There Is No Such Thing As a Self-Made Man: What We Owe the Worker

Reprinted from Patheos.

spent my Labor Day weekend laboring: I dug potatoes, started a batch of sauerkraut, simmered beef bones to make stock for Vietnamese pho, froze vegetables, and canned sauce. I tried to deal with the weeds in my garden, and then gave up the unequal struggle. I don’t mind that I spend my days off working, though, because the work was on my own land, for my own business, for my own family. The workers of the previous two centuries who stood up for their rights against their bosses had no such luxury. Their work was not their own; the profits of their labors dissipated into the remote coffers of those who owned the means of production.

It’s much easier to work long hard hours when you know that your work, your physical and mental action, is not being appropriated. The action of a person flows from her being – it is not a mere consequence, something spit out into the ether and left to hover there. Work is connected with intellect and will, it is inseparable from the body. Work cannot be considered a mere commodity, something that one produces and then hands over – it is not among the many “means of production” that the masters of capital claim.

Work has theological significance, as the church has always recognized. Work has to do with our relation to creation, our responsibility to it, our dependence on it, and the marks we leave on it,our footprints in the soil.

It is interesting that in conversations about market ethics we presume that some acts are per se unsellable – sex acts, for instance – and that the very marketing of the “act of love” degrades it, or reduces the person to a means to pleasure. But maybe we need to take more seriously the way in which we violate workers by reducing all their acts to mere commodities. Maybe every human action, all human work, is in some way unsellable – perhaps there must always be some semblance of a gift, some recognition of mutuality. Work performed for meagre wages for a boss whose face you never see – work performed for wages set by some invisible committee, without regard for the personhood of the worker – work reducible to terms in a contract created by power and force – perhaps there is a violation of the person in this, too? And not only in terms of social justice, not only in that the worker was not given his due in the open agora of exchange, but that something of her being was violated, her acts appropriated, her bodily and intellectual engagement with creation boiled down to a mere thing, oil in a barrel, but not even worth bombing foreign countries for. She was just standing reserve, nothing really, until someone decided to take her off the hook on the wall and get some production out of her.

Within a market in which everything is relative to supply and demand, it is easy to forget that work has this special character, this inviolable dignity. Work: it’s just like tools, factories, cars, heaps of metal, barrels of oil, in this inhuman spehere. The value of work ends up being separated from the value of the person, and treated as another commodity. Its value ceases to be connected with the dignity of the person, and is relativized to the use we can make of it, whether we need it, how much of it there is –  and what we can get away with.

John Paul II speaks of this in Laborem Exercens:

“Nevertheless, the danger of treating work as a special kind of “merchandise”, or as an impersonal “force” needed for production (the expression “workforce” is in fact in common use) always exists, especially when the whole way of looking at the question of economics is marked by the premises of materialistic economism.”

And this fundamental error is:

“what we can call the error of economism, that of considering human labour solely according to its economic purpose. This fundamental error of thought can and must be called an error of materialism, in that economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and the personal (man’s activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality. This is still not theoretical materialism in the full sense of the term, but it is certainly practical materialism, a materialism judged capable of satisfying man’s needs, not so much on the grounds of premises derived from materialist theory, as on the grounds of a particular way of evaluating things, and so on the grounds of a certain hierarchy of goods based on the greater immediate attractiveness of what is material.”

Contrary to the dreams of liberal capitalism, there is no “invisible hand” within this market mechanism that will gently nudge the bosses into a position of ethical responsibility, no invisible hand to force the boss’s eyes to open and see: that is a human person, with inviolable dignity, and if he gives you of himself, in his work, what you owe him has something absolute in its character. The decision to act ethically in relation to humans, to take a reverent stance towards work, is made outside the consideration of whether this is the most profitable course or not.

Conditions in factories and agriculture, prior to the reforms of various labor movements, were appalling. The prosperity of the great magnates of our nation was won by these workers, many of them children, all of them underpaid, toiling thanklessly. It was no invisible hand of the market that prompted reform, but the activism of those who demanded their rights, demanded to be treated with some semblance of justice.

But many have this presumption, still, that if they simply seek profit and prosperity, profit and prosperity will flow for all. This is, when you stop to think about it, ridiculous. Why would the fruit of self-interest be anything other than the quiver of ecstasy at the moment of gratification? And how ecstatic can that quiver really be?

Aristotle could tell you how stupid this idea is, the idea that magically justice and order will burst forth from the actions of the person who just does what he wants. He could tell you how vulgar it is to pursue wealth instead of virtue. The old genuine conservative, aristocratic ethos would have scorned the idolization of the self-made man, because it’s a pure fantasy, and a tacky one at that – not even a fun one, like dragons or elves.

One doesn’t even need to be a rebel Sandernista to see how income inequality is connected with stupidity and immorality, and how delusional it is to presume that one’s fortune was the pure effec of the pure causality of some imaginary isolated heroic striving, as though you could get rich by standing on top of a cliff, stark naked, disdaining everything.

Catholics ought to get this. It’s in our church teaching and our tradition, from the Gospels to today. And generally Catholics recognize that just doing what you want is a bad idea, in the sphere of, say, sexual activity. So why, then, is it considered not only acceptable but praiseworthy to do what you want for the sake of profit? Why are rich persons idolized? Why is Donald Trump admired for being wealthy, to the extent that people forget that he didn’t even earn it? Why is it considered acceptable for employers to pay so little that families are on foodstamps, and why are the foodstamp recipients the ones shamed for this? Why, in our idolization of wealth, do we forget the church’s preferential option for the poor, so that panhandlers are forbidden outside churches where inside the celebrant and congregation give lip service to the heroic charity of Mother Teresa? Why is there such drastic income inequality in Christian communities, in spite of the example of the early church?

I believe it is partially that we have forgotten the theological significance of human work. We don’t want to have to remember it. Work as a personal act, instead of a ton of aluminum or a barrel of oil: someone has labored for you, given for you, suffered for you; a part of their being has been given up for your prosperity. Recognizing this involves the discomfort of a human encounter, and the humility of realizing that what you have you did not earn, and that you owe someone gratitude – and not a powerful benefactor, or famous mentor, not someone you can name-drop, but the ordinary person you don’t even want to acknowledge on the street, the person whose clothes aren’t so nice, the person whom you’ve already labeled: there’s nothing I can get from her; she’s no use to me.

Not so: to be engaged in the human community, to be a beneficiary of the market, to be prosperous and well-off, is to already have gotten from these people you rate so low – to have already used them. What we owe the worker is a just wage and humane conditions, yes, but we owe her also this personal recognition, this communion in gratitude, because what we become is the result not of solitary striving, but of interaction and exchange, the gift of the body and being of another.

(And everyone knows that, as fantasy goes, elves and dragons are just way more fun than Randian capitalists).

Image: Wikimedia


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