U S Labor Day needs retooling
Labor Day needs some serious retooling. With millions out of work and the prospects of good paying (mostly union) jobs disappearing at a steady pace, Labor Day increasingly takes on the aspect of a memorial, not a celebration. Gone are the days I remember in my youth when the yearly “Labor Day BBQ” sponsored by my father’s union – the United Steelworkers – was a highlight of an otherwise depressing end of summer. I suspect that at today’s picnic – if one even occurs – I would find a somber event with nostalgic retirees celebrating their memories.
What’s left to commemorate on Labor Day? Poor paying jobs? Of course, on this day, the usual pieties regarding the honorable role of labor will be solemnized mostly by politicians, rather than by partisans of labor. But like the dogma of a religion observed only in transgression, nobody will believe a word. It is as if The Right to be Lazy, by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, has become common sense. How can it be otherwise when every poll taken since the 60s comes up with the revelation that the majority of people dislike their jobs? The most recent Gallup worldwide poll (2013) recorded only 13% like going to work.*
Instead of accepting the desperate pretense that the traditional labor movement can be revived, why not return, not for nostalgia, but for inspiration to the origins of the workers’ holiday in the late 1880s? Labor Day began as marches (they called them processions) to support shorter working hours. If we acknowledge the spectacular rise in productivity over the century since those marches, then we must recognize that the reduction of working time (not to mention higher wages) due to productive gains has been stolen from us.
Stolen first by the bosses who pocketed the profits from the introduction of machinery and a theft never really challenged by the unions except to seek, as meager compensation, higher wages and benefits
And a more leisurely life was stolen by consumerism, or more precisely by debt. I mean by this that the desire for a less stressful life has been traded for consumables and a faux luxurious life. The Kellogg workers in Michigan, for example, abandoned their decades-long six-hour day for eight so that they could “keep up with the Jones” – a race we see today as heading to oblivion.
Let’s be clear, to revive Labor Day as Laborless Day is not an effort to seek a shorter working day. Laborless is not like Payless; Laborless means Free! What other choice is left to us? Those who entice us with a secure future through education betray us. Those who promise a better life for our vote lie to us. And those who praise the value of work make it scarce.
Industrial society, that living hell Blake, and many others, in horror foresaw has finally achieved – after more mayhem than predicted – the abundance promised by its apostles. But it has all been wasted on a tiny elite. For us – there’s only an abundance of poverty. Inequality, the concern today of academics, pundits and various do-gooders, misses the target. The fight is not for a level playing field, but a new game.
The triple crisis before us – the economic, environmental and political – cries for a response appropriate to its severity. We are dangerously close to another mass species extermination and engagement with this reality requires decelerating and reversing the forces that produced this calamity.
To begin this process of reversal, where better to start than with what we have in common, our disgust with work? The vampire logic of work sucks out our life force while building a deviant social cohesion composed of failure and shame.** It usurps in this way the possibility for a different way of living. We cannot be free in these circumstances. And not free, changing course is impossible.
In the midst of all this misery, however, our subversive desire to avoid work is often a secret delight and pleasure too often hidden from our co-workers. When it erupts, like in the recent upsurge of protests by the wage slaves of the service economy, the utter disgust the workers have for their jobs generates a momentum that terrifies the bosses.
The immediate demand may be higher wages for the employed, but if the ultimate goal is liberation from poverty, that will only occur when we abandon the delusional quest for full employment for a system where income is separated from work. Political rights can only be assured when economic rights are secured. Two hundred years ago, owning property served as insurance for political rights; today the notion of a free yeomanry survives in the belief that all the people, not only an elite, should benefit from natural and human resources.
This belief motivated the founding of the Alaska Permanent Fund that provides an annual sum to every citizen (including children) based on revenues from oil exploration in the state. For the past decade, the average benefit has been over $1,000, of course not enough to live on, but the Fund serves as model for a larger program to provide a modest lifestyle. I hasten to add, not one based on extractive industries, but sustainable ones. The various proposals for supporting basic guaranteed income are all based on the premise that resources are the common wealth for the benefit of all.
With an income guaranteed as a right, all work can be challenged and some (possibly, most!) jobs will disappear as stupid wastes of time; some will be replaced by machines; some may be revalued because they are useful but currently disparaged, and so forth. The point is that traditional work will no longer be the sole means for survival. We will be in control of jobs and not the other way round. Some may take the basic income and seek out a part-time job for a little extra money and some may continue working at a task they fully enjoy, at least for a while. And some may devote themselves to an individual or social project with very little or no remuneration. Surely, the threat of climate change implies a great variety of collective endeavors to mitigate the consequences of decades of unrestrained growth. The security of a modest income means that none of these choices need be permanent.
Can we not imagine how to live a more convivial form of economic activity free of the horse collar of jobs and the constrictions of the marketplace? And would that activity be economic in any sense that we recognize? It may not be that we will trade homo economicus for homo ludens, but that our collective/individual activity will transcend both spheres. Our desire to live a life closer to our potential, closer to the natural world and closer to others cannot continue to be denied. To do so is to invite our extinction along with the earth.
Some day work as we known it will be relegated to dioramas in the Hall of Work in the Museum of Capitalism. You may laugh at what seems a total fantasy, yet today we think nothing of touring royal boudoirs, a transgression our ancestors would have paid for with their lives. Let us celebrate Laborless Day in anticipation of a better future.
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* What’s behind job dissatisfaction? This article explains why you hate your job. And further, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report analyzes employee engagement and productivity in workplaces across the U.S. This research shows that less than a third of U.S. employees (30%) are engaged at work. Thus, while Americans may be satisfied with their job security, and with other aspects of their jobs such as vacation time and retirement benefits, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged at work.
** This formulation is derived from Viviane Forrester’s masterpiece of anti-work polemic The Economic Horror. Read it!