The Clare Spark Blog

February 12, 2014

Is most work alienating and boring?

Sisyphis2Pundits have been lauding the wonders of “hard work” for eons, without asking the questions posed by Marx, the anarchists, or other radical critics of “civilization.” The President’s latest move in the debates over the projected loss of employment due to the Affordable Care Act, has been to celebrate the emancipation of workers (including single mothers with jobs) from boring work, so that they may follow their bliss (as Joseph Campbell used to say).

This is a development that should astound the left, preoccupied as leftists, old and new, have been by 1. The expected liberation from toil that would result from advanced labor-saving technology; and 2. The expanded freedom of choice to pursue one’s interests resulting from the elimination of capitalism and its alienated labor, where workers and machines are held to be interchangeable and equally disposable, and where employers allegedly provide a minimum of subsistence in the “wage-slavery” they impose.

Enter those punk rock bands and other cultural manifestations that look back to a pre-machine age where labor was more skilled and where machines had not displaced the artisan. Melville was full of such thoughts, and especially lamented the lot of the weavers in Britain, and their replacement by exploited, overworked, and underpaid women and children in body-crushing factories. Indeed, Pacifica radio stations used to sponsor Renaissance Fairs where hippie artisans sold their hand made wares, and lovely many of them were too. Such craftsmanship was held to be crushed by the rule of money and a generally materialist outlook.

Marx himself, in his early period, used to ruminate about the choices available to humanity after the rule of finance capital had been replaced by an updated old order, described in utopian terms. All of us, smart or dumb, male or female, would have the choice of hunting, herding, or farming in the morning, while being a critical critic at night. Somewhere in there, lurked the arts, though they were not mentioned in the Marxian reveries. Was the grand old man of the Left nostalgic for the primitive stages of mankind?

So what has our President done? Has he revealed himself as a closet revolutionary, or has he, in a typical social democratic gesture, skillfully co-opted the Marxist program that would abolish so-called alienated, exploitative labor?


I close with a word on dumbing down: Harry Braverman famously wrote about the loss of mental capacity that resulted from de-skilling labor in the industrial age.  Was he, or the other antimoderns, idealizing life in the Middle Ages or in other pre-capitalist societies? Is all labor dignified, as the medievalists would have it?

Capitalists and neoconservatives have yet to address this pressing issue, leftover from the 19th and 20th centuries. No reform in education has meaning, nor does our evaluation of women’s work escape from these hard questions. In an interdependent, yet unevenly developed world, for whom and for what are we working?

Are we looking forward or looking backwards? And are we looking at all?



  1. […] Are we puppets on a string? It is striking that the would-be Presidents on the Right (whether “establishment moderate” or conservative) are all promising more “jobs” to the electorate, while entirely ignoring the labor question (assertions of exploitation, the nature of toil, labor competition between ethnicities, “races”  and genders) that has roiled the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I took it up here, because I was struck by the constant repetition of the value of “hard work.” (See […]

    Pingback by Jobs, jobs, and less jobs | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 11, 2015 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  2. As an artist, I’ve come to realize that one’s passion is something one nurtures (in spite of life’s obligations which can actually serve as catalysts) rather than escaping to it.

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — February 13, 2014 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  3. All utopias fall down around the question of who will do the dirty work. Someone has to plumb the sewers, build the skyscrapers, pave the roads, harvest grain, and slaughter cattle if we are to live well.

    Money is merely the medium of trade between individuals, corporations, and nations. It’s value represents wealth created through labor and trade. If financial incentives are removed by fiat, or the desire for earned wealth is obliterated by a culture of indolence, then to get any work done, you have to resort some system of enslavement backed by physical force and beatings.

    William Morris and John Ruskin popularized the 19th Century English negative attitude towards industrialization. Traditional family home businesses had been disrupted by early industrialization, and Ruskin upheld medieval values and handicrafts as the ideal. In “A Joy Forever,” Ruskin admonished his readers to never buy mechanically reproduced art.

    “Never buy a copy of a picture, under any circumstances whatever. All copies are bad; because no painter who is worth a straw ever will copy…. Whenever you buy a copy, you buy so much misunderstanding of the original, and encourage a dull person in following a business he is not fit for, besides increasing ultimately chances of mistake and imposture, and farthering, as directly as money can farther, the cause of ignorance in all directions.”

    Ruskin wrote profusely in “Fors Clavigera” about his ideas on socialism where all labored and none wanted. He founded the experimental social community, The Guild of Saint George, on his principles, making himself the benevolent and temporary authoritarian ruler. Unfortunately, the community almost immediately fell apart in squabbles over meager wages and accusations of laziness. Most chose to go back to their industrial jobs.

    William Morris, who famously started his own for-profit fine arts company, wrote many socialist tracts including “News from Nowhere,” a utopian time-travel novel about England after the revolution. In his 21st century England, no money was needed as people did what pretty much what pleased them, even if that meant tilling the soil or ferrying a barge. People did what came naturally and what brought them joy.

    In “A Dream of John Ball,” Morris goes backward to 14th century England and encounters John Ball, leader of the Peasant’s Revolt. Ball is perhaps best known for his rhetorical couplet, critical of gentry, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” Morris believed, as many of the Arts and Crafts leaders did, that there should be no distinction between those who worked and those who ruled, and that art and work should be synonymous.

    But he failed, as all utopians do, to understand what motivates men. As wonderful as the art of Morris and Ruskin was, their understanding of basic principles of labor, capital, management, and mechanization was all wishful thinking and dreamland stuff. They had no plan beyond a simple vision of society filled with art and lack of want. My favorite Arts and Crafts muse, founder of the Roycrofters, Elbert Hubbard, realized this problem early on. He was a businessman first, and an artist second. He dropped all the socialist, religious, and medievalist rhetoric of his early years when he had a payroll to meet.

    Ayn Rand writes frequently about the quality of work and the private joy to be found in doing one’s work well. She observed that, first, men do what they need to do to survive, and that they use their minds to find ways to maximize their wealth and minimize their physical labor. A social system that does not recognize this is either a slave state or doomed to failure. Second, she observed that creating art and taking pride in one’s work are also essential for survival. Work that is performed without enthusiasm and without an internal sense of accomplishment is drudgery and is diminished in value.

    Her main fictional heroes, Howard Roark and Hank Reardon, were skilled artisans — an architect and a metallurgist — who mastered their crafts and their businesses. They sacrificed themselves and suffered hardships, not for others, but to achieve perfection in their art and work. Many of her other characters also found satisfaction and happiness in doing all kinds of labor, including manual labor.

    To do your best at what you choose to do is its own reward. This doesn’t mean that you can do anything you like. Your primary goal is survival, so in desperate times, you must do what preserves your life first. But when the opportunities present themselves, what you choose to do and how you chose to do it are entirely up to you.

    It is by no mistake that capitalism, and the industrial and the electronic ages it fostered, have brought us more luxuries and pleasures than any pre-industrial king throughout the history of civilization ever enjoyed. The human minds that created the machines, made practical use of wasted resources, and fulfilled countless real and once unimaginable needs has conquered, in our time, most forms of drudgery. Poverty exists, but it is a political manifestation, not an economic one. The ability to make money and make something meaningful with your life exists for everyone.

    So, what are we fighting about?

    Comment by stereorealist — February 13, 2014 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

    • To stereorealist: I was questioning “hard work” as a transcendent value. The Right, no matter which faction, parrots this phrase as if there were no labor question. There is always a labor question, and it is entwined with the education we provide to those from working class families.

      Comment by clarelspark — February 13, 2014 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  4. I like this post. Current nostalgia does not seem so much about craft (no doubt there are still Renaissance Fairs, etc.) but about being a servant. So the obsession with restaurants, ‘artisan’ coffee, cupcakes, spas/salons, boutique hotels, renovated tourist towns (not to mention people watching Downton Abbey) on the high end, with porn, prostitution, immigrant labor (as obedient household servants threatened with deportation) on the low end. I find this even more regressive–along the does anyone care any longer question–and not as productive culturally (in terms of long-term impact) as traditional aristocratic arts like the ballet. Much of this is wasted human ability–those baristas and cupcake chefs are generally capable of a great deal more and almost always have college degrees.

    Comment by Robert Batchelor — February 13, 2014 @ 2:38 pm | Reply

  5. I always remind all those who speak greatly of labor, in ideological-idillic manners, what was written at the entrance of every Nazi lager: “Arbeit Macht Frei“, labor liberates.
    That’s actually a very Socialist concept, which has been interpreted in all socialistic historical manifestations until today: the URSS, from whose labor (slave labor, of course) camps the Nazis (NASDAP=Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei=National Socialist German Worker’s Party) copied, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, Viet-Nam, Cambodia, etc.

    Comment by HaDaR — February 13, 2014 @ 1:12 am | Reply

    • To HaDaR: The question of the work we do is not necessarily associated with either Nazism or Communism. It is a common sense inquiry into labor. Any woman or man who shortens his life with dangerous labor would know exactly why I am concerned.

      Comment by clarelspark — February 13, 2014 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  6. Reblogged this on News You May Have Missed and commented:
    Is most work alienating and boring?

    Comment by genomega1 — February 12, 2014 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

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