Work and Freedom

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NOTE: This post was written by one of our guest bloggers, Nathaniel Grimes. For more from Nathaniel, be sure to check out his page.

(This post inspired by a trip home to NH and seeing my friend
Brian Thorn, whose work will eventually transform the way Americans conceive of wage labor)

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (KJV)

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Paul was not a fascist. Let’s then imagine that the “work” he was encouraging might have little connection to modern wage labor. Today people earn wages for all kinds of absurd feats, from being able to hit a fastball to correctly guessing the future price of corn. If the whims of the market had assigned a dollar value to hobbies enjoyed by the people Paul was addressing, would that have eased his concerns?

We as Christians should have the good sense to make clear the monumental difference between working for the common good (or use), and working for a disembodied idea of “profit,” production for its own sake. In a society where 70% of the workforce is disengaged and emotionally detached, we have to ask whether there is really any virtue in creating profits that we know will flow upwards and be consolidated rather than distributed and used to elevate or enrich the community. This effect is not often considered by those intent on judging the intents and character of the lower classes. It’s not as though most of today’s unemployed have just voluntarily dropped out of this dehumanizing system. But we should recognize the collective psychological impact of working to enrich a relatively small cross-section of society, and seeing no positive impact on one’s own local community.

The capitalist valuation of work is not always arbitrary. I would suggest that often work which is assigned a high value is that which is judged as not most beneficial to society at large, but most crucial to the operation of the market. And the functions which happen to both serve the common good and carry a high valuation are not untouched by the gravitational pull of the market. For instance, we can understand the healing work of doctors as a good, and a function that should be privileged in any economic system, but the way it is currently valued (and the expense sucked in by modern models of care) perverts what should be noble work and turns it into a mechanism of differentiation by economic status and social location. Instead of a healing touch of the divine to hurting people, it functions as a way to sort out the haves from the have nots, and to create an engine of professionalization, where simply checking in on an elderly shut-in loses some of its compassionate meaning when its compulsion and scope are determined by the stipulations of the highest tiered plan the market provides.

The noblest of functions (or occupations) in today’s market are compromised by their role in the larger system of capitalism. We don’t know the full potential of jobs like public defender, home care giver, or school teacher because the market decides the scope of their influence, as well as who benefits from their efforts.

Outside the context of wage labor, industriousness is to be preferred to sloth. (Here we can take some instruction from Proverbs, although making the same initial assumption of Solomon that we we did of Paul proves trickier). But inside it, industriousness is perverted. When occupations like the ones listed above are restricted by market forces as to who they are able to help, the industriousness of these professionals does not bring proportionate community benefit, but reinforces socioeconomic stratification that prevents true shalom.

Wage labor is also an insufficient prescription for those who are not already motivated to serve their community. To the underemployed, whose condition is seen as a character flaw, how can we suggest with a straight face the prescription that they give more of their time to a system that parasitically steals their labor time and repays them with a fraction of its worth? The cure for laziness is not a job. The cure is deep love for and responsibility to our brothers and sisters. These are not values that are introduced by the market. More often they are effectively boxed out by it. Surviving on modern working class wages requires enough time and energy as to preclude the development of healthy relationships.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” Exodus 8:1 (NIV)

Yahweh’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt was a judgment against the logic of accumulation that had ordered their lives, and inevitably displaced the worship of Yahweh. Moses did not go to Pharaoh to negotiate more favorable working hours, or to ask for more straw. He did not come to make slavery more tolerable for the Israelites or more productive for the Egyptians. Yahweh knew his people needed to be delivered out of this mode of production altogether. There was no peace to be made with it.

The desperate insecurity and depressed compensation rates of today’s American job markets are enough to make even moderate politicians call for “fair wages.”  And even temporary relief has value in alleviating the immediate condition of suffering for so many, but the Christian imagination can address the situation more seriously. A call for a society like ours to choose an equitable distribution of resources must be accompanied by the call to reduce wage labor time, and thus reclaim the possibility of true community. The labor movement’s message seems to have shifted from “less work” to “better compensation for increased work.” This has allowed both political parties to adopt the shared ethos “work makes you free.”  Christians know better. In contrast to the popular caricature of worker’s movements as obsessed with unrighteous mammon, we can prioritize the demand for free time. Time to serve, time to sleep, time to listen, time to pray, time to build community and combat the alienation that we have been forced to accept.

Without a call to reduce or entirely end wage labor, we are limited in our ability to imagine anything but a more humane market. And perhaps the word “fair” itself reinforces this, the fleeting idea that when wages are at a certain level, all will be right. But we know this is not so. And when we acknowledge the staggering amount of superfluous labor time that capitalism requires, we are able to propose that there is no moral compulsion to give the best of our time and energy to the system of accumulation that we have so far described. We can imagine a different kind of freedom, beyond the carrot of financial security which for most has lost its appeal.

To the fascist imagination, where economic growth is an unassailable virtue, freedom is dangerous. The only kind of freedom offered is the freedom to work, and given the necessity of a mass of unemployed to the stability of the system, this is a freedom that is reserved for only some. To the Christian imagination, freedom can be seen as the gift of a free God, the freedom to create true community. This can be our demand. We can offer a different vision for the way society is ordered and relationships are prioritized.

What the market might interpret as sloth or laziness could just as easily be described as prophetic criticism. Each time a human complains about his job or his boss, and objects to being taken advantage of, we can see the image of God breaking through. We can choose to hear these gripes as the “complaints” that Walter Brueggemann sees in the Psalms, insisting:

  1. Things are not right in the present arrangement.
  2. They need not stay this way but can be changed.
  3. The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable.
  4. It is God’s obligation to change things.

The arrangement critiqued here could be summarized as 1) the lack of discernible correlation between work that is waged and activities that are necessary for human community and 2) the way wage labor creates antagonistic class dynamics that inhibit Christian community. That voice is still given to these complaints is the only proof we need (sometimes the only proof we have) that God’s mission of salvation, freedom and reconciliation is still possible.

Nathaniel Grimes

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