Vox calls for a “break” from capitalism to focus on mental health issues along with a complete restructuring of work in general, presuming we’d all be better off sitting at home complaining about our plight. Fortunately, a progressive philosopher still recognizes the dignity of work and believes it could be the answer to Democrat struggles to connect with the working class.
I’ve long believed that there are two completely baffling strains of thought in some progressive circles. The first is an inability to understand that products and services don’t simply spring into existence in stores or arrive in our homes out of thin air. Instead, every man made object you see around you, from the simple like a spoon to the complex like a car or a computer needs to be designed, manufactured, packaged, and shipped, a process involving hundreds if not thousands of people, consuming thousands if not millions of hours of effort. There’s an old thought experiment that encapsulates this idea nicely: No one knows how to make a pencil. It sounds ridiculous. How can no one know how to make something that is readily found in almost every home in the country? It’s true, however, when you consider that no single person on this planet knows the complete details of every part of a pencil, the process to secure those parts from the rubber of the eraser to the graphite of the writing instrument itself, the wood, the paint, the engraving, and ultimately the packaging. This knowledge is instead distributed across different sectors of the economy. Thus, the pencil maker knows how to assemble the final product. They don’t source the wood or make the rubber. They order raw materials from other companies who specialize in those fields, combining them into the familiar form with their expertise in pencils.
The second, related strain of thought finds the work that goes into producing all of these goods and services somewhat unnecessary and even distasteful, as if we could all simply be doing better things and we’re only working for a living out of some weird fetish for capitalism. You often see this strain manifesting itself in the belief that work either too much or too hard. Commercialism, as the thinking goes, has reduced life to a rat race. We work to earn money, and then spend that money on too many things in a vicious cycle where no one gets ahead except the rich. Moreover, much of the work we spend most of our time on seems like unnecessary drudgery, toiling away in an office or at a factory, working the fields at a farm or on the road in sales, when we could all be artists and entertainers, spending our time pursuing whatever takes our fancy.
Of course, if you combine these two strains of thought and bring them to their logical conclusions, the entire world as we know it would collapse around us. The hundreds of items we use in our daily lives would no longer appear on store shelves, everything from cars to simple pencils, even forgetting food and the other necessities of life.
Hundreds of years ago, humans worked to provide almost all of their basic necessities for themselves and their families. Farms and small towns would be largely self-sustaining, the people living in them literally toiling for their daily bread, baking it themselves and churning their own butter. While this has always been something of an illusion, at least since the Renaissance communities have had an ever increasing division of labor, there is no doubt that the average person’s relationship to work has changed in the modern era. Now, we work at one thing and we get paid in money with which we buy other things. This specialization of labor into discrete fields is often given short shrift in the grand scheme of economic life, but it remains on the fundamental pillars of the modern world. Without it, our lives would be nothing like they are today. The computer engineer who had to spend their time milking cows for butter would have far less time to devote to inventing the next microchip. The doctor who does the same would be able to treat less patients, much less develop new breakthroughs. The specialization of labor unlocks massive economic potential, harnessing it for both productivity and innovation. This specialization has added the benefit of allowing us to work less than our ancestors. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, a six day workweek was the norm. Children would toil in factories for 12 or even 18 hours a day. Today, we expect something close to 9-5, weekends and holidays off.
At the same time, the overall exchange remains the same. The product of our labor enables us to survive and, hopefully, prosper. Without it, we would starve and society itself would cease to function. This should be obvious to anyone with even the most basic understanding of economics, but some segment of progressives refuse to accept reality and the many benefits we reap from it, preferring to wage a war on work in ways both subtle and more obvious. Last week was a masterclass in this line of thinking when Anna North, writing for Vox.com, pondered, “The world as we know it is ending. Why are we still at work?” “For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism. A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
But how can one take a break from the system that feeds every family, heats every home, provides every essential service, and ultimately produced a vaccine in record time? Where does Ms. North believe all of this comes from? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is referring to non-essential workers only, as in workers deemed essential would keep punching the clock so the world keeps running while the rest of us take a long vacation. The only problem is these essential workers take up a huge segment of the economy by themselves. They are the majority, not the minority. According to the Department of Labor this includes, at a minimum, “grocery stores, public transportation, agriculture, health care, day care, retail and other sectors.” We should also include most government workers as police, fire, courts, patents, permits, etc. all need to continue to function, and we still need factory workers actually producing the supplies, plus all of the companies they rely on to get their jobs done. This means transportation and logistics, technology companies, and all of their suppliers as well. Overall, the Department of Labor estimates that essential workers are more than half of all low wage earners and that only includes the smaller segment. How precisely can you put “almost the whole economy on pause” when well over half the country is deemed essential anyway?
For the record, economic activity did plunges some 33.3% in March 2020. We paused everything that was non-essential for a brief period, but then we quickly went back to work. Ms. North believes this was some kind of travesty as she plunges toward one of her key conclusions. “Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.” The first question that comes to mind: Is this really a “new” standard? Have we ever somehow paused the economy and took a break from capitalism? Not to my knowledge, no. The last major pandemic, the Hong Kong Flu, hit in 1968 and killed between 1 million and 4 million people globally. There were no shutdowns beyond a few local hotspots, no pause, no break. Instead, life went on like it always did. There was a presidential election that year, but no push for mail in ballots. Even frivolous entertainment continued apace. Woodstock, in fact, was planned right in the middle of it.
Twenty five years earlier, America entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once again, we continued working, drafting more women than ever into the labor force to meet the demands of the day. In other words, we worked more, not less during that “apocalypse.” The same is true of World War I two decades before, except of course World War I was accompanied by a global pandemic of its own, the Spanish Flu. How about earlier? Sixty years prior, America was embroiled in the bloodiest conflict in our history, the Civil War. Did we pause the economy while brother was killing brother and our own cities and towns were turned into killing fields? No, we actually started building the transcontinental railroad right smack in the middle of it, the most ambitious construction project in US history at the time. The demand for labor was so great that we were importing indentured servants from China. Even during our own revolution, when we declared our independence from England and took on the world’s most powerful country, economic life continued. There was no pause or break, nothing of the sort. There has never been. This isn’t some new standard Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk invented in March 2020, or some malevolent offshoot of modern capitalism. It’s always been the standard, and for obvious reasons: People need to eat, they need to participate, they need to socialize, and they need to work to live.
Ms. North’s area of concern doesn’t end with the pandemic either. She believes there is an entire litany of traumatic events that, in her mind at least, should give us all a break from working for a living. These include “an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans.” In other words, Ms. North seems to believe this “pause” would have lasted for at least two years and likely be continuing right now. Given that, one wonders if there is any event that would require us to return to work, not the other way around.
The second question we should ask is more fundamental: Is it really true that working through the pandemic is causing all of this stress? That if we only stayed home and did nothing, everyone would have better mental health? To support this conclusion, she quotes Riana Elyse Anderson, a psychologist and professor at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “I don’t think people are well. We are moving along but we are certainly not well.” She also quotes another expert, Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of the book Out of Office, about the horror of working through a riot thousands of miles away from your home, the attack on the Capitol on January 6. “This is the black heart of productivity culture: the maniacal focus on the individual capacity to produce elides the external forces that could (and should!) short-circuit our concentration and work ethic.” Ms. Peterson continues, “If we had time and space to process the tragedies of daily life, if we gave ourselves permission for deep empathy — then maybe we’d have the fortitude and will to fight for the changes that would actually make the world less traumatic.”
Perhaps needless to say, Ms. North sees an opportunity amid all this terror “to remake American culture around an ethic of care rather than productivity.” What would that look like? “Experts say what’s needed is, at minimum, a new approach to employee well-being and, at a maximum, a full rethinking of the meaning of work in America.” Translation: None of these people really think that work is essential for people’s well being. They think it’s far more important for everyone to sit around talking about their feelings all day, describing their latest terrors and traumas, rather than being productive members of society. This, of course, is precisely backwards. The result of these recommended interventions would far more likely be more trauma and psychological problems, not less. Work provides structure to people’s lives, keeps them busy and out of trouble, empowers them to pursue their needs and wants, and offers essential dignity, more on that in a moment. In the meantime, it seems clear to me that one of the chief causes of the pandemic’s psychological fall out is, in fact, the economic dislocation of not working every day, not the other way around. Millions of people saw their livelihoods disappear after government enforced shut downs, and even for those working economic anxiety increased by orders of magnitude. Children were no longer going to school. Everyone was supposed to stay home whenever possible. This was actually the problem in my opinion and certainly spending more time at home where, for example women and children were more likely to be abused, isn’t the answer. Work and the freedom to live your life that comes with it is.
Fortunately, not all progressives think this way. There is another, competing strain of thought that believes progressive ideas are failing to breakthrough in America and around the world because they have forgotten the basic dignity of work. The New Yorker profiles Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard. Mr. Sandel believes that we are continually dividing the economy in the “smart” set of achievers and the “dumb” set of failures. “Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” He further believes that Democrats are increasingly targeting only the smart set, citing former President Barack Obama who referred to his own policies as “smart” over 900 times. Mr. Sandel describes this phenomenon in a book, The Tyranny of Merit, where credentialed, successful people increasingly think their opinions are facts and therefore they can lord it over everyone else. The only problem: Only about 2 in 5 voters are actually in the credentialed class or even close to it. An appeal to the munificence of this group risks alienating the significantly larger group.
Mr. Sandel’s answer is a return to focusing on the dignity of work and respect, and he believes President Joe Biden agrees. “He’s in a way the first post-meritocrat, post-neoliberal Democrat since before Reagan,” Sandel said. This includes his personal background as the first President in thirty-two years without an Ivy League degree, and his political orientation. “The standard Democratic slogan about ‘If you are able to go to college, you can rise as far as your efforts and talents can take you’—Biden didn’t talk that way. Neither, by the way, did Bernie Sanders.” You are free to debate whether or not President Biden encapsulates these ideas. Personally, I think at his best he does connect with working people well by not wearing his privilege on his sleeve, but he’s also surrounded by progressive consultants that urge him to embrace the technocracy, as well as being part of a political party that’s obsessed with it. Regardless, Mr. Sandel believes Biden in particular and Democrats in general can be more successful if they do three things. Reconnect with the working class, adopt policies that emphasize the dignity of work, and “give up on the neoliberal economic orthodoxies and technocratic meritocracy that prevailed in his party and set its tone for four decades.” In other words, do precisely the opposite of what Ms. North and the other strain of progressive thought advocates. We can only hope Mr. Sandel’s side ultimately wins this fight. Work is something almost everyone needs to feel connected to society and there’s essential dignity in a day’s pay whether you are a janitor or a doctor. The alternative, it seems to me, is more chaos and trauma not less. What’s that old expression about idle hands and minds?