Even on the Prairie, Our Ship is In Trouble


I am thinking about work today. Not work I have to do this time, but work as an idea. And I wonder if some of our current problems are occurring because we have misunderstood important ideas like work.

It is difficult not to admit we have a problem: Too many of us are unemployed. Too many more have “jobs” that are not useful to anyone. Young black men are 50% unemployed. One out of five will do prison time. We wring our hands each time some disconnected and alienated shooter kills a roomful of white children, while black children kill each other on our streets at the rate of one to three a day, every day, year around. Suicides abound among the young. Slow death by drug addiction is an eyes wide open choice for too many. All in all we have what amounts to an open air slaughterhouse specializing in our young, and we have no idea what to do about it.

The nation’s useable property collects at the top of the income chain. My lifetime on the farm has seen a steady conversion of the children and grandchildren of farmers to seasonal hired hands on huge farms. See “drug addiction” above to understand our current rural “meth” epidemic. Youth have seen through that hateful shibboleth laid on farmers about seeking retraining and getting into another line of work. A version of this sneer from Earl Butz is now the republicrat political cure all for any and all economic dislocations that occur. But many of the young know that taking their hopes to college is mostly a profit opportunity for the college and a lifetime of massive indebtedness for them.

Our misunderstanding of work is part of our misreading of human nature. And we didn’t start to misunderstand work yesterday. Mother Jones has an article, “Terminated,” by Kevin Drum which argues the inevitability and immediacy of massive unemployment of humans brought about by the burgeoning robotics revolution. In it he points out that the Luddites, a group of weavers in England who were led in 1811 by Ned Ludd into destroying the power looms that were replacing them were wrong about the change they were seeing, as “profitability” improved greatly and soon weavers would have jobs running the power looms and other machines of the new industrial age. This easy conflation of profitability with meaningful work is characteristic of the industrial age. Then, a few paragraphs later and on the way toward his conclusion, he reverses himself to say that the Luddites were right, but 200 years too early.

Drum confuses the act of making something with the act of operating the machine that makes something, calling both work, a mistake the Luddites would not have made. Their protest against the destruction of their life’s work came from a deeper understanding of work. It is instructive that their protest was also against the shoddiness of the new machine produced goods. And it is very revealing that though they destroyed machinery only, and not people, they were in return for that careful approach shot down by the police and arrested. Many of them were hanged, the remainder deported.

The article will go on to suggest that work can be replaced by a standard government issued portfolio of capital given to each child at birth. We will all become owners, there will be no workers because all “work” will be done by machines. We will have traded work for endless recreation. It is admitted there may be a few bumps along the way.

Germany is a country trying to deal with the bumps. It knows about Nazism, and knows the development of that social cancer in the first half of last century had much to do with anger and fear in the working class. One of our exchange students described German corporate decision making to us this way: A corporation wants to make changes in its manufacturing, she said, and so starts a seemingly endless conversation. The talk goes on and on, while everyone remotely connected with the corporation, from workers to middle management, to buyers of the products in the form of the community, has their say. All these entities have a say because they are all on the board that controls the corporation. The talk seems endless, said our happy Bavarian, but it usually ends eventually in a decision that everyone can live with.

Germany has found out the hard way how necessary the empowering of that talk is. We Americans need to take a look at it. A violent right wing grows here too. We are not immune. Right wing politics are fueled by a feeling of helplessness and isolation.

Homeland security, the FBI and a metropolitan bomb squad landed in our town for several hours a few weeks ago. They were organizing their approach to a trailer house in Montevideo, the next town up the road because the trailer’s residents had been displaying some political signs of a threatening nature, the protectors of our civil peace thought. After causing an uproar in the town which was soon convinced that “terrorists” (foreign, of course) had taken up residence locally, the posse pulled out for Monte, surrounded the trailer and made their arrests, several young white working class males. According to the government, guns and pipe bombs were found and evidence of a planned attack against a local business or arm of government. We don’t know for sure. The media, as usual, dutifully wrote down whatever the government said and reported it as fact. A picture of an American flag flying upside down popped up. Though probably meant as a conventional sign of protest and disrespect, it in fact signals a ship in trouble. The “ship” definitely is in trouble. We have become strangers to our own nature and violence is the result.

My mother, when sufficiently exasperated by the poor job done of a task assigned to one of us kids, would send us back at it with the words “Now go and make work of it.” Nearly universally understood by my contemporaries as punishment, her orders make more sense to me with each passing year. She never understood work as punishment, but as a calling, commitment and responsibility. When in the midst of her own tiredness and overwork (she was a farm woman, after all), she sent us back to do a job over and do it right, she was trying to lead us into seeing the healing and regenerative power of work well done. As do most of us on our farms today, she understood the close connection between good work and human mental and physical health, an understanding our economy has completely lost, starting two centuries ago. And we will not cease finding trailer houses full of deadly weapons until we regain and implement that understanding in our economic lives together.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This originally appeared in Graze magazine (grazeonline.com). A collection of his columns, Conversations with the Land, was published by No Bull Press (nobullpressonline.com).

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2013



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