Monday, June 27, 2011

Work and labor

I In response to a recent post, Grim made the following comment:

Hannah Arendt has an interesting account of just this distinction in The Human Condition, where she calls the distinction (roughly) labor v. work. The laborer is doing tasks that must be endlessly repeated; the worker is crafting lasting features of the world that enrich and improve our life for the long term.

The problem she identifies -- rightly -- is that "work" in the current era has lost its linear quality for most people. The woman who goes to the corporation is probably engaged in just as circular a behavior as the woman who cares for the children: she is producing not a lasting feature of the world, but a good or a service that will be consumed as quickly as the food the caretaker creates for the babies.

In that case, the question becomes merely "which sort of labor do you prefer?" The opportunities for work are at this point limited -- she thought -- almost exclusively to artists. They alone still have the opportunity to produce work of lasting value; and there is therefore no reason to weight the labor of the corporate worker above the labor of the mother or caretaker.

I disagree with the substance of this argument. First of all, there was no golden age when most people did “work” in the linear sense as she describes it. For most of history “labor” was the reality for the vast majority of the population. (Actually “backbreaking toil” would be more accurate for many of them.) Farming, fishing, baking, shoeing horses, serfing, maiding: whatever people did, few of them were “crafting lasting features of the world that enrich and improve our life for the long term.” What most of them were doing was performing tasks that enabled them, their families, and their communities to stay alive. Avoiding a miserable life through, and a premature death from, malnutrition and deprivation can be considered “linear” in the most basic sense of the word but it is not a form of creation akin to that Arendt ascribes to the artist.

It has been fashionable for a while to think there is something particularly soulless about being the guy who tightens Bolt 16 on Line Q in a car plant but I find it hard to believe that’s any more soulless than being the third footman in a house with fifty servants. One of the big differences is that the guy on the assembly line makes enough money to get married, buy a decent house, take an occasional vacation, and - linearly - get his kids the kind of education that can make them line supervisors - or maybe even CEOs. (Or, to take an example from Atlas Shrugged, provides him with enough money to indulge his taste in music.) Thus the assembly line work, like the earlier work I discuss in the first paragraph, is a way to avoid a miserable life and premature death. Money - being paid for doing circular work - provides the linearity. The task may be circular but the worker’s life is more than the work and, therefore, can be linear.

If we take a look at this in terms of “women’s work”, we see that for a very long time the work women did was just as crucial to keeping themselves, their family, and their communities alive. Whether it was strictly “house” work - cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, weaving, and so on - or whether they worked alongside their relatives outside the house - sowing, reaping, baking, tending bar - their efforts were crucial to survival. Hence they experienced the same bedrock linearity that men did.

If we look at the era where the menfolk had moved into the factories, women’s work was still crucial. They were not bringing in a salary like their male relatives but there was still cooking, cleaning, canning, sewing, and so on to do (weaving not so much). But the very items made in those factories made the domestic tasks easier and less time-consuming and so women’s work became less and less crucial for family survival. Could women make family life nicer and nicer? Of course. But humans know the difference between bedrock necessity and pleasant frills. And I believe most humans - men and women - want to feel essential. Even the women’s work we so admire, the craft that approaches art - embroidery, quilting, weaving, sewing, candle-making, canning - was originally done in order to survive. Once it became inessential it became a hobby, rather like hunting for food. It’s not that the results of hunting and the results of quilting aren’t useful; it’s that they aren’t essential to survival any longer. In contrast, the factory worker’s efforts are essential to survival, not directly but through the paycheck he receives.

In other words, the reason to weight the “labor” of the factory worker above the “labor” of the mother or caretaker is money. The factory worker is paid and so is essential to keeping himself, his family, and his community alive; the mother and caretaker are not, at least in the immediate sense. Yes, the mother performs a crucial role: it’s extremely difficult for a single working person to raise children. But it is not impossible: after all, if the mother dies or runs off with the milkman, the working father can hire child care. His children will almost certainly not be raised as well; his house will probably be a mess; and it’s not a desirable way to live. But it is possible.

Now let’s imagine it is the father, the factory worker who dies or runs off with the barmaid. The mother and children are left with no income which means no roof over their head, no food on their table, no clothes on their backs. What options did the mother have before the Feminist changes of the last forty years? Perhaps she could live with her relatives or her husband’s relatives but if she and her husband had moved to a city so he could work those relatives could well be far, far away. Perhaps she could rely on charity or some type of public relief. Or perhaps she could get a job. That would leave her children in the same position they would be in if their mother died - unsupervised while their only living parent worked. The difference is that the amount of money a single mother could make all those years ago was almost certainly less than the amount of money a single father could make. She would be lucky to keep a roof over her children’s head and food on the table; making enough to hire someone to watch them was extremely unlikely. So her children would be worse off if their father died than if their mother died.

That’s why the labor of the factory worker - of anyone who is allowed to take the most gainful employment he can find and is paid the prevailing wage for doing so - is weighted above the labor of a mother or caretaker. Work for which one is paid and paid as well as possible is work which is fungible. Fungibility means survival and opens up the possibility of linearity.

A more interesting question is why so many people besides Arendt are convinced there is something particularly distasteful about the kind of work we currently do to keep ourselves alive compared to the kind of work we used to do to keep ourselves alive. Why is working forty hours a week in a safe, clean environment considered much worse than working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week to make a living farming? Or worse than being on call twenty-four hours a day six days a week as a servant on a large estate?

I suspect this has to do with a number of things. First, we compare the guy screwing the bolt on the assembly line not with the third footman or the subsistence farmer but with the reasonably prosperous innkeeper and small artisan, forgetting that there were only so many innkeeper and small artisan positions open. That is, we compare the most boring of today with the most interesting of yesterday. Second, we think of yesterday’s toil as taking place in an atmosphere of community. There is some truth to this but not as much as we think. Again, the innkeeper and the artisan existed in communities; the subsistence farmer might or might not; the third footman did but was subject to dismissal which could mean literal starvation. Third, we may have lost the connection between our jobs and our survival. If we lose our jobs, we don’t starve, our families don’t starve, and our communities - at least immediately - don’t starve.

Fourth, we burden our jobs with a lot of expectations. In Robert Delderfield’s wonderful novel, To Serve Them All My Days, one of the characters talks about the difference between someone who is dedicated to his work and someone for whom a job is simply a way to earn some money and keep boredom at bay. The former is admirable but the latter is more common - and should be perfectly acceptable.

Similarly, many years ago I heard a radio interview with an author; unfortunately, I no longer remember the author’s name or the name of his book. His point, however, was that for most people a job is a job - their life is what happens during the 128 hours a week they aren’t working. He believed we’d be much happier if we could remember that, do our jobs, and enjoy our lives, rather than expect forty hours of work to provide us with meaning, enjoyment, and a sense of higher purpose.

This is the flip side of a job being what keeps us and our families and communities alive. When jobs were what we needed to survive, we didn’t expect more from them than survival. Now that we don’t need them to survive, we see them as optional and so demand more from them.

Expecting our jobs to provide meaning, enjoyment, and a sense of higher purpose may also be an example of a more general phenomenon: We all seem to expect to live exceptional lives. No one, it seems, is content with a quiet, decent life, lived honestly and as happily as possible and composed of honorable employment, family ties, religious, charitable, and/or civic obligations, and pleasant recreation. Instead, everyone wants to be rich, famous, notorious, and - most of all - spectacularly meaningful. Perhaps this is something new that has arisen as a result of radio, television, and subsequent media, all of which somehow make an exceptional life seem a possibility for each of us. Or perhaps the urge to be exceptional - and seen as exceptional - has always existed in human beings but in times past most of us were forced to face the impossibility of it whereas now it seems attainable enough to become a goal. And a goal, unfortunately, that takes time, energy, and contentment away from what is truly possible and truly rewarding.

Hmm. It sounds like I’m on the way to talking myself out of blogging again, doesn’t it?


Grim said...

I have my own problems with Arendt's argument, but I fear I may not have given you a fair and complete sense of it (which is probably unavoidable when one reduces it from the best part of a large book to a couple of paragraphs!).

I would like to respond on her behalf (insofar as I may) on two points that you raise. The first is fungibility. All fungibility means in this case is that one can trade one type of labor (or work) for another; and that is possible with or without pay. For example, traditional English/Scottish society had as part of "women's work" the production of butter and cheese from the milk cow. This is labor -- quite circular -- and yet it produced a good with a very high exchange value. Indeed, it could be exchanged for money -- though it could also be exchanged for anything else of value.

You're getting a linear value, then, even out of very circular labor.

The other thing I would like to say is that Arendt's concept of work includes not just things like blacksmithing, or art; it includes everything that produces objects of relative permanence, around which a "world" is built. Thus it would include ordinary and common tasks like weaving for your family (which makes long-lasting garments, or even longer-lasting tablecloths that could become heirlooms). It isn't only the artisan, but almost everyone who would have been involved in a kind of work that most Americans no longer perform. There is a danger of "worldlessness," Arendt says; and indeed, she thought that worldlessness was a significant danger indeed. Doing justice to that argument, though, requires more than a comment!

Cassandra said...

Don't you dare! (talk yourself out of blogging, that is)

Lynne said...

Might the author you remember from the interview be Studs Terkel? His book Working is germaine to this discussion and you might find it interesting. It's a series of interviews with all kinds of people-from housewives to whores- about their work and how they feel about it.
It's really interesting.

Lynne said...

Also, wrt to factory work (which I have done), I'd like to point out this little ditty composed in the UK during WW2 as an ode to female armament workers:

I’m the girl who makes the thing
that drills the hole
that holds the spring
that drives the rod
that turns the knob
that works the thingyumybob...

That can sound a little dehumanizing until you get to the final verse:

But it's the girl that makes the thing
that drills the hole
that holds the spring
that runs the thingamebob
that makes the engine roar

And I'm the girl that makes the thing
the holds the oil
that oils the ring
that runs the thingamebob
that's going to win the war!

Soul and value are where you find them.

Elise said...

Hi, Lynne. Good to see you.

I'm pretty sure the author wasn't Terkel just because I'm familiar with him and if he'd been the author I would have linked up what he said with the "Terkel" area of my brain. If you know what I mean.

I love the factory girl song but to me it just reinforces one of my points: people often seem to want some transcendent (I think that's the right word) purpose. Work can give us that if what we're doing is to help win the war, especially when all of society is constantly reminding us we're helping win the war and praising us for helping win the war. When what we're doing is producing the millionth Hyundai that rolls out of the Montgomery plant and society is constantly telling us we're just cogs in the machine doing soulless labor, not so much.

Which is not to say that producing that millionth Hyundai can't represent something larger than the individual. I think one of the sad things about companies being so willing to fire (and employees being so willing to quit) is that humans do need to belong to something larger and to feel valued. We lose that when employees feel no attachment to a company and companies feel no attachment to employees. (And, to vent one of my pet peeves, those stupid team-building exercises and retreats don't fool anyone.)

This is yet another reason to find transcendence outside the workplace but it's hard. People want to feel that their work matters.