Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Working Versus Earning Money

“The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.”  – Richard Bach

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” – J. M. Barrie

I was reminded while reading this essay that Ran posted last week about an observation I made a long time ago. I noticed that most people in Wisconsin tend to spend their scant free time outside of work engaged the following pursuits (in no particular order):
  • Gardening
  • Mowing the Lawn
  • Working on the house
  • Playing with the dog
  • Child rearing
  • Knitting and crafts
  • Hunting (in season)
  • Church
  • Socializing 
  • Cooking
So most of these activities would have been “traditional” ways of procuring 1.) food, 2.) clothing and goods and 3.) shelter in pre-industrial society. And these activities are considered so enjoyable that people voluntarily spend their precious free time doing them outside of the miserable forty hours they must “work” to make a living! In my opinion, yard work and mowing the lawn, practically an obsession in southeast Wisconsin, are merely modern substitutes for working the land, baling the hay, etc. The lawnmower can even be thought of as a substitute for a tractor (doubly so if it’s the riding kind). So this observation was instrumental in my feeling that we do not have to have “jobs” to work or to have a functional society. People spend forty hours doing office jobs they hate so that they can spend their free time doing what their ancestors in preindustrial societies would have called “work.” People are not” working” so much as earning money – a distinction that should be made more often. It belies the fact that people will not “work” without the whip and the lash of utter destitution as a motivator. People will work to procure food, clothing and shelter; they always have. They just will not slave away to make someone else’s fortune. If money and self-interest were the only motivators, there would be no such thing as volunteering (or potluck). Not to mention there are still people lining up to do poorly paid jobs that they consider meaningful or pleasurable (social work, arts, entertainment, etc.).

Every single place I’ve worked has certain people who are in the office at 6:30 AM, slaving away. I couldn’t figure this out until I remembered that most Wisconsinites are descended from farmers, because that is what you came to Wisconsin to do (the major exceptions being professionals or factory workers in big cities). So getting up at the crack of dawn for labor, along with mowing the lawn, is in our DNA. As farmers and their descendants were forced off the land one-by-one and migrated to cities, their traditional ways, habits and outlook remained in their blood. That may be why understimulating suburbs are so popular with Midwesterners – they allow one to live near the city while still imagining you are living on your own spread, in your little country house, complete with animals, gardens, and fields (with the vast and extensively manicured lawn substituting for the fields). In other words, suburbs are a simulacra of country life for deracinated farmers, who secretly pine for a life they were forced out of generations ago.

The question is, if the ultimate aim of an economy is to procure food, clothing and shelter for people, why do we have to spend so much time doing jobs we hate in order to procure those things that we would spend our time procuring for ourselves anyway? And what sense does it make to say we need to keep “creating jobs” if people are spending all their free time working on food, clothing and shelter for no money whatsoever? It’s no wonder that people had to be “forced” into this arrangement, as detailed yesterday. In fact, people volunteer on farms for no money whatsoever! Yet we are constantly told how “awful” working the land is, and how lucky we are sitting under fluorescent lights in cubicles in air-conditioned urban office towers working for a paycheck for corporations with internal politics reminiscent of Stalin’s Politburo. That people are just biting at the bit to get off the farm and come to the cities where life is so much better. Is farm work really so awful? Or has it been made awful by consolidation and debt slavery? Notice how people who really do create food, clothing and shelter are always the lowest paid people in industrial societies, while those who spend their days moving money around are the highest paid.

We have to keep coming up with new activities over and above what we need to provide decent lifestyles just to keep people occupied. Most of it is either make-work, or it is a side-effect of complexity. For example, it is nearly tax day, and there are large numbers of people whose job it is to do nothing more than know every nook and cranny of the vast and complex tax code and help people navigate through it. For this, they make a good living and get paid surprisingly well. Yet such people actually produce nothing of value – not food, clothing, goods or shelter. Their jobs are only possible though the massive complexity of our society. I wonder how many people are employed just as side effects of complexity? I remember seeing an article by someone whose only job was to be an expert in all aspects of the byzantine world of construction bonding (the complexity of construction finance is mind-boggling). What do such people have to show for the work at the end of the day? How does society benefit? No wonder people feel so alienated from their work.

And I wonder reading this article if our society has developed into something so depressing, so alienating, so utterly miserable that we need to drug our population just to keep children at their desks all day and their parents in their pens cubicles clicking away at the mouse for money. That anyone who doesn’t like this state of affairs is drugged into submission. That the sociopaths who run our companies and institutions are the crazy ones, and we’re all being drugged to be like them. That it is only by drugging people that we can keep this society going. Is it any coincidence that the first serial killers like Jack the Ripper only emerged with the onset of industrial civilization in England (with minor exceptions). If depression truly is due to a chemical imbalance, how is it possible that almost everyone in society today has this imbalance? Is it really the chemicals in our brains that are out of balance or is it society itself? Between people who are surviving due to drugs or sitting in overcrowded prisons, how can people continue to insist that our lifestyle is what the rest of the world needs?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this, but I can't help but be a little worried about the precarious equivalency you seem to have made between extreme survival activities and their leisurely equivalents. Still, again, I really liked it. Thanks.

  3. good stuff. last paragraph made me think of Koyaanisqatsi: life out of balance

  4. I'm submitting your articles on Reddit. They're going over well.

  5. @ Philconotics
    Thanks, that's an important distinction. Once something becomes necessary to do for money, it becomes something quite different than something merely done at one's leisure. I don't mean to convey the impression that things like farming and hunting are all roses. Merely that the distinction between work and leisure is not so cut and dry. And that such distinctions were probably more blurred in the past. And that I think we're more suited to derive at least some enjoyment and flow from such activities than is the case in most peoples' jobs today.

    Of course we're an extraordinarily productive society, so it's doubtful we would have to be at the grindstone for as much time as our ancestors were in any activity. And that's what's odd: how little our productivity has transferred into leisure time (particularly in the U.S.). Supposedly it has been channeled into "wealth", but how little satisfaction have we got from our wealth that we spend our leisure time "working"?

    @ Puke Skywalker
    Thanks so much! I'll have to get on Reddit soon and check it out.

    1. No problem... Someone else is submitting them from your UK domain as well:

      Are you tracking your readership? is pretty easy to use for blogspot


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.