I am having a rougher day than some. It is time to deal with the usual tone of my observations about my life. They can be summed up as “I have done what I felt needed to be done. The result has not been great and the prospects overall are bleak.” As an American living in the era of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump I find my own views of work more out of sync with others than most people.
Work and reward are not always linked. I am always glad when the work I do produces a reward. I am never one who expects that there will definitely be a reward for my work.
I suppose that we are in a time when a lot of people are experiencing trouble. I am not alone in feeling that life can be hard right now. I know it can be much harder for a lot of people than it is for me right now. Sixty thousand Americans have lost their lives in this crisis. I have not lost my life and nobody in my immediate family have lost their lives. I have been interested in work and have promoted the work of others as well as my own work for a period of decades. I have worked and sometimes I have been rewarded. Right now, I feel a bit more depressed than usual. But I have worked very hard and very many hours on many projects which are not really encouraged by my lot in life. I have written a good number of unpublished books, I have published this blog, I have spent a lot of time volunteering to help various people and causes. I have been active in working on projects which were not paid. I have had bigger players replace my work with their own and create ruinous results for all parties but themselves. I have worked sick, stayed home not to get sick, cared unpaid for the sick and I have been blamed and judged for all those actions. I have put up with the disdain and abuse of the successful who felt superior. But I do not blame everything on external forces — I have made choices and they have been costly. I did not have the freedom some self important idiots believed that I had but I did have some agency in my life. So I am where I am — I have often said life was hell. But there were times when I did not feel that way.
So what is work. I have included texts from Pope John Paul II and Karl Marx as some indication of what people have thought about work.
From Pope John Paul II’s encyclical from the 1980’s
THROUGH WORK man must earn his daily bread1 and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family. And work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself2, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth3. From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.
Most people want to have a positive view of work. Within a context of Christian spirituality, Catholic Social Teaching and Judeo-Christian morality the Pope seeks to lay out the value and meaning of work.
In many ways the capitalist system has eliminated drudgery for many people. But the drudgery Marx wrote about was very real for the Europe and United Kingdom of his time. It is still real for sweatshops in many countries.
Karl Marx publishing at about the time of the Spanish Flu Epidemic that resembles our own time had a vision of work in the modern economies that helped to forge Communist and Socialist entities and command economies of the future which are now mostly in our past. But his voice still resonates in many aspects of the world order we enjoy and also suffer from in so many ways.
The capitalist buys labour-power in order to use it; and labour-power in use is labour itself. The purchaser of labour-power consumes it by setting the seller of it to work. By working, the latter becomes actually, what before he only was potentially, labour-power in action, a labourer. In order that his labour may re-appear in a commodity, he must, before all things, expend it on something useful, on something capable of satisfying a want of some sort. Hence, what the capitalist sets the labourer to produce, is a particular use-value, a specified article. The fact that the production of use-values, or goods, is carried on under the control of a capitalist and on his behalf, does not alter the general character of that production. We shall, therefore, in the first place, have to consider the labour-process independently of the particular form it assumes under given social conditions.
Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.
The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work, and 3, its instruments.
In America men like Samuel Gompers put forth a vision of work as represented by trade and labor unions which integrated the interests of workers into a modern industrial economy. In the era often called post-industrial there has been a lot of hard-going for labor unions and I am not sure anyone else has filled the void left by there decline. But today we face massive unemployment of the most challenging kind. We are beset by moral questions, social challenges and economic duress that is of a new breed.
As I navigate these times I look back on a life of work and to a future of uncertainty. I do not know how things will end up. I know there is much more on my mind than this small post can look at carefully. But I do wish all workers well today. Often we compete, interests clash and our systems sometimes do almost as much harm as good. But work is vital and we seek a path to a work economy suited to the new normal.