Sunday, June 03, 2012

No Place for Meaning

The United States is entering the final stages of a presidential race that -- in my view -- will be a referendum on the value of work. Quite honestly, I fear that racism may provide the margin of victory for a vision of labor that will forever diminish the lives of workers of all races and all but the most rarefied economic classes.

The View from Lazy Point -- Carl Safina's sweeping exploration of the gap between our conventional ways of thinking about the world and the challenges we face as a human race -- includes the following passage about how we have come to value work. One presidential candidate has built his fortune on a much different view, but the following really captures my own view of what business can and should be. This passage bears careful reading, for its examination of the unraveling of work, family, commerce, democracy, and thought itself.
In my town, the Sou'wester Bookstore is no more, Rudy the druggist and his wife are holding on by their fingernails, and the youngish couple who've bought the hardware store are clearly worried. These are true men and women in the best sense of the word "business." they are enterprising threads in the fabric of our community, not just commuters who drive away in the morning and appear only behind their lawn mower and their trash cans. When I enter a local store and the bell above the door rings, I know I will be welcomed by name and the shopkeeper and I will trade something valuable.
That's why for their sakes and mine, I do my shopping on this side of the tracks when I can. This gets increasingly difficult as the mall-and-chain drags real businesses and real people to exhaustion. By so dreadfully shrinking opportunities for people to go into business for themselves, the chains keep people acting as their stockboys and salesgirls well beyond the time they should have taken their place as adults in our communities. The middle-aged workers in the big-box stores seem like elderly teenagers, deprived of authority, creativity, responsibility, and pride. Mostly, they're nice people with a desire to be helpful. What could they have accomplished if given a chance? They may never understand who they are; they'll certainly never know who they might have been. Open on holidays, the chains undermine tehir employees' time for family. (Why anyone is actually shopping for TVs and washing machines on Thanksgiving is a question so large its answer eludes the wide, wide net of even my own cynicism.) Thus the chain stores threaten family more than any same-sex marriage, threaten Sunday more than Darwin ever could. Seeing my island in chans has driven me to the fringes, made me a castaway on my own native shores, a refugee inside my homeland. And for that I thank them. In that banal way, they helped me understand, at least, who I am not.
Though the shopping mall has largely driven Main Street out of business by usurping its commercial intercourse, it rejects Main Street's civic discourse. A friend reports tha in his nearby megamall, people handing out anti-war leaflets were arrested. Free speech has no place on "private property"; it could distract those in the consumer caste from tehir main task and sole worth. Just keep the lite jazz playin'. A generation or so ago -- one tends to forget -- those same people were citizens in a democracy. (Safina, 306-307)
I would quickly add that the poverty of opportunity Safina identifies is a loss of meaningful work not only for the potential owners of small businesses, but also those who could contribute so much more to their communities as employees of local business than they can as employees of distant investors and speculators.

Sadly, educational institutions often contribute to the growth of McJobs described above, as they outsource much of the employment that is available on their campuses. As I explain in my Guru, Inc. post, this is partly the result of ever-shrinking public support for public education. In such circumstances, creative thinking is required if we are to provide education by both word and example, and to have critical thinking removed even from the seats of learning.

Photo: Zohaa Basra
The busy coffee shop shown above is at at Stetson University. It is not an ideal situation -- the workers are employed by Sodexo rather than by the university itself. But they are employed, and they work in an environment that is varied and interesting and that -- most importantly -- allows them to participate meaningfully with the students and faculty at that university.
Vending machines humming along 24/7 in a space between a state-of-the
art bottle filler and a vacant space that could employ actual people
to serve food. Some sort of cafe will eventually be in place for peak hours,
but those vending machines are proving VERY difficult to remove.
Meanwhile, at my own university, a proposal to create an even more dynamic work place languishes. A space designated for a cafe remains empty, but the space immediately behind it already "employs" vending machines -- a reserve army of mechanized food service that stands ready to disemploy human labor, even as it consumes enormous amounts of electricity and plastic packaging. 

The vending machines remind me of the looms that were the targets of the original Luddite movement two hundred years ago, but with added environmental demerits. Given the confluence of environmental destruction and rampant unemployment in this Luddite bicentennial year, people are re-examining the relationships among technology, labor, and the environment. 

Many of the original Luddites were executed -- some for crimes against other humans, but more for their crimes against machines. Yes, even in the early decades of the industrial revolution, the state sided with capital, and quickly made the destruction of a loom a hanging offense.


It is easy to dismiss those who try to defend the interests of labor over capital, tagging them as "Luddites" opposed to progress. But just as the original Chipko tree-huggers were loggers who resisted the pace and scope of logging in India, modern critics of "creative destruction" call into question the pace of disemployment and the breach of social contracts. When official unemployment is 8 percent, real unemployment 14 percent, and youth unemployment closer to 75 percent, it is time to take a serious look at the choices we make, both as individuals and as institutions.

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