The Song of the Shirt
Thomas Hood, 1843With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt’.“Work! work! work!While the cock is crowing aloof!And work – work – work,Till the stars shine through the roof!It’s Oh! to be a slaveAlong with the barbarous Turk,Where woman has never a soul to save,If this is Christian work!“Work – work – workTill the brain begins to swim:Work – work – workTill the eyes are heavy and dim!Seam, and gusset, and seam,Till over the buttons I fall asleep,And sew them on in a dream!”
These are only the first three of the twelve stanzas that comprise the poem, but it’s clear what is being expressed. We of the civilised world know it well, and hear its echoes in Bob Black’s diatribe against work, which begins: “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you'd care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.” Whence this cultural antipathy to something as universal and necessary as work? Is the infamous capitalism to blame?
In The Empathic Civilization (2009: 290ff), Jeremy Rifkin spends some time tracing the demise of guilds and the emergence of a labour class. “In the sixteenth century in England, an independent merchant class was beginning to challenge the guilds’ control”. Generally, great changes were afoot, in particular the enclosures, which loosed peasants from the land, creating an exploitable labour force. Advances in transportation using rivers and canals sped trade up. These factors enabled merchants to bring cheaper goods to market, which made them enemies of the guilds. Eventually,
the old social economy, based on controlling production, fixing prices, and excluding competition from the outside, was too provincial to accommodate the range of new technologies that were making possible greater exchange of goods and services between more people over longer distances. The new technologies gave birth to a capitalist class hell-bent on exploiting their full potential. They found their commercial mode in self-regulating free markets.
Work became a commodity, along with almost everything else.
That human work became an exchangeable commodity subject to the forces of the ‘free market’, is, I feel, perhaps the prime reason work is as hated as it is today. This governing of work by the price system, in conjunction with mechanisation and the industrial revolution, led inexorably to the state of affairs we have today, and have had for many decades. Work-for-wage at any job at all is a matter of survival. How can we have pride in our work if it is most often for another person’s profit, if we are mere cogs in the machinery of a profit-seeking monolith that cares only about its own (endless) growth?
Charlie Chaplin ‘slaved’ over his films. He wrote them, directed them, acted in them, wrote the music for some of them, edited them, but would not have called that (at times highly repetitive) work “evil”, nor the long hours. I work hard on my blog posts. People everywhere work hard on their own labours of love. But even the ironing, the vacuum cleaning, washing the dishes, changing nappies, none of these things are hateful when we recognise them as necessary elements of a healthy and pleasant life. Then we can say “whistle while you work”, and mean it warmly. Perhaps the distinction is that these forms of work are self-directed and more or less freely chosen.
If capitalism is about capital – as it must be –, and if work is one form of capital that can be exploited in pursuit of profit, and if profit is almost exclusively monetary in nature, then work must be stripped of its potential nobility and grace by capitalism over time. This is, I assert, exactly what we have witnessed. As readers of this blog know, I don’t believe this model is sustainable, for reasons of technological unemployment, planetary carrying capacity, and good old fashioned change. Jeremy Rifkin is similarly critical of this dynamic, as are many other thinkers, but anticipates an evolution towards what he calls “distributed capitalism”. By this he appears to mean a transition from rigid hierarchy towards flatter, more anarchic arrangements (I don’t recall him using the word “anarchic” though!). In very broad brush strokes, his prediction crudely mirrors some of the aspects of how I envision a resource-based economy gathering steam. Regardless, from where we are now, culturally relearning the grace and nobility of work via transition presents us with a number of challenges.
1. We are still children of the industrial revolution, and this is nowhere more evident than in state education. Grades, large class sizes controlled by a single authority figure tasked with pumping into those malleable minds as much of the state-sanctioned curriculum as possible to sort ‘the wheat from the chaff’, clearly demarcated subjects, lessons begun and ended with the ringing of bells, are all design consequences derived from industry needs. Factory workers are not permitted to be imaginative, critical thinkers. They must be unquestioning drones who are also easy-to-addict consumers. Money, industrialism’s god, requires a constant supply of such humans to grow and grow. Money-as-wealth, money-as-profit, can only see humans as capital to be exploited in its own interest, for its own eternal glory. This is a centuries-old socio-cultural dynamic, so we will not escape it quickly. In other words, we are industrialised, mind and body, yet tasked with changing the system which shaped us, and thus changing ourselves. We are blind, immature and unprepared, yet we must act. The transition can only be bumpy.
2. Can it be capitalism if there is no exploitation (pursuit of profit at the expense of others)? This is a definitional issue, but an important one. Dan Pink is a behavioural economist whose main area of focus is motivation. He cites experiments that have been repeated across the world showing how menial tasks are indeed well motivated by money, whereas cooperative, creative projects are negatively affected by the promise of financial reward. As automation increasingly takes the menial and the repetitive out of human hands, what is left of economic (or public) work for humans will be cooperative and creative. If in this area monetary reward produces worse results than other forms of motivation (i.e., ‘success is its own reward’, the joy of meaningful accomplishment), no explicit profit as measured by money can be the goal of such endeavours. What does this mean in terms of capitalism? Is “distributed capitalism” a contradiction in terms? If capitalism is fundamentally about the pursuit of profit, or the accumulation of capital in ever-growing amounts as leverage for still further growth, doesn’t the distribution of the fruits of socio-economic endeavour along less profit-oriented lines imply socialism? Again, this is a definitional problem, or perhaps one of vision, but one worthy of our attention I feel. To what ‘ends’ and in whose name will we want to work, if not money?
3. Because of 1. and 2. above, state-based socialism may seem attractive in some areas of the world, perhaps all, though the US is packaging its own brand as Freedom! I feel this would be a dead-end. Replacing the Money God with the State God – a mere slight-of-hand trick –, the beneficent father looking after his weakly and incapable children, would be but a continuation of the patriarchal/industrial mindset, as it was in Russia after 1917. To not exploit each other, but also not to place our entrepreneurial and inventive potential, our individuality, our creativity in the hands of some all-powerful governing institution, is what our maturation from socio-cultural childhood is about. The immaturity I touched on in 1. above is pervasive; we are all infected with it to some extent. The desperate narcissism of the Internet is clear evidence of this. To evolve towards more distributed social structures requires a mature citizenry. We must grow ourselves up, mature, cut ourselves from new cloth. This is hard work. We hate hard work.
And there’s the Catch 22. Part of what is demanded of us to evolve is a re-embracing of that which we have come to despise. To love work, to appreciate that success is its own reward, to taste the joys of meaningful accomplishment, requires hard work. But, “hard work” as our own hard work, taken on in a spirit of community and cooperation towards meaningful goals and guided by a vision in which money-based profit is distant anathema. We could well rename this “hard work” hard leisure. But, until we begin in earnest to build this as yet unknowable New, promises of the Twenty Hour Week, the Life of Leisure, will remain promises. Our view of them now is similar to the way we anticipate holidays on the beach. They are well-wrapped sweets to be plucked from an evergreen Christmas Tree, only capable of satisfying us for as long as it takes them to dissolve to nothing in our mouths. For work to be good again, for leisure to be more than an empty distraction, we have to put in the hours.
So roll up your sleeves and get down to it. Do good work!