Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing. The last time this question—the question of meaningful, satisfying, dignified labor—got a public hearing was in the nineteen sixties and seventies, with Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital being the intellectual high-water mark. What Braverman convincingly demonstrated is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor; that it came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone…
Rochelle Gurstein, the author, makes an explicit connection with this division and the beginning of environmental issues:
We must also keep sight of the historical fact that not only did monopoly capital and the division of labor emerge together in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but so, too, did those alarming “plague clouds” and a sun that was “blanched” rather than “reddened”—those first unmistakable signs of industrial pollution that John Ruskin decried in a lecture entitled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884). To address one of these historical developments without the other two is to ensure that we will never move beyond the narrow confines of current thinking…
The problem, however, is that our current way of thinking about jobs is deeply ingrained:
It is worth recalling the profusion of skilled practices that once existed…Over the last century and a half, however, the social division of labor penetrated ever more dimensions of daily life…Thus it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how to revive what has vanished both from practice and from memory, let alone how a world might come into being where the greater number of things we use or, better yet—to suggest the enormous change in consciousness that is required—things we enjoy using in our daily life are made by people who enjoy making them.
Is the organic and local food movement a good analogy for a way out?
It seems to me that a good starting point for how to bring about a similar revolution in thinking and practice when it comes to work is the principle that just as monoculture is disastrous for our health and security when it comes to food, lack of variety in work is just as disastrous for our well-being and happiness. The ideology of ceaseless economic growth, made possible by the division of labor that has filled our world with ugly things from the Styrofoam cup to smog in our skies, has always been vapid and destructive. Now, with the implosion of the global financial system, the American way of life as model for global expansion stands exposed as unsustainable as well.
There really are limits to our vision of what the world can look like in the future. It’s relatively easy to imagine what our world might look like in 5 years, but 50 years off is an entirely different story. Most people, myself included, get a headache when confronted with the issues presented by “futurists.” However, as cheesy as this sounds, (and copying from a World Social Forum’s slogan), another world is possible. Perhaps the co-op movement, which I am very excited about, holds some promise for a rethinking of the social division. Worker-led appropriation and distribution of surplus is radical enough, but what if the role of “worker” is rethought entirely as well? I’m not just talking about rotating folks through different assembly-piece jobs, but something deeper.
In this regard, I’m reminded of a recent episode of The Office, which has unintentionally uncovered a number of deep truths about work throughout its run. In this particular instance, a warehouse worker (the head of the warehouse), makes a suggestion about how to implement a new inventory system, including a sketch of how it would work. His boss scoffs (there’s also a racial tension, as the boss is white, but the warehouse worker is black), but the boss’ new boss is impressed and gives the warehouse head an office upstairs.
It’s a trite example, but it underscores the improtance of subsidiarity, that those closest to the impact of a decision should be involved in making it. In fact, deeper principles like subsidiarity or sustainability might provide the way forward for this rethinking. We don’t know what the world will look like in 50 years, but we do know the basic principles around which it should be structured. Better yet, we can apply these principles in a citizen-led movement that doesn’t require government policy, which Gurstein points out is quite tone-deaf to these concerns. That gives me some hope.