Io, Saturnalia! Today we cast off the orders imposed on us from our parasitic overlords and do as we will. Well, we would if our overlords would allow it. Which doesn’t happen any more. That should be telling. Actual slaves in Rome had more freedom than we do. We don’t even get bathroom breaks, never mind seven days.
Now, there were no wages involved; this was not paid time off — though there were gifts. But then again, slaves were part of the household, so there was less need for wages to pay for their needs. They couldn’t up and move elsewhere, and there were some pretty nasty masters. But most slaves were more or less cared for; their needs were met. It looked bad in public if your household was starved and abused, and the work a starved and abused slave does is not that great. So masters suffered a lack of service and status if they were mingy and mean. This wouldn’t have have stopped the worst offenders. I’m sure they didn’t care about the service, and the wealthy don’t suffer from bad publicity. But the majority of Roman slave-owners probably treated their slaves at least as good as we treat our favored pets — for approximately the same reasons. Master and slave both prospered when the slave’s needs were met. Slaves ate better than our working poor. They had clothing and places to live, unlike those who work for us. They had health care and proper rest time. They could marry and raise a family in relative freedom from want — relative, that is, to the working poor today. (Which is most of the world.)
Most importantly, slaves set their own work schedule. They lived at work, so to speak, but they did not do work every minute of every day. There was substantial down time. As long as the work was done, it didn’t matter how. And in fact, it seems that many masters generally deferred to slaves in ordering the work because the slaves were the experts. They did the work and knew the best ways to order their days so it would get done. A Roman would have scoffed at Taylorism, in which every minute is ordered to achieve some theoretical maximum production, in which work is monitored by someone who does not do the work and is therefore not a practical expert at that work — a manager. Romans were eminently practical. Romans recognized that a manager — or even a master — had no practical experience doing the work and therefore was not the best authority on how the work should be approached. Moreover, you have to pay for management. At the least, the Roman masters had to provide fancier clothes to the overseers — who did no productive work — when the slaves were perfectly capable of doing the work without the additional expense of oversight. There was plenty of bureaucracy in Rome (mostly to extract taxes), but there was relatively little direction of work — because Romans recognized that management costs more for no increase in productivity. Perhaps there would have even been deterioration in the quality of work done as slaves became surly, chaffing under artificial order imposed upon them and their work, order that interfered with their work. In any case, there weren’t many slave overseers aside from farm managers, who were more concerned with keeping the farm operational than with task management of individual slaves.
Now, I’m not pining for Roman times nor do I wish to see actual slavery imposed upon work. But it is interesting to note that actual slaves had more respect for the work they did and were generally treated better in material terms than we treat our workers today.
There was a comment on my last post saying that the article had completely missed the point of work. There was much man-splaining involved. (Man-splaining work to a woman… takes, uh, chutzpah, no?) But I think the point of the explaining was that work is supposed to be done for someone else. Perhaps for the community or in exchange for wages, but not for the individual doing the task. And all I can say is, No! That is not the point of work. That is the point of exploitation and hierarchy and, yes, slavery. The actual point of work done is to benefit the worker, it is to meet the worker’s needs, and we have utterly lost that point in our culture. Work is now completely given over to our overlords without even the minimal care given back to the worker that a Roman master showed his slaves. Even worse, work is now done for the profit of others, not even the material benefit of others. I think we need to chew on that today as we think about overturning order.
Because we need to overturn this order. It is destructive. It is getting little actually necessary work done. It benefits nobody. And it is chewing up the planet. We need to remember why humans do work. It’s not to earn money; it’s to care for themselves and their dependents. Just like every other being on this planet. Who we are destroying with our imposed orders.
So we truly need a general breakdown in imposed order.
I know that frightens quite a lot of people. We spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that we need this order. We talk about our competitive nature, our selfish genes, our intrinsic violence. We actively divert attention from the abundant evidence that life is not any of that, and therefore, being alive, we can’t be any of that. Competitiveness, selfishness, violence. These are not beneficial traits. They confer no adaptive edge. A violent isolated individual who does not integrate into a community will die without progeny. Simple as that. We have to be convinced that we have this nature that must be ordered precisely so that others can order us and therefore expropriate our productivity. Yes, there are damaged and broken individuals, all the more so since this culture of imposed order creates damaged and broken individuals. But if anyone is selfish and violent and competitive, it is the maladaptive overlord class that is quickly running our entire species to extinction. But they are not representative of human nature — whatever that means.
And that is perhaps the crux of the matter. We spend way too much time talking about ourselves, gazing inward with increasingly tortured labels and theories, when we really need to be looking at the rest of the world to understand life. At least, we need to be looking at reality and not probing our brains for more labels and theories. We need more living and less thinking. To go back to the original theme, we need more work and less order, maybe no order at all. Just do what needs to be done to care for ourselves and our dependents. And do no more than that.
There is so much written about what the future will bring and how we can save the world from us. I suppose it’s the nature of this artificial, mediated world we’ve created for ourselves, but it doesn’t seem to occur to most people that the future doesn’t exist. What we need to do is live well in the present. It also doesn’t seem to occur to people that the world doesn’t need saving. It will take care of itself. Herself, let’s give this planet agency and personhood, shall we. She is presently saving herself. She has rather time-honored methods of eradicating harm and imbalance. We have triggered those corrective measures and are experiencing them in real time. (Which is not human time…) We don’t need to save the world, but we might want to think about saving ourselves. No, not think, do. We need to do more and think less and maybe not order anything at all. Because we are not in charge here. We are not the masters. We are the working hands on this living planet. And we need to get back to work.
Fortunately, the work we need to get back to is beneficial to ourselves. It meets our present daily needs, and it will help save ourselves from ourselves and stop triggering the planet’s corrective measures. Even better, much of the work we need to get back to is fun. It is play. It is delightful, beautiful, creative. It is living. It is that meaning of life that we can’t seem to find in a world of imposed order.
So… Io, Saturnalia! Hail the breakdown of order! And let’s get back to life!
©Elizabeth Anker 2021