Sunday, December 6, 2015

Work, Like Strength, is Much More Than a Simple Extension of One Aspect of Our Being

This article from Aeon really struck a chord with me. You really ought to read this one; especially if you are a man, because how you find value now; how you go about finding a sense of your worth, and that you matter, can no longer be associated with how you make money to live on. Any more than how much you make, regardless of the toys, or distractions thus purchasable, will give you any sense of real meaning. Unless, of course, you are willing to cut out every part of yourself that is human, caring and capable of thoughtful, loving, not to mention honorable, endeavor.

"I work for a living," used to really mean something. It was an icon phrase that encapsulated the idea that you not only understood the value of "earned" rewards, but that you also honored the notion that actions speak louder than mere words alone. Something the other icon phrase, "walking the walk," was suppose to express after one first uttered the contrasting "talk the talk."

I grew up the son of a blue collar man who only knew how to work. I started working for him when I was 14; driving a forklift, loading and unloading his flatbed, and engaging in the endless task of trying to keep whatever warehouse space he had at the time as organized as possible; which usually meant wrestling every kind of hardware, low scale machinery, and aircraft parts you can think of, on and off pallets and steel shelving. It was dusty, dirty, and frustrating, work; both because he always had more junk than space, and because he could never afford to pay me what he promised he would. It was helping him, though, and in doing that he eased up a bit on the constant haranguing he would give us kids about how much every little thing provided cost (the main reason Christmas has never been my favorite time of year).

Working at being a father, though, wasn't what a man did. Any more than working at being a loving husband. Even if he had had the time, which he didn't because he had to run his ass off in order to sell enough of the Boeing, and damaged freight, surplus he dealt in to support four ordinary kids, and one severely disabled boy. And even if he had had the time, of course, he wouldn't have known how to be a father, or a loving husband, because his father, and his father's father, etc., hadn't known either. Or maybe they did. I hardly even knew my grandfather, who was thoroughly crushed by the Great Depression, and ended up turning into a drunk when my father was a kid.

In any case, though, in America, earned value has always been synonymous with earned respect. And in that, doing a job well was not only part of being a real tradesman, but someone who got it done, and got it done right. This was, of course, when we, as a nation, still made most of the things we used, and sold a good deal more to the rest of the world. And a good portion of corporate America used to believe in much of the same things.

But the pace of change got faster because the structure to create more change got better. The rest of the world rebuilt after WW 2 and began to see how making something better than we did, and selling cheaper, was the way to go, and so global competition began in earnest. We competed for a while in making things, but several things happened to change that. Unions didn't want to budge on paying living wages, whether productivity supported it or not, and corporate America began to realize that competitive markets were getting riskier by the quarter; especially where the commodity involved required labor to make, and there was so much of same exploitable in other countries, unstable though they might be precisely because of that exploitation; so why not move to markets of the more intangible. Whereupon everything financial, and every method of speculating in same became a mainstay.

So now the only thing that's still valued, at least by those who can afford to buy a grasp on the levers of power, is accumulated counters, and the portfolio of paper you have promising payment processing that nets you the assurance that your accumulations will be ongoing.

Capitalism has, in essence, always been about the abstraction of labor, production, and the medium of exchange; trying in that to find the most efficiently productive mix. It enjoyed for a while the carryover of craftsmanship that it inherited from a world of guilds and apprenticing, as well as the religious norms that revolved around honest work. But these were doomed to ever increasing erosion by the new gods of efficiency, and the new abstraction of time management. The fate of the value of work was sealed once the ultimate abstraction of automation came into being.

The crux of the problem here is that work, and production, and production management, has to be completely redefined. Just as our relationship to the things we need, and want, needs to be redefined. In this a balance needs to be struck between the collective, and individual, responsibilities for providing the productive foundation to give each of us not only a say in what happens, but direct involvement in maintaining the means to enrich our lives in the broader, and much more connected context that enrichment ought to mean. If it is done right having value and meaning will be an automatic part of being an involved citizen in your community.

Header essay nyc109396

Men at work

The age of austerity has transformed work, but what it means to be a man has not caught up

by Allison J Pugh