What Now, After Work? (Part II)
What Else Is There?
Here’s Part II of the talk I gave in various places over the last few years, now updated. In this segment, I use my own sordid work history to argue with Hannah Arendt (also with her mentor/nemesis, Martin Heidegger, and his intellectual progeny among those who prize the primal scene of artisanal labor [poeisis] above all else). I take up the fears of the effects of a Universal Basic Income—can we justify getting something for nothing?—and demonstrate that we already have good, that is, reassuring, answers. We begin with my barroom bet on myself.
The bet goes like this. You make a list of the jobs you’ve had, and I’ll do the same. Bet my list exceeds yours, and we’ll discount for age if you insist. If I win—I’ve never lost—you pay me 20 bucks and buy me a drink. If I lose, I pay you 40 bucks and buy you a drink.
Here we go. These are only the jobs I got paid for.
Been a newspaper boy, a caddy, an umpire, a construction worker X 3, a short order cook, a factory worker X 3, a forklift operator, a yard clerk at the Chicago Northwestern Railway, a gandy dancer—bet you don’t know what that is—at the Burlington Northern Railway, a re-loader at UPS X 2, high school & college, a salesman X 3 (clothes at Sears, shoes at Sears, Cutco knives door to door) . . .
Been a janitor X 2 (at a junior high school and a hospital), a grounds crew worker, a chauffeur, a gas station attendant X 2, a housepainter—actually, I was a contractor, I invented the business, hired guys, and painted a whole Chicago high school (Gordon Tech) in the summer of 1980, while I was collecting unemployment—a ghostwriter, a journalist, a writer, a copy editor, a teaching assistant, a bouncer, a bartender X 3, a waiter . . .
And a college-level instructor X 10, in two maximum-security prisons, one juvenile detention facility, a junior college, a small liberal arts college, and five large state universities (two in Illinois, one in Michigan, one in North Carolina, and one in New Jersey).
If you permit the multiples, and you ought to because I worked the construction, bartending, and teaching jobs in different places and different times, the total is over 50. I see that some of you are scribbling—we’re on.
You’re probably thinking, why is this guy posing as a working class hero? I am, in fact, a mild-mannered professor. Notice, however, that most of the jobs I list were menial—they were mere labor rather than meaningful work according to the specifications of Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958), the most important meditation on work since Marx, which still informs most contemporary assessments of the issue.
Listen closely: “The only activity which corresponds strictly to the experience of worldlessness, or rather to the loss of the world that occurs in pain, is laboring, where the human body . . . is thrown back upon itself, concentrates on nothing but its own being alive, and remains imprisoned in its own metabolism . . . .” Arendt is riffing on Heidegger’s notion of worldness from Being and Time (1927), of course, but she’s also amplifying his complaints from “The Question of Technology” (1955), where poeisis—the meaningful work of the artist, the writer, the artisan—becomes the ethical standard by which to fear the “standing reserve” from the warehouse of us petrified automatons, you know, like, we who work because we have to. Elaine Scarry took up the same issues in The Body in Pain (1985), a book, that like Being and Time and The Human Condition, treats work as the mere suffering of the individual, not the promise of social labor.
Now, did my experience on these crappy jobs teach me what Heidegger, Arendt, and Scarry—not to mention Christopher Lasch, Richard Sennett, Jackson Lears, Matthew Crawford, David Ellerman, and any number of others who believe in “meaningful work”—wanted me to learn? Hell, no.
If I understand what Arendt is saying here, I want to laugh out loud. Maybe you do, too. If you’ve ever worked in a factory or a restaurant, on a grounds crew, at a construction site, or in a cubicle supervised by a well-meaning fool, you know better than this. You know that what seems mindless, merely manual labor is never just that, and that it can’t be—only animals and psychopaths remain imprisoned by their own metabolism, which is to say bound by the physical drives we call instincts. You also know the paradoxical result, which is that unlike most human beings, animals and psychopaths remain uniquely individual in their final articulation as sentient beings, at the hour of their death. The rest of us watch as our loved ones gather.
The rest of us also work with others, and with our minds in high gear, no matter how menial the task. All our lives, we engage in social labor, and in doing so we transcend or free ourselves from the recurring cycle of the bodily functions specific to us as individuals. You’re never alone on the job, even when you’re all by yourself, maybe looking for the next customer from behind the counter at the department store, maybe in your office wondering how to advise a student or a client, maybe staring at that screen you can’t seem to fill with words, maybe herding those sheep down the mountain.
And don’t kid yourself, writing is the most social kind of labor because it presupposes the conventions of language, form, and style—you’re always in dialogue with previous writers and your present audience—but it also requires storage and distribution systems that exceed every individual’s capacity, in every century. It requires mere words and mass markets, the most social of media. And, like any moral capacity, say, courage, writing as such can only be known by its enactment—when it gets read and interpreted by others. Nobody writes for himself, not even Michel de Montaigne.
Nobody works for themselves, either. We wouldn’t know how. Marx explained the profoundly social character of the labor we perform, as human beings rather than as foraging animals driven by instinct: “Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, which serves it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape.”
So in work of every kind, even that of the slave and the serf, we have discovered ourselves—there we have found what is human about our nature, and what we have in common with others who labor, whether they are close by or an ocean away. The shattering crisis of our time resides, then, in the common knowledge that work is fast disappearing, and that what is left of it doesn’t pay a living wage.
How then are we to build character and demonstrate that the relation between effort and reward, work and income, is legible and justifiable? How to give up the ghost of the Protestant work ethic and not fear what seems to be the inevitable result—that is, the sloth that comes of getting something for nothing?
Notice, before we proceed, the radical, democratic implications of the notion embedded in the Protestant work ethic—nobody gets something for nothing. It sounds stingy, miserly, erotically stunted if not cruel and unusual when compared to the gift economies of aboriginal peoples or the lavish banquets of court society or the carnivals that punctured late medieval proprieties or the baroque rituals of the late Catholic Church. It looks that way, too, when you imagine those wizened, witch-hunting Puritans as its perfect embodiment. And, so conceived, this work ethic certainly countermands the original teaching of the early Christian church, which was animated by the criterion of need: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But those protestants, those Puritans, those fanatics of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they were objecting to what we still won’t stand for.
And what is that? Two fundamentals. Abstention and release from the world of work, the realm of necessity, is the road to Hell. This life, in this time, this body, and this world, is not probation for another, better one, in Heaven—no, it’s all we got. You cannot know grace unless you’re willing to stay in your calling, in the here and now, where the Devil will lay cross enough upon you. That’s Martin Luther talking. Stay there, with your neighbors, stay here and love them as yourselves, do not long for the next life, make the best of this one. By now we all believe that.
Also, because we are all equal in the eyes of God, and now each other, you do not have the right to live indolently off my labor—no matter how well-born or well-dressed or wealthy you are, not even if I’m your slave. If your income is a deduction from the sum of value created by my labor, my production of real goods, you’re a parasite, and you ought to be sentenced to a life term of exclusion from the body politic. The contemporary term for this cosseted, contemptible group is the 1%. In the 19th century, as early as the 1850s if we may judge from the correspondence of Abraham Lincoln, its members were known as capitalists. By now most of us believe that.
These are fundamentals—principles, you might say—still worth acting upon. But the question remains. Can we relinquish the Protestant work ethic but not sacrifice its radical, democratic implications? Can we stop working but not become superfluous beings, barely able to get out of bed, barely able to experience the world, all of us having become new renditions of Oblomov, our 19th-century Russian avatar? That is the question.
It’s not a metaphysical question, nor, as we like now to say, a thought experiment. We have empirical evidence, and a lot of it, to answer with. Certainly we’ve been addressing this very question since 1910, when William James claimed that work and war, where boys had hitherto learned how to become men, these were either disappearing or unthinkable. He preferred work, the moral equivalent, as he called it, of war. Twenty years later, John Maynard Keynes predicted the end of work as such, and this in the throes of the Great Depression. Since then we have been awash in a sea of similar prediction. Our time is merely high tide.
But such prediction is always freighted with a lingering fear that getting something for nothing will corrode our moral mettle, turn us into dependent creatures of the state or of the party or the person that spends most on us. Even the best, most hopeful books and essays on the subject warn us, in good Puritan fashion, of the dangers that exemption from necessary labor will probably bring. For example, Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s wonderful book of 2014, called How Much is Enough? They sketch in fine detail the rudiments of the good life, and explain how a UBI could serve its purposes, but they conclude by worrying that indolence and idleness could contaminate the leisure time afforded by a basic income.
Well, of course it could. But we already know that it didn’t, so not to worry. How’s that? Like I said, we’ve got some evidence. Between 1968 and 1981, federal, state, and local officials conducted four experiments that included eight cities and two rural counties in the US, about 6,000 families altogether. A fifth experiment was conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, by the provincial government there, between 1974 and 1979. The results were the same in every instance—supplements to family income that raised the participants above the poverty line had no significant effect on anyone’s work ethic.
The pioneer study was the New Jersey Graduated Work Incentive Experiment, run out of Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity between 1968 and 1971. 1,357 male-headed households in Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, Jersey City, and Scranton, Pennsylvania—who knew that New Jersey had such imperial ambitions?—received an income subsidy with this question in mind: what will happen to the work habits of the parents? Pretty much nothing. The fathers reduced their work hours by one a week, the mothers by slightly more, but they spent the remainder with their kids doing homework and getting them to the doctor as needed. I would remind you that these results were duplicated in all the other experiments.
The original results in New Jersey plus Scranton were encouraging enough for the OEO to commission a Preliminary Report that, in April, 1970, convinced a substantial majority of the House to pass Nixon’s Family Assistance Program, which was designed to replace welfare with the kind of income supplement or subsidy the Jersey experiment delivered.
The OEO was then directed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
What were they thinking???
Like other sentient, responsible beings back then, they were thinking that an unemployment crisis was waiting on the other side of Vietnam, when war spending couldn’t stand in for private investment and create enough jobs. The welfare system would soon be an unaffordable social problem, so the adults in the room had to devise an alternative.