Pundits 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in his early period, used to ruminate about the choices available to humanity after the rule of finance capital had been replaced by an updated old order, described in utopian terms.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?