Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Praise Of Routine Work

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Nine
Barbara Garson, All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work


Back in my teaching days, I used to insist, as many English teachers do, that nobody is ever really too busy, tired, or overworked to occasionally read a book. Sure, people come home tired, and reading requires effort, but if we put aside vain pursuits that narcotize us, like television, we always have the strength to nurture our intellectual well-being. Typical arrogant teacher. I realized how wrong I was, in part, when I discovered Barbara Garson.

The essential argument underlying this book is that human beings want to work. We love work. Work is part of our nature. But human beings don't work with the unstoppable fervor of machines, so the people who dole out work have tried to compress us into the role of industrial robots. The modern workplace, in which laborers don’t own the product of our labors, is actually the arena for an epic cold war between labor and management—which manifests in surprising, even humorous ways.

Garson doesn't pretend to be impartial. She's outspokenly socialist, believing that the people who do jobs are best capable of judging how those jobs ought to be done. She is not looking for a free hand in the world, and she's not looking to loaf on the clock. But when work is stripped of its inherent meaning and reduced to trivial repetitive twists and pulls, this necessarily strips the workers of some of their noble humanity.

The most important lesson Garson pulls from her experience observing workers and their work is not that work exists. The standard socialist line, which Garson admits she held walking into this project, contends that work is a monolithic evil imposed on us by external forces. Why should anybody want to trade away their strength and health for a few measly dollars on the hour? Are we worth so little to ourselves that we will sell our time so cheaply?

But on the ground, Garson discovered what generations of philosophers and mushy leftist provocateurs before her already found, that jobs are not imposed on us. We work because our efforts define our spirits. When tedious jobs seem vacant of meaning, workers diligently do whatever they can, play any silly game or assume any volunteer task, to make meaning. Garson writes:
The crime of modern industry is not forcing us to work, but denying us real work. For no matter what tricks people play on themselves to make the day's work meaningful, management seems determined to remind them, "You are just tools for our use."
Garson began this book in the 1970s, and you can tell. Several of her interviewees think they're doing pretty well to be making a buck eighty-five an hour, because that's two dimes better than some of their friends. Her earliest interviewees are bulk industrial workers manufacturing light consumer goods, a field that barely exists in the U.S. these days. Factory work, I have learned, may lack meaning, but you can look at your line’s daily output and see what you accomplished.

Her final interviewees crunch computers for banks and other institutions, often supervised by software packages that count keystrokes. Such regimes measure busywork and assume it correlates with productivity. Creative office drones find intriguing ways to subvert the system, but too few are trained to understand the machines they operate. If anything, data work is even more meaningless because cube dwellers can't see their co-workers and have no idea if the next person on the line is even still alive.

Sadly, such weariness does exist that it robs people of the ability to nurture their minds. But it does not come about from slovenliness or the lack of interest. It comes because people care so much about their work, and struggle so hard to imbue meaningless toil with spiritual significance, that they have no strength left at the end of the day. The intimate struggle with impersonal forces creates the context of our lives, and consumes the energy teachers want us to use elsewhere.

If you've ever had a job so trivial that you wonder why you bother, you'll recognize that you're not alone. If you've always been on top of the heap, you'll gain a broad understanding of what it's like for the people whose shoulders you stand on. Either way, you're likely to understand why it's so important that workers link arms and stand together, what they lose when they work with blinders on, and what work could be if humanity were restored to its place of honor.

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