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Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Is Work Worth It Anymore?

Fascinating New York Times article about "men in their prime" who chose to remain unemployed. And we complain about the American underclass being 'lazy.' "Most of these missing men are, like Mr. Beggerow, former blue-collar workers with no more than a high school education. But their ranks are growing at all education and income levels. Refugees of failed Internet businesses have spent years out of work during their 30's, while former managers in their late 40's are trying to stretch severance packages and savings all the way to retirement."

But what's most fascinating about this article is that these men draw upon the welfare state to ensure their continued existence. However, unlike the politics associated with the welfare of poor minority women, these men draw from Medicare and Social Security, rather than food stamps and welfare. What I can guarantee you that won't happen is a bunch of Southern Republicans talking about getting people off welfare and back into the workplace in the "Send Men Back to the Workplace" Act of 2006. Three cheers for double standards. "We have a de facto welfare system as Europe does," said Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame. "But we are not proud of it, as they are."

Some might argue that the reason students go to college is to positively correlate work and 'fulfilment.' (These guys lack fulfilment in their alternative occupations.) Others would respond that you trade your time for money (for whatever one uses money for), and, that you necessarily would rather be doing something else. If a person can't deal with this basic feature of working, then they should not be looking for a job in the first place. It's the classic debate between "I want to get to paid to do what I love" and "I [just] want to get paid." Most of these contentions hinge upon the idea that college should change everything and create options where they do not current exist. According to the New York Times, "Most of these [profiled] men are, like Mr. Beggerow, former blue-collar workers with no more than a high school education." High school may be limiting their options, except for the fact that they have work experience. The debate that presupposes a college education about whether you 'should' enjoy work or not does not challenge the basic premises of the current logic of market society in the post union era.* The men of the New York Times, on the other hand, because of their blue-collar work, argue that the dignity that comes from being active is more important than the paycheck of the wage-labor system. For them, if dignity leads to money, that's preferable, but enjoyment and fulfillment are top priorities over the paycheck itself.+

This contention, by the blue collar workers, goes against heart of our market society which argues (for those of middle class persuasions) that one works to earn the ability to pursuit hobbies. (Other classes, particular the working class, work because the alternative is death and starvation. The middle class can, at least, tell itself a story in which entering the market is a "voluntary" choice, even though the voluntarism of the imperative "Work or Starve" is a false one.) The cynic in me wants to say: "it's nice to get paid to do what you like, but it's better to get paid." This cynical view, unnecessarily callous it seems, is tragic, but, market society is a devil's bargain; it always has been and always will be. Anything premised upon the idea of 'work or die' probably does not have liberty at the root of its considerations.

*I am not attempting to romanticize unions here. The history of unions is the history of codified race and gender privilege. In the same way the "country club" social networks effectively undermine the meritocracy (making who you know the conditioning factor on what you know), labor unions created networks of laborers who used their political and economic clout to actively screw over others in the working class. Breaking the unions broke that political voice on the center left allowing other factions--particularly ones based on racial and gender inclusiveness-- to organize and channel that political power.

+This is singularly interesting because, as we all know, Karl Marx famously argued that after the demise of the market society, in which property relations determine the status, access, and worth of humans and human labor power, the post-market society, also known as communism, would be radically different. The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' would be a society in which supply and demand were based on a humanistic (as opposed to capitalistic) conception of need-- "from each according to his ability to each according to his need"--and characterized by the pursuit of hobbies rather than wage-labor. Without getting into arguments about the normative value of communistic versus capitalistic ideas, it is intriguing that in the blue-collars workers' rejection of a market society without dignity leads them into a life described by Marx as the communist utopia for the working class.