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Imagine a World Where People Love Their Jobs

With 15 million men and women unemployed, the first step to fixing the job crisis is re-imagining what Americans should be working on in the first place.

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It is this picture that we need to keep in mind as we imagine how we are going to move out of the world—ugly and shoddy, morally and aesthetically—created by the ideology of growth without end and the unrelenting piggish desire for more things that have become hallmarks of the American way of life. We must also keep sight of the historical fact that not only did monopoly capital and the division of labor emerge together in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but so, too, did those alarming “plague clouds” and a sun that was “blanched” rather than “reddened”—those first unmistakable signs of industrial pollution that John Ruskin decried in a lecture entitled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884). To address one of these historical developments without the other two is to ensure that we will never move beyond the narrow confines of current thinking about our present moment or about what the future might look like.

In the same speech to Congress last year, President Obama made a more explicit connection between jobs and the environment than he did in his recent State of the Union speech. He rightly believes it is time to repair our disintegrating infrastructure and announced that over the next two years, the government “will save or create 3.5 million jobs. More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector, jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband, and expanding mass transit.” What is more, Obama promised that American universities will turn out “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by the year 2020. But what will these students study? What kinds of work will their college educations prepare them for? Here President Obama seems unable to picture a world significantly different from the economically and morally bankrupt one that we now find ourselves in: “In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a pre-requisite.” I am sorry to have to notice that the President’s formulation of knowledge as “the most valuable skill you can sell” belongs to the technocratic world view of the professional-managerial class—the very “experts” who, from the time of the first factory line, have been repackaging once-complex sets of skills into simple instructions that can be mastered in a few days or even a few hours of “training.”

Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing. The last time this question—the question of meaningful, satisfying, dignified labor—got a public hearing was in the nineteen sixties and seventies, with Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital being the intellectual high-water mark. What Braverman convincingly demonstrated is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor; that it came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone; and, so long as there were living alternatives to it, that assembly line work was forcefully resisted by skilled craftsmen who walked off the job rather than submit to work that they felt demeaned them. William Morris spoke for those men when he declared the new factory work “worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”