Monday, March 2, 2009


The economic crisis has hurt most directly not, I would argue, those who have lost some measure of their stock portfolios, but rather those among us who have lost jobs and livelihood. It is expected that job losses will continue to accumulate, with some predicting unemployment to rise as high as 10% or more by the time the new Depression hits its trough (and that number all acknowledge to be a deflated figure, given that it does not measure "long-term" unemployment or those people with a part-time job).

Much of the current policy is aimed at stimulating the economy so that we can begin to re-employ the many millions who have lost jobs, or at least prevent further job loss among those people who, at the moment, are in tenuous industries. By minimizing further job loss at this point, we might begin to break the vicious cycle of downsizing that has now gripped the land.

What jobs, then, are in particular most in need of support or wholesale re-creation? Looking broadly across the landscape, the biggest losses appear to be in industries associated with housing, building, construction, automobile manufacture, Wall Street investment and banking, etc. The companies that have been hard hit constitute a What's-What of the modern industrial complex: GM, Chrysler, Ford; Caterpillar; Citibank; AIG; Fannie and Freddie; Home Depot; a bevy of house-builders; big-box retailers far and wide.

What we are proposing to stimulate is the economy that has just proven to be a dismal failure, and to shore up the industries that have proven to be the breeding-ground of irresponsibility, unreflective "growth" and anti-localism in all of its forms. We are proposing - without any debate, discussion or reflection - to, as best we can, reconstitute the economic "engine" that now, and then, too, mercilessly displaces people from positions when cheaper labor can be found, and just as much has sought to collectively reshape the American and world landscape so that it is as uniform and commercially homogeneous as possible, an economy dictated by and trapped in the throes of short-term thinking. We are witlessly striving to shore up the massive concentrations of private corporate power by means of increasing concentrations of "public" power - "public" only insofar as it remains deeply beholden to, and enmeshed in, the success of those massive private entities. Rather than entertaining the possibility that a private organization that is too big to fail is perhaps for that reason too big to exist, we instead like narcotized adolescents accept that Big Daddy will take care of us in the end and we bear no special burden to consider our own complicity in what has befallen us. We are content to look elsewhere for the perpetrator of crimes against our innocence - if on the Left, to blame to greedy corporate interests (as if we have not been blithely shopping at Wal-Mart or Target or Home Depot while local shops have withered on the vine); or, if on the Right, to accuse the depredations of Government and especially Barney Frank. And, above all, we yearn to revisit our blithe state of unconscious belief that the good of life consists in getting what we want without cost, travail, or consequence.

In all of this, it seems to me, there is a certain effort to remain in a state of lassitude: at a certain level we want to avoid work. This is, of course, not to suggest that there are not many people unemployed and employed alike who now crave the goods and dignity of work, and who labor exceedingly hard at what they do. But, if we look above at the list of jobs and companies that have shed some of the largest portions of their labor-force - housing, construction, automobile manufacturing, finance, national retail, and the like - we see those industries that have grown most intensively during the latter half of the twentieth-century at precisely the time that Americans were abandoning more traditional professions (especially farming) for ease of life. These professions were designed to employ us so that we would not have to work. The very activity being done was a circumvention of work, including especially the work of being thoughtful about what it is we are doing. Whether housing that sprung up on farmland and was designed to distract us from what had been done outside; construction that made all roads straight, in spite of the local conditions, allowing us to speed past the world with nary a sideward glance; agriculture that forced the earth to provide its goods, or animals their bounty, at a pace that we accelerated by chemical and biological dominion; financial machinations that increasingly separated the production of useful things from the just payment that should be rendered for those things, and instead placed a priority on "growth of capital" by whatever means necessary; and perhaps above all, automobiles that liberated us from place, from circumstance, from culture and home - we witnessed a half-century of the wholesale displacement of work for "jobs." If work was in some sense related to the rhythms of the world, what the earth is able to provide according to the slow and steady turning of the planet, the descending rays of the sun, the fragility of the world's systems that slowly developed over millenia, then the demise of a new system that displaced work was foreseeable insofar as it was based upon a temporary suspension - but not abolition - of the limits imposed by nature.

It was work that we sought to replace with something fundamentally antithetical - "jobs" that were provided by the very BIG entities that now demand the future livelihood of our children to remain viable. We believed that we were gaining more freedom by abandoning work for jobs, but were in fact placing ourselves in a position of dependency on ever-larger entities that had no fundamental investment in the places where the goods of life are truly met and sustained. The etymology is again utmost revealing: "job" derives from the Middle English, jobbe, meaning a "lump," or more generally, a "piece." Thus, the first definition of "job" in my indispensable Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition is "a piece; a lump; a stump"; and the second definition, accordingly, is "an odd or occasional piece of work." That is, a job was originally defined by its separateness or randomness, in general disassociated from the regular rhythms of what Wendell Berry has called "The Great Economy." On the other hand, "work" is etymologically related to the Greek words "ergon" and "erdein," - "to do" and "to sacrifice" (ergon, it turns out, also lies at the root of the word "liturgy," or "public service"). Etymologically, work is embedded in the rhythms of life and death, and of sacrifice that a person makes for another, a generation undertakes for the next, the people for God and God for man - the continuous effort to work on behalf of the good of the community writ large (dead, living, and not yet born). "Good work" is thoughtful about what it is doing; it is more than merely earning a paycheck, but consists of practices and ways of life that sustain a people in a place and over time. A "job," by contrast, has increasingly come to mean an activity that divorces us from place and limits us in time. It borrows from the future to pay for the present, and cannot be sustained because the future's bank has a credit limit (as we have discovered).

Already people are returning to work. They are repairing instead of buying; they are fixing instead of paying; they are cooking instead of ordering out; they are entertaining with what can be done at home rather than purchasing distraction created by others. As in times past they will barter and trade; they will grow and preserve; they will repair bonds of neighborhood and begin to live among generations. For many this will feel like a step back, a temporary suspension of progress - in the form of autonomy - we were promised. But perhaps it is a better way yet, if not a full return - we have forgotten too much for that - a time of learning anew of truths that people have always had to learn, albeit less harshly than we who have purposefully sought to escape the past. The mother of the Muses - those daughters of culture - was, according to the Greeks, Mnemosyne, or "memory." The past was thus never past, but preserved in present practice born of the old trials and preserved in habit, passed on to successive generations as a gift until it was rejected in our time. There is thus work that awaits us, good work that will perhaps sustain us in darker times.


Anonymous said...

Another great article. I sense an new alliance of the neo-libs and paleo-cons arising around the notions of localization and sustainability. You from the right and Kunstler from the left strike identical themes (although you do it with much greater intellectual rigor and without out resorting to those things that run people the wrong way in Kunstler).

HanZiBoi said...

Thanks for another beautiful posting!

Work as healing...


Unknown said...

I would only comment that you overdraw the distinction between the housing sector and work. The people who actually built those houses and those roads were doing work. There are a lot of folks who clearly were living off the fatted calf of that industry, but the brush seems over broad. The workers went into industrialized home construction because there were few other places in the economy for people to actually make something. Somewhere there is a happy medium between limits and infinity. A totally limited society eventually dies (as Japan and Europe are doing right now) and the endless horizon society that we have had for the last 60 years or so (save 5 years at the end of the 70s) eventually flames out as we seem to be also.
We must begin to look for the foundation for a faith that we live in world worthy of fighting for and bringing children into. I love your work, but where is breaker that prevents this from turning over into nihilism.

Anonymous said...

Good points - the epistemology behind "labor" is a library-rack-fulls worth of commentary I'm not gifted enough to distill in this wee combox, but if I may respond to "I love your work, but where is breaker that prevents this from turning over into nihilism." let us not forget that the oikos (home) is at the root of the economy, man works to attain satisfaction of his needs. Providing for dependants -- the family is the building block of any social order -- stimulates inate problem-solving faculties (efficacious means, not mere aggregate efficiencies a la Adam Smith, Marx et al) rendering from man's labor a personal creative potency, where yields can exceed immediate needs, and savings result. This is at root the genius of all voluntary exchange - barter of goods, market of ideas etc. that is understood to be empirical to human nature in the Austrian School view of economics. The moral hazard of today's crony capitalists / statist enablers undermines much of what America has contributed to human thriving - the dictatorship of aggregate-minded overseers usurps the liberty each householder (oikos) ought enjoy to be master of his own realm in the subsidiarity universe ("The principle of subsidiarity holds that first, close, and small trumps last, far and large when it comes to the fabric of civil society, governmental control and influence, and the structures of familial and communal support." Carl Olson @ Ignatius Press' InsightScoop blog).

Such usurption is the first step towards outright expropriation and consequent serfdom ...