Monday, September 07, 2009

LABOR’S LABORS

An article by a historian named Thaddeus Russell prompts some thoughts.

He’s writing about Labor Day and recounts some of the history of labor here, and the “philosophical conflict embodies in Labor Day” – which strikes me as an excellent project.

He goes back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. In 1625 – only 5 years after the landing at Plymouth and 5 years before Boston was formally founded – a party of party-goers set up shop just south of Boston and well north of Plymouth on the Merrymount peninsula in what is now Quincy. Their approach to life was to pretty much party-hearty in a land free from the strictures of post-Reformation England; in that regard they remind me of the students at a party-college in the bad old days of the Twenties or even the Fifties.

Or perhaps the Flower-Children and Hippies of the mid-Sixties. Although the Boomers in some ways felt they were making a statement; and their ‘philosophy’ was that the natural freedom and goodness of the self was paved over by the asphalt of (adult) society and corporate employment or – alas – any steady employment at all. It’s sort of a ‘summer’ philosophy, a ‘sunshine’ philosophy, unsuitable for winter or un-sunny climes. Which is maybe why there was only a Summer of Love but not a Winter or a Year of Love. And why so many of the most serious – as it were – devotees wound up heading to reliably sunny places.

Anyhoo, in 1628 the Plymouth Colony decided that this bunch needed to be dissolved; they sent the redoubtable Myles Standish and an armed force all the way up the coast and to nobody’s surprise the squadron captured or arrested the whole Merrymount crew and chopped down their may-pole.

The Pilgrims-Puritans of Plymouth were party-poopers, and quite successful at it. But I don’t think that they needed to poop the partygoers merely out of a joyless urge to stamp out fun, or even because they didn’t like having an alternative and opposed ‘philosophy’ so close to the site of their own labors.

Merrymount was growing fast – faster even than the Plymouth Colony. To the vast majority of human beings partying always offers more attractions than the sustained discipline of carrying on the hard business of surviving and of sustaining a civic polity, especially in a wilderness world; and with the ever-touchy relationships with the tribes tossed into the mix as well. And apparently a number of folks were joining the party, coming either directly from England or leaving the Plymouth Colony.

So in that sense, you can surely imagine that the Pilgrim-Puritans were not so much amusing themselves by stamping out everybody else’s fun or ‘leisure’, but rather trying to prevent something from happening that would have endangered the entire process of building a ‘new world’, not only undermining the Colony itself but the entire colonial effort. It was, I would say, a remarkably realistic and – may I? – adult situation. In that sense I don’t buy the Puritans-as-mean-killjoys angle so fashionable in the Twenties; it’s a cartoon.

The author tackles the contorted conceptual terrain here. He nicely notes that the Merrymount party-goers were “threatening to create a new land that looked less like the Puritans’ vision of a pure society and more like their version of hell”. Yes.

But the Puritans’ version of ‘hell’ was not arbitrarily laid upon the Merrymount Mode simply because it was ‘different’ from their own. The Merrymount Mode cut to the very heart of the qualities required of individuals and a polity that had perforce to build a life in a challenging and threatening world.*

And, as the Puritans knew, it is a job of work to ‘valorize’ reliably those aspects of the human self that can postpone gratification in order to accomplish a task, even a task that is – on top of everything else – dangerous and unpleasant. But necessary to the survival and the flourishing of oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. Such ‘growth’, such ascent of the ladder of maturity, does not come naturally – it has to be grounded in a person – preferably early on – and then nurtured and supported by a like-minded community and its structures and institutions. And the individual person has to keep at it all the while as well.

So ‘partying’ in the Merrymount Mode constitutes a grave distraction from the serious work of self. And, unlike Sartre, the Plymouth folks saw hell on this earth as being a whole lotta unripe folks indulging – as modern social workers would say – the lower end of their range.

It’s not the only distraction; some folks don’t go for the party-hearty mode but simply allow themselves to settle onto a certain distracted plateau of consciousness, and shuffle through their days. But the Plymouth folk were more concerned in their day with the Merrymount Mode; ‘shirkers’ didn’t last long in the early decades of settlement – that came later, towards the end of the century, when the urgency of simply surviving daily life was not so acute. The active party-animals were the clear and present danger in the 1620s.

“Leisure” is another element to the problem. You can’t ‘work’ all the time; even a sea captain has to come in from the sea once in a while, because no human being can bear permanently and unremittingly the responsibility of mastering a vessel at sea. Ahab was the exception that proves the rule.

But there’s leisure and then there’s leisure. Aristotle saw leisure as grounded in the nature of the human being: once you have figured out what the nature and goal of being human is, then leisure is what promotes that goal when you aren’t simply working to survive. It is the development of the ‘finer’ human potentials: to appreciate art, music, learning, deliberation, even contemplation, as well as how to share the fruits of those developed potentials with others who are also committed to the same project. So leisure plays a vital role in the development of a genuinely human society. It’s not a second-string concept at all.

But in a democracy – especially one where it is taken as axiomatic that a person can do whatever they damn well please (and America to some extent has always been ‘about that’) – nobody can ‘tell’ anybody else how to enjoy themselves. Although ‘enjoying yourself’ isn’t quite the same thing as ‘conducting leisure’. Leisure in Aristotle’s vision is part of a purposeful working-toward fulfillment and maturity and ripeness; ‘enjoying yourself’ is something a lot different, if not also a lot less.

And in Our own era, with its consumerist and youthist and deconstructionist and anti-elitist tropes (although We are more and more coming to be ruled by ‘elites’, overtly or subtly), it will take more than a village to raise the young, because the entire common-purpose of the village has been conceptually deconstructed and the young are considered ‘naturally good’ and should be kept from the ‘oppression’ of anybody else’s idea of how life should be conducted and what life is for or about.

So the Plymouth Colony won that round. And in so doing, they and before long their Boston brethren “planted the seed of what would become the great American work ethic – the belief that work itself is virtuous”.

Wellll … yes. Sorta. Although that work-ethic is now a thing of the past (as is, alas, the work itself) and ‘virtue’ has been deconstructed along with ‘ethic’ as merely another tool of oppression. If only the Merrymount myrmidons had taken the trouble and applied themselves to some books and thinking, they might have invented ‘deconstruction’ themselves and then … how would it all have turned out?

Yet “among Americans, the spirit of Merrymount lived on”. Well, among humans – it is a human characteristic, after all – this preference for ease rather than exertion. Although different cultures have done different things with that characteristic.

But then he notes that “most European settlers in Colonial America lived as if they had never heard of the work ethic”. One wonders how there ever came to be a country at all. So it’s probably a bit of an overstatement, the way he puts it here.

But not inaccurate. R.W.B. Lewis, forty-plus years ago, recounted in his biography of Carry Nation just how much liquor Americans (the Puritans and their clergy included) made and consumed. If I recall correctly, Albany, New York at one point had a per capita consumption of something like a hundred gallons of spirits for every man, woman, and child in the place. And that’s not to say that the kids didn’t get any. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

But as things progress into the Industrial Revolution, more complication.

“Labor” is not simply an essential requirement of building and sustaining a life, a family, and a community. It is not simply (!) an essential requirement for the full expression of the creative potentials of the human spirit – as even the Catholic Church insisted.

Now in the mid-19th century it becomes the vehicle by which the great machinery and the companies and then the corporations that own the machinery turn out the products that make the nation a burgeoning industrial and economic power. And the factory owners and corporations start to treat their ‘laborers’ the same way they treat their machinery; start to see them as both ‘property’ and ‘machines’, part of the vast and profitable web of organized production.

Now the issue is not so much the nature of ‘leisure’ but rather the fact that the workers, crammed into their tenements, are working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and have no ‘free’ time at all. The great struggle will be to get them that free time; how they fill it is a question that fades.

Only the wealthy have ‘leisure’ time, and the money to do things. Some patronize the arts, but – and this can’t be surprising to any student of human nature – most of them do not credibly improve themselves or their time. The dull-eyed flatness of a worker at a bar or over a beer-pail is matched by the vacuous shallowness and frippery seen at the ‘better’ venues of entertainment and diversion. Ripeness and maturity are not products of ‘class’ – some humans, regardless of social class, are going to achieve it, and others – no matter how much money and free time they have, are not.

But the plight of the industrial worker, more than the backbreaking challenges of the farmer captures the national attention. But I wonder: is a herd demanding to be milked or a crop that has to be harvested any less insistent than a factory boss demanding more output or a machine demanding to be supplied?

And perhaps rightly so. To be so indentured to the elements, as a farmer is, seems somehow less oppressive than to be indentured to another human being or to an impersonal taskmaster like a corporation. And the demands of the farm seem somehow more ‘natural’, and certainly traditional, than the demands of the factory and the office. And it is clear that for all of the labor that is being expended, most of the laborers are not getting much of a return; the profits are going to others – in very large quantities.

Noah Webster’s primer – used in schools throughout the 19th century – pithily echoes the old Puritan approach: “The wise child loves to learn his books, but the fool would choose to play with toys”. But while the pithy sound-bite is so quintessentially American, it fails profoundly because it cannot convey the depth of the philosophical and even religious vision underlying the maxim. The Puritan idea is that you have to keep a tight rein on the desire to give yourself a Merrymount Moment, and instead you have to work at becoming and sustaining a self. No ripening self, no genuine leisure; the one supports the evolving development of the other.

Otherwise you’re just wasting your time, killing it – although if you’re spending lots of money to do it, then you are keeping the economy going, much as the workers in the great German film of the 1920s, “Metropolis”, lubricate their huge machines even as the machines consume them, chewing them up in the gears.

But what good is it, really, to keep an economy going if you have to literally squash the workers – who are also citizens (and human beings) to do it? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question, as they used to say.

The relationship of ‘entertainment’ to ‘leisure’ introduces another layer of complication. Aristotle surely would not have been impressed with the Roman crowds in the Colosseum, watching and spectating. This to him would not have been ‘leisure’. And perhaps not ‘entertainment’ either; since few seem to be drawing any lessons about life and living from it. Indeed, it seems that in most ‘entertainment’ experiences today, far too many attend precisely n-o-t to have to ‘learn’ anything, but rather to ‘escape’ from having to learn anything; learning seems to be a form of oppression, or at least ‘effort’, and far too many would rather not, thank you.

When Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day proclamation in 1884, it was a good question whether “American workers would far rather have been relaxing at the ballpark than marching to celebrate their jobs”.

Well, of course, just now I imagine that many many Americans would be willing to celebrate their jobs, if they had one.

But back then, quite possibly the worker saw the job as an oppression; saw it as an imposition on himself rather than an expression of his own creative potential. This was something Marx saw in the industrial worker (not so much in the farmer, although the life of the peasantry in the Old World was certainly not conducive to a ripened and fully realized self): the industrial worker, so often an urban tenement dweller, had lost any connection between his own sense of self and his job, since he was not sharing in the profits. The Popes of the era – certainly Leo XIII – saw in an even larger sense that the worker was alienated not only from the shared profits, but from the vital connection between his self and his labor as an expression of that self. This was dehumanizing, he saw.

Whether recent society has solved that problem, or simply declared victory by slapping a thick lard of frosting over the alienation and calling it ‘the success of consumer capitalism’ … is a good question.

So, the author concludes, We are now in the situation where the President is urging Us to “put away the things of a child” and buckle down, while a lot of Americans are planning nothing more developmentally strenuous than having a good time.

Given that the corporations have been using folks, and given that the country officially and for all practical purposes has abandoned any attempt to sustain a comprehensive vision (such as the Puritans had) as to the nature of human being and the role of work and leisure, and given the fact that on top of the natural human tendency to opt for ease rather than exertion the American reality now poses a shocking threat to any sane person’s peace of mind … it’s understandable that most folks can’t muster the motivation to embrace anything more strenuous than partying and spectating.

But you can’t keep a culture and a civilization and a society and an economy going like that.
Sooner or later, a whole lot of individuals have to tackle for themselves the question of whether the Plymouth Colony or the Merrymount-ers had the better approach to things. And then, without waiting for the government to reach down from the murky Beltway clouds, take counsel as to what is best to be done now. And, in best American fashion, let their government – the one they hired to work for them – know just what they want to see done.

Because in between the 17th century and the 19th, there was the 18th – where the Framers put together a Constitutional Republic and bequeathed it to Us.

And whether the economy or the Republic is in greater danger right now, or whether you cannot save one without letting the other go, or whether you have to save both if you are to save either … these are huge and pressing questions that constitute this era’s rendezvous with destiny.

NOTES

*In all of this, I am not minimizing the ‘threat’ that the colonists posed to the tribes. That is yet another circle of the hell that is built into human history and which operates in this event. Indeed, the Merrymount Mode would probably have been much more acceptable to the tribes’ best interests: the party-goers could not have lasted long on New England’s inhospitable shores, and had they become obnoxious to the tribes they could have been summarily dealt with while conducting their liturgies around the Maypole.

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