September 3, 2021

On Monday, the United States celebrates Labor Day, designated a national holiday in 1894, celebrating the dignity and worth of labor and the working class.   To most Americans, it celebrates the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year:  probably few of us pause to consider its meaning and the implications of such a holiday.  But the symbolism of a holiday celebrating the working class is in fact startlingly radical, even if some people skeptically dismiss it as a mere gesture.  Even as a gesture, it points to a change in modern social mythology. 

I spoke last week of a progressive dialectic in education between an old elitism and a developing democratic educational ideal.  A similar dialectic is true of labor.  The old European aristocracy prided themselves on not working.   The new capitalist elite prided themselves upon being “captains of industry,” although they were in fact “robber barons.”  The tendency to lionize such people (by calling them captains of industry, as Carlyle did) is still with us.  The protagonists of Ayn Rand’s novels, those dynamic, strong-willed “job creators,” have been models for contemporary robber barons such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and those who run Google.  Far from finding labor beneath their dignity, these figures pride themselves on how many hours they work, far beyond the hours worked by their employees, those parasites and “takers” who depend on them. 

Perhaps sociologist Max Weber exaggerated the role of religion when he gave us the concept of the “Protestant work ethic” in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but there is no doubt that the 19th century business titans felt they were virtuous because they worked so hard and long, an attitude shared by their contemporary descendants.  Yes, their industriousness led to brutal mistreatment of their employees and ruthless (and often illegal) treatment of their competitors, but such sins are easily atoned for, once one’s fortune is made, by philanthropy, much as medieval barons and princes redeemed themselves by endowing cathedrals and going on Crusades, gaining themselves not just absolution but an odor of sanctity.  We see the process at work presently on the earlier generation of robber barons such as Bill Gates.

We are supposedly beholden to the capitalist elite in two ways.  First, they are said to uphold the economy, at least so long as they are placated by more and more tax cuts.  This is a lie promulgated by the right at least since the Reagan era.  What the entrepreneurial elite have chiefly produced, in alliance with their deregulating political enablers, is income inequality so increasingly extreme that it has devastated the lives of those who work for them and destabilized the entire society.  Second, they give us our consumer products—cheap and with fast delivery—and our electronic gadgets.  Even someone as reportedly arrogant and abrasive as Steve Jobs is ambivalently admired because he gave us that greatest gift of all, the smartphone. The celebration of labor in the United States has all too often been the celebration of these self-proclaimed titans of industry, so much so that the glamorous aura of titanism helped Donald Trump gain the presidency, even though in his case it was a lie:  Trump was and is no genuine business mover and shaker but the inheritor of a fortune that he used to become a thoroughgoing con artist.  

Large animals have their parasites. The barnacles clinging to the business Leviathan are the banking and financial crowd.  The vast monopolies created by the ruthless and amoral practices of the business titans are rationalized because they create short-term profits for shareholders.  Trump’s obsession with the stock market shows his awareness that the wolves of Wall Street are part of the system that keeps the elite in power.  Here is another group proud of how long and hard it works, often fueled by cocaine, as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) showed.  But works to do what?  To play Las Vegas-style investment games with other people’s money, resulting in the 2008 economic meltdown.   The dignity of labor?  Why work for money when you can conjure it?  Trump was obsessed with Wall Street because it is dominated by the same kind of con artistry he himself engages in.   And the wannabes are realizing that Trump and Wall Street are right:  there’s a sucker born every minute.  Paul Krugman has recently written in the New York Times about the extent to which the anti-vax crusade is being driven by people who are making fortunes pedaling “snake oil,” supposed alternatives to the vaccines, most recently cattle de-wormer.  Those who have been stampeded by herd instinct need to be de-wormed all right, but, sadly, their parasites are not biological. 

None of this was inevitable.  The constructive power that I call the imagination can be used for good or evil, and the movement identified with Reaganism in the United States and Thatcherism in England has constructed a system based on the exploitation of the very laboring class that Labor Day exists to celebrate.   But what is imagined can be re-imagined, and the current crisis is in fact an opportunity to begin doing so.  An egalitarian counter-movement to the industrial, business, and financial elitism I have been describing was born in the late 19th century.   The Haymarket uprising in Chicago on May 4,1886 helped lead to the birth of International Workers Day on May 1.  The Haymarket event began as a union demonstration advocating an 8-hour workday but turned violent.   When the administration of Grover Cleveland established Labor Day in 1894, it was deliberately located at the other end of the year, anxiously swerving away from the revolutionary implications of May 1.  The union movement pushed for the rights and dignity of the average working man and woman and was given a big boost in the 1930’s by the Great Depression, when folk singers like Pete Seeger in the United States and Ewan MacColl in England departed from folk traditionalism to write new folk songs promoting unions and workers’ rights.   And people began to talk of “socialism” as an alternative to laissez-faire capitalism, although that word could mean anything from nationalization of industry to the kind of capitalism with restraints and social safety net that has become known as “democratic socialism,” a version of which has been advocated recently by Bernie Sanders.  

The first thing the skeptics will tell us is that none of this works.  The union movement was corrupted:  another Scorsese film, The Irishman, shows how large unions like the Teamsters became basically the business façade of organized crime.  Socialism is said to be naïve.  Capitalism has triumphed because it accepts, and in fact celebrates, the “fact” that human nature is basically evil:  it is innately selfish and aggressive in pursuit of its selfish desires.  Any system that depends upon a more idealistic view of human motivation is doomed to disillusionment.   In short, capitalism is the vehicle of Social Darwinism, the philosophy that drives all the business titans, whether they read Ayn Rand at an impressionable age or not.  Socialist governments become huge, intrusive bureaucracies that attempt to regulate every detail of individual life.  Freedom disappears in the name of equality, and those who benefit from such a system are really parasites.   That is the philosophical version of the opposition view, held by members of the educated upper echelon like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney.  On the lower levels, you have Trump supporters screaming about “socialism” without the slightest idea what they are talking about.  

Behind the chaotic upheavals of the daily news is a contest between two imaginative models of human nature and society.  If human nature is intrinsically selfish and aggressive, the social model will be “late capitalist” economically and elitist, authoritarian, and imperialist politically.  The counter-vision, however, is based on the hypothesis, not that human nature is good, but that it is neutral and capable of moving in the direction of the good if properly nurtured during its development.  In other words, goodness is not an original essential human nature but a final goal towards which we strive through progressive imaginative transformations. 

I am afraid that we were not in the end well served by the intellectual movement that dominated the humanities beginning in the later Sixties, often called post-structuralism, although that phenomenon was really only part of a larger Zeitgeist.  There was loud outcry against “essentialism” and in favor of “social constructionism,” which should have led, or at least led more often, to visions and programs of social transformation.   But what won out, at least in my view, was a kind of hidden, often unconscious essentialism whose premise was that Nietzsche was right, that everything is a manifestation of a will to power.  Any contestation of that view was dismissed as bourgeois liberal “mystification.”   Thus, the far left was in agreement with the far right, differing only in its response:  instead of predatory opportunism, it was afflicted with a radical skepticism that could take various forms, from a passive resignation that retreated into cultivating its own sociopolitical garden (identity politics and the like) to a kind of radical-chic intellectual nihilism.  There were many acute analyses of all the contemporary problems, but at the same time a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that crippled attempts to imagine a better society and a better future. 

Nor has that mood of supposedly toughminded despair lifted.  I have said before that I am somewhat leery of the present popularity of dystopias and after-the-apocalypse novels and films.  No doubt I am over-generalizing, but I am uneasy with what seems a kind of unhealthy addiction to what we might call doomsday porn.  It is not that dystopian and apocalyptic works should not exist, but they should be supplemented by works that sketch, however tentatively, a genuine utopian model for our time.  And at the center of any such model will be a vision of labor that turns the elitist model inside out.

For a long time, such a vision has been dismissed out of hand:  the juggernaut of global “late capitalism” was said to be far too powerful to be challenged.  And yet—we are at a crisis point such as perhaps has not been reached in my lifetime.  Writing in The Guardian, Michael Jacobs, professor of political economy at the University of Sheffield, makes a case that recovery from the pandemic, not to mention from Trumpism and the aftermath of Brexit, cannot be a return to “business as usual,” and that the present moment of destabilization, despite being awful in so many ways, may present a greater opportunity for systemic change than we have seen in a long time, and he praises Biden for seeming to recognize this:

“Biden’s policies have surprised many, but they did not emerge from thin air. His administration has drawn on a wealth of new thinking that has emerged in response to the economic crises of the last decade. The 2008 global crash demonstrated that a new form of capitalism dominated by finance had become deeply unstable. This was followed by long years of austerity and slow growth, stagnating wages, stalling productivity.  Meanwhile, climate and environmental catastrophe threatens catastrophe for even the richest economies. Grappling with these problems, a growing number of economists have explicitly rejected the orthodoxy of free markets and hands-off government that has dominated western economic policy over the past 40 years.” 

A bit later, he adds:

“Above all, many are starting to realise that economic policy needs to end its fixation with growth. Growth was never the only aim, but economists long assumed that it would solve most other problems. It’s now clear this was never the case.”  [“Western Economies Can’t Return to ‘Business as Usual’ After the Pandemic”].

The challenging of the status quo may bring back into the conversation alternatives to the “alienated labor,” as Marx called it, that is the inevitable consequence of finance-driven, monopolistic global capitalism.  Some of these alternatives have been waiting around for a long time.  In one of the greatest of all utopias (and one of the first “ecotopias”), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), the mass-production economy has been decentralized, individualized, and focused upon the ideal of creative work.  This has often been regarded as a naïve, artsy-craftsy notion.  Yet here we are in the era of Etsy, of Patreon and other crowd-sourcing solutions, of self-publishing and print on demand.  Corporate capitalism has become so bloated that entire categories of art, such as folk music and the mid-list novel, have had to turn away from the big labels and big publishers to survive—and in doing so found many advantages.  With modern, computerized techniques of organization and distribution, there is no reason the giant monopolies cannot be at least partly broken up and production transformed into something worker-controlled, worker-owned, and on a small, more intimate human scale, without too much loss of efficiency. 

Fewer and fewer people are alive who remember that, believe it or not, there was much talk in the Fifties and early Sixties of a coming Age of Leisure.  Automation would eliminate not only the drudgery but the long, killing hours that the Haymarket demonstrators were rebelling against.  Full-time employment would be not only unnecessary but impossible:  therefore, a guaranteed minimum income would have to be instituted, an idea originating with a conservative economist, Milton Friedman.  What work would still exist could be made much less alienated by enlightened business practices that would in fact increase productivity by increasing worker satisfaction and engagement, as Abraham Maslow, who had already made creative work a necessity for fulfilling the basic need of “self-esteem,” laid out in his book Eupsychian Management, based on the study of actual pioneering businesses. Modern medicine and modern diet were in the process of adding 25-3o years to the average lifespan, so that in addition to a work week shortened to perhaps 20 hours, people would have decades of retirement to fill with leisure activities.   University enrollment was already exploding, and the Age of Leisure was forecast to be an age of education, not practical education but education for enrichment, liberal education, with the humanities at its center.  

What happened?  Who miscalculated the logical trajectory of late capitalism?  Already in 1992, when sociologist Juliet Shor published The Overworked American, employees in the United States were working a full month more each year than those of any other country, even Japan.  The answer?  No one miscalculated it:  it was re-calculated.  Political decisions were made to prevent an Age of Leisure from coming about.  The student rebellions of the Sixties showed both corporate types and politicians what could happen as a byproduct of financial security, leisure, and the kind of education that promotes critical thinking.  People who have time on their hands and are not too tired and stressed out by their lives get ideas, and that is dangerous to all the vested interests.   So the system was deliberately rigged, sometimes blindly, sometimes consciously (through systematic union-busting, deregulation, and the like), and the present regime of financial insecurity despite persistent overwork along with increasingly inaccessible education is the result.  The obsessive conservative hostility to the social safety net, which seems like gratuitous cruelty, is another aspect of the same phenomenon.  Comfortable people are dangerous people:  they are difficult to control and manipulate.  In fairness to conservatives, neoliberalism also played a role in this process of regression from the enlightened vision symbolized by the New Deal. 

I am idealistic enough to believe that the regression can be reversed, but it may take a revival of some of the spirit of May 1.  The contemporary author who most thoroughgoingly embodies the utopian spirit is science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson.  His latest novel, The Ministry of the Future (2020), chosen as a book of the year by Barack Obama, is full of the rebellious spirit of May 1.  But it is his earlier novel Pacific Edge (1990) that gives the most attractive picture I have ever encountered of what a world of capitalism redeemed by “democratic socialism” would be like to live in, and to work in.  Nothing in it is impossible, technologically, economically, politically.   We could bring it about tomorrow.  We could, we should—and in fact we must.