(Author’s note: I am indebted to Thomas Princen, author of “The Logic of Sufficiency”, for crystallizing for me some of the ideas I explore in this post. Also to Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau, who first got me thinking along these lines.)
There was a time before the Industrial Revolution when work had a different value. The workers, to a large extent, determined how much labor they would put out; once they had earned what they needed, they would take off to tend to their own needs. It took the combined efforts of the British government, industry, and clergy the better part of a century to indoctrinate the workers of England to a new paradigm, one of efficiency and productivity, which later generations gradually internalized. This new work ethic received a theological mantle through the Calvinist school, and industry was equated to virtue. It then migrated to America, helping to build fortunes and a nation.
It’s a strange irony that this paradigm has succeeded in marginalizing work.
Stay with me here.
Consider the arc of technological progress. From levers and wheels to smartphones and drive-thrus, the overriding theme has been to save human effort. This was a laudable goal for generations, as there was a time when most work was as dangerous as it was difficult. The answers to the inevitable questions of “What are we saving this effort for?” (health, longevity) and “What are we saving these workers from?” (death, amputation, deafness, 12-hour workdays, and so on) were obvious, reasonable, and laudable goals. At some point, though, the balance shifted. I don’t know when or where this was; I’m not sure if it matters. There was a paradigm shift from sustenance to abundance, from making products to making profit. I’m thinking of John Henry here. His story is typical of the worker in this time: rendered obsolete by a machine, marginalized by a society that had begun to celebrate success more than the effort that produced it. Quantity replaced quality as a moral yardstick, and consumption-or at least the ability to consume-was enshrined as a social ideal. Workers moved off of farms, from towns to cities, from being craftsmen to being drones, and specialization led to dependence on other specialists. Work became simply a means to an end, a way to make money in order to buy stuff. Mathematically, it looks something like this:
Virtue = Success
Success = Stuff
ergo:Stuff = Virtue
And the rat race is on. Whoever dies with the most toys wins.
There arrives, however, a point of diminishing returns, when extra hours or additional pay are not worth what must be sacrificed for them. At this point, people might realize that their dignity and that of their work is being diminished, and they are being exploited to enrich the already wealthy while costs accrue to their family, their community, and their environment. Yet they feel powerless to rebel, unless they have nothing left to lose. Most working people can’t simply walk away from their commitments and start over on a piece of land in the country, though some surely have. What to do, then?
What if we went on strike?
Not as workers; as consumers. Think about it.
The exploitation of workers in the Industrial Revolution and the excesses of the Gilded Age led to the great labor unions of the 20th century. The unions stood up to industry on behalf of the workers; but the endless cycle of consumption, now an ordering principle known as “planned obsolescence,” continued unabated. The ore boats, assembly lines, and delivery trucks kept moving; people kept working and spending; spending and working. Especially at Christmas. Meanwhile, the water and air got dirtier; topsoil got thinner and smog got thicker; invasive species crowded out natives; and oh, yes: the planet got quite a bit warmer. Oops.
Once again, we face a society of inequality and exploitation, driven by excess consumption. This time, though, the stakes are even higher than workers’ rights or child labor. The carrying capacity of our very planet is threatened, and the current wave of mass extinction even threatens a species previously thought untouchable: us.
Maybe we need to slow down a little bit, eh?
Because whoever dies with the most toys is still dead.