The decline of respect for work

My friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a fine article by Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, in his new magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, about the devaluation of work and the worship of wealth and consumption.  Here are some highlights of the article.

Lewis Lapham

… The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country’s corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.

Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don’t question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man’s work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country’s credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help. … …


In answer to questions being asked in Europe about what sort of persons were likely to be well received in the new republic, Benjamin Franklin in 1782 published a pamphlet, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, in which he observed that in America people “do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do? If he has a useful art, he is welcome… But a mere man of quality, who on that account wants to live upon the public by some office or salary will be despised and disregarded.”

The love of country followed from the love of its freedoms of thought and action, not from a pride in its armies, its monuments, its manners, or its debts. Thomas Jefferson, writing his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, envisioned a republic of free-standing husbandmen who till the earth, “the chosen people of God… whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  The newfound land and its newfound independence both were to be cultivated by employments bent to purposes of the individual, their joint venture resting on a democratic holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they were rich or beautiful or famous but because they were fellow citizens. … …

By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of what constitutes the meaning of labor as well as a fair return on its performance was the elephant on the table of American politics. … …

… … What was at issue were the terms of service as defined on the one hand by President Teddy Roosevelt in a Labor Day speech at Syracuse, New York, in 1903: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”; on the other hand by Woodrow Wilson, still president of Princeton University in 1909, speaking to the New York City High School Teachers Association: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Wilson’s way of looking at things aligns itself with what was to become America’s chrome-plated future, Roosevelt’s with its homespun past. The Rough Rider was trading in nostalgia, looking back to his days as a young man, a young man who also happened to be rich, shooting buffaloes in the Dakota Territory. The sentiment shows up in Norman Maclean’s remembrance of the way it was out among the tall trees in the summer of 1927, “As to the big thing, sawing, it is something beautiful when you are working together — at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness — maybe even something more deeply disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”

It is here that one finds the dignity of labor and the expression of man’s humanity to man. One can illuminate the feeling on which Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, mounted his candidacy for U.S. president in the election of 1912, attracting over 900,000 votes on the strength of his belief that “the workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.”

Wilson didn’t think so, and Wilson won the election, defeating Roosevelt as well as Debs. … …

Finance accounted for 47% of total U.S. corporate profits in 2007; 58% of Harvard University’s male graduates in that same year (the heirs and assigns of Woodrow Wilson’s small class of persons deserving of a liberal education) took up careers as high-end traffickers in the drug of debt. … … That it doesn’t add to the sum of human happiness or meaning is probably why the gentry on the lawns of Connecticut, together with their upper servants in Washington and the news media, talk about the lost battalion of America’s unemployed as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow citizens.

Click on The Servant Problem to read the complete article.

Click on Lines of Work for the complete Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2011 special issue on work.

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