Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Means of Production

If you arrive at the office after about 8:30am around here, you get to park out at the far end of creation, and thus have plenty of time to think as you hike in towards your building. Finding myself in this position a few times last week, I fell to thinking: several thousand people report to these buildings every day and spend a good portion of their energies and waking hours here, but no physical product ever leaves this building. All the manufacturing is done elsewhere. And although there are definitely things we accomplish in our groups, they're often rather abstract. For instance, I built a new set of data models for my team a few months back -- which was generally recognized as a major undertaking. But there's no product to look at, just a couple of databases which are updated every week and then dumped into Excel for people to work with.

Thinking about this, I found myself wondering if this is at the root of a number of the difficulties that our culture seems to have in thinking about work: what its purpose is and what its value is. Imagine a society at its simplest level, where everyone is either involved in food production or else is only one step removed from someone who is (e.g. a priest/shaman who receives offerings from farmers/herdsmen, a craftsman who makes goods which are traded for food, etc.) In that sort of situation, it's pretty clear how much work is needed to sustain a person, who's getting enough, and who need the help of other in order to survive. Whether you're directly producing food or producing secondary goods/services, it's very clear what you are doing.

Our own society, however, is much more highly fragmented through many layers of specialization, and our standard of living provides many other things besides basic food, shelter and clothing.

Because there are so many layers of specialization, the connection between the work that you do and the production of some specific thing that people need or want (and which provides clear value to the work) is often unclear. As a result, we often perceive the work we do in a rule/contract sense rather than in terms of production. Even for people direction involved in manufacturing, since modern manufacturing is very far from a craftsman model, the experience is of: "I show up and do this set of actions repeatedly, and try to make sure that I do them to these specifications so that I'm not disciplined -- in return for which I'm paid X amount per hour" rather than "I built ten lawnmowers, each of which can be sold for $250."

This seems unfortunate, though I know of no particular escape other than, "look for a job where the distance between you and what you produce is as short as possible". When it's not clear to us what we're producing, work too often becomes a matter of, "I show up and follow the rules as much as I have to in order to avoid trouble and in return they pay me X" in which it's unclear, "Why am I paid X instead of X+10?" and "Why do I have to follow these stupid rules anyway?"

It also starts to lead to questions of, "Why should we all have to work anyway? Isn't that just a social convention?" For all it's charms, the classic '30s play "You Can't Take It With You" seems a prime example of this mentality setting in, the plot being that the head of an eccentric family (with plenty of money yet no apparent source for it) realizes one day that there's no point to all this work, and why shouldn't he just go off and do whatever makes him happy. (What makes him happy is going to college commencement addresses and the zoo.)

It also leads to the idea that having to work to support yourself is somehow a conformist and unfair idea. I seem to recall that in Nickeled and Dimed the activist author Barbara Ehrenreich complained it was unfair that society didn't provide more support for "those who justifiably want to opt out of the tyranny of the work day". By the point someone can make that kind of statement, we've lost any concept of work actually being something that is necessary to support oneself. It's become a social convention, which independent spirits should be exempted from.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those for whom work, or more properly "career" has become definitional. For these, the first job out of college, the solid resume builder, the MBA, the consulting period, and the first executive position are the sacraments of a secular priesthood which is almost as divorced from what work is really for.

Because at the end of the day, the purpose of work really is simply to produce: to produce food and goods and art; to produce for necessity and for pleasure. And so while work should be clearly centered on the production of whatever it is we do, work should also be firmly placed in context as that activity which provides the things we need in order to continue and enjoy life. Not the purpose of life, and yet one of its conditions. Not the fulfillment of it, but the means of producing the tools for fulfillment.


Anonymous said...

My Dad filled out a job application once when it looked as if the factory where he worked was going to shut down, although fortunately it did not. The job application asked "What is your goal?" My father wrote "To support my family." (I found this our later from someone other than him.) My Dad always gave everything he had while he was at work, but he understood that his job was merely a means to an end: the well-being of our family.

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Back when I was still wandering, I remember reading Robert Bly's "Iron John." While he was whacked in many ways, he rightly pointed out that industrialization and the removal of the father's from the household is partly responsible for the crisis of manhood and fatherhood we have today. The reasons are too involved to go into in a combox. However, John Eldredge goes over some of the same ground from a Christian perspective in "Wild at Heart."

Anonymous said...

I've had similar meditations on the nature of work in today's world of specialization. Thank you for putting it to "paper" so nicely. I've always been amused by people who think that work is a mere social convention, just another one of those establishment constructs that can be swept aside. And on the other side of the spectrum, I've been surprised by the high priests of the career religion as well, having worked with many MBAs at a management consulting firm. Why should it be so hard to find middle ground?

Kate said...

Good post. My husband is one of those people who would go crazy if he didn't have something solid to have accomplished at the end of the day, which is the main reason he went into carpentry. But even with a job he loves and finds fulfilling he recognises that he works to live, not vice versa.

Speaking of which, some of this was reminiscent for me of Josef Pieper's "Leisure, the Basis of Culture" which was required reading my freshman year.

Good stuff.

Unknown said...

Thank God I'm a nurse and not an office worker. I would be insane.

Literacy-chic said...

Oh cr*p! So our problems stem from the fact that the workers are alienated from the means of production as well as from the product itself?? So Marx was RIGHT?? ;)

sdecorla said...

I’ve always felt that work is simply a means to an end. I don’t find the corporate world to be particularly fulfilling. I definitely “work to live,” and if I could afford to be a stay-at-home mom I’d quit my job in a heartbeat. At the same time, though, I do think that it’s important to have a job you enjoy, at least somewhat. 40 hours a week is an awful lot of time to spend on something you don’t like, even if it pays well.

I guess I would feel like my job was more than just a job if I were, say, working for a Catholic publication or Catholic organization. I would love to do that someday – that’s something I would find immensely fulfilling. But unfortunately those types of jobs don’t pay much, which is something you have to consider if you have a family. I don’t really understand people who are deeply fulfilled by, say, being a lawyer, LOL. Well, maybe a lawyer who helps poor people or battered women or something – but corporate law? Booooooring. :)