To be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, but a misfortune

July 29th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Work, xkcd.com/386  |  8 Comments

Reihan Salam is by far the most interesting and creative thinker associated with the National Review. (To clarify: that’s a pretty low bar, but I actually think he’s interesting and creative in general.) So when I saw that he had responded by my post on cheap labor and technological stagnation, I hoped to find some arguments that would challenge my assumptions. Instead, I found this:

I’d argue that fulfilling and valuable work is work that provides individuals with “obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in their path,” to draw on Richard Robb.

It is fairly easy to construct a coherent story for Frase’s notion that supermarket checkout work isn’t sufficiently stimulating to merit survival. Unlike skilled trade work, it doesn’t involve the kind of problem-solving that allows us to stretch our capacities. Rather, it is about offering a service in a friendly and efficient way, which can be taxing but, over time, not necessarily very edifying. I definitely get that idea, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we should devote resources to saving supermarket checkout work per se.

But supermarket checkout work needs to be soon through a different lens. If I’m a young adult who had a child at a young age, my fulfillment could plausibly derive from the sense that I am contributing to the well-being of my child by engaging in wage work. The wage work in question might not be terribly stimulating, but to grin and bear it is to overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in my path to achieving some level of economic self-sufficiency. Granted, I might benefit from a host of work supports, including wage subsidies, etc., but I (rightly) see myself as making a contribution. It is not the work itself that is fulfilling. It is the fact that I am doing authentic work — not make-work designed to teach me a lesson about the value of, say, convincing taxpayers that I deserve my daily bread, but work that someone will voluntarily pay me a wage to do — in support of a vision of myself as a provider that is fulfilling.

I actually have to hand it to him for coming right out and making the “wage labor is good for you” argument, which is a much tougher sell than the usual “we need wage labor or nobody will do any work” argument, and hence is typically delivered in an elided and concealed fashion. But the notion of “authentic” work that’s being deployed here is one I have a hard time wrapping my head around, although I recognize it as a central element of right-wing metaphysics.

It’s easy to glorify the dignity of wage labor when you have a stimulating job at the National Review, but this line of argument rapidly loses its plausibility when you get to the low-wage jobs I was talking about. A lousy supermarket job that you only have because your time is valued at less than the time of an automatic checkout machine is somehow more authentic because someone “voluntarily” paid for it. Presumably it’s more authentic than being a firefighter, since they have to “convince the taxpayers” that they deserve to be paid. And Salam must not think his own job is all that authentic, since the National Review is sustained by rich donors and could never survive if it had to get by on subscription revenue. I could go on about this, but I already did in my review of “Undercover Boss” and my first essay for Jacobin.

As for the specific nature of supermarket work, this comment on the original NR post says it more powerfully than I could. It starts out: “Having worked as a supermarket checker, I can tell you that no one I worked with got anything out of the job other than a paycheck, and the rates of depression and substance abuse among my colleagues were staggering.”

And as a friend put it to me earlier today: “As if the unemployed are unfamiliar with natural and authentic obstacles”. But look, if you do need some “obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in your path”, try training for a marathon or something. Or I can recommend some excellent video games.

The authenticity stuff aside, we also have the patronizing suggestion that a young parent needs to feel that they are “contributing to the well-being of [their] child by engaging in wage work.” As though they aren’t already contributing to that well-being by taking care of a child, which requires a lot more skill and engagement than bagging groceries. Even without the childcare angle, though, maybe people would be less likely to feel they needed to take a crappy job in order to contribute to society, if people like Reihan Salam weren’t running around telling them exactly that.

To be fair, Salam does acknowledge that rather than stigmatizing the unemployed and people who do non-waged labor, we could try to break down the fetishization of waged work that gives it such “nonmaterial and psychological importance”. And I don’t dispute his point that this is a hard thing to do. But he doesn’t even seem interested in it. Instead, at the end of the post, he lays out his hopes for what’s to come: “In my scenario, the number of ‘working poor’ will likely increase”, and “servants and nannies will be the jobs of the future”:

This raises the question of what will happen to those trapped in the low end of the labor market. Recently, the cultural critic Annalee Newitz offered a provocative hypothesis: “We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago,” Newitz writes. As more skilled women enter the workforce, and as the labor market position of millions of less-skilled workers deteriorate, we’ll see more servants and nannies in middle-class homes.

This “back to the 19th Century” vision is a scenario that has occurred to me as well, but I certainly never thought of it as a desirable end point. But hey, if the right thinks that’s the best thing they have to offer, they are welcome to make that their platform.

My question for Reihan Salam, though, is this. If National Review laid you off tomorrow, would you rather collect unemployment or go bag groceries because it would allow you to feel you were doing “authentic work” and had “overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in your path”? Maybe the answer would really be the latter, but I suspect for most people it wouldn’t be.

Responses

  1. Evan says:

    July 29th, 2011 at 3:31 pm (#)

    My theory of Reihan Salam:

    RS is, like so many of us, an educated member of the upper middle class. Unlike a lot of members of that class, he doesn’t naturally lean liberal. But neither is he a conservative. Rather, he just doesn’t really care, and writing for conservative oranizations is always going to be a higher profile and more lucrative position than writing for liberal organizations simply because there is less competition, especially when you’re a young person of color.

    Thus, we see a lot of arguments like this, which seem to be argued back to front, cleverly and creatively arguing from some initial condition to a predetermined end. I could be missing something, as I certainly can’t be bothered to read all that much RS, but every time someone draws my attention to one of his articles, I see this same sort of weird, foregone conclusion argumentation. I think that he’s an interesting dude, but I find that after having this same sort of shock maybe 20-30 times now, I just can’t take anything that he says seriously at all.

  2. guest says:

    July 30th, 2011 at 12:00 am (#)

    I for one have worked those low end jobs in retail and the service industry. If you consider work – especially low status work – pointless and boring and beneath you, of course that will be your experience. But if you can find a way to see your work as somehow bringing order out of chaos or enjoy doing a menial project well, even if it’s going to be undone by others within days, it makes work a lot more tolerable. And if the rest of your life is stressful and/or miserable, it can be an escape to go to work and zone out while getting wrapped up in doing something as fast or as well as you can. In the end, it’s more of a coping mechanism, and better than sitting around all day with nothing to do but contemplate the meaningless of it all or stressing about finding a new job. Personally I would much rather be working in retail 45 hours a week than sitting around trying to think of some bullshit to write to keep the checks flowing from Nat’l Review.

  3. Bhaskar says:

    July 30th, 2011 at 3:31 pm (#)

    “it can be an escape to go to work and zone out while getting wrapped up in doing something as fast or as well as you can.”

    You need a hobby / a more active sex life.

  4. Misaki says:

    August 5th, 2011 at 5:51 pm (#)

    Comment (will probably not be read given the volume of blog posts) on that article

    >While he calls for higher minimum wages and more collective bargaining to manufacture labor scarcity Full employment and labor scarcity are a different goal than higher wages. While Frase does not make this clear by focusing on a single goal in his argument, a careful reading of his post will find that he acknowledges the difficulties that would arise in trying to advance both the total amount of work performed in society and the wages paid for that work; this aspect was just not fully explained when linking to his previous post on the subject. A representative quote from that previous article: “To the extent that job sharing schemes reduce unemployment by distributing work across more workers, the economy can approach full employment without creating new work in the aggregate.” So as it turns out, both you and Frase are in agreement on the need to decrease involuntary unemployment. The only point of disagreement is whether there should be measures to increase the share of profit going to wages once a reduction of unemployment has been achieved. While Frase does mention the possible benefits of a more equal distribution of work in his previous post, you do not express disagreement on that subject as you avoid discussing it at all in this article. >Thomas Lemieux, W. Bentley MacLeod, and Daniel Parent maintain that the increasing use of performance pay can account for “nearly all of the top-end growth in wage dispersion.” Assuming this pattern holds, there is no reason to believe that we will see any decrease in wage dispersion. Wage dispersion is significantly less visible in the popular consciousness than income dispersion. It is unlikely any of the billionaires who have promised to give away the majority of their wealth attained their financial status due to the incentive of performance pay; high wage dispersion is, itself, only possible because the income and wealth disparities from capital accumulation make high corporate profits possible.

    (end excerpt of comment)

    My question for Reihan Salam, though, is this. If National Review laid you off tomorrow, would you rather collect unemployment or go bag groceries because it would allow you to feel you were doing “authentic work” and had “overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in your path”? Maybe the answer would really be the latter, but I suspect for most people it wouldn’t be.

    1 million applications for 50,000 job slots in a single day. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-28/mcdonald-s-hires-62-000-during-national-event-24-more-than-planned.html

    Looking at his followup post, it would appear that he thinks “a broader range of possibilities regarding how low-wage work might fit in one’s self-conception” and “introducing new narrative frames and stimulating debate and discussion” are more important than reducing unemployment, and considering his employment status he may well be justified in thinking that. There is no fundamental reason to be concerned about the well-being of other people if it has no effect on one’s own physical conditions or mental state. There is, after all, a market for pointing out “interesting facts” without making any controversial or upsetting conclusions; if people spent more time being productive with no reduction in the amount of time worked and no increase in consumption other than iPods, why then unemployment would go up!

  5. Misaki says:

    August 5th, 2011 at 6:10 pm (#)

    >While he calls for higher minimum wages and more collective bargaining to manufacture labor scarcity

    Full employment and labor scarcity are a different goal than higher wages. While Frase does not make this clear by focusing on a single goal in his argument, a careful reading of his post will find that he acknowledges the difficulties that would arise in trying to advance both the total amount of work performed in society and the wages paid for that work; this aspect was just not fully explained when linking to his previous post on the subject. A representative quote from that previous article:

    “To the extent that job sharing schemes reduce unemployment by distributing work across more workers, the economy can approach full employment without creating new work in the aggregate.”

    So as it turns out, both you and Frase are in agreement on the need to decrease involuntary unemployment. The only point of disagreement is whether there should be measures to increase the share of profit going to wages once a reduction of unemployment has been achieved. While Frase does mention the possible benefits of a more equal distribution of work in his previous post, you do not express disagreement on that subject as you avoid discussing it at all in this article.

    >Thomas Lemieux, W. Bentley MacLeod, and Daniel Parent maintain that the increasing use of performance pay can account for “nearly all of the top-end growth in wage dispersion.” Assuming this pattern holds, there is no reason to believe that we will see any decrease in wage dispersion.

    Wage dispersion is significantly less visible in the popular consciousness than income dispersion. It is unlikely any of the billionaires who have promised to give away the majority of their wealth attained their financial status due to the incentive of performance pay; high wage dispersion is, itself, only possible because the income and wealth disparities from capital accumulation make high corporate profits possible.

    testing formatting of blockquote ;_;

    If the US is to avoid a return to “the 19th Century”, there must be decisive support for a different standard of success that does not require people to work as servants and nannies in the homes of the well-off.

  6. Max B. says:

    August 8th, 2011 at 1:56 pm (#)

    Reihan Salam seems to think that we should conceive of labor as a primarily ethical relationship between already-constituted individuals who make up an organic community. So, not only can a supermarket cashier think of what she does all day as moral edification (because she’s doing it for her child) she’s implicitly obliged to see it as such. One other context where this kind of claim existed, that I’m familiar with, was far-right labor unions in Japan in WWII. These unions claimed to be superior to Bolshevism (which had already been crushed by the police, but anyway) because they both produced gains for workers and enthusiastically met their spiritual obligations to the nation, by transcending petty contractual concepts of the relation between worker and management. There was no particular social realm of ‘labor relations,’ rather labor relations were just one more aspect of the national polity. This national polity, as liberal critics in Japan pointed out repeatedly after WWII, was above the law and acted with sovereign impunity. And the war effort in Japan involved, among other pleasant things, the extensive use of child and slave labor, the compulsory injection of workers with methamphetamines to increase their productivity, and so on.

  7. Why Not Just Give Poor People Cash? (Preliminary) | Rortybomb says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 12:35 pm (#)

    […] instance, has written against this tendency in liberalism – see his The Case Against Jobs, or his response to Reihan Salam’s argument that wage labor for the poor is fulfilling because it allows them […]

  8. Louis Vuitton Pas Cher Sac says:

    June 1st, 2012 at 1:43 am (#)

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