I really know little about various economic philosophies, about labor doctrines, about the metaphysics of money and value. I’m not even sure how to properly categorize my reflexive beliefs when presented with issues of labor, management, wages, welfare, and economic goods, but I think I’m somewhere close to what provokes a spittle-covered epithet of “socialist” in contemporary political discourse. How accurate that is, I can’t say.
At any rate, I read this today and found it interesting. Which is to say, I seemed to agree with it:
Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system. He may well have contributed more than our anonymous commenter in her temp jobs, if they were anything like some of the temp assignments I’ve had: entering rejected applications for health insurance into the insurance company’s computer, for example, a tiny step in an inhumane decision made by an industry that should not even exist. Note, moreover, that the commenter’s defense of her worth was based on her temp jobs and refusal of public assistance, and not on one of the few activities that is widely agreed to be valuable and necessary human labor–raising children.
In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work. And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.