Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sweat of Thy Face

Several years ago I (sarcastically) noted a hot trend in the DC Metropole - the outsourcing of many mundane tasks seen as superfluous and distracting from the busy lifestyles of the harried DC cosmopolite. At the edge of the economic precipice (whose steep decline most did not see at the time), we had become so certain that our lives should be unbothered by mundane tasks that we began hiring "lifestyle managers."

Well, the breaking news today is the rediscovery of doing those little things for oneself - whether ironing, mulching, cleaning, repairing, and so on. And, according to a poll cited in the article, people expect this renewal of doing things for oneself is not a flash in the pan: "55 percent of respondents to a recent poll said they would not go back to old spending habits should the economy perk up. 'The main reason is because they have found out that they can do just fine using less,' [the pollster] says. 'They realize they had gotten a little out of control in spending, and now they want to replenish their nest eggs. Life is uncertain.'"

This sea-change in behavior raises an interesting prospect (related to the previous post and the week long discussion at FPR on Matt Crawford's book): it is possible now to conclude that the move away from "drudgery" was simply a consequence of (largely imagined) wealth. Believing ourselves to be infinitely wealthy in a permanently growing economy, we were profligate and slothful. It's easy to dismiss the momentary gluttony and sloth as a symptom of excessive pocket change, and leave it at that.

But this conclusion, I suspect, may get the matter wrong: in my view, it would mistake cause and effect. The immediate reaction imagines that our sloth came from our wealth; but I would submit that our "wealth" was generated by our sloth. In the time between the first article (November 2007) taking note of the outsourcing of mundane tasks to "lifestyle managers" and today - a year and a half later - we have discovered that most of our purported "wealth" was entirely fictitious, a Madoff economy writ large. This "wealth" was largely generated by our sloth - our wish to have something for nothing, to take shortcuts in order to attain riches on the cheap. As a society we decided to take a break from real work, and instead pursued dreams of untold treasure that poured - via banks - from the drywall and faux country exteriors of our suburban "homes" or the packaging of mortgages that could be repaid only in fantasyland - where, for a time, we believed ourselves to be residing. The outsourcing of our lifestyles wasn't a consequence of our wealth - the impulse to avoid actual work was the root of the notional wealth that culminated in these more evident forms of sloth.

If today's article is to be believed - and one hopes it points to a salutary trend - then we may be embarking on a better path, and not a false spur. At root, what has all along been needed is a better theology. God told Adam and Eve that "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground" (Genesis 3:19); yet many of the worst moments of subsequent human history have come from the effort to avoid the consequences of Original Sin, whether the enforced labor of chattel slaves that some could avoid work, or, more recently, the employment of cheap [and world-destroying] energy to do - or to generate sufficient "wealth" to hire others to do - that which spared us sweat on our own brows. If indeed we are again beginning to do more things for ourselves, not only can we expect more salutary forms of "being master of one's stuff," but perhaps even a reorientation of our sight away from the self-aggrandizement of the autonomous individual and toward more humble recognition of a divinely created order.

God once sent his prophets to rail against the sinful behavior of his people, to warn of God's displeasure and the prospect of His wrath, and needed often to rain down calamities to recall them to a straight path. Today's materialists pay little attention to any prophet who might speak in God's name, and so perhaps God has sent instead a prophet who can grab the attention of those who would deny his reign. And so, perhaps, after Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, there came Dow Jones...

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