Thursday, May 24, 2007

It wasn't always this way.

I'm reading a seminal book by Richard M. Weaver called "Ideas Have Consequences." The major theme will probably bubble-up in future posts. A minor topic Weaver touches on is an area I think the handful of smart readers of this blog are interested in - and that's work.

Weaver talks about work before the Industrial Revolution, and describes the daily routine as a continuation of prayer. The worker was driven by the desire to work perfectly, to constantly improve their craft under the eyes of God, as this was their significant contribution to the whole.

Take this out of a religious context and it still works. Consider the farmer, who was connected to the land. Let's assume this farmer was an atheist. Each morning the farmer wakes and is at the mercy of nature. Any abrupt change in climate could ruin his livelihood and starve his family. Part of his work is accepting the fact that there are variables out of his control. Each day in the field is therefore a communication with nature. He tends to the field and listens, perceives, touches nature's signals. The farmer has no choice but to accept the fact that his fate lies in a higher power - even if he chooses not to mythologize it.

Take the craftsmen. The craftsmen learns a trade and accepts it for the rest of his life. For the craftsmen the tool he creates is the ultimate reflection of himself. The emphasis is on quality, on creating a most magnificent tool, and then improving on it. For to improve on it is to improve upon himself.

Think about this - if you knew you were going to create horseshoes every single day for the rest of your life, would you create hunks of trash? Or would you begin to craft the most perfect horseshoe that ever existed? The craftsmen who chooses mediocrity has reason to drink, the craftsmen who chooses excellence has good reason to get up early in the morning, as his work has meaning.

Enter the Industrial Revolution, where the machine drives a wedge between the craftsmen and the tool, the farmer and the land. The machine cares not for quality but quantity, nor does it communicate with nature but rather fight it. If a machine could worship, it would worship consistency.

The worker is now a slave to the accountant, who cares only for numbers. This is the point where Marx jumped in and said the worker must revolt against the accountant, then equally disperse the profits. But this doesn't solve the problem does it? The workers can rid themselves of the accountant but they must keep the machine. They cannot revolt against the machine if they want to continue the profits.

Instead, according to Weaver, the worker in the capitalist country essentially plays the game and commoditizes work. Work is then negotiated like any other transaction. And the goal of the workday changes from striving toward perfection to maximizing efficiency. In other words, the worker ceases to create something he's proud of, and instead strives to give the least effort for the best price. Work is therefore severed from any spiritual or worthwhile meaning. The worker no longer worships nature, God, a higher power, but rather a new entity - the consumer. They create for the consumer in the day and become the consumer when not working.

This is where many people start preaching against the material world. Yelling at people to stop buying stuff. The idea is if people quench their desire to have things, they wouldn't need to work so hard to get them, and will therefore be content. I don't agree with this though, because even if one were to own only the bare necessities they would still not answer the problem of what gets them up in the morning and out the door.

I don't have the answer, but I'm leaning toward the idea that serving the consumer doesn't quite light a fire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this was probably one of the most intelligent things I've read in a long time. Well done.