Posts Tagged ‘work

16
Nov
10

The Point Of It All

I’m not feeling so great. I’ve been up since six this morning with no real sleep for the past two days. My stomach is aching from a combination of stress and oily, fatty college cafeteria food. I’ve spent the past three hours having my brain clubbed into a gooey pulp by a statistics test, and I’ll be having to write up a major presentation and memorize it by tomorrow evening.

 

I have it easy.

 

There are millions of people out there who would sell their own children to be in my place. Thousands of people have sold their own children to have a chance at being where I am. There are millions of people who, no matter how hard they work or how long or how well, will never be where I am.

 

That’s just a little something to put things in perspective.

 

I’m sitting here, eyes-bloodshot, stomach churning, neck-aching and I’m wondering why? Why am I putting myself through this everyday (sure it’s nothing compared to other people’s hardships, but let’s stay focused here)?

 

Why do people go to college? Well, some people are in college because they want to party for four years before the responsibilities of life and the universe hit them. Some people are here (at my college especially) to find someone to marry, but in general, the overwhelming number of us are in college to get degrees so they can get jobs.

 

Not sure, you don’t need a college degree to get a job. You don’t need to know how to find a t statistic for related samples or the definition of a theodicy to get a career in a textile mill or as a janitor. Only problem for those who try going down this road is that in the West, the vast majority of jobs you would be able to get without a degree can be done infinitely cheaper by a twelve-year old in Indonesia or an illegal immigrant. Sure there are still jobs out there for the degree-less, but it’s hard to support yourself, let alone any sort of family, working the grill at McDonalds or mowing lawns. There’s always the army, but considering the pay isn’t much better and the work is slightly more than hazardous, it’s a bit of a gamble.

 

So that’s where degrees come in. You want to have a decent-paying job at some point, you’ll need a degree. I’m at college to get a degree and chances are that you were/are/will be at college to get a degree. But is that really enough? I can’t help think back to a Peter Kreeft book where the resurrected philosopher Socrates approaches a college student to figure out why he’s attending college. I’ll paraphrase it briefly:

Socrates: Why are you here?

Student: To get a degree so I can get a job.

Soc: Why?

Stu: To make a lot of money so I can have a family and send my children to college.

Soc: Why will you send them to college?

Stu: So they can get degrees and get jobs.

 

It goes on like that.

 

Now this is really what I’m seeing here at my college. Students come in from generally the middle-class/upper-class to get degrees, get jobs, and return to being part of the middle-class/upper-class. People will take jobs on the basis of pay, whether said jobs are fulfilling or not, and spend the next forty years or so grinding away at their jobs. Why? To do what they really want to do. To go fishing, to take care of a garden, to spend time with family, to paint, to read, to tinker with cars, to cook, to write, and so on. It’s seems to me to be awful rate of exchange if we’re working sixty-plus years at jobs we don’t care about (or even hate) to spend our old age desperately trying to do the things we we wanted to do from the beginning (indeed, the things we were born to do). I don’t want to work on the machine that going to sap me of my life, rewarding me with the chance to do what I love doing when I’m too old to do it! I don’t want to have wealth, I want to have purpose.

 

That, I think, is the point of it all.

The only question we’re left with is “what purpose”?

 

18
Jul
10

The Alienation of Labor

A common question asked during the aftermath of every great industrial disaster is “Could all of this have somehow been avoided?”. It’s an important question too- ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ and all that. Marx, who grew up and lived during a time when industrial accidents happened with tragic regularity, saw this and developed from it his theory of the ‘alienation of labor’.

Marx states that as businesses develop, those profiting from the sale of a product/service become further and further removed from the actual creation and creators of that product/service and as a result cease to see the workers creating the product/service as humans and instead merely see them as resources. When one starts seeing his fellow man as ‘profit-versus-cost’ rather than as human beings, it becomes a lot easier to exploit them.

If the owners of GAP actually had to meet with the child laborers in their sweatshops, it wouldn’t be nearly so easy for the owners to pay a mere forty-four cents as a day’s wages. It’s that basic human connection makes us see ourselves in the places of others. Maybe if things were different I’d be the one making t-shirts for forty-four cents. Maybe if things were different I’d have lost a hand working with dangerously outdated machinery.

Of course I say “it wouldn’t be nearly so easy”, because the simple truth of the matter is that better worker-owner relations aren’t the solution to the problem. You don’t get to be a leader of industry by being honest and generous and kind- relying on the benevolence of those who got to where they are in the world being more cunning, deceitful, and brutal than their fellow man doesn’t strike me as the wisest choice. The sad truth is that people will always be selfish and willing to take advantage of others.

And this is the crux of the matter. How do we deal with the problems of the alienation of labor and still deal effectively with the selfishness we find in human nature? The answer is public ownership.

Now we’ve discussed the issue of a Capitalist ignoring the plight of his workers even if he is (somehow) forced to meet with them on a regular basis, but what if we remove the element of private ownership? Suppose the factory is owned collectively by those operating it (and who better to run it than they)? Even if there are those there who, despite working alongside their fellow laborers- sharing the same burdens, the same rewards- still attempt to work solely for their own benefit, they’re not about to say “hey, we could be making more of this product/service if we work fourteen hours a day rather than ten!”. In a collective setting, the only way to benefit oneself is to benefit the whole- cooperation, not competition.

Imagine that the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig hadn’t been owned by BP but by the workers of the rig. Considering that they’re the ones who will be the most affected by a spill or accident, would they pass up an inspection to ensure their place of work is safe for them? How would they benefit by cutting corners? The same goes for any field of work.

Now no Marxist is going to claim that public ownership will bring an end to all avoidable industrial accidents or similar disasters. What we can state for certain is this:

Public ownership is (1) a more just system, (2) a more democratic system, (3) will give the power to avoid accidents to those who have the greatest potential to be affected by such accidents, (4) will shift focus away from profit to the welfare of the workers and the quality of the product/service, and lastly (5) will be infinitely more effective than either private or government ownership (why should someone who’s never set foot in a factory make decisions on how to best run it?).

It might not be a perfect system, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

09
Jul
10

The Communist World

A few years ago, I was attempting to obtain a permit at a government organization that will not be named here, and after waiting in line for a good hour and a half I finally got my turn to take the test required. As I entered the testing room I was informed that I could have circumvented this entire process by mailing this office some paperwork earlier in the year. Now before I had the chance to inform the low-level civil servant in charge of the testing that I had been traveling and unable to send in the paperwork, he snorted and called me ‘stupid’.

Now I generally dislike being called that, but I had just waited in line for an hour and a half and all I wanted was to take the test and be done with it- chewing the guy out wouldn’t have gotten me out of there any faster. But more importantly than all that, I couldn’t help but pity the guy. He was in his late fifties, seriously overweight, in all likelihood suffering from a heart condition, and stuck- day in, day out- processing paperwork in a stuffy, crowded office.

I can’t help but feel that this wasn’t what he had planned on doing with his life.

Sure, there’s the off chance that when his pre-school teacher asked him as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he cheerfuly gurgled “I want to be a low-level civil servant doing a dull and repetitive job as I develop health issues while reeking of stale sweat and despair’, but I doubt this is what happened. And I can’t help but think to myself, maybe society could benefit more if this guy only processed paperwork every other Thursday, and spent the rest of the work week doing whatever he’s talented at. Maybe he’s brimming with raw, artistic talent- maybe he could be a concert musician who takes a couple days out of the month to process paperwork. Wouldn’t that be better not only for him but for all of us?

And then I think to myself, what if we applied that to everyone working a repetitive, dull, unskilled job? What if everyone took a turn filing papers, mixing cement, sweeper the streets, stacking boxes, or serving coffee? Wouldn’t thousands- no, millions of people suddenly be freed up to pursue what they were born to do- be it writing or teaching or studying medicine or astronomy or the like? Wouldn’t we be healthier, physically healthier as a society if we all did a share of manual labor? Wouldn’t we have a greater respect for each other if we understood what’s it’s like to scrub a mountain of dirty dishes or pick litter off the sides of the highways? The simple fact of the matter is that with everyone contributing, we would have a happier and more efficient society.

And this is what Communism is- the sharing of menial labor so that everyone can pursue the profession of their choosing. Classism, the separation and segregation of people based on wealth, falls to pieces. The need for an oppressed and exploited working class to support the luxuries of a decadent minority is gone with the creation of this new classless society. This, combined with the abolition of private property, creates a society free from the struggles between the haves and the have-nots- poverty and pointless excess become things of the past. In short- we have Marxism, a society of shared wealth, shared work, and a shared future.

And is it perfect? Of course not. People will always be people- greedy, xenophobic, deceitful, lazy, and irrational. There will always be crime, there will always be war, and there will always be corruption.

But hey- it still beats the system we have now.

15
Jun
10

[In]tolerable Evil

The myth that Capitalism is a great and fair system is becoming rapidly dispelled. Such disasters as the Bhopal gas catastrophe, the BP oil spills, the Minamata bay dumpings,  the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and the general level of corruption, ecological devastation, poverty, and exploitation brought on by our current economic structure have brought many to an understanding that Capitalism is in fact an inherently evil system that benefits a lucky few. Even so, the contemporary attitudes toward towards Capitalism are tolerant. In spite of the repeated evils brought on by this system, the simple fact is people don’t care!

People are angry at BP, sure, but not angry enough to illicit action. We’ll scream our heads off after an hour in traffic, but what do we do when we hear about a sweatshop in Indonesia? We’ll tear apart a stadium during a football riot but do we riot when we hear about waste being dumped in the ocean? We’ll get into fistfights when the neighbor’s playing music too loud but do we so much as lift a finger when a man dies because he’s too poor to afford insurance or pay for medical bills?

Why? Because we’re the ones benefiting from Capitalism? Because the evils of Capitalism aren’t oppressing us? What makes me different than a coltan miner in the Congo, or a child slave in Bangladesh? If it weren’t for pure and simple dumb luck– I’d be the one working fourteen hours a day for pennies. I am not where I am today because I worked hard. I am not where I am today because I was smart or because I took advantage of the opportunities offered to me. I am where I am because I was simply born. Others are simply born into poverty, slavery, and starvation and no matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle they never advance. Is Capitalism a tolerable evil to them?

One of the greatest ills of Capitalism that affects not merely the proletariat but the middle and upper class as well is the concept of individuality- a flimsy facade for the uglier terms selfishness and egocentricity. We are led to imagine that we are rich because of our own hard work. We’re responsible only for ourselves. It is because of this concept that shrug and walk away from tragedies, be it a mugging or a multinational corporation paying 12 cents a day for designer jeans to be made. And we continue to hold this egomaniacal point of view because we are terrified of what it would mean if we were responsible for each other. If an old woman gets mugged, it’s not just the fault of the old woman for being more careful or the fault of the mugger for choosing to rob her- it our fault for doing nothing to stop it. If a manufacturing plant in Peru has children working for little or no pay, we’re just as much to blame for doing nothing to resist!

And for those who insist upon tolerating the evils of Capitalism and the suffering of others, I can only offer you these words written with greater urgency and eloquence than I could ever hope to have:

THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

-F.G.E. Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984