More could be said about the community and how work relates to generational linkages. Furthermore, what must be left unanswered here is a detailed account of the civil order that coheres best with this view of work. It certainly lends itself to certain “third-way” perspectives, such as the “economic humanism” of Schumacher, the humane economy of Wilhelm Ropke, the “gift economy” model, and perhaps some form of Proudhon’s anarchism and syndicalism. The thought of social theorists, such as Jacques Ellul, who critiqued the “technique” in the liberal order, and Wendell Barry and Joel Salatin, who have criticized corporate farming practices and other features of modern economic life, might cohere well with my account of meaningful work. Even some small-scale liberal economic orders could work as well. I see nothing in my account that necessarily precludes wage systems, property, or the market exchange, though species of each would prove detrimental or destructive of meaningful work. Furthermore, there can be instances of personal relations of production in local communities and perhaps in isolated establishments even in the most liberal of economies, despite the seemingly relentless drive for modern capitalism to root out such relations. But there is no room to discuss all this in detail.
What I’ve tried to emphasize is that work requires some form of local community with people seeking forms of life in common that, at least in some small way, distinguishes them from others, not in a jingoistic fashion, but as a self-affirming community pursuing the common good across generations. In such a community, people know each other as more than individuals in mutual alliance with a self-interest to live; rather they are a people desiring to communicate to one another their gifts for the best collective life possible, to live well. Work must play a central role and emphasis in that. E. F. Schumacher rightfully said in Small is Beautiful,
Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul.’ Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society.
But replacing the foundation of society is as hard as it looks. Still, when looking closely, there are places in the Western world that fight for meaningful work. One example will suffice.
There is a small restaurant in Oxford, Alabama called Garfrerick’s Café. Here the excellent food is complemented by an atmosphere of collective ownership. The workers do not, to my knowledge, own as legal property any portion of the business, but the restaurant owner has brought them into the life of the business. The chefs cook in a sizable portion of the main floor separated only by a row of seating similar to bar seating. This allows diners to interact with the chefs and compliment directly to them on the quality of the food. It brings everyone into a producer/consumer relationship that affirms everyone involved. Added to this, the small farm associated with the restaurant, also owned by the restaurant owner and from which comes much of the food served there, is a place of learning for the chefs, waiters and bartenders. The owner brings them into the farm-to-table process. It is an option for the workers to join the life-process of the business by visiting and working on the farm. The workers then are part of a family of sorts in which the satisfaction of the customer satisfies the family. The owner has deliberately followed an important principle: he has brought his workers into face-to-face relations with their customers to confirm the qualities of their work.
This essay then is firstly not a critique of the current economic order, though it does that in consequence. Too many critiques of current conditions call for grand political or public action and demonstrations with ends that are almost hopeless to realize or wildly impractical and even violently disruptive. My account of meaningful work however establishes a way forward that can find partial realization in little unseen ways—in the quotidian aspects of life with face-to-face interactions in praising others for their work and in expressions of gratitude to those who worked before us.
The Meaning of Craftsmanship
The discussion now turns to the meaningful work of craftsmanship. I begin with a discussion on the nature of the work and how it generates a producer/product connection and then I proceed to describe how such work can be an end in itself and the implications for a generational community.
Work in the Concrete
One crucial mark of craftsmanship is the use of tools and machines in the service of production as opposed to serving the machine in production. Though both types of labor require skill, the relation of worker to tools or machines must not preclude the worker’s intention upon the material. Hannah Arendt provides a helpful distinction: in industrial capitalism “it is no longer the body’s movement that determines the implement’s movement but the machine’s movement which enforces the movements of the body.” In serving machines, there is no need for a mental image of the finished product; one does not intend upon the material in the process of its becoming a product. The focus of the laborer in this setting is not the product at all; rather his attention is on the machine or tool that makes it. There is little to no mastery, only habituation into an often mindless, rote activity. Indeed, it for this reason that many, says Arendt, “prefer [repetitive labor] because it is mechanical and does not demand attention, so that while performing it they can think of something else.”
Another distinguishing mark is the immediate application of craftsmanship to a product, i.e., the application of skill acquired by direct experience with the material and the exercise of independence and free agency. Traditional craftsmen of he 19th century “worked at the pace which their craftsmanship demanded,” states historian E. P. Thompson. They followed the “mystery” of their trade, rooted in “customary traditions of craftsmanship.” They served the community and intimately knew the material they formed. George Stuart, in his Wheelwright’s Shop, a celebrated account of his wheelwright trade published in 1923, wrote,
In them was stored all the local lore of what good wheelwright’s work should be like. The century-old tradition was still vigorous in them. They knew each customer and his needs; understood his carters and his horses and the nature of his land; and finally took a pride in providing exactly what was wanted in every case. So, unawares, they lived as integral parts in the rural community of the English. Overworked and underpaid, they none the less enjoyed life, I am sure. They were friends, as only a craftsman can be, with timber and iron. The grain of wood told secrets to them.
The “secrets” of the material was “real knowledge” communicated and learned only through experience with the material. It is practical knowledge incommunicable via manuals or verbal instruction.
The experienced craftsman is, in experience, one with his tools and in consequence united with the material in the act of shaping and forming, continuously imposing his will in and for it. That is to say, the one acting, the tools being used, and the material being acted upon, become part of the totality of the meaning-adorning activity, effectively uniting all in one’s experience. To be sure, this is not some mystical occurrence; rather what I’m trying to describe is the way in which practical knowledge in production brings the material into an intimate relation in experience with the one working it. It is the concerted and concentrated effort with the use of judgment and deliberation—as if acting and reacting with good manners to the complexities and irregularities of the material, taking risks here and there—that engenders a relationship between person and product, adorning that product with a superadded meaning. Concerning “meaning” in work Peter Korn helpfully writes,
When we say an object has meaning…we are measuring its emotional importance to a respondent….Some of the most common ways in which a craft object attains meaning for a respondent are through information coded into the object by the maker; through the experience of discovering or acquiring the object; through a personal connection with the maker; and through provenance or projection….However it happens, objects ultimately possess meaning to the extent they affect or confirm the stories through which a respondent constructs his identity and orders his world.
There is a human tendency to, as Richard Sennett states in a discussion of pottery and brickmaking, “become particularly interested in the things we can change,” which he calls “material consciousness.”
David Pye, in his The Nature and Art of Workmanship, defines craftsmanship as “any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.” Craftsmanship is “workmanship of risk,” as opposed to “workmanship of certainty” (which characterizes modern industrial labor). The uncertainty is driven by the humanness and general machinelessness of craftsmanship, for human activity is imprecise: “All workmanship is approximation.” But the risk of failure reveals that the craftsman in the act of production is an agent of creation—products reveal the producer’s agency. For the craftsman “intends” a product of quality by his efforts. “Thus the quality of workmanship is judged [in both soundness and comeliness] in either case by reference to the designer’s intention…..Good workmanship is that which carries out or improves upon the intended design.” Workmanship of certainty, however, relies necessarily on predetermined quality and products produced simply ex opere operato; and as a result, the worker cannot identify with the quality of the product. The worker intended to make the product, but not anything particular about it. But when the particularities of the product are direct results of the worker’s intention toward the material, there is responsibility for these qualities. There is responsibility, because the craftsman applied “judgment, dexterity, and care”—he was the agent in its creation. Even when the worker follows another’s design, he is still an “interpreter,” like a judge seeking to understand a statute instituted by a legislature or like a pianist interpreting a musical composition, for the “eye and mind can discriminate things which can never be specified or dimensioned.” Intending the design is sufficient to gain responsibility for the quality of the resulting product. It seems then that the product discloses itself to the worker as an embodiment of his intentions and thereby he both identifies with it and has a sense of responsibility for it.
Similarly, but in his own way, Marx in his Manuscripts describes the objectification of the worker in the products of labor. What distinguishes humans from animals is the human ability to “confront” the product of one’s labor. The non-human animals cannot distinguish “life activity,” including productive activity, from itself: “it is its life activity.” Humans have “conscious life” from which “man freely confronts his product.” Marx continues:
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through the because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consequence, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.
By means of labor, humans create a human world that is an objectification of labor, taking on a distinctive character “in accordance with the laws of beauty” that humans can contemplate and gaze upon as if a mirror from which reflects their species being. Since “labor is…the objectification of man’s species life” it is, or can be, an end in itself, for by it humans fulfill distinctively human features—their difference of species, namely, rational activity towards the human telos. But when the object of one’s production is torn away, this “species life [becomes] a means,” not an end in itself. As we’ve already shown, Marx incorrectly saw this potential in all labor. Only a particular type of labor however makes this possible—that of the small-scale producer who joins himself with the product by means of an intimate relation to the material in its formation. In this way, the fact that the efficient cause of some product is a human being is not itself sufficient for the human’s objectification by means of the product. Rather it is the particular nature of the efficient in the product that matters.
Relying on these accounts, we can further explicate the nature of craftsman work. The product of work is the embodiment of someone’s labor, an object for the gaze of its producer; and at this point and for this reason it is potentially a social product. A product immediately upon completion is pre-social, for it has not entered the social world by means of exchange, nor has it been made available for others’ gaze and consideration. But it is important to see why it has this possibility at all—only because of the type of concrete labor invested in its making. In other words, since a worker recognizes himself in and is bound up with the product due to the type of laboring activity put into it, the product possesses the potency to extend the laborer into the public by means of it. This potency is the first necessary (but not sufficient) condition of labor as an end in itself, for only when products have this quality of objectified human labor can persons qua workers extend themselves into the public by means of them. That is to say, only in this way can persons as workers enter into and appeal within a realm of persons.
It is on account of this potency that producers desire and have the courage to be recognized and judged by others by means of the product. As Alexandre Kojeve writes, the worker “recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity.” It is, for this reason, not enough for one to be the sole gazer upon one’s own work. Matthew Crawford, a trained philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic, writes that a craftsman wants “to see them [his products] in use; this completes my activity of making them, and gives it social reality. It makes me feel I have contributed to the common good.” This objectified labor, or the public manifestation of the person as worker, has a “social currency,” says Crawford, for “the effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well.” Following Kojeve, he argues that small-scale work, both in the creation of new things and in repairing old things, “manifest[s] oneself concretely in the world” and good work provides “satisfaction,” for the worker “can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on….The tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”
This satisfaction necessarily requires the judgment by others toward the producer by means of the product’s qualities, an act made possible by the embodiment of a person’s concrete work in the product. Work is an end in itself in this sort of judgment. For in judgment a person is firstly recognized by persons as a person who worked; and secondly, if the judgment is positive, recognized as a person whose work was good and for the good of others. Hence, the work was activity that affirmed 1) oneself as a person and others as persons and thereby 2) was worth doing for its own sake. For any activity performed for the affirmation of personhood is worth doing for its own sake. Before discussing judgment further, it will be helpful to describe in more detail and distinguish the sort of features that made this judgment possible.
There are objective and subjective features of all products of labor. The objective features refer to what is purely intrinsic to the product—the form and material. These are intrinsic features, because they concern what is true of it apart from any human relation to it. The subjective features, however, are extrinsic to the products, for the ground of such features are the way or ways that humans relate to their form and material. That is, such features are realized by a relation with something outside it and hence can be lost when that relation is eliminated. These are the efficient and final causes of the products. The final causes are generated by the efficient cause, and in this case the nature of the efficient cause—being a human working and working in a particular mode—determines the possibilities of the resulting final causes in the product.
Since the mode of activity in the efficient cause can vary and the mode of activity establishes the possibilities of the imposition of ends upon the material, not all modes of labor can generate all possible features. Some modes can generate more and higher-order features than others. In this account of meaningful labor, therefore, the efficient cause takes on crucial importance, for the producer is not merely a creator; he or she is a sustainer of the relation. The efficient cause is an active cause. Indeed, the difference between the two types of labor is a matter of whether the agent of creation becomes a sustainer of what the product is in its totality upon completion of it and upon exchange. Let’s proceed in describing the features in detail.
The first set of features arise from the shaping and forming of material into some thing relevant for human use, so that, upon encountering it, people relate to not only as a kind of thing but a thing for something. That is, they relate to it as an object not merely present but also ready for use or as gear for our various activities. The products at this level of inquiry have therefore both intrinsic features, such as its material and form, and extrinsic (or intersubjective) features pertaining to the product’s function or use in human activity. These features do not require any sustained relation between producer and product, for the use of any product requires only the recognition that it is useful. The scale of production is irrelevant to the realization of this set of ends in the product. A chair is for sitting and can be recognized for such activity regardless of whether it was made by hand in a shop by a skilled craftsman or by a machine in a factory. This is the level of use and market value—like a house that one occupies without reference to or consideration of it as a home. It is simply a house among houses. These features are what constitute these objects as human things. Two chairs, one factory-produced and the other by a craftsman, have overlapping (though not entirely the same) final causes: they are both for sitting. Both disclose themselves to humans as for sitting, regardless of the mode of their production.
When only these extrinsic features are possible, given the mode of labor, the worker relates to the product as something only with use-value and exchange-value. She has no further relation to it. This is the relationship of the large-scale worker to the products of his labor. They are disclosed to him as things useful and perhaps represent the efforts exerted to receive a wage. But the relationship does not extend beyond this. Since the products lack any feature transcending right of use, the producer’s relationship to the products cease at the act of exchange (or upon the termination of labor-activity in the case of wage-labor), which results in the complete separation of the producer from the product. Indeed, the worker has no concern in principle as to whether the product is sold and used, either properly or improperly, or directly thrown in the trash. After all, as Wilhelm Ropke states, “Impersonal work has its counterpart in impersonal consumption.” The laborer concerns himself only with the achievement of the sale; he is bound up with success of the product on the market only because success in the market ensures wages or revenue, making such labor only a means to an end.
Before I transition in to higher-order features—those that make possible work as an end in itself—I want to make clear that I’m not talking about two species of labor in the same genus. The fact that both types of labor generate the features described above (those necessary to constitute a thing) does not mean that they share a genus. Rather they are categorized together in a nominal fashion based upon a shared property. When a person achieves the generation of these higher-order features, he has not achieved a different type of labor as if switching from one species to another; he has begun a different type of activity—one that belongs next to intellectual work. Belonging to a social world at the level of personhood is a unique activity distinguishable by genus.
These second and higher-order set of extrinsic features arise in small-scale labor by elevating labor into personal relations, making the productive activity worth doing for its own sake. These features “arise” in an analogous way to how rights arise from our own sense of self, as claimants of our own self-hood in relation to our activities in the world. With the activity of creating something new about of material by deliberate and free action to form something for some human end, the person as worker identifies with it as a manifestation or objectification of oneself and consequently imputes to the product further personal ends—ends directed by means of the product towards other persons—and thereby adds to the product’s final cause. For, after all, the product is a sort of extension of one’s personhood manifested in the world for whose qualities one is responsible. As Marx said, it “appears as his work” allowing him to “contemplate himself.” In relating to a product as an embodiment of our person qua laborer, we consequentially assert claims upon others through it.
But these claims are not property-claims. They are not claims for the right to use, nor for the possession of these products. They are what I’ll call phenomenological claims, being extra-legal and in a way pre-political. That is to say, these products disclose themselves to workers not according to meum et teum, but rather as meum et pro bono vestro. It is mine and for your good. The reason is that the aim is for something higher than domination or acquisition. It is a claim concerning oneself with regard to the qualities of the product and it is for others to witness and attest in their use. And since the claim is bound up in a manifestation of personhood, it is ultimately the assertion of a right, not to possession, but to affirmation and judgment. This means that whether the product is another person’s property is irrelevant to the phenomenological claim. As Marcel Mauss said of gifts, “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.”
Hence these are not absolute claims, demanding only one sort of response—affirmation; rather they are relative claims as appeals to others for their evaluation and confirmation—for their judgment and not an uncritical judgment. We assert the goodness of the products and its goodness for others, and do this with anticipation of their judgment. And in the assertion we appeal to the other as a person with the faculty of judgment; and in that judgment we expect to be judged as a person. But the objects of that judgment are the reasons offered by the person on behalf of his work, for a human person is one who offers reasons or justifications for one’s activity. The reasons or justifications offered in the case of persons qua workers are the qualities of the product deliberately imposed upon its material by the person’s will. Such qualities are the direct objects of the other’s judgment, serving both as the ground of the product’s valuation and, most importantly, as the vehicle or medium through which persons judge the goodness of the person qua worker.
The recognition of persons as workers seems to require the proper use and respect for the product; for if the phenomenological claim endures past the exchange, then the extent of the right of use is delimited (at least ethically, if not by law) by the enduring claim by the worker. The product is after all an objectification of his person as laborer. Like the farmer’s anger in the spoiling of his small crop, the ill-treatment of products is ill-treatment of the producer. In treating the product well, the consumer or owner recognizes it as the manifestation of another person as worker, which eo ipso recognizes the person who produced it. For this reason, while the phenomenological claim does not demand a right of use, it does demand that others use the product well.
By bringing one’s product, and with it oneself as laborer, to the realm of judgment and by others receiving that product into the realm of judgment, both the producer and consumer affirm each other as persons, for only persons have the faculty of judgment. It’s a mutual giving-of-oneself: one asserts goodness for others persons’ judgment and one who evaluates in judgment. Even prior to the act of judgment, therefore, persons are affirmed, and this is due to the very openness for judgment.
In this openness, the producer recognizes his or her social nature, both with a relative (not absolute) deference to the judgment of community and as a possible shaper of its common judgment—or the sensus communis. The producer takes into account the judgment of others in order to avoid, as Kant says in a slightly different context, “the illusion arising from subjective and personal conditions which could readily be taken for objective, an illusion that would exert a prejudicial influence upon its judgment.” The producer asserts reasons into the community, by means of the qualities of the product, for evaluation by the collective public reason. Just as we go about the world asserting ourselves in this or that way in our various activities in the social world, testing ourselves for, with, and against others in order to adjust our being in the world as co-participants in the world, so too do we with the products of our labor. This openness expresses both a willingness to modify one’s work in light of judgment and an aspiration to shape consensus. It it governed by the ongoing question, “how is my laboring going?” The intent is the pursuit of perfection as one continues to shape and react to social consensus. Still, meaningful work is not a matter of reaction and conforming to others’ judgment, nor is it a defiant and oppositional statement of “I exist!” that elevates labor into a sort of “politics of presence,” which ultimately is rejected by the community as anti-social. Rather it is the yearning for positive participation in shaping social judgment and belonging.
The yearning, or the need for collective judgment, arises from both the nature of the work and the need to avoid this possible illusion, for the products are set apart as public objects for the contemplation of the worker. They are the objectification of one’s striving for high-quality. And as for all objects of contemplation, humans seek to contemplate such things with others in order to discuss and agree on judgments concerning them. In this case, however, the consensus-forming concerns the worker himself as embodied in the object of contemplation. But this does not preclude a bold and confident assertion of quality, nor does it require a blind acceptance of the community’s evaluation. This yearning is not a lack of confidence, as if one is desperately in need of approval. Korn helpfully describes products of craftsmanship as “objects as emissary.” He writes,
The objects I made had significance for me because they embodied my evolving ideas and beliefs. But at the same time, to truly assume the identity of craftsman, I need to inform my social environment so that others would see me that way, too. After all, constructing an identity is not a self-contained project. One’s sense of self is a fluctuating assemblage of beliefs and feelings strongly influenced by external circumstances, especially the beliefs of other people. To become a craftsman I had to coax the narrative of others down the trail I was blazing. The things I made were emissaries sent out into the world to negotiate on my behalf. They influenced the beliefs of others regarding my occupation and capabilities.
The assertion of reasons by means of qualities in products is simply participation in a community, much like discussions in academic discourse. Confidence in one’s work does not preclude the desire to join others in conversation about it—to shape and react to others and adjust oneself in light of the conversation. Regardless of the level of one’s confidence, there is need for community in which the products that one has confidence in and is responsible for are manifested for others.
In judgment through right use the producer desires more than a bare confirmation of goodness. While the goodness of the product is necessary for the higher order person-to-person relation in production, it is not the principal object of recognition, affirmation, and judgment. These are ancillary. The person as manifested by the products is the ultimate object of these things. Crawford describes the need in craftsman for their “individuality” to be “expressed in an activity that, in answering to a shared world, connects him to others: the customers he serves and the other practitioners of his art, who are competent to recognize the peculiar excellence of his work.” It is like criticism of academic work: while the text and the truth of some work is in one sense separate from the person who produced and asserted it, the evaluation is directed towards the producer through the person’s text. A robot could use a hammer and perhaps even determine how good it is, but only a fellow human can respect the craftsmanship of the hammer in use and recognize the product as something created well by fellow human hands. Hence, the producer does not simply seek a bare confirmation that his product is good, but rather seeks recognition of goodness from other persons, for only persons can recognize another person as manifested through the product of labor.
Therefore, with regard to products of work, judgment’s direct objects are the products and their qualities; it’s principle is goodness in terms of the product’s soundness and comeliness; it’s means is respectful use and fair evaluation; and it’s ends are, firstly, the affirmation of the person manifested in the product and secondly the judgment of the person qua worker. Yet the origin of judgment is the producer’s address to the consumer/evaluator by means of the product’s qualities as reasons made from person to person. Hence, the subjects of judgment are both the producer and the consumer as persons. And since anything done for the sake of others in reference to their personhood is an end in itself, such work in judgment is an end in itself.
Given the discussion so far, there are three basic highest-order features imposed upon or carried by products of work: (1) the manifestation of oneself in the world as a worker for the common good, (2) the claim for recognition from persons as a person qua worker (which is itself sufficient for work to be an end in itself), and (3) the claim for a fair judgment in the evaluation of the products (which, when a positive judgment results, perfects the work by confirming that it contributed to the common good). All three (i.e, manifestation, recognition, and judgment) are essential for labor to be an end in itself. That is, they are enough to elevate labor into a person-to-person realm of recognition and reason-giving. But a good judgment—that one’s reasons embodied in product are or become the consensus—perfects such labor, for labor is completed in the realization of is principal end—the good of others. While a negative judgment in a labor-affirming community still affirms the for-others intention of the person who produced it (and thereby the person who intended), the intention is proven to be unsuitable to the end in view. Such work, despite affirming personhood, remains incomplete, for the chief end of the human worker is the perfection of work.
As I stated in the introductory chapter, the exchange of products, though it is necessary for work being an end in itself, is only ancillary to that end. Put differently, the craftsman does not work for the sake of exchanging the product, as if work is a means to that end; rather the exchange is a condition, not the ground of, the good of meaningful work. The achievement of the good of meaningful work then occurs at a time after the product is completed and only when the product is taken up in the community for use and judgment. The good then is realized retroactively—the worker comes to relate to his past work as worth doing for its own sake, since the conditions for such work were subsequently met in the community.
The rational pursuit of work as an end in itself requires, as I’ve said, working in and for a community. It would be wishful and futile to seek judgment when outside community. Indeed, there isn’t even an object to whom the worker can give reasons of quality. Community is necessary because by it the I of the worker becomes a you to another, and in that way the work is elevated into personal relations. That is to say, one encounters another in the product of work at the personal level—as an I/you encounter, for the product has a higher-order feature that addresses persons. Similarly, a worker can identify with his or her product as mine only if another is able to say yours, for a right in relation to a thing is possible only if one can make a (phenomenological) claim against another. Furthermore, without another to whom one can assert reasons of quality there can be no reasons there at all, for reasons exist only when between persons. Indeed, without community a worker saying “I am responsible for this” is futile and, more importantly, meaningless, for having responsibility for something assumes the exclusive possession in some way among others. If no one exists who will recognize this responsibility, then there is no actual responsibility. In seeking responsibility in the absence of the requisite community, the worker is to be most pitied. It is the assertion of an I without a reciprocating you—a vain, empty, and meaningless assertion of responsibility for the products of labor. The labor and subsequent consumption proved to be impersonal and therefore the labor was but a means to an end—the revenue or wages to sustain further laboring.
We’ve focused so far on two separate groups, producers and consumers/users, but we must recognize that in personal relations of production all producers are also consumers, which means that, in such relations, the workers work for one another. That is, they consume or use each other’s products of labor. Hence, each producer is himself also a participant in the public judgment. Each producer then is reciprocating life to other producers through the reciprocal effect of recognition and judgment. This is realized by the scale and the nature of the community. Just as the scale of labor is essential to meaningful work, so too is the scale of the civil community. Instead of a civil environment of boundary-less universalism or robust cosmopolitanism, the realization of workers working for one another occurs only in particularization—in typically small contexts characterized by distinct ways of life in a bounded territory and a people with a particularized and localized sense of belonging that extends across generations.
Hannah Arendt on homo faber
A discussion of Arendt’s thought on work will help us make further distinctions pertaining to work and community. In The Human Condition, Arendt distinguishes the animal laborans and the homo faber. The former is essentially Marx’s laborer under capitalism: one works to eat and eats to work. In labor, “the products themselves…immediately become means against, means of subsistence and reproduction of labor power.” In “making” (which is her translation of faber), however, “the production process comes to an end” in the product. That is, man as maker produces things not for a direct end of powering further labor, but to make an “independent entity [that] has been added to the human artifice.” The laborer “never transcends” the labor process, for she is endlessly producing and consuming. Transcending the labor process, for Arendt, is the production of durable goods.
Durability, according to Arendt, give things “objectivity” that allow them to endure the “voracious needs and wants of their living makers and user.” They “stabilize humans,” allowing people to “retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity.” The homo faber creates an enduring world of things to which one goes for meaning and a sense of permanency. Furthermore, the maker of things, says Arendt, “conduct[s] himself as lord and master of the whole earth.” The laborer, on the other hand, is still nature’s servant. He does not tame nature, for only durable objectified labor transforms nature. Arendt further distinguishes between “consumer goods,” which are for mere life and produced by animal laborans, and “use objects,” which are for the human world and produced by homo faber. The world of use-objects (durable things) facilitates the production, exchange and consumption of consumer (or ephemeral) goods.
Arendt’s distinctions are not entirely inconsistent with my account. Any labor that produces ephemeral or consumer goods is labor for, at least in part, the maintenance of animality or bodily well-being of the human being, and any labor that produces objects of use or durable products will establish and maintain the built environment that makes consumer products possible.
But contrary to Arendt my account recognizes that given the type of work and type of community, even those who make products that quickly spoil can transcend the “life-cycle” of production and consumption by entering into a person-to-person realm of reason-giving through their products. The loaf produced by a baker must be consumed quickly after production, but it still can facilitate a person-to-person reciprocation and thereby raise the labor to an end in itself. This work then is not only a means to continue working, though it certainly does that. The product of that work also serves as a means of recognition and judgment of the person qua worker. The product’s lack of durability is irrelevant in this regard. Arendt’s distinction between animal laborans and homo faber then does not apply to my account of meaning-adorning labor. Indeed, those conducting homo faber in her account labor today in large-scale settings where people have little to no connection to their products. They have no phenomenological claim to it, for the scale of labor precluded the imposition of features from which arise claims for others’ affirmation and judgment. If my account of meaningful work is correct, then the local baker conducts homo faber more than most manufacturing laborers. But the distinction is still useful, for even though the products of both ephemeral labor and durable labor can facilitate personal reciprocation, the durability of the durable products permits an extension of life embodied in the product and creates a human world.
Arendt was quite right that “without a world [of relative permanence] into which men are born and from which they die, there would be nothing but changeless eternal recurrence, the deathless everlastingness of the human as of all other animal species.” The production of durable goods provides the “reality and reliability of the human world.” It is “world-building.” This is the “thing-character” of the social world. Arendt did not say, but could have, that in the producer’s identification with his product and society’s identification of him through it, the producer in a way remains in the community post-mortem. Not only do his products themselves remain after his death, he endures as his work objectified , as if memory is lodged in the things left behind. Coming upon his father’s house and land, Cicero wrote, “We are somehow moved by the places in which the signs of those we love or admire are present.” The very familiarity one has with the world is a result of the dead’s abiding work existing in the present for the living. It “give[s] rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things as well as between men and men,” writes Arendt.
This generational significance of durable goods causes people to labor for future others (viz. the unborn) in their production, not only for living others. As Crawford states, “People who make their own furniture will tell you that it is hard to justify economically, and yet they persist. Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and the producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future.” Hence, the person works for the good of those both present and future, seeking the recognition even from those not yet born. For this reason, production of durable goods transcends both the life-cycle of the animal laborans and the present, and in effect (and assuming social and cultural continuity) the presence of these workers endures death, leaving the conditions and built-environment behind for further making. There is, therefore, by means of small-scale work, a connection between the dead, living, and unborn—what Edmund Burke called the “eternal society.” It’s a community that exudes in its built environment the dead-living-unborn mutual recognition—a place with a people that, having the will to live, work presently in recognition of the dead for what was left behind in order to welcome the unborn to life in community.
The extension of self in work to the world of things can be distinguished on individual and collective levels. Societies often know only temporarily, if at all, who made this and that thing. We are usually ignorant of who made, for example, this sidewalk or who planted this tree. So it would seem that our limited knowledge impedes our ability to recognize and affirm others in their work across generations. This is true however only in reference to the individual level: I or she did this. At the collective level, people would simply say we made this—the one has become subsumed into the collective. The totality of one’s particular relations—family, community, etc.—is bound up in the products of work such that these things belong to us as we belong to the producer. After all, if the worker can relate to his products as a manifestation of himself in the world, then family members can relate to it as they relate to him (e.g., family heirlooms). But what about nations? If we can relate to one another as a people, then we all can relate similarly to a member’s work. We relate to what one produces in work in the way that we relate to each other—as one people pursuing our common good. Hence, 1) we can identify with the goodness of a fellow member’s meaningful labor as our work, 2) the recognition of the person qua worker is a collective recognition of us, and 3) the judgment is pronounced on all of us. This explains why people take pride in their built environment in their civil communities, despite knowing no one personally who built it: “it is ours, because we built it.”
Affirmation of work seems therefore to be a collective one. It is a total social fact or, to use Mauss’s term, it is part of the “the gift”—the pervasive norms of reciprocation that transcend the individual through generations. Instead of having only one person in mind in working, in a personal relations of production the person is subsumed under the social such that all work for all; and the society in turn collectively recognizes and affirms the goodness of our work, a sort of giving back to themselves the rejuvenation of life—a collective will to live. In this socio-economic system there is therefore no requirement for face-to-face feedback (though certainly this still occurs); nor is work principally an end in itself retroactively. The recognition and affirmation of one as a person qua worker is part of the collective affirmation of itself as a distinct and stable people. Hence, it is not a matter of I and you. Rather it is a matter of we—not only I, but we have responsibility for this.
24. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 146.
25. Ibid, 146.
26. Ibid, 236.
27. Ibid, 253, 236.
28. George Stuart, Wheelwright’s Shop (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), 54-5.
30. David Pye, Craftsmen, 120.
32 Ibid, 30.
33. Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the theoretician of “scientific management,” instructed factory owners to make “all possible brain work…centered in the planning and laying-out department” and “remove” it from the “shop.” As Crawford rightfully comments, “Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class…[the job] requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation.” Though there are possible exceptions, only in small-scale production can one relate to a product as described above.
34. Pye, 55.
35. Manuscripts, 113.
36. Manuscripts, 114,
37. Alexadre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1989), 27.
38. Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: As Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 186.
39. Crawford, 14.
40. Sismondi discusses this in regard to political economy. “Whenever great capitals are united, and a great workshop rises up, and different sorts of work are accelerated and concentrated under the same management, so that from the same edifice, the same factory, may be given out cloth made of what was, four and twenty hours before, a fleece on the back of a living sheep, the chresmatistic school utters cheering cries of admiration, it extols to the clouds the prosperity of a country where one man can every day load a vessel with cloths, or hardware, or earthenware, sufficient for many thousands of his fellow men; but what a strange forgetfulness of human kind never to inquire what becomes of the man which the great factory has displaced! For, in short, all the consumers which it furnishes were not before without clothes, nor without tools, nor without earthenware; but they provided themselves from those hundreds of little tradesmen who formerly lived happy in independence, and who have disappeared to make room for one millionaire in the mercantile world.”
41. Wilhem Ropke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, translated by Elizabeth Henderson (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1960) 71-72.
42. This does not in itself make intellectual work and productive labor equal in merit, value, or worth (however one wants to define them). Hierarchies can exist between species in the same genus.
43. Mauss, M. 1990 (1922). The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge, 31.
44. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 151.
45. Korn, 67.
46. Crawford, 207-8.
47. Arendt, The Human Condition, 143.
48. Ibid, 145.
49. Ibid, 137.
50. Arendt, The Human Condition, 97.
51. Ibid, 95-6.
52. Laws 2.4.
53. Arendt, The Human Condition, 95.
The purpose of this chapter is to describe the proximate genus of craftsmanship, what I call meaningful work, and to provide some preliminary thoughts on labor and work before discussing small-scale, craftsmanship work. In the previous section, I argued that features of our social world are ontologically subjective—what are extrinsic to the material itself—existing within the realm of the verstehen, above the natural order as emerging or adorning, in the form of reasons, duties, obligations, etc. by which we address persons as persons. Though in much of our lives, especially in modern life, we relate to one another transactionally, in the most important matters we relate to one another as those with mutual duties, expectations, and understanding. This relation is the place of human social existence—the place of intersubjective recognition of meaning—meaning that is irreducible to the objects from which such meaning arises, emerging as something collectively superadded upon material and space.
There are two fundamental features of the generic difference that constitutes the genus of meaningful work. The first is that the worker engages in some productive activity that forms an intimate attachment to the thing produced such that the producer sees herself in the thing produced—as a thing embodying one’s person as worker. The product with this embodiment is not itself the person, as if persons can recreate themselves into things. Rather the imbued meaning is a visibly manifested address to others and an appeal or assertion concerning the goodness of the product for their good. It contains reasons—either in words or qualities, as we’ll see—offered to another person for the goodness of one’s laboring activity. And it is in the consumer’s (or reader’s) acknowledgment of that higher-order signification and in their judgment of those reasons that the work is made complete. Recognizing thereby not only that the labor was intended for another’s good but actually realized the consumer’s good, they recognize the worker both as a person and as a person who worked well. This recognition and judgment occurs in a community, which I’ve identified as the second condition. Put simply, the generic difference of meaningful work is productive activity that adorns products by persons, for persons, and between persons.
To illuminate the nature of meaningful work, it will be helpful to discuss intellectual work, which is craftsmanship’s fellow species in the genus, for the features they share are more explicit in intellectual work than craftsmanship.
Intellectual work expresses this generic difference in its chief products—published writings. Each person’s intellectual work is set apart from others as being in some sense “mine,” even when the writer no longer has the right of use or distribution. When one writes a book, receives it, and puts it on his or her bookshelf, it is not just another book among books; it is the author’s book. It embodies thought, time, devotion, and consideration, not only on truth but conveying truth to the reader. It is for the reader; the reader—or some other or set of other—was ever in mind. On the shelf, it represents the author’s contribution to a world of persons. It embodies time spent and life exerted, and it recalls to mind even the place(s) at which it was written. But more than these author/book relations, it embodies an earnest appeal to be taken seriously, to be read, and to be judged.
Though criticism or judgment principally concerns the book’s content, the ultimate object is the author. Reviewers speak of the author’s thoughts and knowledge, not the thoughts themselves. And yet the written thoughts and thinker who produced them could or typically should be separated. Book reviews are rather strange in this regard and helpful to reveal the nature of meaning-adorning work. The judgment of a work is rightly on its content or material, but because one cannot separate the content from its producer without losing something important, the judgment is concurrently and even principally on the producer of the content. After all, the author does not say “this is my truth,” but rather “I say this is true,” and yet we do not disconnect the author from that claim of truth. Though truth is (presumably) independent of the claimer, it is presented as a truth-claim and is judged as such. To judge the truth-claim is to judge a person as claimant.
This is explained by the fact that we write to communicate ideas in order to participate in a community of thought or dialogue of and with thought; and this community is between persons making appeals concerning truth to other persons. In affirming or denying someone’s truth-claim one assumes already that the other is one who can make claims, namely a person—one who can say “I think.” When one says, “I disagree with you” he or she is making an I-you encounter by which one affirms the other’s equal personhood or right and ability to make truth-claims (though one might still be superior in knowledge on the point at issue). The thought, true or false, facilitates the recognition of mutual personhood.
But of course those making the claims want others to agree. The proposed truth is accompanied by an appeal: if true, then it ought to be a common judgment of truth. One is satisfied when the other agrees upon deliberation, but not when the other agrees listlessly or thoughtlessly. The producer wants a worthy judgment, especially from one whom the author respects. This satisfies the author as a contributor to the good of the collection of persons composing the community of thought. Even in rejection, however, there is a sort of contribution: what is not true helps define or to narrow what is true. This is not very satisfying for the rejected author, of course. But it is more satisfying than in those too-frequent cases when one’s work is never judged or receives little attention. In these cases, one’s aspirations to be a person among persons by means of thought are never recognized, either through affirmation or denial. Despite the work being complete, one’s work or labor is left empty. The book on the shelf becomes an embodiment of false hope, wasted time, life exhausted without recognition and rejuvenation.
This reveals something about the nature of meaningful work itself, whether in intellectual work or craftsmanship: the formation of the material infuses with it the aspirations of the producer to participate in a realm of persons who rightly judge their work and thereby confirm their personhood qua worker.
Now, as I said, intellectual labor and craftsmanship are two species of this genus, and therefore not identical, which means that there is a principle of difference between them, each possessing a specific difference. The products of craftsmanship do not communicate personhood through ordinary language and, for this reason, cannot contain an explicit or implicit “I” with a clear referent. Personhood is concealed and communicated outside ordinary language, using significations of quality, making such communication more difficult and in need of a close community. Korn recognizes the similarity and difference:
In many ways, the coffee table in my living room and the desk at which I sit are like the book that you are reading. Each came into being through creative process in which I explored ideas about life. When I am making furniture, I think with things; when I am writing I think with words. Both methodologies are powerful tools….Although both furniture and book carry ideas, there are significant differences between them, such as how they sequence information….A craftsman cannot control a respondent’s path through this information as tightly as an author, but the craftsman has the advantage of making complex structures of information simultaneously apparent. His picture is worth the proverbial thousand words.
Hence, the principle of difference between craftsmanship and intellectual work appears to be in the mode of communication—the specific differences being the signification of thoughts with words for sequential consideration and thoughts with qualities for immediate, simultaneous consideration. Still, despite their differences, the experience of work in intellectual work serves as an experiential foundation for understanding the fellow species of craftsmanship.
“He’ll think he owns it.”
Continuing on our path towards a full discussion of meaningful work in craftsmanship, it will be helpful to discuss non-industrial land-based production, or small-scale farming. Being a sort of subspecies with craftsmanship, small-scale farming work reveals in part the nature and possibilities in the species of craftsmanship.
We begin with a fictional account given by the novelist John Steinbeck. In his Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck frequently describes farmers’ relationship to land and the produce of labor. In one instance, he writes,
The tenant [farmer] pondered. ‘Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.’
Steinbeck speaks of productive land as “part of” and “like” the farmer. His emotions are tied to it. This connection is not merely based on the need for sustenance, nor is his care for the property merely in its productive capacity and potential of acquiring wealth, nor is it something merely for use. It is much more. The farmer/property connection is analogous to a parental/child relationship: the parent feels when the child feels—parent wants to feel with the child. The parent is not the child, and yet the parent feels, through a different mode of feeling, what the child feels.
Later Steinbeck writes of desperate and propertyless small farmers cultivating “secret gardens” on uncultivated land owned by another. A sheriff comes along and says to them, “I had my eye on you. This ain’t your land. You’re trespassing.” The man responds, “The land ain’t plowed, an’ I ain’t hurtin’ it none.” The sheriff replies, “You goddamned squatters. Pretty soon you’d think you owned it. You’d be sore as hell. Think you owned it. Get off now.” The narrative continues:
And the little green carrot tops were kicked off and the turnip greens trampled. And then the Jimson weed moved back in. But the cop was right. A crop raised—why, that makes ownership. Land hoed and the carrots eaten—a man might fight for land he’s taken food from. Get him off quick! He’ll think he owns it. He might even die fighting for the little plot among the Jimson weeds. Did ya see his face when we kicked them turnips out? Why, he’d kill a fella soon’s he’d look at him. We got to keep these here people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country. Outlanders, foreigners.
Much could be said about this passage, but one point in particular is most relevant here. The chief offense was not the destruction of sustenance, nor was the cop most concerned with the food itself. Rather it was about the land, particularly land that one has cultivated and “taken food from.“ For arising from this activity is a sense ownership, a sense of “mine,” not legal property rights but something extra-legal. The cop and the desperate farmer knew that cultivating activity generated something particular about worker and this spot. Trampling over crops was more than material destruction; it severed an immaterial connection between worker and land. While the landless farmer had no legal right to the land he cultivated—a right backed by a third-party, the state—he nevertheless can feel, and perhaps assert, an extra-legal claim to the product and perhaps even the land—a claim backed by the worker himself who stands at the boundary with strength and resolve intent on conserving his own.
The property-less farmer would “fight” for the land that he’s cultivated, claims Steinbeck. But why? A sort of self-defense. The land, being an object of the farmer’s intimate activity, has become a part of the farmer’s built world, one of familiarity and sense of home. To kick the produce is to kick the producer. In productive activity, the laborer has shaped not only a material object with common human purposes; he has adorned the object with an immaterial objectification of his self as worker and thereby established in and for himself a place of dwelling.
There is an unmistakable Lockean theme present in the narrative, though Steinbeck takes it a step further. In his Second Treatice of Government, Locke argued that something is one’s property after “he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own.” In addition to “mixed” and “joined,” he uses the words “annexed” and “added” for things that confer a property right. But these terms seem to be metaphorical. After all, productive labor is not a thing that one mixes with material. It is an activity. Locke employs nothing literal or empirical to account for this “mixing.” And indeed there is nothing empirical or material about the relationship generated in production. The body is not joined to the soil. As metaphorical, there must be a literal referent, something that remains hidden or unstated in Locke’s exposition. Locke seems to be missing a necessary connecting element between labor and property. Property ownership is a legal claim—something backed by law, a human artifice, against another. But if people have a pre-legal claim to the soil and material on which they’ve labored, then what is the ground of that claim?
The mediating element that can ground property claims is the same phenomenological connection between worker and product or soil that this essay seeks to describe. It is an extension of concern and care imputed to the thing by the thing’s creator, arising from the time, energy, thought, care, and life put into it. Locke’s view of property as interpreted by Steinbeck contains an unstated premise concerning the phenomenological relation between worker and the products of his labor that exists due to the activity performed on it. The person as worker has extended something or some sense of self to the material or soil, elevating it from something foreign to familiar, from something of pure monetary value to a personal value. In the case of farming and the Steinbeck narrative, the farmer’s individuality manifests from the soil such that an outside offense against the land is an offense against the man himself, and moreover the very act of cultivating, reaping, and consuming generates an extra-legal sense of “mine” that might challenge a legal and arbitrary claim to property.
This discussion of Locke is not meant to provide a novel insight into his account of property; indeed, it is unlikely that Locke had any phenomenological producer/product relation in mind. Nevertheless, his account, though used later to justify the liberal economic order, does seem, at least in part and between the lines, to support the assumptions of Steinbeck’s narration. In justifying property acquisition beyond mere “universal consent,” as seen in Grotius and Pufendorf, and grounding of property in some relation between the person, his or her activity, and the resulting product, the Steinbeckian Locke suggests that such property-claims are mediated by something left unstated, namely some personal connection generated by productive activity. Since this essay is not about legal property, I will no longer call this phenomena “mediating,” nor use any like terms. But it remains relevant that work generates something of value prior to property.
Labor as an Extension of Life
Moving away from small-scale farming, we will now discuss some of Karl Marx’s early thought. In much of Marx’s analysis, he has large-scale operations in mind. Still, his description of labor reveals the possibility of extending “life” into one’s products, an important element in my account of meaningful work. But more importantly a discussion and critique of Marx allows us to clarify, by means of rejecting some of Marx’s ideas, the importance of the mode of labor—the particular type of concrete labor. My argument rejects the possibility that work can be an end in itself regardless of the type of labor involved.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, written before Das Kaptial, Marx writes a fascinating chapter on “Estranged Labour.” Seemingly borrowing from Locke, he states that “the product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification.” For Marx this objectification does not produce property, at least not for the producer. Of course, in the capitalist mode of production, the product is immediately the property of the capitalist. But products in general and in themselves are nothing but labor embodied, a sort of manifestation of labor. The “worker put his life in the object,” he writes. The product then is alien to the worker because it is an objectification of life-expenditure: “Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not.” For Marx, productive labor producers a unique relationship between producer and product: the product is an “external existence” of one’s “inner world.” The producer gives or transfers life into his product and “now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.”
Marx is using metaphorical language. “Life” refers not merely to the “expenditure of brains, nerves, and muscles.” It refers in addition to an extension of self, an extension that involves a loss of more than bodily energy. In the expenditure of life, the worker suffers a “loss of realization.” By extending one’s aspirations out into things that pass by on the assembly line (as in traditional factory production) and are brought into the impersonal social relations of production in capitalism, one loses himself in the world of things.
For Marx, the liberal economic order concealed reality, the reality that workers worked directly for one another, not for things. The real social relations of production was between fellow workers. But the market exchange concealed this reciprocal relationship. Workers falsely thought that their labor was for things. Labor was only means to a wage, a mere means. But for Marx the expenditure of labor-power is the mutual person-to-person giving of life—an activity ultimately oriented towards persons, who are ends in themselves. Labor was actually an act of rejuvenation for another: the mutual giving of life. One gives of his inner world and another gives in return; it is a mutual for-others activity. The true relation of production was ultimately a relation of reciprocation between persons. And when capitalism falls, the veil will be stripped away, and this relation will be finally explicit in the world.
If Marx is correct, then the sort of meaningful labor or meaning-adorning labor I’m describing is possible in both large-scale and small-scale production, making the sort of “petty-bourgeois” craftsmanship, which he dismissed in his Communist Manifesto as nostalgia, unnecessary. But there is a widely acknowledged and serious problem in classical Marxism.
I show this below. First however I want to explain why this is important for the argument. In part, I want to salvage Marx’s account of labor as a person-to-person mutual giving of life by demonstrating its possibility in small-scale production. Workers can expend life for another, even with the fall of Marxian economics, but only in certain conditions. So the inability for people to work for one another is not due to false consciousness, nor to the fetishization of produced things. Rather what is essential is the nature of the work itself—that it is meaning-adorning activity. And the product itself, when made in a particular way, is what facilitates the very life-to-life rejuvenation Marx speaks of. Personal relations of production is not between laborers viewed as conducting “abstract labor.” Rather persons work for one another by means of particular labor-activities; and the resulting product is the vehicle of that appeal by the person qua worker to another person. Below I explain the central problem with the economics of classical Marxism.
Relying on the Labor Theory of Value, Marx argued that the capitalist economic system conceals from workers the fact that they ultimately “work for one another,” as I said above. He reached this conclusion by following the liberal economic theory of the time (particularly David Ricardo’s economic theories). Marx was therefore a classical economist. He believed, with Adam Smith, that the true value of a product is not tied to its use-value or its exchange value, but by the amount of labor-power expended to make it: the “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscle.” This is “abstract labor” or the “expenditure of labor power in general,” labor without reference to any particular mode of production (i.e., “concrete labor”). When the products of labor reach the exchange, they take on an exchange value equivalent to the “socially necessary labor” time put into them. For example, if some linen took one hour to weave and a coat took two hours to tailor, the exchange ratio would be 1 to 2. In exchanging a coat, one receives two pieces of linen. There is nothing unique about this formulation; it is standard classical economics. But where Marx takes this is innovative. He argues that the market exchange conceals what is actually going on in the act of exchange. It creates a system of relations between things, yet these things are merely the products of abstract labor. He writes,
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total to their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour….There is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
Underlying the exchange value, and that which the exchange conceals, is the labor-power exerted to make the products. For Marx, the end of work is not the product; it is the other worker. For this reason, the seed of communism is already contained in the liberal order: the workers already work for one another. It is, however, concealed by their obsession with things. The “fetishism which attaches itself to the product of labour” is made possible by the “mist-enveloped” arena of the exchange, bringing about the “estrangement of man from man.”
For Marx, when workers mature from a class in-itself to a class for-itself, it will overthrow the unnecessary and exploitive capitalist apparatus—such as property, the market exchange, and the capitalist class—and continue, for the most part, what they were already doing, viz. working for one another with the same jobs in the same factories. The communist revolution uncovers the true nature of things. Once the capitalists are removed, the human species proceeds into the next stage of social development.
Since workers ultimately work for one another in a classical Marxian system, work is directed toward a proper end, namely, persons, and in so doing they reciprocate life and the mutual affirmation of each other as ends in themselves. In liberal economies, workers expend life to make an object that is bought to the market. Their work and their relationships to others as workers are only means to something else. The termination of ownership in exchange does not serve, on Marx’s account, to rejuvenate or restore the life one put into the product. The worker in this system works only to eat and eats only to work. By dispensing with the fetishism, workers discover the true nature of their work, namely, that it has a real and worthy end, others persons.
But Marx’s reliance on classical economics proves to be problematic for Marxian economic theory. The Labor Theory of Value, which was integral to Smith’s and many of the 19th century economists’ theories, is largely rejected today and it came under fatal attack soon after Marx’s death. Economist Thomas Sowell writes,
By the late nineteenth century, however, economists had given up the notion that it is primarily labor which determines the value of good, since capital, management and natural resources all contribute to output and must be paid for from the price of that output, if these inputs in the production process are to continue to be supplied. More fundamentally, labor, like all other sources of production costs, was no longer seen as a source of value. On the contrary, it was the value of the goods to the consumers which made it worthwhile to incur the costs required to produce those good—provided that the consumer was willing to pay enough to cover those production costs….It is not costs which create value; it is value which causes purchasers to be willing to pay for the costs incurred in the production of what they want.
Production cost is no longer the source of value in the exchange. This includes the cost of labor. Labor cost is one important factor in decisions concerning production, but it has little to no direct bearing upon the price at exchange. It does not determine value.
This has serious consequence for classical Marxian economic theory. While liberal economic theory could modify itself in light of this development, the Marxian account, which so stressed the concealed relations of production between workers, suffered a fatal blow, in my view. There is no underlying relations of production based on abstract labor. Workers do not work for one another as Marx argued. The market exchange does not conceal social relations. Workers do not project their ideals upon products and thereby avoid some higher level of species-being. There is no seed of communism in the liberal economic order.
But as I’ve suggested above, this failure of classical Marxism does not require us to leave behind the idea of labor as an activity for others, as an activity ultimately between persons and as an activity that expends and extends life. It was after all the French polymath Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi (1773-1842), whom Marx called in his Manifesto the great defender of the petite bourgeoisie, who was one of the first to identify the “social labour” inherent in production. He called attention to the “reciprocal cares and duties” that bind people together in small-scale production, for example.
I propose therefore that we stop treating productive labor as a real genus i.e., as the class of various labor activities. Rather we should think of “productive labor” as a division that while occasionally useful fails to classify meaningful work as under meaning-adorning activity. The sort of labor required in large-scale production is properly classified under de-personalized activity. Hence, the two modes of labor—small-scale and large-scale—have different remote genera. Craftsmanship, being small-scale labor, is meaningful work—a genus of productive activity that adorns products by persons, for persons, and between persons.
On place, see Jeff Malpas Place and Experience.
Peter Korn, Why We Create Things, 63, 64.
Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Ch. 5.
Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Ch. 19.
Available at Marxism.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm
Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: The Modern Library, 1906), 82.
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Ch. 5.
Marx, Capital, 83.
Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2011) 286-287.
The purpose of this section is to describe the genus of meaning-adorning activity. Put simply, this refers to emergent features that arise in human activity as superadded and intersubjective features irreducible to the objective material. These are produced by the highest faculty of the human being, effectively constructing and maintaining our social world. This world permits us to appeal to persons, as I-You encounters, making judgments and giving reasons and justifications for our behavior. We are for this reason not merely acting and reacting beings, but beings that offer reasons as justifications for our actions; we give accounts on behalf our behavior and demand the same from others.
Since at least Descartes, and especially since Darwin, Western philosophy has been preoccupied with analyzing human existence and the human social world in light of the remarkable explanatory power of modern natural science. The philosophical problems arising from the successes are numerous, including the issues in free will, responsibility, the mind, ethics, etc. Modern evolutionary biology, which has in recent years relentlessly sought to explain human behavior with evolutionary theory, has only compounded the philosophical problems, for evolutionary explanations seem to question the truth-value of basic judgments of human experience. If, for example, the human enjoyment of music is simply a function of natural selection or some mating advantage, then what do we say about the value or the meaningfulness of our inter-personal reasons offered to others for our enjoyment of it and for our preferring this or that music or composition? There seems to be over-determination: our enjoyment of music is sufficiently explained both from evolutionary biology and from our own reasons from our experience, the latter of which seem irreducible to the former. There are dual explanations, and neither relies on the other and neither uses the same mode or method of analysis. There seem then to be two realms: one of natural science and one of human experience—an irreconcilable dichotomy of science and, what many have called, “folk psychology”. But are these ordered in some way? Is one primary or primordial over the other? Is one true and the other false?
The many solutions offered are, as one could guess, dualistic. They involve conceding the ground claimed by the modern scientists in order to posit an additional mode of understanding the world. Spinoza, for example, while affirming one world, thought that it could be explained in two incommensurable ways—through thought and through extension. Each could exhaustively explain the world, and neither mode of inquiry could reach the other. Kant, responding to Hume’s skepticism, argued for a distinction in the understanding, in which one can know both causality and practical reason, the latter being the knowledge of duties and personality. In these views, however, nothing arises or emerges from the other.
Despite proving unsatisfactory for many philosophers, the dualistic approach is still common. Wilhelm Dilthey’s view of Verstehen points towards what is, to my mind, a more helpful resolution to the problem; and many subsequent theories, from Sellars to Dennet, reflect Dilthey’s influence. Verstehen is an interpretative stance towards social phenomena. It is an analysis not seeking to explain human behavior, but how to understand it—in the reasons offered, the motivating emotions, and meanings. As Roger Scruton describes it,
It is a way of conceptualizing the world that emerges from our interpersonal dialogue. It is when addressing you as an I like me that I describe the world in terms of the useful, the beautiful, and the good, that I deck out the deliverance of the sense in emotional colors, that I draw your attention to things under such descriptions as graceful, delicate, tragic, and serene. In science, we describe the world to others; in Verstehen we describe for others. 
The for-others nature of Verstehen is the realm in which we offer reasons to others for our actions and belief. It is not something one can observe and describe when outside the particular intersubjective mode of relations. That is, even if one had a god-like objective view of human beings (assuming a god unable to know the intersubjectivty of humans), this god could exhaust the knowledge only of a certain type, namely, the knowledge of natural science, objective facts, and perhaps evolutionary explanation. Observing mate-selection could not reach the subjective consideration of love, nor comprehend the nature of the reasons offered for mutual love. The experience of beauty, both natural and human-made, might have its evolutionary explanation, but the experience of beauty is not experienced as a function of natural selection; it is experienced as something wholly different—as something to be contemplated and discussed with others using non-evoluationary and non-scientific terms.
The human social world, however, arises or relates to the natural world, but it is not identical to the natural world. Indeed, it seems that the social realm is incommensurable with the science realm. Sellars and others take this view, labeling one the “space of law” and the other “space of reason.” This follows from his early work in which he famously distinguished the “scientific image” and the “manifest image.” Our everyday mode of existence is within a space of reasons. That is to say, we do not, and typically cannot, justify ourselves—our beliefs and actions—by means of naturalistic explanations. Rather, we offer reasons for ourselves to other persons, assuming a plane of social existence that transcends in some way the natural, mechanistic world. In other words, there is a social world and we, as persons, exist in it. Persons create and impute upon the material world ontologically inter-subjective features that supply an emergent realm of meaning on which we have our social being. This realm of meaning is a sort of life-world in which we find ourselves at home and in which we communicate with other persons.
In The Construction of Social Reality, John Searle describes the ontology of social facts and explains how we construct their social world. Searle begins by making a fundamental distinction: “between those features of the world that exist independently of us and those that are dependent on us for their existence.” Objects in the world can have both ontologically objective features and ontologically subjective features, the former referring to features of objects that exist apart from any subject’s attitude or intention relative to it and the latter referring to features that are “observer or user relative.” A screwdriver, he states, has objective and “intrinsic” features (i.e., its material composition); and yet it also has “subjective” or extrinsic features, revealed in its usefulness as a screwdriver. This feature of the object exists only due to the “intentionality of observers, user, etc.” He goes on to speak of “social facts,” which make up our social reality, as the products of “collective intentionality.” These “we intentions” are individuals intending as part of the collective intending. That is, they are united on particular attitudes towards some object, activity, institution, place, rule, etc.
According to Searle, we have the unique capacity to assign “status functions” on “objects and people” (and I’d add, places) that “cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure.” He continues, “The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question.” His examples include private property, a twenty-dollar bill, and university professor as things that have “a collectively recognized status that enables them to perform those functions.” The object or person can perform some collectively assigned function only on account of its status in the social world. These status functions necessarily come with what Searle calls “deontic powers,” which he identifies as “right, duties, obligations, requirements, permissions, authorizations, entitlements, and so on.” And these create “reasons for acting that are independents of our inclinations and desires.” Apart from this social world, humans have nothing to contemplate, to consider, and perhaps nothing even to think about.
Searle, to my mind, is on the right track in exploring the principal ways by which human construct and consent to a social world. Humans have a higher-order faculty (“deontic powers”) by which we construct a world using common agreement that imputes function, roles, meanings, etc. to people, things, and places from which arise responsibilities, duties, manners, rules, laws, and rights. We have the power or faculty collectively to assign status functions or features to things that are irreducible even to their assigned use-functions in human activity. That is to say, we can assign meaning to things (and places) for purely inter-personal ends. These higher-order features seem be the content of our entire being in the world—our life is taken up in a sort of we-consciousness—a life constantly acting for, against, with, and in reaction to others in accordance with principles or rules into which we have been socialized from birth. Human second nature is fundamentally a social nature, and it requires a deliberate stance before the world to dislodge ourselves from it. The activity that establishes and sustains this social world is what I call meaning-adorning activity, serving as a genus of types forms of meaning-adorning, and my argument is precisely to argue that work can be such an activity to the fullest extent.
Certainly labor is necessary to construct the human built environment, which facilitates all sorts of human activities. But can productive activity be more than that? Is it, in addition to building and sustaining a human world, an activity imbuing social meaning on objects such that work can itself be inter-personal—an activity by which people address others as persons? I argue below that given the right conditions work can indeed constitute a personal relations of production.
7 On this problem in music, see Roger Scruton, Understanding Music.
8 Roger Scruton, Soul of the World, 33.
9 The Construction of Social Reality, 9.
10 Making the Social World, 6.
11 Ibid, 9.
Protesting France’s refusal to join the Unites States in its invasion of Iraq in 2003, American conservative groups sought to strike at the heart of the French people. Hoping to cause great offense, they poured imported French wine into the street gutter. Instead of exciting the palate, the precious liquid slid down the storm-drain. The act was, as expected, criticized in the US, but not in the typical fashion: the wine-defilers were ridiculed for the self-defeating nature of the act. After all, in order to dump wine in the gutter one must first purchase the wine. The French already got what they ultimately wanted: payment. Alan Reynolds from the libertarian think-tank, Cato Institute, wrote at the time, “Any French wine available to be poured down the drain is wine that has been paid for by some American. Destroying the wine after buying it does not hurt the French seller, only the American buyer.” Indeed, even before purchasing the wine both the French producer and the international distributor already received payment. So it seems that the American protesters’ stunt was self-defeating. The joke is on them, not the French.
But, despite the silliness of these acts, the wine-defamers recognized something important about the wine and the work put into it.They recognized that certain products, typically those products produced with intimate and personal care and with which a whole people identify, carry with them a value that transcends their price. They secure for the producer more than mere revenue or profit. They are, I submit, imbued with the producers’ aspirations for meaningful work. The protesters indeed recognized something crucial and yet elusive about the wine, namely, that pride, tradition, individuality, and even a people’s sense of themselves as a collective went into its production. The French producers had a stake in the product achieving its ends: fellow human enjoyment. Their work was for others. The producers’ satisfaction was bound up in the consumers’ proper use and enjoyment of the product.
This producer/product connection is part of the human need to adorn their world in their activity with a significance irreducible to the material world itself. By activity in the world, we imbue and elevate the world with human sentiment, as if making it into our image—from bare material and market value to something worthy of care, concern, and conservation. And in our judgment on the rightness of the thing, we seek the common agreement of others. Our individual activity in the world is already and always social; it is done with and for others. Human activity in the world forms a relationship with people, places, and things that elevates them to sacral existence—making possible their desecration.
The violation of such entities is far greater than a violation of property or material damage. It is rather a deep-seated loss—as if one’s self or person is violated. Anyone who has experienced property theft, whether burglary or robbery, from one’s home can feel a loss often greater than whatever items were lifted from the house; one’s relationship to the house has shifted: from a comforting familiarity to disquieting foreignness, as if tainted. A place for tranquil activity has been violated and made a place of uncertainty. As we saw with the guttered wine, I submit that products of labor can also be objects of care and concern—objects elevated beyond simply consumability and usefulness—and imbued with significance that can receive a sort of desecration at the hand of others.
This inescapable feature of the human being, which receives a greater treatment in the next section, is the ground of my argument in this essay. I argue that labor can and even ought to produce products that enter a social world with a meaning higher than market and use values, as things adorned with an enduring presence of their makers as if the producers are embodied in the products. Such products present the producers before the world via their products. Meeting certain necessary conditions, work adorns products with a higher-order meaning, a meaning that elevates the producer into the realm of the personal by addressing others as persons in the work by means of the product; and the product’s qualities are reasons offered for one’s goodness as worker, presented for another person’s judgment. For by means of the product the producer’s personality as worker has been manifested for others. In so doing, the producer and consumer address each other as persons, each capable of the faculty of judgment, and treat each other as ends in themselves. This social adornment that raises work into personal relations of production, though irreducible to the materiality of the product, becomes the principal end of production itself; and for this reason, conducting this sort of work is not merely a means, either to a wage or revenue, but is also and chiefly an end in itself. For any activity performed for and in recognition of personhood is worth doing for its own sake.
Hence, on this account of production, exchange, and consumption, the use of the product is ancillary to the ultimate end of production. The chief and highest end is the recognition of persons, particularly the person as he is manifested via products as a worker, and thereby raises productive work itself to an end in itself. That is to say, the products of productive work facilitate the mutual recognition of the personhood of both the producer and the consumer—both serving as symbiotes in a symbiosis of production and consumption. By “end it itself” I mean that by the activity itself one achieves the principal good sought in it. Put negatively, the activity is not a means to another activity by which one achieves the chief good sought; the good is achieved in the activity itself. This does not preclude subsequent, ancillary conditions for the realization of this good, for it is not necessary that one realizes the good of an activity at the time of conducting it. A composer seeks the best setting for the performance of his composition, but the setting, while necessary for the performance of the composition, is only ancillary to the achievement of the good sought in musical composition. Similarly, in work one must bring the product to some sort of exchange, but the act of exchange is not the principal end sought in production. Rather the exchange is an ancillary condition of that end. The realization of the good then is retroactive—the worker comes to see his past work as work performed for its own sake. Furthermore, this does not preclude the realization of goods in consequence of the activity, such as revenue or wages. Hence, the fact that meaningful work serves as a means to various ends does not preclude it from being principally an end in itself.
What is unique about this approach is that while it affirms many common intuitions of meaningful work, such as the necessity of individual creativity, self-satisfaction and independence, it takes it a step further by linking such work to other persons and thereby raising it into the distinctively human features of human society. Instead of describing meaningful work as quasi-solipsistic—as something satisfying apart from the satisfaction of others—this essay shows that meaningful work at its highest potential is a matter of the manner of labor and type of community in which one labors, both needing to be small in scale. Community is required for meaningful work. Longfellow’s stoical village blacksmith who “earned a night’s repose” for “something attempted, something done” was only half correct, as was Dorothy Sayer who said that “to aim directly at serving the community is to falsity the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.” Rather labor as work must be in and for community.
This study does not describe what makes work satisfying, happiness-producing, or even “meaningful” for the typical worker in today’s late capitalist economy, and I have no intent on disparaging that work. Nor is my intent to contribute, at least directly, to the literature on the “corrosion of character” caused by late capitalism. My intent rather is to describe, with philosophical argumentation, how work can become an end in itself i.e., worth doing for its own sake. This sort of work is what I mean by “meaningful work.” Whether such work makes people happy I’ll let others decide. Meaningful work is here defined as work that can produce products with the fullest possible meaning imbued or embodied in them. The principal part of this meaning is that which elevates the products before persons and thereby makes possible work as an end in itself.
The two basic requirements—the manner of work and working in a particular type of community—both concern scale. Hence, only some labor is meaningful labor. Only small-scale labor conducted by the craftsman, the sort of labor that requires a certain intimacy and the application of hands-on skill with material in its formation, can be meaningful labor. But it is only potentially meaningful, for my account stresses that the community is necessary as well, and, as I said, this community must be small in scale—those that, as economist Wilhelm Ropke says, do not “stifle the primary forms of human existence” and balance “individual responsibility and independence.” My account of meaningful labor then fits best and even works to justify many of the “third-way” approaches to political economy described best with E. F. Schumacher’s title, “Small is Beautiful.” My account is not then consistent with either Socialism or Liberalism, the adherents of which have regularly rejected the small-scale or the “petite bourgeoisie” as “economic romanticism.”
Still, this account of meaningful labor does not firstly call for the end of capitalism or for political revolution. Rather it calls for individuals in the quotidian aspects of life to reassert their independence in labor and to affirm each other in it. Indeed, change, at least with respect to meaningful labor, is not a top-down tear-down of the system and a take-over of the means of production, but something arising from below in everyday life—something that demands more than a set of tweets and shrilling in the streets. Approaching meaningful work requires us to be personal with others in unobserved contexts, not concerning ourselves with the illusion that others are watching and that they care. It’s to concrete, not abstract, persons that we go and in so doing reassert the primacy the local in the formation of meaningful work.
Method and Summary
I rely on phenomenological descriptions of the human person’s relationship to the world, viz. that humans necessarily imbue or adorn the bare, material world in meaning with a superadded social significance irreducible and undiscoverable on, in or with the material itself, and this is accomplished by means of particular types of human activities, and work is one such activity. To support this contention, I appeal to common experience, making necessary the reader’s willingness to reflect on what occurs pre-reflectively in everyday life—to discover for oneself one’s own active imbuement of meaning onto things and places and therefore see the possibility of meaning-adorning work. I also appeal to the illuminating descriptions of work from the pens of craftsman themselves and theorists of craft. Throughout the essay I treat the words “work,” “craftsmanship,” and “small-scale work” as synonymous.
I begin my discussion on meaning-adorning seeking to describe the remote genus of craftsmanship, what I call meaning-adorning activity, and meaning-adorning (or meaningful) work is a proximate genus—of which both intellectual work and craftsmanship are species. Intellectual work and craftsmanship are similar enough to share the same genus. My argument advances a sort of cognitive dualism in which a social world emerges from meaning-adorning activity as an irreducible adornment superadded to the material world. In our everydayness (i.e., our pre-reflective life) we live in this social world as if residing on the surface of things. This “surface” is precisely where persons reside, interact, and justify themselves. The adornment are subjective features of our world and are necessary for a distinctively human world and irreducible to physical stuff of the world.
Meaningful work is the proximate genera of meaning-adorning activity. This is the sort of labor that, due to its scale, makes possible an intimate connection between the producer and product such that he or she can look upon it as “mine” even when the right of use or ownership has been terminated by exchange. That is to say, it manifests to the producer his labor embodied, as a sort of mirror by which he encounters himself for contemplation as a worker. As an embodiment of the person as worker, the producer is bound up in the product such that he or she seeks both recognition as a person through it and judgment from other persons as a worker. For the latter, the producer views the qualities of the product as the reasons offered to another for his activity. The recognition of the qualities as reasons is enough to recognize the producers personality and thereby certifies that the labor was worth doing for its own sake. But such work is complete only when the producer’s honest assertion of goodness is judged as good by the community viz. when the assertion coheres with consensus. Furthermore, the community must be small in scale to recognize and judge, for the higher-order features exist entirely inter-subjectively, between persons. As intersubjective, these features are with or in the products only as particular social facts, and the appearance of that product in a different community effectively annihilates this higher social meaning. I conclude the essay by describing how this seemingly I/you encounter in meaningful work can actually be one of we, viz. a sort of we-consciousness in which one in all and all in one work, recognize, and judge.
1 Alan Reynolds, “Why Boycotting Wine Won’t Work,” Cato Institute, accessed from http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/why-boycotting-wine-wont-work.
2 Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?,” Accessed on 4/13/2017 at http://tnl.org/wp-content/uploads/Why-Work-Dorothy-Sayers.pdf.
3 See for example, Steger et al. “Measuring Meaningful Work: The Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI)” in Jouranl of Career Assessment, 20(3) 322-337
4 See Richard Sennet, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
5 The Humane Economy, 7.
6 See “A Characterization of Economic Romanticism” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1897/econroman/index.htm
MULTICULTURALISM’S SILENT PARTNER
By David Rieff (Harper’s Magazine, Aug 1993)
The debate over multiculturalism continues, seemingly unstanchable, with Gerald Graff’s Beyond the Culture Wars, Charles Sykes’s A Nation of Victims, and, most valuably, Robert Hughes’s Culture of Complain adding, respectively, to the left, right, and center of an already crowded shelf: Eagleton, Gates, Bromwich, Schlesinger, Paglia, Lehman, D’Souza, Kimball, Bloom, and more. The ongoing arguments about race and gender, the canon and deconstruction, values, victims, and sensitivities represent a growth industry, unlikely to face a downturn anytime soon. Campus life would be emptied of excitement, if not of subject matter, without these debates. For, it seems, there is nothing more bracing, more thrilling, more bedazzling to an academic intellectual–be she or he a neo-conservative, a feminist, or a new historicist–than a struggle that seems to exist, at present anyway, almost purely in the realm of ideas. Here, for once, there,is no competition from the “real world.” Ideas clang against one another like unbuffered neurons, and when the din momentarily subsides, those who deploy them have risked nothing, at least if they’ve achieved tenure.
But what if multiculturalism were not simply an idea, sprung from the minds of intellectuals, but rather a byproduct or corollary of a specific material integument? If intellectual history teaches anything, it is that few theoretical debates, from Aquinas to Foucault, have been simply theoretical. Even allowing for its heightened esotericism, there is no reason to suppose that the advent of multiculturalism is any more separable from the society in which it has arisen than, say, the philosophy of the Enlightenment was from the rapidly secularizing and industrializing world that gave birth to it. The shards of many systems of belief litter every era; it is into an era’s deeper structures that we have to look in order to explain why one set of ideas and mores triumphs and another fades.
Intellectuals, of course, beg to differ, and the attraction of the multiculturalist debate for both the Right and the Left is the way it has been framed–the assumption that what arguments about the canon prove is that here (yes!) we matter. In this legend it is a good thing that intellectuals Right to Left are able to agree that Marxism along with Soviet state Communism died in 1989. For an application if not of the methods of “vulgar” Marxism then at least of those (related) models of understanding that are to be found on the business pages of the better newspapers might produce a rather more grounded sense of what we are talking about when we talk and talk about multiculturalism. Despite the denials and mystifications of the intelligentsia, multiculturalism is a phenomenon with a silent partner: the broad and radical change now taking place within world capitalism.
Self-evidently, it is in the interest of all those who labor in the culture industry to insist that ideas either count more than economic structures or, indeed, are the agents out of which these structures are fashioned. But it is a very American habit as well. There is a sense in which the intellectuals now immersed in the multiculturalism debate are actually returning to the country’s oldest spiritual assumptions embodied by those first cultural critics, the preachers and ministers. It was, after all, the Protestant contention that words really were things: millennial expectations might just bring on the millennium. This is the basis for the assertion of multiculturalism: words define reality. And the neo-conservatives accede to the point, which is why they are so fierce in their opposition to what is going on on campuses these days.
It is an astonishing situation. On the eve of this, the real, not the figurative, millennium, with the Soviet Union a receding memory and the Cuban revolution, that last repository of political romanticism, in its end game, we find the seemingly radical-minded taking refuge not simply in the English and anthropology depart meets but in a deep, pre-Marxist current of interpretation. Behind them the conservatives come capering. And in this rarefied stratosphere the multiculturalist debate, which is without question the central intellectual argument of our moment, is joined–a folie a deux in which one side could not survive without the other.
Those offering seminars in, say, queer studies together with those lambasting such programs in the pages of The New Criterion both overstate and misstate their cases. All insist that the advent of multiculturalism is a critical watershed in American history. And all agree that the debate is a zero-sum game in which either the status quo (call it Western civilization or white male hegemony, according to your taste) will be maintained or some radical new understanding (describe it as justice or barbarism, as you will) will be established. What faith in the power of ideas! As if ours were a culture in which historical memory stretched all the way back to Periclean Athens or the marauding Hyksos. That academics can find crucial the question, posed by Martin Bernal in his book Black Athena, of whether the roots of classical Greek culture were or were not African is almost touching in a society in which most high-school students could not be counted on to name the principal belligerents of World War II.
Reality is elsewhere. For better or worse (probably both), ours is a culture of consumerism and spectacle, of things and not ideas. Most Americans understand this on some level and are comfortable, even happy, with the fact. Which makes the assumptions embraced by our intellectuals debating multiculturalism–particularly the assumption that words define reality–all the stranger. In a country of Kmarts and “material girls,” what is all this anguish about the canon?
Can conservatives really believe that a few curriculum changes will undermine a system that could not be weakened by the Comintern or the Soviet Black Sea fleet? As for our campus revolutionaries: How can they insist on the emancipatory power of multiculturalism when during the 1980s–the very decade in which multiculturalism became the dominant intellectual current in elite sectors of academia–the conditions of the poor, of working-class women, and of America’s non-white citizens deteriorated dramatically? If multiculturalism is what its proponents claim it is, why has its moment seen the richest 1 percent of Americans grow richer and the deunionization of the American workplace? There is something wrong with this picture.
This is not to say that multiculturalism is unimportant; it is enormously important, just not in the way either its champions or its detractors suppose. Indeed, the curiousness of the situation is that both sides have misconstrued the power of multiculturalism in precisely the same way: as a threat to the capitalist system. In reality, it is nothing of the sort, as becomes clear the moment one stops looking at multiculturalism in ideologized, millenarian terms–as if it were some kind of pure, homegrown manifestation of the Zeitgeist–and instead sees it as perhaps the most salient cultural epiphenomenon of an increasingly globalized capitalist system.
If multiculturalism is understood in such a way, some rather puzzling aspects of the debate begin to make sense. Take the readiness of administrators of Ivy League colleges to accept what is, by any standard, a sweeping overhaul of history, philosophy, and literature curricula. Conservatives tend to deploy their Spengler and attribute this to a failure of will, or to the success of the campus radicals from the Sixties in burrowing their way into academia and imposing their agenda. While it would be naive to imagine that there are not some academics who think they have “infiltrated the Establishment” (and who have retroactively persuaded themselves that that is what they had been doing from graduate school on), one would be credulous indeed to think that the men and women who run universities–many of which are, for all intents and purposes, enormous companies complete with vast real-estate holdings and stock portfolios–do not know a real threat when they see one. The equanimity these university bureaucrats display in the face of multiculturalism is not some cowardly attempt to avoid student demonstrations–let students call for universities to divest themselves of all stocks and bonds rather than of interests in companies doing business in South Africa and they will discover that their deans and trustees are not nearly as conciliatory as they may have seemed. Nor are trustees and provosts reluctantly accepting some radical agenda they lack the will, or ideas, to thwart.
Behind the embrace of multiculturalism among college administrators is the belief that there is no incongruity in simultaneously subsidizing an English department made up of feminists and poststructuralists, a physics department that is up to its eye balls in research grants from the federal government, and an enormous (and enormously profitable) quasi-professional sports establishment, complete with athletes who are students only in the technical sense. Once administrators have decided that the university will be a kind of department store, then each new course offering becomes little more than another product line, and department chairpersons begin to act like the store’s buyers. Why should it matter to the provost if his professional advisers think the institution should start recruiting Chicano-studies experts and let Chaucerians gradually go out of stock? People make decisions like this in corporate America every day; indeed, these are the decisions CEOs are paid to make. There are cultural consequences, to be sure, but the redicals on campus are no more dangerous than a display of Mao caps and jackets would be at Bloomingdale’s.
Besides, there is a caustic sense in which multiculturalism is only the most recent manifestation of the diversification and specialization of academic work. About this, administrators and radical professors are of one mind. As a firmly multiculturalist pamphlet, “Speaking for the Humanities,” put the matter a few years ago, “Professionalization makes thought possible.” And since the multiculturalists are firmly convinced that what they are doing is the virtuous empowerment of all the marginalized constituencies in the United States, or some such, they can believe in the syllogism implicit in their enterprise just as easily–namely, that professionalization makes virtue possible.
Virtue, sure … okay. But, more important to global economics, multiculturalism helps to legitimize whole new areas of consumerism. Frankly, culture was always a problem for the marketplace. For one thing, despite the fact that one art form, painting, became extremely valuable as a commodity over the course of the twentieth century, there was always a latent antagonism between an economic system ever more dependent on maximizing growth through increased consumption and a high culture in which the old, the long-cherished, and the irreplaceable were held in higher esteem than the new. Most of the great examples of high culture are, quite literally, artifacts. They can be packaged profitably (the success of the modern museum testifies to this), but they cannot be manufactured to meet rising demand.
Multiculturalism is one way of changing all this. One of its central tenets is to undermine the idea of the masterpiece–of the criterion of quality–as anti-democratic. For the multiculturalist, notions such as “quality” are tainted; their real purpose is to preserve the privileges of a dominant group: in the American context, dead white males. And the multiculturalists are in command–sort of–of a couple of truths: Western culture has excluded many things; art in the traditional sense is anti egalitarian, in that it demands that people judge a given work to be not only subjectively but objectively superior to another. It is the innately hierarchical nature of art, or even, as they used to say, art appreciation, that sets the multiculturalists’ teeth on edge–they are suspicious of hierarchy. For, as they rightly surmise, if there is hierarchy how can there be liberation?
So far, so good, radically speaking. The mistake the multiculturalists make is in imagining that their efforts are in some crucial way bound to undermine the fundamental interests of capitalism. The contrary is surely closer to the truth: the multiculturalist mode is what any smart businessman would prefer. For if all art is,deemed as good as all other art, and, for that matter, if the point of art is not greatness but the production of works of art that reflect the culture and aspirations of various ethnic, sexual, or racial subgroups within a society, then one is in a position to increase supply almost at will in order to meet increases in demand.
Instead of being a rare and costly thing, culture becomes simultaneously a product, like a car–something that can be made new every few years–and an abundant resource, like, well, people. The result is-that the consumption of culture can increasingly come to resemble the consumption of goods. After all, just as one cannot say that a preference for Pepsi is superior to a preference for Dr Pepper, what is euphemistically known as “cultural pluralism” permits a similar abdication of judgment in matters of artistic taste. The rules of the market are soon in full control. If students want to read Alice Walker in a literature class instead of the Iliad, fine. The publishing industry certainly has no qualms. It knows it can market Walker more savvily than it can market the Greeks. At any rate, it is not a case, as conservatives allege, of the student as barbarian. Rather, it is a case of the student as customer. And in our society–and, increasingly, most societies–the customer is always right.
Universities do not exist in a vacuum. In a society like our own, where the images of popular culture are far more widespread and easily grasped than those of high art, it should come as no surprise that these images have made their way onto the campus as well. To be sure, the academic study of a pop star like Madonna comes kitted out in the arcane rhetoric of academic feminism and under the rubric of some new university subspecialty like “cultural studies.” But the underlying reality is that the professors who teach this stuff, however much they have convinced themselves that they are using popular culture for their own emancipatory ends, have fallen just as completely under its sway as any other citizen. Camille Paglia is, in this instance anyway, more honest than most when she claims to be like Madonna. She’s a professor who would prefer to be a pop star. Her colleagues like to imagine that they are revolutionaries who can harness the energies of pop music to their own political ends, but deep down they want to be stars, too.
For all their writings on power, hegemony, and oppression, the campus multiculturalists seem indifferent to the question of where they fit into the material scheme of things. Perhaps it’s tenure, with its way of shielding the senior staff from the rigors of someone else’s bottom-line thinking. Working for an institution in which neither pay nor promotion is connected to performance, job security is guaranteed (after tenure is attained), and pension arrangements are probably the finest in any industry in the country–no wonder a poststructuralist can easily believe that words are deeds. She or he can afford to. Still, this unwillingness to face up to the connections between multiculturalism and the liberal capitalist world order is strange, considering that so much of the multiculturalists’ intellectual effort has concerned language. It is precisely in words that the most obvious similarities between the capitalist and the multiculturalist enterprises are readily observable.
Are the multiculturalists truly unaware of how closely their treasured catchphrases–“cultural diversity,” “difference,” the need to “do away with boundaries”–resemble the stock phrases of the modern corporation: “product diversification,” “the global marketplace,” and “the boundary-less company”? In a 1990 issue of the new historicists’ most important journal, Representations, the University of Toronto law professor Jennifer Nedelsky wrote of the need to do away with the idea of boundaries, an idea that implies “a separation and opposition that does not capture the complex, fertile, and tension-laden interconnection between self and others.” This is rather typical multicultural theorizing. But how different is it from Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore alluding matter-of-factly last year in the Harvard Business Review to the tendency among corporations to replace traditional “vertical hierarchies with horizontal networks”? For many executives, they wrote, “a single metaphor has come to embody this managerial challenge and to capture the kind of organization they want to create: the `corporation without boundaries.'” Now, why is Nedelsky radical? Or, perhaps, why aren’t Hirschhorn and Gilmore?
Obviously, the two pieces had quite different purposes. Nedelsky, a feminist legal scholar, was making a critique of property, whereas Hirschhorn and Gilmore were attempting to describe the problems and potential of this new style of corporate thinking. Nonetheless, the rhetorical similarity between the two visions is astonishing. The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world. Far from standing in implacable intellectual opposition to each other, both groups see the same racial and gender transformations in the demographic makeup of the United States and of the American work force. That non-white workers will be the key to the twenty-first-century American labor market is a given in most sensible long-range corporate plans. Like the multiculturalists, the business elite is similarly aware of the crucial role of women, and of the need to change the workplace in such a way as to make it more hospitable to them. More generally, both CEOs and Ph.D.’s insist more and more that it is no longer possible to speak in terms of the United States as some fixed, sovereign entity. The world has moved on; capital and labor are mobile; and with each passing year national borders, not to speak of national identities, become less relevant either to consciousness or to commerce.
As usual, it is the business community rather than the multiculturalists who have taken the most radical steps toward acknowledging these new conditions. Surely the academic emphasis on the need to stop dividing the world according to antinomies of self and other is far less daring, for all its millenarian posturing, than the decision of Ted Turner some years ago to ban the use of the word “foreign” from the broadcasts of his Cable,News Network. Businessmen certainly need no lessons from academia on the pitfalls of nationalist feeling. In Hoover’s Handbook of World Business 1993, a reference guide to the 191 most important non U.S. companies, “foreign production” is described as a “quaint term … used for the Toyota plant down the street, or Sony’s ownership of Columbia Pictures.” “At the cash register,” the management consultant Kenichi Ohmae goes on to say, “you don’t care about country of origin or country of residence.”
And, of course, the more astute capitalists and careful observers of them understand perfectly well what the consequences of an assertion like Ohmae’s really are. As the management guru Peter Drucker put it in a recent interview, “Most of what we assume axiomatically no longer kits our reality, lending a surreal air to our work and lives. The world seems to have dissolved into a series of media events that appear either bigger than reality or totally formless.” These are sentences that, without attribution, a reader might well assume were the product of a radical culture critic, some neo-Marcusian, or else a colleague of Professor Nedelsky’s. Instead, of course, they represent the thinking of a man who believes himself to be formulating the rules for the success of capitalism in the twenty-first century.
It is probably true that the phrase “think globally, act locally” began as a slogan of the environmental move meet. But its adoption, by companies ranging from Time Warner to AT&T, should tell us something about what the real ideological applications are. The products based on a version of this new global paradigm are already being introduced. AT&T recently unveiled a foreign-language phone service within the United States that enables visitors to prepay for international news, weather reports, and currency exchange information in a number of languages.
The multiculturalists may pride themselves on posing a fundamental threat to what Professor Henry Giroux has called “the hegemonic notion that Eurocentric culture is superior to other cultures and traditions by virtue of its canonical status as a universal measure of Western civilization.” But the reality is that no serious player in the business world has anything but the most vestigial or sentimental interest in Western civilization, as it is roughly understood by campus radicals and conservatives alike. What each side’s argument fails to take into account is that capitalism is the bull in the china shop of human history. The market economy, now global in scale, is by its nature corrosive of all established hierarchies and certainties, up to arid including–in a world now more than 50 percent non-white and in which the most promising markets lie in Asia–white racism and male domination. If any group has embraced the rallying cry “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go,” it is the world business elite. One can go further. Just as the late Irving Howe, taxed by a radical heckler during the late Sixties, could reply confidently that he would be a radical long after his interlocutor had become a dentist, the chances are that the business world will be multicultural long after some new fad has gripped academia. Because, for businessmen, something more is at stake than ideas. Eurocentrism makes no economic sense in a world where, within twenty-five years, the combined gross national product of East Asia will likely be larger than Europe’s and twice that of the United States. In such a world, the notion of the primacy of Western culture will only be an impediment to the chief goal of every company: the maximization of profits.
Obviously, business leaders have become multiculturalists out of these perceived necessities: they are hardly motivated by the altruism or righteous anger that informs the views of the academic multiculturalists. But this does not make their commitment to multiculturalism any less complete. What the campus radicals–and the neo-cons too, for that matter–have failed to recognize is how cold a place the market is, and how radically it has changed over the past thirty years. In the days when a globalized economy largely meant an economy of plantations, as it did in the nineteenth century, or later, when companies set up subsidiaries abroad but had no interest in globally integrating their operations, identifying with the nation-state made sense most of the time–the consumers were Western in taste and locale. But now there are few industries in which long term planning on the basis of national identity makes sense. Indeed, only multinational, which is to say multicultural, approaches seem sound.
There is no business establishment anymore that is committed, in Giroux’s simpleminded phrase, to hegemonic notions of European superiority. In an era when the greatest single financial power to have emerged on the globe is non-white Japan, such a stance would be folly. Our corporate masters are reaming to eat sushi like everyone else. This does not mean that Tokyo will replace New York as the center of capitalism in the same way that New York replaced London or London replaced Amsterdam. To the contrary, the model of center versus periphery becomes ever more outmoded in our multicentered world economy. It was valid only as long as the difficulty in communications made one single center necessary. Now, with fiber optics and the rest of the communications revolution, it is hard to say just where the center is anymore, or if we even need one. Moreover, the increasing interpenetration of various national capitalisms, and the fact that it is perfectly possible now to have a multinational with headquarters in San Francisco, strategic partners in Dortmund and Osaka, factories in Baja California Norte and the Dominican Republic, and a back office in the west of Ireland, means that all notions of definable borders give way to notions of flow and reciprocity.
At the same time, the decline of the good-paying working-class job and the consequent estrangement of the rich from the poor, after a century of the two groups having grown culturally (because economically) closer together, means that it is just as likely that, say, a financial broker from New York would feel more commonality with a broker from Tokyo than he or she would with someone from Harlem or the South Bronx. The collapse of borders, far from being the liberating event that the academic multiculturalists have envisaged, has brought about the multiculturalism of the market, not the multiculturalism of justice. And if there is a mystery about all this, it is that so many people could have expected a different, more “enlightened” outcome.
There is no question that the kinds of change multiculturalism entails will transform the relationships between whites and non-whites and between men and women. The point, however, is that such changes, far from being a threat to capitalism, are, given the demographic facts of our age, an economic necessity. To insist upon this point is neither to underestimate the effects this renegotiation of so many of our basic assumptions will have nor to dismiss the benefits that will accrue to many women and non-whites able to participate fully in the world capitalist economy in positions of power for the first time. In this, the rise of multicultural capitalism is comparable to abolitionism: the slaves were freed when the abolitionists could count on the support of economic interests in the North, for which an economy based on slavery was an impediment to the future economic well-being of the United States. It was industrial civilization, not justice, that the hardheaded plutocrats of New York and New England were interested in furthering. And until they were convinced that their own interests were at stake, all the oratory of Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and their colleagues was for naught. After they were convinced, this same oratory seemed to sweep all before it. Marxists used to call such interactions “base” and “superstructure,” but like so much of what is valuable about Marxist theory, this idea–which is sardonic and clear-eyed, not sentimental and uplifting–seems out of favor with academic multiculturalists, for all their professed respect for the Marxist “tradition.”
But then campus radicalism is awfully selective anyway. Its talk is long on race and gender, short on class. And that is probably just as well, since the market economy, ready though it may be to admit blacks and women, is hardly likely to sign its own death warrant by accepting a radical revision of class relations. Were such proposals to be seriously advanced, on campus or elsewhere, the multiculturalists would soon discover just how tough capitalism can be when its real, as opposed to its sentimental, interests are threatened. But that is the beauty of the academic multiculturalists’ approach: they can appear to be radical and can feel themselves to be radical, but they can advance a program that, stripped of its adorning rhetoric, is little more than a demand for inclusion, for a piece of the capitalist pie. And capitalism is not only increasingly willing but increasingly eager to let in women, blacks, gays, and any other marginalized group. Eureka, more customers!
One can respect the multiculturalist project from a capitalist or a reformist point of view, just as long as one does not confuse it with the attack on power that so many of its proponents claim it to be. Were women and blacks represented proportionately at the top of corporate America, this would not change the nature of class distinctions one iota–which is precisely why capitalism is in no sense seriously opposed to the multicultural “project” in American cultural and intellectual life. Conservatives who imagine otherwise should spend less time reading Commentary and the rest and more time reading Barron’s and Fortune. It was, in fact, a 1991 cover story in Fortune that summed up what is really going on in American business these days. The featured story was called “Gay in Corporate America: What It’s Like and How Business Attitudes Are Changing,” and was a sympathetic account of gay executives. Another story in the same issue, less glossily packaged, told the other side of capitalism’s new politics of inclusion. It was titled “The Battle over Benefits,” and concerned the need to cut back, in the name of corporate health and wealth, the medical and pension plans of employees (You won’t find that article on any reading list in “cultural studies.”)
In the last twenty-five years, it has become possible to discover just how supple capitalism has become) Everything is commodifiable, even Afrocentrism (there is money being made on all the Kinte cloths and Kwanza paraphernalia that are the rage among certain segments of the black community, and not only the black community), bilingualism (currently the hottest growth market in publishing is Spanish-language children’s books), and the other “multicultural” tendencies in American society that conservatives fear so desperately. It turns out that when Hollywood signs up black directors such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, or Mario Van Peebles to make movies, those movies make money–not as much as exploitation films like Terminator 3, perhaps, but money just the same. Meanwhile, economic relationships go on as they have always gone on. And if the inclusion of new voices and constituencies signifies anything, it is not that capitalism is coming to an end but that it is getting its (latest) second wind.
This is not to say that multiculturalism is to blame for these economic trends. That would be as gross a mystification as the idea that its teachings will transform the world for the better. But there is less to the doctrine than meets the eye. Multiculturalism is many things, but the one thing it is not is the idea that will save us or bring justice to the world. Such hopes can only confuse in this time when, far from standing on the point of its redemption, our society–this multicultural, global, increasingly nonwhite and non-European society–is steadily becoming less democratic, less just, and more impoverished.
“Chains and executioners, those are the crude instruments formerly used by tyranny; but today civilization has perfected even despotism itself, which seemed however to have nothing more to learn. Princes had, so to speak, materialized violence; the democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, to reach the soul, crudely struck the body; and the soul, escaping from these blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul. The master no longer says: You will think like me or die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains with you; but from this day on you are a stranger among us….Go in peace; I spare your life, but I leave you a life worse than death.”
Whose Country is America?
NOWHERE at present is there such a measureless loathing of educated people for their country as in America. An excellent historian thinks Americans are “the most frightening people in the world,” and our foremost philologist sees America as “the most aggressive power in the world, the greatest threat to peace and to international cooperation.” Others call America a “pig heaven,” “a monster with 200 million heads,” “a cancer on the body of mankind.”
Novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists and philosophers depict America as the land of the dead—a country where sensitive souls are starved and flayed, where nothing nourishes and everything hurts. Nowhere, they say, is there such a boring monotony: monotony Of talk, monotony of ideas, monotony of aim, monotony of outlook on the world. One American writer says: “America is no place for an artist. A corn‐fed hog enjoys a better life than a creative artist.” One she‐intellectual maintains that “the quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth.”
It is hard to believe that this savage revulsion derives from specific experiences with persons and places. What is there in America that prevents an educated person from shaping his life, from making the most of his inborn endowments? With all its faults and blemishes, this country gives a man elbowroom to do what is nearest to his heart. It is incredible how easy it is here to cut oneself off from vulgarity, conformity. speciousness. and other corrupting influences and infections. For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.
The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].
The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.
There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.
THE intellectual’s allergy to America shows itself with particular clarity in what has happened to many foreign intellectuals who found asylum here during the Hitler decade. It is legitimate to assume that they had no anti‐American preconceptions when they arrived. They were, on the contrary, predisposed to see what was best in their host country. Though no one has recorded what Herbert Marcuse said when he landed in New York in 1934, it is safe to assume that he did not see Americans as one‐dimensional men, and did not equate our tolerance with oppression, our freedom with slavery, and our good nature with simple‐minded‐ness.
We have a record of what some other foreign intellectuals said when they arrived in the nineteen‐thirties. It is worth quoting in full the words of Olga Schnitzler, the widow of Arthur Schnitzler: “So much is here to learn and to see. Everyone has been given an opportunity. Everyone who has not been completely wornout experiences here a kind of rebirth. Everyone feels what a grandiose, complex and broad‐minded country America is, how well and free one can live among these people without perfidy and malice. Yes, we have lost a homeland, but we have found a world.”
Once they had settled down and found their place, many of these intellectuals began to feel constrained and stifled by the forwardness and the mores of the plebeian masses. They missed the aristocratic climate of the Old World. Inevitably, too, they became disdainful of our lowbrow, practical intelligence. They began to doubt whether Americans had the high‐caliber intelligence to solve the problems of a complex, difficult age. Hardly one of them bethought himself that in Europe, when intellectuals of their kind had a hand in shaping and managing affairs, things had not gone too well. There was something that prevented them from sensing the unprecedented nature of the American experiment; that the rejected of Europe have come here together, tamed a savage continent in an incredibly short time and, unguided by intellectuals, fashioned the finest society on a large scale the world has so far seen.
SCRATCH an intellectual and you find a would‐be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk. Professor Marcuse has lived among us for more than 30 years and now, in old age, his disenchantment with this country is spilling over into book after book. He is offended by the intrusion of the vulgar, by the failure of egalitarian America to keep common people in their place. He is frightened by “the degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace where there is still peace and silence, to be ugly and uglify things, to ooze familiarity and to offend against good form.” The vulgar invade “the small reserved sphere of existence” and compel exquisite Marcusian souls to partake of their and smells.
To a shabby would‐be aristocrat like Professor Marcuse there something fundamentally wrong with a society in which the master and the worker, the typist and the boss’s laughter do not live totally disparate Ives. Everything good in America seems to him a sham and a fraud.
AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed the rich.
In order to feel rich, you have to have poor people around you. In an affluent society, riches lose their uniqueness—people no longer find fulfillment in being rich. And when the rich cannot feel rich they begin to have misgivings about success—not enough to give up the fruits of success, but enough to feel guilty, and emote soulfully about the grievances of the disadvantaged, and the sins of the status quo. It seems that every time a millionaire opens his mouth nowadays he confesses the sins of our society in public.
Now, it so happens that the rich do indeed have a lot to feel guilty about. They live in exclusive neighborhoods, send their children to private schools, and use every loophole to avoid paying taxes. But what they confess in public are not their private sins, but the sins of society, the sins of the rest of us, and it is our breasts they are beating into a pulp. They feel guilty and ashamed, they say, because the mass of people, who do most of the work and pay much of the taxes, are against integrated schools and housing, and do not tax themselves to the utmost to fight the evils that beset our cities. We are discovering that in an affluent society the rich have a monopoly of righteousness.
Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.
As I said, the alienated rich are one of the surprises of our time. It is not surprising to be told that America is a country where intellectuals are least at home. But it is startling to realize that the rich are not, and probably never have been, wholly at ease in this country. The fact that it is easy to get rich in America has not made it a rich man’s country. The rich have always had it better elsewhere—better service, more deference, and more leisure and fun. In America, the rich have not known how to savor their riches, and many of them have not known how to behave and have come to a bad end.
There is a story about a British intellectual who traveled through this country toward the end of the last century. He was appalled by the monotony and unimaginativeness of the names of the towns he saw through the train window: Thomas ville, Richardsville, Harrysville, Mar ysville and so on. He had not an inkling of the import of what he was seeing: namely, that for the first time in history common people—any Tom, Dick and Harry—could build a town and name it after his own or his wife’s name. At one station, an old Irishwoman got on the train and sat next to him. When she heard his muttering and hissing she said: “This is a blessed country, sir. I think God made it for the poor.” Crevecceur, in the 18th century, saw America as an asylum where “the poor of Europe have by some means met together.” The poor everywhere have looked on America as their El Dorado. They voted for it with their legs by coming over in their
Yet during the nineteen‐sixties, poverty became one of the chief problems that plague this country: one of several nagging problems—like race relations, violence, drugs, inflation—which defy solution. From being a land of opportunity for the poor, America has become a dead end street for some 15 million unemployables‐80 per cent of them white, and most of them trapped in the cores of big cities. Money, better housing, and special schooling have little effect. Our society is showing itself unduly awkward in the attempt to turn the chronically poor into productive, useful citizens. Whereas, in the not too distant past, it was axiomatic that society lived at the expense of the poor, the present‐day poor, like the Roman proletariat, live at the expense of society.
WE have been transferred by affluence to a psychological age. Impersonal factors, including money, no longer play a decisive role in human affairs. It seems that, by mastering things, we have drained things of their potency to shape men’s lives. It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.
In the earliest cities, suburbs made their appearance as a refuge for dropouts who could not make the grade in the city. When eventually the cities decayed, the suburbs continued as the earliest villages. In our cities, the process has been reversed. The dropouts are stagnating in the cores of the cities, while people who are ideally suited for city life seek refuge in the suburbs. The indications are that we shall not have viable cities until we lure the chronically poor out of the cities and induce the exiled urbanites to return.
The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.
WHOSE country, then, is America? It is the country of the common — the common men and women, a good 70 per cent of the population — who do most of the work, pay much of the taxes, crave neither power nor importance, and want to be left alone to live pleasurable humdrum lives. “The founders of the United States,” said Lord Charnwood, “did deliberately aspire to found a commonwealth in which common men and women should count for more than elsewhere.”
Again and again, you come up against the mystery of what happens to common folk when they land on our shores. It is like a homecoming. They find here their natural habitat, their ideal milieu that brings their energies and capacities into full play.
Tasks that in other countries are reserved for a select minority, for a specially trained elite, are in this country performed by every Tom, Dick and Harry. Not only did common Americans build and name towns, but they also founded states, propagated new faiths, commanded armies, wrote books, and ran for the highest office. It is this that has made America unprecedentedly new.
IT tickled me no end that the astronauts who landed on the moon were not elite‐conscious intellectuals but lowbrow ordinary Americans. It has been the genius of common Americans to achieve the momentous in an unmomentous matter‐of-fact way. If space exploration re mains in their keeping, they will soon make of it an everyday routine accessible to all.
Prof. Victor C. Ferkiss, author of “Technological Man,” sees the astronauts as “thoroughly conventional and middle‐class and essentially dull people who would make such nice neighbors and such unlikely friends.” Could these, he wonders, “be the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce?”
The intellectuals call this giving access to the vulgar—vulgarization. The intellectuals’ inclination is to complicate things, to make them so abstruse and difficult that they are accessible only to the initiated few. Where the intellectuals are in power, prosaic tasks become Promethean undertakings. I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.
TO me it seems axiomatic that the common people everywhere are our natural allies, and that our chief contribution to the advancement of mankind should be the energizing and activation of common folk. We must learn how to impart to common people everywhere the technological, political and social skills that would enable them to dispense with the tutorship of the upper classes and the intellectuals. We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.
Our foreign aid to backward countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America should be tailored to the needs of common people rather than of the elites. The elites hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc. Let them get these trappings from elitist Russia. Our gift to the people in backward countries should be the capacity for self‐help. We must show them how to get bread, human dignity and strength by their own efforts. We must know how to stiffen their backbone so that they will insist on getting their full share of the good life and not allow them selves to be sacrificed to the Moloch of a mythical future.
There is an America hidden in the soil of every country and in the soul of every people. It is our task to help common people everywhere discover their America at home.