Friday, August 3, 2012

Workaday World

On the heels of my last post, I'm still thinking about an interesting article by John F. Witt about how the evolution of workers compensation in American industry can be tied to changing conceptions of work.

Think about it.  American life and American thought is and always has been structured around the notion of "work"--it is so embedded in our day-to-day life and perceptions, in fact, that we hardly notice it.  Why has a show like Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" enjoyed such success?  It celebrates the "unseen" American worker: the individual who "cleans up" after the rest of us, or who does the "dirty job" that no one else wants to do.

Two hundred years ago, this kind of labor would have been the province of the poor or the enslaved, and the operative assumption would have been that this labor should remain unseen, because it was appropriately relegated to a sector of the population whose alleged purpose in life was to make things easier for their "betters."

The conception of "work" in American culture is strategically tied to ideas of virtue and moral value and, as Witt's article points out, the ideas could be adjusted to serve the needs of whoever was deploying them.  Thus, "[f]or the skilled craftsmen and middling classes of nineteenth-century America, dignity and self-discipline in productive labor represented one of the critical components of the moral foundation of a self-governing citizenry" (John F. Witt, "The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910," [1998] Faculty Scholarship Series.  Paper 400, pg. 1470-1471).

The dignity and self-discipline associated with free labor is precisely what set it apart from slave labor: the work of slaves was coerced and the social justification for that coercion depended in large part upon dehumanizing the worker him- or herself.

Tied to this conception and justification is the idea of ownership: the slave is owned.  The worker, presumably, is not.  But in order to achieve this distinction, subtle shifts had to occur in the 19th-century notion of labor as American society moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.  Early American republicanism of the late eighteenth century depended on the idea that self-government and ownership of the means of production went hand-in-hand.

As Witt points out, "only the economically independent producer would be free of the relationships of dependence that threatened to corrupt virtuous self-government" (1471).

We still see this idea today: how many people long to "own their own business" and "be their own boss?"  In American culture, this opportunity is seen as integral to and embedded within our conception of democracy: we are always capable of freeing ourselves from the (implicitly) dependent position of a wage-earner.

As the 19th century unfolded, however, and opposition to slavery grew, a new understanding of the relationship between work and ownership emerged.  Witt notes that, "[a]mong elites, a different, narrower conception of free labor began to emerge in the years before the Civil War," one in which "the status of wage earner rather than independent owner-producer was sufficient to sustain a narrowed conception of the relationship between work and virtue" (1471).

As Witt points out, this narrowed conception was fueled by Enlightenment notions of possessive individualism--the idea that every individual is a free agent who can participate in a market economy by trading goods, services, property and labor.

You don't need to own the store, because you always "own" yourself.  By this token, your skill and labor take on a value all their own as well and, not surprisingly, this value is slowly but steadily realigned with the American value of self-governance.

When you work, the theory goes, you learn to "exercise judgment and discretion" and thus acquire the education needed to be a productive and informed citizen.

The flip side of all this, however, is the way in which the alignment of work and moral virtue could be used by employers to justify worker exploitation.  If a particular group of laborers is identified with a set of stereotypes revolving around qualities such as laziness, drunkenness or general shiftlessness (as almost all non-white or immigrant groups in American society were at one point in time), employers could argue that they were serving a clear social function by imposing stringent or unreasonable demands and long work hours.

They were "teaching" the shiftless and the lazy worker the value of labor.  And making a profit at the same time, of course.  As Witt argues, "[t]he moral value of work could become a moral imperative to labor, with less regard for the moral virtue that work could inculcate than for the maintenance of a bourgeois social order constructed at the expense of the laboring poor" (1472).

According to this logic, the "haves" always have what they have because they deserve it: they are more moral and work harder.  The "have-nots" have nothing, not because they aren't paid a fair wage or provided with adequate living conditions, but because they simply don't work hard enough.  Poverty is the result of moral inadequacy or vice, and not the result of economic injustices--or so the theory goes.

(Again, this is a logic that you can see and hear on a daily basis in American culture and the American workforce: it fuels many a stereotype surrounding the urban poor.)

What begins to unfold, Witt argues, is a changing conception of American labor--one riddled with ambiguities.  On the one hand, American industry still values the skilled worker and, in many cases, affords such laborers a degree of discretion in the performance of their jobs.

On the other hand, however, there is an increasing shift away from this reliance on worker discretion and a new emphasis on managerial control--a shift that is marked by a "scientific" language of "efficiency."

You can see this conflict daily in the tenuous relationship between "management" and "labor," and the notion that one essentially precludes the other.  Workers will often complain that their managers don't understand the practicalities of the job itself, and managers constantly struggle to find and implement new workplace strategies designed to increase job efficiency on the part of their workers.

As Witt points out, lurking beneath the surface of scientific management practices is the notion of the worker as machine: if the emphasis lies on creating the most efficient and productive laborer, what will be lost is the notion of the laborer as a unique, embodied individual.  Individual craftsmanship and the idiosyncrasies of the worker give way to a streamlined and efficiently depersonalized workforce.

And so we come back to the popularity of "Dirty Jobs": perhaps what draws people to this representation of the American laborer is the fact that it returns us to the idea of a worker as an essential--and at times, idiosyncratic--individual.  The worker is the one who knows his or her craft and who finds value in doing even the most menial labor, and the "message" ultimately communicated to the audience at large is that we too derive can intrinsic value from this definition of "work."

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