The tiresome cant about the work ethic notwithstanding, Americans do not celebrate, or even recognize, the dignity of labor. Although they profess to disdain both the idle rich and the idle poor, they do not at the same time esteem those who must work for a living, even as most count themselves among that number…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Mark Malvasi as he explores the work ethic of Americans and its relationship to democratic values. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
From Adam and Eve to Eddie Cochrane, from earning your daily bread by the sweat of your brow to the summertime blues and beyond, work has always been the scourge of existence. A recent essay in The Atlantic suggests that Genesis is about to be reversed and the curse lifted. According to Derek Thompson, humanity, or at least its American variant, may be poised on the threshold of a “post-work world.”[i]
Technology in the form of ever more sophisticated computers, automation, and robotics is both the cause and the culprit of this transformation, from which Thompson sees good and bad consequences arising. Among the positive outcomes, he conjectures that workers, and especially men, may come to define themselves and their worth not in terms of their occupations and incomes but rather in terms of their relationships with family, friends, and community. Moreover, the loss of so many conventional jobs may also prompt the unemployed at last to do “the work [they] always wanted to do.”[ii] The French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel long ago rejected the functional view of life that defines men and women according to their work, arguing that individuals in the modern world tend “to appear to [themselves] and to others as an agglomeration of functions.”[iii] Under those conditions, people ceased to be human and became only entrepreneurs, accountants, waitresses, laborers, and so on. Their identities submerged in their tasks, people were liable to despair, for their function was not their purpose. For Americans, the understanding of self has traditionally been defined by work and prosperity. Regarding themselves as the unique recipients of divine blessing, Americans enjoyed advantages that God had withheld from other peoples. By the early nineteenth century, the providential bounty with which Americans believed themselves to have been specially endowed had become material as well as spiritual. In “The Peculiar Blessings of Our Social Condition as Americans,” the Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster explained that:
our social and domestic condition is…distinguished by a diffusion of competence and of the means of prosperity, in which every man has a share. When do we find families, or individuals, who do not in some comfortable degree partake of all the essential comforts, which wealth can procure?… Every morning’s sun, as it rises, brings to every man a provision for the day, or lights him to the means of procuring it. How much may be retrenched from every station in society, before poverty can be even perceptible? [sic]and how much more, before we should hear the cry of want? Who among us returns in the evening to his family, to have his heart broken by the cries of his children clinging to his knees for bread? Whose sleep is disturbed by the thin phantoms of tomorrow’s difficulties? So general is our prosperity, that if we would find distress we must look for it; it does not obtrude itself upon our notice.[iv]
A distinctly American version of the Protestant ethic issued from Buckminster’s sermon.
The doctrine of predestination had convinced seventeenth-century Protestants that they could do nothing to affect their salvation. Unable to earn grace, they still felt constrained to honor and serve God. Productive labor, undertaken dutifully and without complaint, was the surest way to do so. Work thereby assumed an ethical dimension. Protestants had no intention of reconstructing the world to accommodate the requirements of Mammon. They merely sought to render unto God the obedience and homage that were His due.
The difficulty for nineteenth-century American Protestants, in Buckminster’s view, was not to ascertain and pursue an earthly calling, but to avoid the temptations of abundance and luxury, which enticed them. Americans were not deprived of the means to make an honest living and to use their talents and intelligence to grow rich. Even the poor could entertain reasonable expectations that the opportunities American society afforded might one day permit them to rise from indigence to wealth. In the midst of such unexampled plentitude, Buckminster cautioned that it was the allure of idleness and the love of money that presented the real danger. His contemporaries suffered from the burdens of prosperity, such as envy, discontentment, and greed. “Beware of the encroachments of luxury,” he counseled:
Nothing will so much tend to make you insensible to the best gifts of Providence, and callous to the purest pleasures of life, as the love of noisy and frivolous distinctions, the pursuit of vicious pleasures, and the tyranny of fashion. Consider whether you do not contribute to the corruption of the age, by an immoderate pursuit of amusement.[v]
As an alternative to worldly vice, Buckminster urged Americans to cultivate a love of literature and a passion for knowledge. Only by using their wealth to nurture mind and soul and to improve the lot of humanity would they ensure God’s continuing beneficence.
Although the next generation hardly abandoned the religious sensibilities or the commitment to self-restraint that the Reverend Buckminster had emphasized, they nonetheless felt at liberty to take advantage of economic opportunities without moderation. An expanding market economy had fashioned so many avenues for upward social mobility that many Americans came to believe everyone ought to succeed, if not at first then eventually. Economic failure resulted not from the inability to find work, to acquire land, or to open a shop. Nor did those who were already successful possess unfair advantages that denied to others the same chances from which they had profited. Failure, instead, resulted from a defect of character. And it was distinctions of character that substituted for distinctions of class in early nineteenth-century American thought. Outward success revealed inward virtue. Poverty was not the result of the system. It exposed an insurmountable weakness or vice. Those who failed preferred their improvidence, folly, and corruption to discipline, prudence, and hard work.
The market, Americans were quick to insist, always rewarded virtue, nowhere more so than in the conviction that diligent toil invariably yielded economic advancement. Such assurances enabled them to circumvent difficulties that had not only bedeviled Karl Marx but also Adam Smith: the exploitation and alienation of labor. Even after the Civil War, Americans countenanced the existence of a working class by assuming that it was an impermanent status. With patience and effort everyone had the capacity to earn money, acquire property, and become capitalists. Smith devised, or at least articulated, the labor theory of value, arguing in The Wealth of Nations that “labor is the real measure of the exchange value of all commodities.”[vi] Market forces, such as the law of supply and demand, determined the value of labor, as it did the value of all other goods. In primitive economies, before the invention of money, Smith noted that labor had belonged to those who performed it. With the emergence of a money economy and a market society during the Middle Ages, labor belonged to whomever could pay for it, that is, to the highest bidder.
Smith acknowledged, and was distressed by, the oppression of the working class. “Where there is great property,” he declared, “there is great inequality.”[vii] At the same time, he admitted that the exploitation of labor, however unjust, was an inevitable corollary to the progress of a capitalist economy. Without an inexhaustible supply of cheap labor, capitalist enterprise would founder. Smith relied on the “invisible hand” of the market to regulate economic activity and to reconcile private interest with the public good.
Marx, by contrast, imagined a violent confrontation that would liberate workers from their chains, since capitalist social relations had condemned them to unremitting poverty. They did not obtain a fair return on the value that their labor created. Impelled to perform repetitive and monotonous tasks under squalid and inhumane conditions, workers were also reduced to laboring beasts, from whom all vestiges of humanity had been expunged. Work, Marx insisted, ought to affirm the personality and foster a sense of accomplishment. The capitalist system of production, on the contrary, alienated persons from their labor and estranged them from each other and themselves. “Labour is external to the worker,” Marx complained,
it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.[viii]
To remedy this affliction, Marx proposed to do away with what, for Adam Smith, was the foundation of a capitalist economy: the division of labor. Only thus could the alienation of labor at last be eradicated and the conflict between the individual and society resolved. “As soon as the division of labor comes into being,” Marx wrote, “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” In the communist society that would emerge from the ruins of the capitalist world “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes.”[ix] The antagonism between physical and intellectual labor thus vanishes, and men work willingly and joyfully for themselves and each other, without compulsion.
Had Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century reflected, even perfunctorily, on Marx’s analysis of capitalism (and there is little evidence that they did) they would have found it not so much wrong as irrelevant to their situation.[x] Until after the Civil War, the principal conditions and events in Europe and the United States diverged. The inequities of wealth and power, which had contributed to the Revolutions of 1848, did not much trouble American society; nor did the expansion of the bureaucracy and the emergence of the welfare state that followed the revolutionary upheaval. Exempt from royal prerogative and aristocratic privilege, untouched by, and seemingly impervious to, futility and hopelessness, America was a democratic alternative to Europe, a land of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
Nothing lasts forever. By the second half of the nineteenth century, certainly by the end of Reconstruction in 1877, American and European societies were beginning to converge. The intersection was gradual and uneven and had myriad consequences, not least of which was the embrace of American political ideas and, by the twentieth century, the spread of American popular culture abroad. It also meant the growth of bureaucracies, both in the public and private sector. Alexis de Tocqueville had anticipated this development. He observed that democracy in America, which intensified the pursuit of equality even more than that of liberty, would result in the expansion of government and culminate in the welfare state. Already by the late nineteenth century statesmen as dissimilar as Otto von Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt had committed to the idea that a government must assume some responsibility for the well being of its people. In an age of mass democracy, only government was equipped to carry out such initiatives. The Progressive reformers in the United States, to cite but one example, thus advocated not only better but also more government, endowed with greater powers to intervene in the social, political, and economic life of the nation.
Max Weber described even as he lamented the process of rationalization that he associated with the rise of bureaucracy, which, he said, men had contrived to address the defects of modern society. A systematic attempt to organize work and production, capitalism, Weber argued, both issued from and contributed to the imposition of such rational methods and categories. The Protestant ethic required the rational planning of life in accordance with the will of God. It thereby served the interests of capitalism. Entailing far more than mere acquisitive desire, capitalism, Weber thought, also demanded the rational coordination of economic activity, including work, to ensure that profits were predictable and continuous.
For Weber, the paradox of modernity was that, despite the impressive accomplishments of science and technology, rationalism had “disenchanted” the world, rendering life meaningless. Neither the conquest of nature nor the accumulation of wealth could make life worth living. The rise of bureaucracies in government and business, designed to establish order and to perpetuate efficiency, had enslaved men and women to faceless institutions that displayed little awareness of, and little concern for, human needs. Deprived of their autonomy, locked in “steel cages,” individuals had been sacrificed, the victims of “rational calculation” (Rechenhaftigkeit). “Each man,” Weber wrote, has become “a little cog in the machine” with one transcendent ambition: to become a bigger cog. It was a human tragedy of monstrous proportions. How horrible it would be, Weber imagined,
to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones—a state of affairs which is to be seen once more as…playing an ever-increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative system…. This passion for bureaucracy…is enough to drive one to despair…. That the world should know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up, and the great question is therefore not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.[xi]
Weber hoped that men and women in his time would find ways to resist this violation of their humanity. Today, the effort to rediscover meaning in work and life, to reassert our basic humanity, continues to be of vital importance.[xii]
The experts who contemplate the end of work, such as Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa, charge that “purpose, meaning, identity, fulfillment, creativity, autonomy—all these things that positive psychology has shown us to be necessary for well-being are absent in the average job.”[xiii] Hunnicutt and his associates have a point. There are doubtless millions of American workers who are resigned to feeling anonymous, powerless, and unfulfilled in their jobs, and so in their lives. Their voices are unheard, or at least unheeded, whether at the polls or in the streets. They are lost, rootless, interchangeable, and superfluous. Their work lacks creativity and purpose, demanding nothing of them save their time.
Karl Marx anticipated a revolutionary change in the human condition to be brought about by the triumph of communism, when men, no longer alienated from their labor, would not only gain tangible rewards, but also express their being, though work. Hunnicutt offers no such probability. Only the abandonment of work, along with the boredom and indignity that it now imposes, “will allow for a golden age of well-being.” [xiv] As much as that of Marx, Hunnicutt’s vision is utopian. It is somewhat ironic, then, that in Thomas More’s Utopia few able-bodied persons are exempt from daily physical labor. No one is permitted to remain idle; all, even those not required to work, must engage in activities that benefit society. They do so willingly and with enthusiasm. Men and women are never preoccupied with trivial or useless tasks.[xv] Five hundred years ago, More understood a fundamental truth about human nature: The only alternative to serious work is other serious work. Work needs not to be abolished but intensified.
The prospect of universal leisure is intolerable, even should automation bring it within easy reach. Meanwhile, the incessant demands of consumption have enslaved countless men and women to meaningless, unsatisfying work. Thompson hopes that the democratization of technology, such as the growing availability of 3-D printers, will enable some to escape tedious and repetitive jobs and return to the artisanal economy of the past, which required knowledge, skill, creativity, and imagination. Under such circumstances, the masses would again control the means of production. It is an appealing prospect, and no doubt some are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity, restoring the lost sense of independence, expertise, and purpose to work. In many respects, the dream of reviving a decentralized economy of small producers echoes the aspirations of the English Distributists and the Southern Agrarians as well as those of socialist thinkers from William Morris to Charles Fourier. Even Marx, who often ridiculed as sentimental nonsense the pronouncements of the “utopian socialists,” could not himself resist the allure of establishing diversified occupations, and thereby ending “the subordination of individuals to the division of labour.”[xvi] Fourier had called this occupational variability the “butterfly principle.” Like Marx, he believed that moving at intervals from one task to another would enliven the workday and sweeten life itself. The aim of all work, the true vocation of man, was to become more fully human.
What of those who have not been liberated but displaced by technology? More often than not, they have been abandoned to fend for themselves. Thompson describes the operation of an ersatz economy in which the un- and under-employed barter for goods and services, or compete for an assortment of temporary jobs that enrich neither their pocketbooks nor their souls. He entertains a number of policies designed to compensate for the inability of the labor market to provide adequate jobs. These measures consist of public and private investment in economically troubled neighborhoods, cities, and regions; the easing of requirements to start small businesses; job-sharing; the enactment of a “universal basic income” by taxing the rich to give to the poor; and the institution of government-funded public works programs. Besides questions about how to finance such initiatives, and how to quiet the angry protests certain to erupt among those who must pay for them, these efforts ignore the decisive role that work has played in the development of mind and the flowering of culture.
The time has come to reconsider the meaning of work. Technology has done as much to isolate human beings from work, reducing them to obedient and servile nonentities, as it has to free them from hardship and drudgery. As D.H Lawrence maintained:
The more we intervene machinery between us and the naked forces the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have a fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being. The great elements, the earth, air, fire, water, are there like some great mistress whom we woo and struggle with, whom we heave and wrestle with. And all our appliances do but deny us these fine embraces, take the miracle of life away from us. The machine is the great neuter. It is the eunuch of eunuchs. In the end it emasculates us all…. We do not know what we lose by all our labour-saving appliances. Of the two evils it would be much the lesser to lose all machinery, every bit, rather than to have, as we have, hopelessly too much.[xvii]
One need not be a Luddite to acknowledge the merit of Lawrence’s essential insight. The most ominous threat that technology and automation pose is not, after all, the replacement of workers with machines but the ravaging of the mind and the impoverishment of the soul, the insidious subversion of independent thought, feeling, judgment, and action.
Perhaps there is some hope of recovering a more intelligent, purposeful, and humane way of life in the shadow economy where those mired in poverty and tormented by insecurity now must reside. At least they have not yet succumbed to loneliness, humiliation, and despair. They continue to defy an economic system that has failed and discarded them. But they are struggling not merely to improvise a livelihood. They are also fighting for the dignity and worth that are, or that ought to be, theirs by right. More than a century ago Leo XIII proclaimed that “according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers—that is truly shameful and inhuman.”[xviii] Americans would do well to contemplate his words.
The tiresome cant about the work ethic notwithstanding, Americans do not celebrate, or even recognize, the dignity of labor. The economy bestows its rewards not on the hardworking mechanic or carpenter, not on the dedicated policeman or teacher. Only those who have profited from some lucky investment or some capricious shift in the market enjoy the benefit of material success and the acclaim of public opinion that attends it. Whatever they may tell you, the majority of Americans do not respect honest toil, at least not as much as they admire money. Although they profess to disdain both the idle rich and the idle poor, they do not at the same time esteem those who must work for a living, even as most count themselves among that number. They revere instead the financier, the speculator, the entertainer, the athlete, the celebrity, all those who produce nothing, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, and who yet grow rich in their sleep.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in September 2015.
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[i] Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work,” The Atlantic (July/August 2015), 50-61.
[ii] Ibid., 61.
[v] Ibid., 260.
[vii] Ibid., 98.
[ix] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” (1845-1846), in Ibid., 160.
[x] In their defense of slavery and their critique of free society, Southern thinkers are the exception, but that is another story for another day. See Eugene D. Genovese, “The Logical Outcome of the Slaveholders Philosophy,” in The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 114-244; Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Mark Malvasi, “The Old Republic and the Sectional Crisis,” Modern Age (Fall 2007), 463-75.
[xi] “Max Weber on Bureaucratization in 1909,” a lecture delivered before the Verein fur Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), reprinted in J.P. Mayer, Max Weber and German Politics (London: Faber & Faber, 1944), 127-28.
[xii] To be fair and accurate, Weber never abandoned his commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment or succumbed to the allure of the irrational, as did so many other thinkers during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
[xiii] Quoted in Thompson, “A World Without Work,” 55.
[xvi] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), in Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 531.
[xviii] Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII On Capital and Labor, May 15, 1891 (Ignacio Hills Press, 2009), Paragraph 20, n.p.