I posted the following essay exactly three years ago today. I remain perplexed that the ideas I offer here have not found their way into genuine conversation and debate. It seems so obvious, to me, that the concept of employment arose out of servitude. How can we not have serious conversations about the philosophical underpinnings of employment?
Must We be Subservient?
I am writing this post to try to sort out, in my own mind, an issue involving people and work. Perhaps putting down in black and white my evolving thoughts will help me come to grips with the issue.
Specifically, I am writing this post in an attempt to understand why so many of us…the vast majority of us… in this country and, quite possibly, worldwide seem to believe we have to be hired by someone else if we are going to work. Our culture assumes people who want or need the ability to buy goods and services will go out and find a job. We don’t assume they will go out and create products or services that people want to buy.
Of course, we educate our young people so they can exchange their capabilities and knowledge for regular infusions of money and the label “employee.” But that’s by no means preparing them to go out and create their own futures. It appears we’re preparing them to go in search of the best, most lucrative caregiver. It’s as if society’s role is to prepare people to go in search of someone else upon whom to depend for their livelihoods. Why is that?
Why isn’t it the other way around? Why doesn’t our culture assume the people we educate and prepare for the world of work will work for themselves, creating products or services of value that others want to buy? Could the reason be, quite simply, that our culture inculcates in us a belief that we couldn’t possibly be successful in earning our way without depending on being “on the dole” from an employer of one kind or another?
Wait, I think I know what you’re thinking. Your first reaction to these questions and inferences is to label my thought process right-wing and bathed in regressive, deeply conservative values. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, my questions emerge from my left-of-center political perspectives and my growing distrust of the foundations of capitalism. You see, I think society DOES push us toward being “worker bees” who do the bidding of our employers, the majority of whom benefit financially from their employees’ efforts far more than do the employees themselves. I think society has reached that point over a long period of time because a relatively small and, in today’s world, increasingly powerful “production elite” has deliberately (over a very long period of time) manipulated it in that direction.
The success of this scheme depends heavily on the vast majority of people unwittingly reinforcing it. Parents tell their children to finish school so they can get a good job. Teachers discuss career choices with their students from the perspective of finding employment. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting parents and teachers or, for that matter, employers are part of a vast conspiracy to intentionally “serve the capitalist monster.” What I am suggesting is that the capitalist monster does nothing to dispel the idea that the right thing to do for most people is to go find a “job” so that golden ring of the work life, stability, can be achieved. “Normal” has been manipulated to mean “find someone to pay you, for you are not equipped to figure it out on your own.” We continue to accept that “normal,” even as the imaginary economic wonder-world disintegrates around us.
As stability in employment has become increasingly ephemeral, it is harder to understand how the average working person can continue to fully and unquestioningly accept the idea that his or her future is completely tied to one or two or, more likely, a string of employers, rather than his or her own willingness and ability to take risks, accept defeat, and pick oneself up and move on toward self-reliance.
Over time humanity has either succumbed to subtle economic blackmail that led to what amounts to de facto servitude or simply stumbled into today’s normalcy. Whatever the route to get here, most of us, in fact, rely on others to give us money that allows us to find shelter and put food on the table. How many among us would be able to continue to eat if we were suddenly faced with joblessness and no prospects for employment? How many of us have been “educated” into the position of being utterly, completely, irrevocably dependent on being allowed to keep the highly limited, almost robotic role of “employee” simply to be able to live.
We, most of us, can’t grow our own food and we can’t create the tools and implements we would need to build our own shelter. Most of us either are employees or just one step away from it. We need the economic structure we created. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t need us, at least not all of us.
Do we all need employers? Until we decide we don’t, we do.
None of this is meant to downplay the importance of employees. Even the most aggressive entrepreneurial spirit cannot overcome the simple fact that entrepreneurs cannot do it all alone. Employees are necessary, they are important, and they matter. But I think there are many people who, absent the socialization that minimizes the expectation of productive risk, would be far less dependent on capitalist machinery.
I do love a man who’s willing to grovel. You may hereby consider yourself forgiven, JS. Just never let it happen again!
Your question about others building roller coasters brings to mind an interesting film I saw a while ago. Yeah, I know, that’s so unusual for me, right? Anyway, it starred Alan Rickman and Mos Def. The story of a black janitor who observed the heart surgeons at a hospital – I think it was Johns Hopkins – and designed and trained white men to operate successfully on tiny babies. He saved countless lives through his ingenious work. But he was forced to go in through the back door thanks to segregation.
There is still plenty of de facto segregation going on, as workers are prevented from developing their talents. And it’s not just race-based.
I am deeply sorry, Holly, for not lavishing praise on your earlier comment. I have failed; I circled the drain and plunged in, head first, What sort of beast am I? What form of savage behaves the way I have done? Well, I forgive myself, so I hope you do, too. There’s no doubt we need people who love roller coasters as well as those who keep them clean. That having been said, I wonder how many who clean the seats would be building their own if the social order were turned on its head, shackling the power elite and freeing everyman from the imaginary bonds he seems so willing to embrace.
Oh, sure, JS… Give Juan the love, but nary an acknowledgment for me. At least that gentleman is kind enough to reference my brilliant film clip, and the McCarthyesque chiding I give you. He’s absolutely right; you would have been blacklisted like all of the Hollywood Ten and many others for the kinds of things you’re writing.
I find this from you particularly interesting: “wondering whether there’s a genetic predisposition for most people to be followers who respond to the world better if given the structure and security of employment, versus the freedom and risk of self-direction. What thoughts on these matters swirl around the brilliance inside your heads, I wonder?”
Well, Dearie, I’ll tell you. I kind of think there might be. A genetic predisposition, I mean. Some people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of embarking on any form of entrepreneurship. They just want to be told what to do and when to do it. They want a sure thing pay amount, even if it is far lower than if they struck out on their own. Some people are afraid of roller coasters, others cannot get enough of them.
Thank God there are both kinds. Otherwise the roller coaster lines would be too daunting. We need the visionaries. The leaders. But we also need the ditchdiggers.
Juan, I love your latest comment! You, sir, should have a blog! Have I ever suggested that? 😉
How many times have I heard from students why couldn’t a degree require just the bare rudiments of what they need for a job? They should be careful for what they pray for.
That lofty position we once held in becoming something of a renaissance man or woman (T. Jefferson was always my model) — of having that “well rounded education” suffers its declensionary status.
As public funding for higher education dries up, our public officials and college administrators adopt corporate practices, re-configuring the “student output” as mere consumers. As college teachers we saw this coming years ago. College presidents even address students as some statistical output in our private admin-faculty meetings.
Now in the wake of depleting full time labor or part time, our representatives prioritize career training over critical thought, and like a sinking boat, soon think of tossing out studies in ethics, logic, the social behavioral sciences, and humanities. As I said in my previous post, Japan has already acted upon this initiative. Florida is seriously considering it.
All or at least some of this, John, can be deracinated from your rant, that frankly speaking I don’t see as a rant at all, but a genuine, voiced concern of our future. Could we, for example, call Holly Forest’s visual example of Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis” a rant? No. It was a genuine concern for what corporatism was doing to culture during the turn of the century, the genuine concern in Modernism.
Review any Modernistic literature and you are reviewing the concern of mankind’s loss of individualism to the collective black hole of “man as collective labor,” or as you cleverly write, “dole” from an employer of one kind or another.”
The noun “dole.” whether as earner or dependent, is beautiful mind-candy to suck on.
I don’t give a shit what “they” espouse about Marx’s connective tissue to communism: Karl Marx was a PhD economist and a Jew. The former outlines his academic, philosophic prowess for the discussion of capitalism, while the latter suggests another reason for the theory’s marginalization.
You know that in the 1950s your “disturbing questions” (Forrest, September 24, 2015) might be considered seditious. Some Grand Inquisitor of the Right Wing might have asked, “Are you a communist? What say you of Christ?”
I think the ideas I offer here have holes in them, perhaps, but they are holes that my intelligent friends can easily fill. I think about this idea of employment from time to time, wondering whether there’s a genetic predisposition for most people to be followers who respond to the world better if given the structure and security of employment, versus the freedom and risk of self-direction. What thoughts on these matters swirl around the brilliance inside your heads, I wonder?
You radical! These are very disturbing questions!
Calls to mind this clip…. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lsQ7wWCjHX0
I’ll converse with you over this. As a past piece I just simply didn’t see it. Maybe at the time I was diddling with FB when I should have been scavenging the fields for the good stuff — like this stuff.
This topic IS worthy of our thought and talk — from Aristotle’s discussion on Labor and Leisure to the essays of Karl Marx, to the latent actions of Japanese public higher education to do away with studies in behavioral science and humanities for a degree. Let’s face it: we are on our way to a culture of worker-education, with the next step meaning the closure of public institutions of learning and onto that becoming the responsibility of corporate fiefdoms and corporate labor farms.
But, I’m going to think on this some before I post something significant. it’s morning and I’ve got to get some labor done here for classes that begin in two more hours.
Thanks for this, my friend! You are an icon of inspiration.