Being that this is the week that work resumes after the holidays, I decided it was an opportune time to dive into the depths of the bloviation-sphere. I have strong opinions on the concept of work. Put simply, I do not agree with much of what passes for economic activity in the modern world, beginning with the definition of the word. In our times an economist is someone who observes and analyzes political states, markets, finance. What an economist does not consider is the household, yet this is the foundation of both the modern economy and the word itself. “Economics” is derived from a Greek word meaning “household management”. And yet we hardly consider a household as part of the economic system except as a consumer of disposable goods. Household management is not encouraged, often not possible. Household production is simply not a thing any longer. Production is farmed (!) out to wage work, work done outside the household, usually in order to raise monetary income to support household consuming. So today I want to consider this work that earns wages rather than produces livings.
I will begin by considering the common view of work. Work carries quite a load of negative baggage. Work is hard; it is tedious; it is repetitive; it is not how we want to be spending our time. We have deemed Wednesday a day to celebrate because it marks the mid-point of the work week. How pathetic is that? Yet if we do not have work — more specifically, do not have a proper sort of high-status work — then we are denigrated by others and ashamed of ourselves. We work for a living but usually do little in living other than work. We work for wages, money paid by someone else who wants the work done and can not or will not do the work themselves. An interesting feature of wage work is that the highest wages are paid to those who do no work directly, but direct the work of millions of others.
If an alien were to land on this planet and study this system that we’ve erected to meet our needs, that being would be confounded. Not least because this system does not meet needs. Working for wages does not meet most needs for the vast majority of people in the world. At the same time, those people who are rewarded by the system are over-compensated; they have more than they could ever use in a lifetime of excessive want. This is not a system that feeds us, shelters us, makes sure we are healthy and clothed and safe. This is not a system that even addresses all our non-material needs except in the crudest ways. We can’t buy love or friendship or happiness, though we are aggressively sold grotesque, plastic imitations. Our alien observer would likely believe that humans are insane. Or stupid.
But what is work? A physicist would say that work happens when a force causes displacement of an object. Work, in these terms, is proportional to the movement of an object and the input needed to create that movement. So given a displaced object, work becomes a loose proxy for energy. This definition once aligned with the conventional view of work done by humans and their animal and mechanical laborers. Most human work was indeed bound up in applying force to move things, from the work of pulling back a hunter’s bowstring to the work of transporting goods. Much — though far short of all — labor was physical work. Eventually, status began to be assigned to labor that was heavy work, labor that required forcefully energetic inputs and that produced tangible displacement of material — and discreet tangible material outputs. Labor that moved and made things was valued higher than labor that produced nothing tradable. Most care work was not valued labor because it produced little for trade and required no forceful input. And yet, care work is the essential work necessary to meet physical and emotional human needs. It is the only work that is needed.
Today, the most valued labor is disassociated from work, and the work that is done is no longer connected to its physical roots. So what is this work that we do then? To a large extent it is time. Most rewards accrue not to the output — the results of work done — but to the time spent doing it. Wages are paid in time increments. There is little incentive to actually do work, certainly not to do it quickly. More rewards accrue if more time is spent (which, I must note, is counter to the physical definition of work which is independent of time). There is a limit to this; a wage-payer theoretically expects work to be done and will normally not pay wages when work is not done. Though, as David Graeber amply demonstrated in Bullshit Jobs, there are many forms of wage-earning that do not come with even this limitation. A wage-earner in this society may be paid merely to be at work with no expectation of work ever being done. Sometimes it is actively discouraged, sometimes even outright impossible to do work in these sorts of positions.
This is a bizarre system. Real work is scorned and unrewarded. Time is spent in labor to earn wages, with the highest wages going to those who spend no time laboring. The highest wages are not even time-dependent; they accrue merely to status. Wages are awarded to a hierarchical position, not to the work done in that position.
And what is done in most of these positions? If there is any true physical work done, it is in moving electrons or paper around. Most high-status positions produce nothing, maintain nothing, and benefit nothing. Consider the billionaires. What do they do? Bill Gates may have had some creative input on his software company, and Mark Zuckerberg may have done something to make Facebook a thing (inasmuch as it is a thing) but they did not put in time or effort worthy of billions of dollars in compensation. (Of course, there’s also Jeff Bezos who has done nothing at all except command that work be done, in the form of shuffling vast quantities of stuff all around the globe. So yes, a good deal of actual physical work, but not done by him.) And then there is the parasitic and utterly work-free world of finance where nothing is ever made or done except money shuffling — money itself being not a real thing, but a marker, ostensibly for work put into making or doing something. So finance is a deeply layered illusion of work.
To add injury to the insult of this remunerative dearth of productive work, much of what we do to earn wages — and most especially the highest wages — produces a great deal of misery, destruction and waste. It is, in fact, undermining life on this planet. Our endeavors are so far from meeting our needs, it is not hyperbole to state that our form of work is killing us. And then, nearly all work for wages takes time away from the necessary care work to meet our needs. We spend our time earning wages so that we can pay others to take care of our needs rather than tending to this care work ourselves. And those at the bottom do not earn sufficient wages to pay others.
Therein is the fatal flaw in our economic system (in addition to the aforementioned existential threats of course). Most people do not meet their own needs with the work they do. They do not labor to manage their own household. The high wage earners pay for the labor of others. High wage earners are dependent on those of lower socio-economic status for basic sustenance and shelter. High wage earners are generally incapable of meeting their own bodily needs through sheer lack of skill and experience with the necessary work.
Those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, the low wage earners, do all the necessary work. They have the skills and knowledge to care for a community. They spend their lives doing this necessary work, but not for themselves. They do not meet their own needs; they labor to meet the needs of others. They are not well compensated for this relatively undervalued work; they have few economic resources. Many live permanently in a state of precarity without any surety that they will have food or shelter from day to day. They have the ability to meet their own needs, but they spend all their time meeting the needs of others for wages insufficient to then pay for what they need to live. They have no option but to work away their lives doing nothing to live.
And so nobody is taking care of themselves. Those with time and money to pay others do not have the skills and knowledge to do the necessary work. Those with skills and knowledge do not have the time to do the work for themselves because they must spend their time earning wages, laboring to the benefit of others. When the system is stressed, as it is now, those at the top flounder around cluelessly trying to do for themselves, becoming increasingly shrill and desperate as they realize that they are helpless to meet their own needs. Those at the bottom have to spend increasing time earning decreasing wages, and they too become more desperate. They could drop out of this system and do for themselves in theory; they have the capability. However, they lack resources — land, housing, tools, raw materials and seed stocks — and the purchasing power to acquire these necessary resources.
We began the pandemic of 2020 singing the praises of these essential workers (actually, banging out praise on pots and pans), these people who for very low wages and recognition tend to our bodily needs — food, hygiene and health care. As the work stoppage dragged on, other primary work was recognized (though the pot-banging fizzled out in the summer heat). For one thing, it seemed people suddenly started noting that food is produced by farmers on farms and that it doesn’t just magically or inevitably appear in supermarket aisles. Those with money tried various strategies to compensate for this novel disruption in the continual cornucopia. This was a good lesson to learn. It also made for good entertainment value. I’m not sure how many needs were met though. Those without money, the necessary workers who earn low wages, began to lose their jobs as there was less necessary work that could be done given the strains on supply chains. They fell deeper into precarity and remain so these many months later.
We should all be very afraid of the lessons we’ve been learning through coronavirus. The terminal malady in our economic system has been plainly revealed. We can’t meet our needs. Indeed, this system is not meant to meet our needs. It is designed to extract money from the physical world and concentrate this value-marker in the hands of a very few people. Our system is not centered on ourselves even when it is functioning. When it breaks down people find that no amount of money or level of status will actually feed their bodies. They discover that real work needs to be done by people, that work requires a seed stock of basic resources, and that the whole edifice topples when this necessary work, that which all depends upon, is not done. This should not be a revelation.
Let us step back from the broken system and ask a more basic question: why do we engage in modern forms of work? If we can answer that, we will better understand the problems we face. So why work? The obvious answer — to produce what we need to live — is apparently not correct as we have just seen that modern work does not do that. In fact, it has been true in many societies that those who meet the most of their own needs also spend the least time doing work. For example, our pre-agriculture ancestors did very little work and yet lived in relative abundance. They had healthier, more robust bodies; they had more free time to spend on other projects (including inventing every last thing from pots to religion to agriculture); they left behind ample material evidence that they lived joyfully with few constraints.
The critical lack in their lives was hierarchy. There were undoubtedly those that were accorded more respect than others. There were probably leaders. (Maybe. Studies of contemporary foraging societies suggest that leaders are not inevitable and are often quite forcibly removed when they appear.) But in a society of abundance, merit is based not on wealth — because everybody has enough — but on wisdom, experience, kindness, skill and knowledge — personal qualities. Furthermore, in these small groups, personal qualities are taught and shared. So there is little to distinguish between people, little to set one person above another, and nothing to maintain hierarchy.
As human populations grew and moved into new environments and as the global climate shifted out of the Pleistocene ice ages, it became more challenging to meet needs from what nature provided season to season. (Indeed, seasons were a new challenging reality.) Some environments provided hardly any food for long chunks of time. Scarcity became real and, with scarcity, the need to allocate scarce resources. These new efforts put toward dealing with scarcity had a focus of producing a surplus, initially to be stored against future dearth. Farming is exactly that — putting food by so that humans will not go hungry when food is not growing.
I’m fairly sure the allocation of scarce resources was initially egalitarian because that was how humans lived; equality was the norm. But I’m also certain that in time some humans (yes, probably males) began to see this allocation process as a means to their own advancement over others. Maybe it was sheer laziness; maybe it was a belief in their own superiority; maybe they actually were the prime providers in some communities and therefore felt entitled to larger portions. In any case, with scarcity came hierarchy and a division of labor in which some did the necessary work and others benefitted.
(An aside: I freely acknowledge that my ideas are not in vogue in anthropology circles. However, I do not care much for intellectual fashions. In this blog I get to call things as they seem true to me. I will also note that those who do not agree are often those who most resemble the ancient peoples who chose to live off the labor of others. So perhaps there is some sympathy or influencing bias, conscious or otherwise.)
Once there were people who received greater portions of stored resources, it was a very quick slide to what we call commodification of those resources. A leader with ample grain reserves could trade a portion of that grain for goods not produced in his region. Or he could sell it for some value-marker that could be traded for goods — though even from the beginning it was more often the case that the value-marker was built into hoards rather than traded for anything of use to a human, save perhaps weapons and soldiers to amass and retain more wealth. In any case, wealth very quickly became measured in gold (useless to human needs), not in grain (human food). I am sure you can see the root of the problem here.
In order to retain this privileged portion of resource allocation, in other words hierarchical status, there needed to be some justification of the inequity. Religions were created for this purpose. Histories were written to celebrate some and render others invisible. But the strongest tool in the hands of the elites was simple laziness: they exploited the natural human disinclination to do hard work (because it is hard), fanning aversion into contempt. This contempt for labor was conflated with the people who did labor. Those who labored were inferior humans — or not human at all. Thus labor became a mark of inferiority; real work was devalued; and the people who did real work were devalued as well.
For most of history most work was nevertheless real. Farming, transport of goods, mining, industry, building. Most work was done with the back and the hands. There were, of course, bureaucrats, priests, accountants and lawyers as soon as there was a surplus of goods to be managed by a small elite. But these jobs were few relative to those engaged in real work. So the majority of people were and are working folk, unprivileged, undeserving and accorded small rewards for their labors. Wealth and status were and remain in the hands of a very small number of people.
How is this unfair system maintained? Why don’t the workers simply keep what they produce? Why don’t they rise up and depose their masters? The short answer is they do just that. Minority elites are always toppled. No such system is perpetual. It is only maintained through force and propaganda and by offering an increasingly bloated bureaucratic (management) class access to privilege in order to create a buffer between the true elites and the working class as well as create the illusion that status can be changed through effort and merit, that those in the working classes are there because they are fit for nothing better. They are, in fact, inferior and less deserving because, look!, they’ve done nothing to shed that status.
Work thus becomes a tool in the reinforcement of status and the concentration of wealth. The kind of work one does is indication of one’s position in hierarchy, and in crushing circular logic position in the hierarchy determines what sort of work may be done. It is a demoralizing message, one that inhibits change in social order. Until it doesn’t. When real workers reach their limits there is sudden and usually violent change.
We may be approaching this cataclysm. It is my goal to avoid that. To that end, I believe it is essential that most of us take up essential jobs, that we level out the responsibility and the rewards, that we meet our own needs. We need to truly value necessary work, not just bang pots and pans. And we all need to do this work.
This is a massive undertaking. Simply to grow more of their own food, most people will need to move out of urban environments, acquire soil and stocks, learn many skills, gain knowledge, and change many habits and mindsets — from diet to time allocation to desired goals. For example, the vaunted summer vacation becomes problematic when tending to your growing foodstuffs in the summer.
But it is not as bleak a picture as many paint. In fact, as I discuss in my review of A Small Farm Future, having a garden of food to tend is already a goal for most people. The problem is that this goal must compete against the commodification of needs and of leisure. If you are growing and preparing your own food, you are at least not buying as much food. From above, you can see that you’re probably not going to be spending as much on tourism and travel either. You’re probably not going to spend as much on entertainment because it will be more inconvenient in a more rural setting. You probably will not be spending as much on various fashionable or status goods, because what is the point? The chickens will not be impressed. Finally, you may not be employed for high wages if you are living in a rural setting. You won’t have the money to spend on these things. A small farm future terrifies those who prey on our income. They are aggressively fighting any transition to a more self-supporting lifestyle with endless marketing portraying it as inferior and undesirable — even as they themselves move to more rural settings and plant gardens for themselves. Because that’s what humans want.
Humans rather enjoy work when it comes down to it. We like to make things. We like to use our bodies. We feel healthier and more connected, more in control of our lives, more fulfilled. We like to see physical results of our work. We like to feel useful, not merely meretricious. We are happier when we do actual work. And we would really like for all this to happen in a setting that is clean and full of growth, abundance and life. We may not want to live in a forest or bogland, but we choose a lush parkland over even the most glittering of cityscapes every single time we’re given the choice. (And we all know that in reality cityscapes offer far more grunge than glitter, making the parkland all the more preferable.)
And then consider the end-goal of work — to spend time in leisure activities, to retire. But all that is considered leisure in this society? Is not fun. Travel is not fun. It is hard on the body; it is disorienting and disconnected; and in this time of globalism it is only rarely exposure to anything different from being at home. Thus pointless. Consuming rich food and much alcohol are similarly not fun and come with extremely debilitating effects. Being a passive audience is not fun. Sometimes we can convince ourselves that we are part of the activity, if the audience is sufficiently large and engaged. But in our hearts we know we’re excluded and being excluded is just not fun. We want to be essential. For most things we want to be doing, not watching. We are not having fun when we are divorced from the doing of living.
The rewards of leisure are paltry compared to the rewards of real work; modern labor does little to generate those rewards; and the whole system is starting to crumble because human needs are not being met. So what’s next? How do we get from here to wherever we need to be to re-engage with real work and meet our needs? That may be the essential question I am attempting to answer with this blog. I expect the answer with include elements like basic income and increased valuation of care work. I know the way forward requires a better division of resources, especially of land and housing. There needs to be justice for those who have been held down and exploited. Most particularly, those who have the skills and knowledge to do the work required to meet human needs must be accorded respect. They need to be our mentors and teachers, perhaps leaders if we feel that leadership is required. And we absolutely must put the focus of economic activity — our global household maintenance — on meeting human needs. Food, shelter, clothing, health, wholeness. Love, respect, community, dignity. And, above all, care.
Wendell Berry has said “It all turns on affection.”
I agree. And affection is made, not born.
© Elizabeth Anker 2021