activity. It’s the social part, not the work part, that defines who they are. Hunter-gatherers don’t have specialization, as everyone does a little bit of everything. Besides, most of their time is spent doing social things, as the most important part of being human in a tribal society is the fact that you belong to a tribe. That is who you are. Work is only important for what it accomplishes for the tribe and one’s place in the tribe, not as an end in and of itself.

What if modern society ends up back where we all started? Hunter-gatherers don’t work that much in order to maintain their lifestyles. What if in the future we too won’t work much to maintain our lifestyles? Would that be such a horrible thing, that like hunter-gatherers we spent more time with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities?

The hyper-focus on work is one of the most bizarre aspects of modern society. If you can’t imagine life beyond work, the problem is in your mind not in the world. Just because cars will eventually start driving themselves, civilization isn’t going to collapse nor will the moral fiber of humanity be rent asunder. Calm down. I’m sure humanity will somehow survive the end of work.

Americans will probably find other ways to work endlessly, such as mowing their lawns more often. That is the future of the US, Americans mowing their lawns everyday because robots took over their jobs. Sure, those future Americans could buy one of the new fancy robot mowers, but then they’d lose all meaning to their existence. To preoccupy themselves, Americans will have mowing contests to prove their human worth and to prove their being part of respectable society.

Gilded Age: Heyday of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican
Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
Alex Gourevitch
Introduction, pp. 3-

On November 26, the Journal printed a letter describing the Knights’ defiance of the “many companies of State militia, with their Gattling [sic] guns,” who were attempting to force the striking workers back to the fields. Little did the Journal’s editors know that by the time they had printed that letter the Louisiana state militia had broken the strike and corralled thousands of strikers into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. State militia then withdrew, intentionally leaving the town to a group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” who happened to have been organized by the same judge that declared martial law. Upon meeting resistance from the penned in strikers, the white vigilantes unleashed a three-day torrent of killing, from November 21 to November 23, on the unarmed cane-workers and their families. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes one historian, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.” 12 Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule[,] the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years . . .” 13 A few months later, the Knights continued to organize in parts of Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, but the slaughter at Thibodaux put strict limits on the black worker’s struggle for economic independence and equal rights in the South. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred; it was easy to forget it had ever been a possible world the cane cutters might live in. The Knights, meanwhile, were soon reduced to an historical footnote.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many over the course of Southern history. In each case, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy. In this case, however, it is worth noting that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, not well-remembered, language of freedom. From the abolition of slavery to the end of Reconstruction, many freed slaves sought more than legal recognition as equal citizens. They felt their liberation included the right not to have a master at all. They refused to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. 14 Instead, when possible, they seized or settled land set aside for them and worked it individually or in joint “labor companies.” 15 Former slaves asserted their independence at all levels by organizing their own militias to protect their rights, by working their own property, by voting as they wished, and by holding local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was quickly suppressed and the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 spelled the end of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean. 16

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana a decade later, they not only revived old hopes about self-organization and economic independence. They also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom. The aforementioned hopeful parenthesis – “by January 1 we will be in good trim to lease ( on the co-operative plan) a good plantation” – speaks to this ideological shift. No doubt black laborers and local leaders heard echoes of the short-lived Reconstruction-era “labor companies” and black militias in this new language of self-directed “co-operative plans.” Their enemies certainly did. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti.’” 17 But former slaves were now also modern workers, and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage-laborers everywhere. If their message carried special historical resonances in the South, the Knights added a new universalizing and solidaristic note.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the transracial language of making all workers into their own employers, scared northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. In fact, if we see the Thibodaux massacre as just a Southern race story, then we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the plantocracy and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority. After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold, they were met with violence not all that different from that of Southern vigilantes. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the Knights faced private violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with National Guards or even Federal troops. In fact, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. 18 Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with the “Pinkerton Armed Force,” its spies and “provocative agents,” as a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” 19 Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion sometimes blurred into indistinction. What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses?

The Knights of Labor represented the culmination of a radical, labor republican tradition. Their starting premise was that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” 20 Wage-labor was considered a form of dependent labor, different from chattel slavery, but still based on relations of mastery and subjection. Dependent labor was inconsistent with the economic independence that every republican citizen deserved. That is why, in the name of republican liberty, these Knights sought “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” 21 Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found as applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana as to the shoe factories of Massachusetts. 22 The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. 23 The cooperative ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee. Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was – according to the Knights – the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence. The abolition of slavery two decades earlier was but the first step in a broader project of eliminating all relations of mastery and subjection in economic life. Although these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage-labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent post-war labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.” 24