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.

Governing Under the Influence

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the Common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the Common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things that we do not own,
But leaves the Lords and Ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common,
And geese will still a Common lack
‘Til they go and steal it back.
~ English folk poem, circa 1764

I never heard that the Creator opened an estate office to issue title deeds to land…. Every proprietor of land owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.
~ Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice

Those are quoted from “The Rule of Property,” a pamphlet by Karen Coulter (in relation to the second quote, check out the proposal of a citizen’s dividend). I picked up a copy from a symposium I just got back from, although the text can be found online as well.

The symposium was Governing Under the Influence. It was held at the local Iowa City Public Library and organized by the Des Moines chapter of the AFSC and East Central Iowa Move To Amend, Iowa City Climate Advocates and Johnson County Greens.

As you can see, it was a decent selection of progressive and leftist politics, although nothing too radical, at least by my standards. Nothing was presented that would likely have been offensive to the average liberal. Still, the presenters were radical enough to challenge the status quo from different perspectives.

The first presentation I went to was “The School to Prison Pipeline.” It was given by Diana Henry, a local teacher who has lived in the area for at least a couple of decades. I noticed that she was the only black person in the room, among mostly older whites. I hadn’t considered beforehand what would be the makeup of the crowd, but I suppose it was unsurprising for an event like this around here.

I left the symposium to go back home for a short while. On my walk outside, I passed by various minorities. It’s a mostly white town, but minorities aren’t an insignificant demographic, as it is a diverse college town. It made me wonder about what kind of disconnect this signified. This symposium seemed to be at least as relevant for minorities as it was for whites. Then again, even most white people in this white majority town probably didn’t know about the event. Why should minorites be any different?

After returning, I next went to Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt’s talk, “Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream.” He is an expert in leisure studies and has written some books about the topic. I wasn’t initially excited by the title in the symposium schedule, but I went because my friend wanted to hear it. It turned out to be quite fascinating.

Hunnicutt offered a bunch of awesome quotes, from more recent to all the way back to the 1700s. He explained that he had been surprised by how far back his inquiry led him. One choice quote he offered was from John Adams, one of the least radical of the American founders:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

Now, that is economic and social mobility. Adams hoped that a couple of generations following him Americans would have the opportunity to live a life dedicated to leisure, education, and personal betterment. What happened to that American Dream?

Hunnicutt explained how our contemporary idealizing of work is rather new. What so many Americans strove for, from early America to the early 20th century, was a world of increasing free time, as an expression of individual freedom in a free society.

Freedom from labor inspired a wide variety of Americans, who envisioned a future when people worked very little. In fact, this future was becoming a reality, as hours worked decreased over most of American history, until the mid-20th century when work became the symbol of prosperity and of the American Dream. That is how we got to this point of fully equating not working with laziness and worthlessness.

Hunnicutt didn’t mention it, but I’m willing to bet that slavery and its abolition played a major role in shifting attitudes. For early Americans, labor was closely linked to slavery. To not work meant living the good life. Some of the founders envisioned a country ruled by an enlightened aristocracy, which meant those who could dedicate their lives to the public good because of independent wealth freed them from having to work, although Benjamin Franklin (the least aristocratic among them) was the only one to ever live this dream (the rest were either poor like Paine or in debt like Jefferson).

Slavery was abolished around the time industrialization went into full force. Reconstruction led to Populism, which led to Progressivism, which led to the New Deal. FDR re-envisioned work as a right and that implied work as an obligation, a civic duty even. Mass unemployment during the Great Depression was seen as a problem, rather than an opportunity for a new society of greater freedom. So, work programs were created. Ever since, politicians use employment rates as an indicator of the health of the economy and of the society as a whole. The number of hours worked on average has increased (even as money earned hasn’t increased), hence reversing a centuries old trend.

Why doesn’t this bother more Americans? Or rather, why are so few Americans even aware of this reality and the history behind it?

I’ve complained that these days even many American left-wingers can’t imagine a world without work. After all, without labor, how can their be labor organizing? Our entire lives are labor. What else do we have to organize around? That is a lack of imagination.

The concluding talk was by George Friday. She was supposed to discuss “Black Lives Matter,” but it was more informal and general. She wasn’t physically present. So, we listened to her disembodied voice calling in from her home in North Carolina. She mostly took questions.

One question in particular connected to my thinking. A white lady made an inquiry related to her professional experience in mental health and youth. She wanted to know how organizations, such as the one she works for, could reach out to the black community.

Friday gave some good advice, although mostly common sense. The main gist was to first develop connections of familiarity, trust, and respect. Then and only then seek more specific ways of helping and contributing. Basically, treat other people like humans who you care about knowing and relating to, not simply as problems to be solved.

However, what interested me was Friday’s assumption about who she was speaking to. She couldn’t see the crowd listening to her. All she knew was that we were in Iowa. As such, she assumed we were a bunch of privileged white people, which is basically what she told us. Well, she was right, more or less.

What occurred to me was this. Did anyone who organized the symposium reach out to minorities in the community in order to get more of them to attend? Instead of just white people, it might have been nice if there had been other blacks there besides the one presenter, Diane Henry. After all, one in sixty people in this town identify as non-white or mixed. I’m willing to bet a black living in this town, especially one who isn’t middle class, would have asked different kinds of questions.

It wasn’t just minorities who were underrepresented. There also weren’t many young people there or what I would perceive as poor people. Certainly, none of the homeless people I regularly see down the block were in attendance. The speakers and the audience were almost entirely older whites who were probably middle class professionals or retired professionals.

The lack of  young people was most noticeable. This is a small college town with a disproportionate number of young people, although many of them have left for the summer, which might lead one to ask why was the event scheduled after the students left town. It was strange to see so many people of retirement age in a town where half the population is under 25 years old.

This last line of thought brought me back to the issue of leisure. Economically well off people have the most leisure. In the US, older middle class white people represent the largest sector of the population that is economically well off. These are the people who, if working, don’t have to hold down multiple jobs (and, if they have children, can afford someone to watch their children) or, if retired, can afford to live off the pensions, savings, and investments from having had a stable well-paying professional career.

Free time isn’t just about leisure in the narrow sense. This symposium was about the serious work of democratic organizing and action in a free society. It takes a lot of work, mostly voluntary, to make a democracy function. Free time is the foundation of a free society and the expression of freedom in general.

Freedom to spend time as one wishes relates to many other freedoms. It is to be free from want, fear, and stress. To have the time is one aspect of having resources and opportunities. So much of the work we do is to get those resources and opportunities. This means the only way to create greater freedom is by offering greater access for all people to the lifestyle that at present is mostly limited to older middle(-to-upper) class whites.

Hunnicutt explains, in Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?, that,

“Then real progress would begin. Humane and moral progress. Instead of perpetual consumerism and the infinite increase in material wealth, we would naturally turn to improving the human condition, learning how to live together “wisely, agreeable, and well,” as Keynes put it. Progress would then take the form of healthier families, communities and cities—the increase of knowledge, the enjoyment of nature, history and other peoples, an increasing delight in the marvels of the human spirit, the practice of our beliefs and values together, the finding of common ground for conviviality, expanding our awareness of God, wondering in Creation.”

There is one thing he doesn’t consider.

Maybe poverty, both of wealth and of time, is intentional, rather than an accidental side effect. There are few greater forms of social control than fear of destitution, the threat of hunger and homelessness. If people are so busy just trying to get by, constantly hustling, whether on the legal or black markets, they will never have the time to imagine a better life and a better society and they will never have the time to act, individually and with others, on such aspirations.

Is a poor person living in desperation actually free in any practical sense? In the US, this is an inevitably racialized question, but more importantly it is a class question involving all Americans of all races. Are we to treat freedom as a fundamental right or a mere luxury for the privileged few?

Freedom is meaningless as an abstraction. Either it is a tangible reality or, if held out like a carrot on a stick, a cruel joke.

Worthless Non-Workers

Our society highly values work. This is true for Western society in general and American society in particular. Even poor people tend to mostly organize around work, such as with labor unions. Work is the defining feature of a industrialized capitalist society. Even those who don’t work are defined by the fact that they are unemployed.

Yet our society is increasingly making work obsolete for most people. In a traditional society, almost everyone works in one way or another. Even the toddler in a traditional society helps his family, including handling dangerous tools such as knives. That was still true in Western society until about a century ago.

Child labor in mines and factories was made illegal. Also, universal public education was implemented. Part of the motivation was that adults didn’t want to compete with children for work, because children would work for far less money. So, adult workers organized to eliminate the competition and store children away in babysitting centers that we call schools.

Along with mass education, there were other mass developments (mass institutionalization, mass incarceration, mass welfare, mass homelessness, etc) that also have contributed further to the non-working population. We now live in a society where most of the population doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the people who do work are working more hours than they have in recent history. Older people are retiring later and working more, which has forced young adults into unemployment and underemployment.

On top of this, offshoring of jobs, deinstrustrialization, and technological automatization has created a permanently unemployed underclass. This has hit poor minorities the hardest, but all poor people have been hit hard. The inner cities, once burgeoning centers of industry, have been hollowed out and turned into ghettoes and slums. The once great mining regions have spiraled into some of the worse poverty and desperation in the country. And the rural small family farms have been bought up by big ag that employs far fewer people (farm tractors are so advanced now that they drive themselves using GPS).

Still, we go on idealizing labor as if it is the most basic standard of human worth.

Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

I was thinking about the American work ethnic. The economically well off like to blame the poor for not working hard enough. They seem to be suggesting that any person willing to work can do just as well as they did. The implication is that, therefore, all poor people are inferior and deserve what they get (or don’t get).

If the poor person can’t find a job, it’s there fault that so many jobs have disappeared in this country. If they are working several jobs just to pay the bills, it’s there fault for not getting a college education to get a better job. If they get a college education and still are unemployed but now also in debt, it’s because kids are lazy these days and they should have gotten a practical skill like plumbing. And on and on.

God forbid we look at larger environmental causes that are putting many Americans in impossible positions.

Just work harder. That is just the worst thing to tell most people. The one thing Americans don’t lack is a love of work. I see homeless guys working harder than the average employed person. They walk around non-stop all day, every day collecting cans or looking for stuff thrown out in dumpsters that can be sold at consignment store. Even the guy standing with a sign asking for money for endless hours year round, rain or shine, cold or hot, hardly can be called lazy.

Maybe we should ask why there are so many unemployed. Maybe we should ask why the permanently unemployed aren’t counted as part of the unemployment rates. Maybe we should ask why there are so many poor and homeless in a country with so much wealth, land, resources, and housing.

I had another thought about what we should be asking. With the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on prostitution, the war on the poor, we have created a large criminalized underclass that works in a massive black market. Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.

In some countries, the black market might be larger than the legal market. Realizing the significance of the black market, a few countries have begun to include the black market in their calculations of GDP. It’s an interesting thing to do. Everyone knows the black market exists, but it is something one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite company, especially not in mainstream media and politics.

To talk about the black market would mean we would also have to talk about all the problems related to the black market. That is where the resistance comes in. That is what someone like Bill Cosby can’t mention when speaking of blacks needing to work harder. My guess is that as jobs in the legal market have disappeared jobs in the black market have increased. Whole markets such as for drugs have grown into profitable businesses because of illegalization. Even the police stations have been raking in the money through confiscations because of the illegal drug business.

The government knows about all this, either choosing to do nothing about it or lacking the political will to take action. Another example is that of illegal gun sales, which shows how the legal markets overlap with the illegal markets. In some cases, the government knows which gun dealers are selling guns illegally, but the government doesn’t at present have the regulatory power to enforce the law.

It’s not just the ghettos where the black market operates. The majority white rural communities have become major markets for the manufacture and use of meth. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, along with meth labs, marijuana crops are one of the major sources of income of the mostly white residents. Heck, it isn’t even just poor people. Lot of big businesses and big banks are involved in illegal activities that are rarely investigated or prosecuted.

The black market is massive beyond imagination and it is global. There probably is no way to separate the legal and illegal markets for how closely they are intertwined. There are many business owners who simultaneously operate legal and illegal businesses. That is how the Mafia operated.

The problem obviously isn’t a lack of people working, not in any simple sense. Yes, there are some people genuinely unemployed, either they can’t find work or they choose to not do illegal work. What if your only choice was to sell drugs, be a prostitute, work for an organized crime group, or not work at all? Sometimes refusing to work can be a stance of moral principle. As legal jobs disappear, this maybe a decision more Americans have to make.

Should we respect someone for working hard, no matter what kind of work they are doing? What is it that we want to value and promote as a society? Just hard work at any cost for any purpose?

The complaint someone like Bill Cosby has about poor blacks isn’t really that they aren’t working hard, but that they aren’t working hard in the way and for the purpose he thinks they should. But what other choice do they have? Not every poor black guy can become the next wealthy Cosby. Our entire system is built on the necessity of there being a vast impoverished underclass of surplus labor. Working harder doesn’t change that. Working harder doesn’t make racism and classism go away.

So, whose work counts? What kind of work counts? Why? And to what end?

To ask which work we are to count is related to asking which people we will count. It is related as well to those who don’t get counted, i.e., those who don’t count, those who don’t matter. Who we value is inseparable from what we value, and what we value determines how we treat others.

Whose country is this? Is it the country of all citizens or only some? It is interesting to note that the Americans that often don’t get counted also get targeted by the criminal system and, as ex-cons, they also don’t get to vote. Talk about not being counted, not even politically as a citizen. When a large part of the population is economically and politically disenfranchized, when we criminalize so much of daily life, why are we surprised that social problems arise among the people most negatively impacted by such an oppressive system?

Work harder, really?

Sleep and Schedules

Sleep and Schedules

Posted on Dec 16th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
I’ve felt a bit off recently.  I haven’t been sleeping well this past month and I’ve been off my normal schedule.  Visits from friends and family have added to my sleep alteration.  I was feeling dead tired a week ago and took a couple of sick days off to try to recuperate.  I rarely take sick days (I’ve gone years without taking a sick day off), but I really needed it. 

My schedule is still slightly off even though I’ve been sleeping better again.  My whole sense of time seems to be off recently. 

The day after the two sick days I accidentally went to work late.  I was taking a nap before work and set my alarm.  In the process of messing with the clock, I changed the timezone on it as its an atomic clock. 

And then I went to work late again today.  For an odd reason, today felt like Saturday to me and I go to work later on Saturdays.  I think the reason for my confusion was that I worked on my day off which I rarely do and it threw off my routine.  I have a split weekend and Saturday normally comes after my first day off of the week.  Since I worked Friday, it made it feel like my whole week had shifted.  My unconscious mind had a rule it was following and told my conscious mind it was Saturday. 

It simply felt like Saturday and I had a shock to my system when I finally noticed what day it was.  I felt kind of stupid.  If I had given it a moment of conscious thought it would’ve been obvious that it couldn’t be Saturday for various reasons.

Its extremely unusual for me to go to work late.  I have an issue about tardiness as my mom raised me to be very time conscious.  I’m a person that likes to get to work 30 minutes early despite my living so close by.  I have a very set routine and I live only a block away from work.  It doesn’t take me long to get ready and walk to work and I give myself plenty of leeway.

These kinds of events tend to happen in multiples. Its usually during a period of time when my schedule has shifted or been disrupted.  I’ll have to pay attention more closely to time and days until my system gets reset to my regular routine.

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Tagged with: sleep, schedule, time, late, work, routine

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 17 hours later

Nicole said

hope you get reset soon. i’m starting to wonder when my own clock will turn right side up again.

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 24 hours later

Marmalade said

Your schedule is probably worse than mine. Do you even have a routine schedule? Your life always sounds so busy and stressful. I know I couldn’t handle it.

I’m feeling more rested or at least more back in a normal routine. I was rather paranoid today looking at my clock making sure time, timezone, and days were all in appropriate order; and then checking against my computer clock just to be sure.

Its strange how I normally never have to think about such things because my unconscious mind normally tells me the correct info. I rarely give thought to what day it is. I usually just know what day it is. And I certainly never give much thought to what timezone it is as that doesn’t generally change much for me… maybe for you it does. lol

Nicole : wakingdreamer

2 days later

Nicole said

Oh, it’s not as bad as you think. These days, I am in slow and lazy mode, quiet mornings with little in the way of work happening, and going into work three afternoons a week. I’m enjoying the down time. And you’re right, at this point, I can’t blame jetlag anymore, my sleep is as bad as usual, which means I have no trouble getting to sleep but am restless dreaming and often wake up by about 4 or so and sleep poorly thereafter.

Glad to hear you are back to normal too. It’s cool that you usually instinctively keep track.

Timezones? Well usually I never change them so this year making four trips from June to December out of my time zone was stretching it, I guess. My body is not impressed 🙂