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

July 29th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Work,  |  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.