[P2P-F] Fwd: The Struggle for Meaningful Work (GTN Discussion)

Eric Hunting erichunting at gmail.com
Fri Jan 6 17:36:15 CET 2017

When I was a kid, growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, my mother 
arranged for a part time job for me where she worked at the now defunct 
Hercules explosives plant. It was my first, and last, salary job.

The plant was a historic facility that had been producing nitrocellulose 
for artillery applications from very early in the 20th century and was 
notable for its occasional  massive explosions (often associated with 
union conflicts...), which could shatter windows as far away as the 
neighboring state of Pennsylvania. I was assigned a simple task of file 
sorting in a very old, decrepit brick building the staff referred to as 
the 'bag house' because it was used to store records that had simply 
been stuffed into large canvas bags and dumped there to be forgotten for 
decades. My task was to go through some bags of old medical records and 
sort out which would be saved and which would be sent for incineration. 
There was no heat in the building and only one working overhead light so 
I was left there alone with a kerosene space heater to keep me 
more-or-less warm through the evening. For a teenager it was a simple, 
easy, job, but I didn't last long.

You see, the files I was sorting were medical records for deceased 
workers going back as far as WWI. Each file listed a few details, their 
cause of death, and a passport style photo. And as I sifted through 
them, I found that nearly all these workers had died in much the same 
way; black lung and its complications caused by the constant exposure to 
graphite dust common on the plant. (so common, all the squirrels that 
wandered the wooded area were black) Night after night I was there alone 
reading these files, looking into the faces of these men in their 
thousands, and seeing their ultimate fate. Black lung, lung cancer, 
black lung, esophageal cancer, black lung. On and on. I came to realize 
what a horrific meat-grinder America was. How these thousands of men had 
died trying to earn a meager living making stuff to kill other people in 
other countries. It was a bit much for a teenager, and the worsening 
kerosene fumes and encroaching autumn cold and darkness didn't help. I 
gave up after a month, vowing to never work for a corporation and 
choosing a life of entrepreneurship instead. Of course, I didn't have 
much choice in the matter, later succumbing to environmental illness and 
chronic bronchitis myself from too many years subject to NJ's pollution 
and the common abuse of antibiotics by doctors back then.

On 1/5/17 4:00 AM, p2p-foundation-request at lists.ourproject.org wrote:
> Subject:
> [P2P-F] Fwd: The Struggle for Meaningful Work (GTN Discussion)
> From:
> Michel Bauwens <michelsub2004 at gmail.com>
> Date:
> 1/4/17, 10:51 PM
> To:
> p2p-foundation <p2p-foundation at lists.ourproject.org>
> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: *Great Transition Network* <gtnetwork at greattransition.org 
> <mailto:gtnetwork at greattransition.org>>
> Date: Thu, Jan 5, 2017 at 5:34 AM
> Subject: The Struggle for Meaningful Work (GTN Discussion)
> To: michelsub2004 at gmail.com <mailto:michelsub2004 at gmail.com>
> >From Eva-Maria  Swidler <eva.swidler at goddard.edu 
> <mailto:eva.swidler at goddard.edu>>
> -------------------------------------------------------
> Hello everyone,
> The degradation of work is an issue largely ignored in academia today, 
> perhaps reflecting the fact that academics, who are the ones who do 
> most writing about work, like their own (craft) work a lot. The actual 
> lived day-to-day reality of a strong majority on the planet is that 
> work is a demeaning experience of frustration. So thanks very much to 
> Kent Klitgaard for raising this issue!
> I have here a series of somewhat unrelated thoughts inspired by this 
> very important subject.
> 1) The key feature of degradation that Klitgaard points out takes the 
> form of a lack of control over the immediate labor process, leading to 
> what I would call alienation. But that problematic powerlessness of 
> workers also extends into many other facets of an undemocratic 
> workplace. Workplace decisions that exclude the actual workers include 
> the choice of the purpose or mission of work (to use corporate 
> parlance), the creation of strategies and priorities, juggling 
> trade-offs, and formulation of pay and profit distribution structures. 
> In many ways the labor process is merely the endpoint of those 
> undemocratic workplace decisions, as the labor process is shaped by 
> the economics and efficiencies demanded by those larger institutional 
> decisions. I would like to see our idea of and hopes for worker 
> control, even as we pragmatically imagine it or fight for it in the 
> immediate future, expand from struggling for control over the labor 
> process itself into these wider contextual realms of
> workplace decision-making, which after all ultimately drive the labor 
> process itself.
> 2) Economists such as Steven Marglin and David Noble, but also many 
> others, have shown that technological “progress” often does not 
> produce greater efficiency. Efficiency itself is always a relative 
> term—maximizing A in terms of B—and not absolute. For instance, an 
> agricultural technique may maximize calories grown per acre-foot of 
> water used, but at the expense of more labor. Is that an efficient 
> technique? Yes, it is water-efficient, but no, it is not 
> labor-efficient. Beyond the fact that the terms of efficiency must 
> always use defined inputs and outputs, however, is a larger and 
> oft-ignored fact that often new production processes are less 
> efficient in terms of all inputs and outputs, but are adopted because 
> they afford greater control or predictability to the boss. Here we can 
> see how the economic and institutional context of a workplace—that 
> un-democraticness of priorities, strategies, purposes, etc.—actually 
> does directly impinge on the details of the organization
> of the labor process. Often bosses mechanize at great expense merely 
> to be able to guarantee less possible disruption by discontent 
> workers. So we have to be wary of assuming that technological 
> developments that degrade work actually equate to greater output. They 
> often don’t. They may just equate to an interchangeable worker who can 
> be replaced during a strike, or who can’t effect a slowdown or some 
> other work disruption now that skill or decisions have been automated.
> In other words, what we have seen in the development of increasingly 
> degraded workplaces is not necessarily a simple exchange of the higher 
> quality of work for a greater quantity of output or profits. Sometimes 
> the quality of work degrades and output does not rise, or may even 
> fall. And sometimes the increased work that is required is never even 
> tallied. How many of us have wasted hours on hold with a phone company 
> or health insurance? Those hours I would argue are unpaid work and 
> result in high inefficiency in any complete economic calculation.
> If there is not a direct relationship between the degradation of work 
> and efficiency of output, the scenario to be tackled to create 
> meaningful, undegraded work is on another order of complexity 
> altogether than a simple continuum of trading one for the other.
> 3) I approach many of the issues raised in this piece with a more 
> central location of economic concepts such as “capitalism” (not 
> mentioned by name here in this essay) and the “productivity dividend”. 
> After all, as Klitgaard points out, the technology for vastly shorter 
> work weeks is there. It is used or spent to produce greater profits 
> rather than fewer labor hours, by making people work just as many 
> hours even though they produce more, and thereby making workers 
> produce greater profits rather than being able to enjoy a shorter work 
> week. This way of distributing the productivity dividend is a question 
> of workplace struggles and political economy, and I find economic 
> concepts such as capitalism and the productivity dividend to be 
> essential in understanding the situation we are in.
> 4) An important question is certainly how to make work meaningful, but 
> also whether we need work to have meaning. It does seem to be a 
> capitalist preoccupation to define ourselves and our lives’ meaning in 
> terms of work. In fact, I’d say it is the fundamental 
> spiritual/personal/psychological lie of capitalism—that without work, 
> we are nothing. We tend to create an opposition between work/meaning 
> on the one hand and leisure/individualistic hedonism on the other. 
> What if by leisure we include participation in community, social life, 
> and cultural creativity, not merely what you could call entertainment? 
> Could we not attain all the meaning we want or need through that 
> leisure? What about instituting a campaign for meaningful leisure (by 
> which we don’t mean volunteer work, but something else altogether)? 
> Benjamin Hunnicutt describes the development of what we could call a 
> leisure ethic rather than a work ethic in his most recent book, Free 
> Time: The Forgotten American Dream. Paul
> LaFargue’s classic pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy”, or Kathy Weeks’ 
> The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and 
> Post-Work Imaginaries take an even stronger anti-work view. I’d 
> venture that a working-class leisure ethic is what has served 
> historically as the cultural foundation of a rejection of constant and 
> increasing consumption, expressed through various forms of work 
> resistance. My piece “Radical Leisure” in Monthly Review this past 
> summer has more thoughts on this 
> monthlyreview.org/2016/06/01/radical-leisure/ 
> <http://monthlyreview.org/2016/06/01/radical-leisure/> .
> In fact, I think that the meaningfulness of much of caring work has 
> more in common with the kinds of meaning a well-developed leisure 
> ethic can provide than with the meaning that stems from a craft work 
> ethic. A struggle for meaningful leisure might shed light on caring 
> work that the current discourse on work has a hard time with. 
> Certainly there are craft issues of skill in caring work (as an RN and 
> midwife of 20+ years clinical practice, I staunchly support this 
> view), but many satisfactions of care work stem from the rewards of 
> companionship, accompaniment, support, and love, which are experiences 
> that might be more likely to come from meaningful leisure rather than 
> meaningful craft work. The craft-work-oriented rewards of mastery or 
> the “transcendence of setbacks” Klitgaard describes are rewards that 
> result from what is to me a somewhat gender-limited experience of 
> work. Renewed intellectual attention to leisure, which seemed as 
> though it would be an academic field of note a
> few decades ago, might allow a different kind of understanding of care 
> work.
> Thanks again for this essay raising a topic of crucial importance. I’m 
> looking forward to the conversation to come.
> Eva Swidler
> Goddard College
> *************************************
> On Fri, Dec 30, 2016 at 3:27 PM, Great Transition Network wrote:
> >From Paul Raskin
> -----
> Dear Great Transition Network,
> As we bid adieu to 2016, a banner year for the Fortress World 
> scenario, what can we do but turn with renewed resolve to the work of 
> transition? There is no alternative (to hijack TINA, Margaret 
> Thatcher’s infamous justification for neoliberalism). Anyway, the work 
> itself is a privilege and a gratification.
> This brings me to the topic of our JANUARY discussion: “The Struggle 
> for Meaningful Work.” Kent Klitgaard’s Viewpoint, so titled, argues 
> that the degradation of work, like the degradation of community and 
> the environment, is inherent in the logic of capital accumulation, but 
> receives insufficient attention. The struggle for meaningful jobs, he 
> contends, ought to stand alongside parallel struggles for justice, 
> equity, and sustainability as core components of a transformative praxis.
> Kent’s thoughtful piece is inspired by his own search for meaningful 
> work in a career that has spanned cabinet-making to ecological 
> economics. It highlights a critical dimension of a Great Transition 
> that warrants heightened emphasis, or so it seems to me. Do you agree? 
> Would you revise its formulations? Please read it at 
> www.greattransition.org/publication/meaningful-work 
> <http://www.greattransition.org/publication/meaningful-work>, and 
> share your thoughts.
> This Viewpoint will be published in February, along with selected 
> comments drawn from the forthcoming discussion and an interview with 
> Nancy Folbre on “The Caring Economy.”
> Comments are welcome through JANUARY 31.
> Warm wishes to you and yours for a healthy and meaningful 2017.
> Looking forward,
> Paul Raskin
> GTI Director
> -----
> Hit reply to post a message
> Or see thread and reply online at
> greattransition.org/forum/gti-discussions/187-the-struggle-for-meaningful-work/2194 
> <http://greattransition.org/forum/gti-discussions/187-the-struggle-for-meaningful-work/2194>
> Need help? Email jcohn at tellus.org <mailto:jcohn at tellus.org>

Eric Hunting
erichunting at gmail.com

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