"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

May 10, 2010

Work As Alienation

Most often, the people I meet do not see themselves as laborers.

Even more rarely have I met a person who produces the satisfaction of his own needs and desires.

In contrast, most of the folks I meet identify themselves as consumers. They treat their work as the (sometimes intolerable) access key to a paycheck, which they can then use as a means of getting stuff, some of it necessary. They may not use the phrase "I, as a consumer..." but their attitude towards human effort depends upon treating their own labor as a wrong they must endure so that they can get scheduled permission to acquire goods.

Not a new or unique observation, I understand.

And I cannot even find this commonplace attitude all that objectionable. In everyday usage and everyday language, capitalism works like that. A person might fill bins at a feed lot, or chop up chickens for piecework payment, or turn over a fried chicken sandwich in a taylorized grilling regime, or mop restaurant floors, or pick up the trash and waste food for disposal, or work the incinerator at the land fill.

None of this work, of itself and on its own terms, promises to satisfy the need of the person doing it. A person might do it well, and even come to enjoy some aspect of employment, but the worker (in my experience) rarely labors at the task for the immediacy of her own needs and desires.

In the creative fields, in science, in medicine, in politics and law enforcement (well, sadists have bills too y'know...), in sport - I suspect that an observer can discern a difference. The work itself satisfies, or has at least the promise of satisfaction.

Not for nothing do these fields tend to belong to middle, upper middle and upper class participants - or to people who enter the upper class soon after mastering them. Performing those tasks provides the potential for enjoyment and acquisition, for the satisfaction of need and desire, in the immediate moments of labor.

This labor produces an outcome which they laborer can enjoy in the very doing of it. It has, if you will, the quality of play, because the person turning food into effort can enjoy her "act of creation," can transform the raw material of existence into both the expression of desire, and its fulfillment.

I don't mean to suggest that a farm worker, for example, cannot enjoy the harvesting of produce, or the tending of animals; within the economic environment which currently exists, this experience of satisfaction has no chance for expression, because the workers themselves cannot both enjoy the fruits of their own labor and serve the needs of those who own that labor, and exchange for it a scheduled permission slip to consume some small amount of necessity, entertainment, sanitation and shelter.

Further, even those who identify emotionally or symbolically with "the working class" tend to do so in reference not to the working satisfaction of their needs, or even as unstructured cooperative play. They don't, in my experience, identify themselves as "working class" because they enjoy their own labor, but as a dual marker, one of status, the other as cultural membership.

By identifying himself as working class, today, a person establishes that he possesses a certain level of average consumption. By that identification, she compares her self as caught between those who sustain higher levels of consumption, and those who cannot. Understood this way, "working class" has come to mean "able to buy more than the really poor, but no where near as much as the comfortable." Secondly, the "working class" marker provides a cultural label. A person who sees himself as "working class" often does so as an assumption of membership and participation in a group of people united by what social access they do not have, and therefore by what forms of entertainment, worship, association and fun they can take compared to those who can and will do more. Used thus, it becomes a way of accepting that the wealthy can do more while still rejecting how they use their leisure.

I think this method of identification has become so widespread precisely because class divisions set real boundaries to enjoyment, to play, and to how a person feels his own labor, in the doing of it.

When your work amounts to doing what someone else tells you to do so that you can keep your permission to buy a small number of cheap goods used to ease your boredom, wash your skin, feed your hunger, cover your rest and dumb your pain, it probably follows that you stop treating your effort as meaningful on its own, and learn to see it as a barely tolerable burden which one part of you performs so that the rest of you can get to tomorrow, later...

Or, I just wasted forty five minutes type-scribbling a few paragraphs of unvarnished error...


A Sane Person said...

I think that middle and upper class people enjoy the work they do because it is also more appreciated by other members of the society. I think - at least that is my impression from talking to some other people - that working class people are frequently seen as interchangeable (anyone can do some such-and-such low qualified job) and therefore irrelevant. How much pleasure you derive from your work must also to some extent be influenced by whether your work is perceived by others as important or unique. A factory worker or a person who works in the service industry will not be seen as contributing something as important to the society as a doctor, for example. It's not just that a doctor can enjoy his work, but also can enjoy the fact that his work is appreciated.

Jack Crow said...

I think that's part of it, Sane Person. But I don't think we ought to lose sight of the work itself.

PS - I haven't forgotten your responses, below - I'm still working my gears up to the point where I can respond to you adequately...

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I very seriously doubt that many Americans enjoy their work.

I have known a lot of people, and I have worked in a lot of different fields of employment. Blue collar, white collar, no collar.

I would estimate that in my travels, perhaps 10% of those I've known actually enjoyed their work.

And I've long suggested to anyone who would listen that the purpose of having a "job" should be to pursue one's interests, not to set one's nose to a coarse grindstone with a hurried need to grind the shnozz right off the face in order to amass filthy lucre and the "purchasing power" it provides.

My honest feeling is that American existential angst can be traced directly to the broad-spectrum phenomenon of job-hatred.

I think a lot of people realize that if the only thing they have for their "job" or "career" is buying lots of shit, or having the ability to buy lots of shit, then ultimately their chosen line of work is pretty fucking meaningless.

Which is why a lot of people tune out of reality, and focus on The TeeVee and Partisan Puke-Projection Politics.

That's my theory, and I'm not budging until I'm convince that I'm somehow wrong.

Jack Crow said...


I tend to agree. When drumming this up, I wanted to make some exception for those fields of creative work (largely upper class and very well paid) where people do get compensated for enjoying their own labor, even if its physically demanding (professional sports) or comes at the end of years of hard study (some of OB/GYN practitioners for whom my wife works).

The better to illustrate, I think, how class divisions do isolate people from enjoyable labor.

And as more and more people "drop" from the middle class, I think it will only get more stark.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I see your point.

I think those folks (pro athletes, movie "stars," or miraculous CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of facebook) would number somewhere around 0.05% of the population.

And I think that's very generous.

Achieving such a role in American society is much more about luck -- luck of birth into a financially and/or politically powerful family, luck of genetic gifts that provide supra-human talents.

The only class of super-highly-paid person that I see holding some actual advantage over me is the highly talented athlete. I don't see Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as having skills or talents that you or I do not have. I see them more as ruthless people who have no problem treating other humans like shit.

Actors and actresses don't seem all that talented to me. High pay in that field seems to be about "popularity" and seems much closer to the Prom Queen/Star Quarterback roles of cliquish high schools.

Maybe the above sounds like jealousy, but I will say that during my stint as a NYC metro area big-firm lawyer, I rarely found myself awed by another's native brilliance as a lawyer. The "successful" ones were merely more cutthroat, or more willing to devote almost all of their waking hours to lawyering.

And I didn't know a single one who loved his or her work.

I've been athletic my whole life and that's one field where I have been able to witness sheer natural advantage -- the athlete who seems to have supernatural balance, the athlete who seems to perceive speed much differently than the rest of us, who feels no risk or danger at speeds where most of us pee our pants. Some of them got there by hard work, but for the most part I'm talking about noting pure, raw talent.

And I've never seen that sort of advantage in law, nor in business.

But I have seen it in my present job, where I work with kids who have various emotional and psychological difficulties. Some of the people I work with have an incredible emotional intelligence and a form of immediate empathy, deep and knowing, that I can't even fathom.

Not surprisingly, they are at the other end of the annual income scale from Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

JRB said...

Great post -- and thread.

Ethan said...

Thank you for the "scheduled permission" way of framing things, I hadn't thought of it in those terms and it's very useful.

Jack Crow said...