Stick with me, because this is not just some lazy millennial being clueless and not understanding why labor is necessary. I’ll start with my own experience so you can see where I’m coming from here before I go into why our work system is so fucked.
I’m a ridiculously hard worker. My mom’s side of the family, who raised me, were poor working class folks, the descendants of turn-of-the-century Scottish immigrants and the product of a not-too-socially-acceptable 1950s divorce. My grandpa spent several years of his childhood working on a farm while his mother (the divorcee) tried to stabilize herself enough to take him back in. My mom and stepdad were count-out-pennies-to-buy-milk poor until I was in middle school, and they lost their home during the housing crisis seven or eight years later. Anyone who made it to middle class in my family felt like a goddamn hero.
Making it through two years of college was an impressive accomplishment in my family at the same time as it was viewed as far less important than hard work and job experience. I started working and paying for most of my own things at 14, and by 18 I was completely on my own.
Add a little Christian fundamentalist bootstrap-pulling and a splash of racism and misogyny, and you’ve got yourself a half-brown girl-child with an enormous complex over hard work and what it means for her value as a human being.
I didn’t know my father’s side of the family until I was 19, but they–Armenian immigrants from Syria, determined to live out the American dream–were just as hard-working. Perhaps even moreso, considering being brown in Utah is sort of going against the grain if you know what I mean, and I’m sure they had to work harder than white people would have to get where they did.
The Current State of Work
Flash forward to today and I still work like a madwoman. I work one full-time desk job, a second part-time research/admin job, a third part-time job writing books, making podcasts, and blogging (hi), and–I fucking kid you not–I make resumes on Craigslist too, to fill in the gaps, because I still don’t make enough money to pay all my bills.
I also get sick every couple months, my pubes are starting to turn grey, I deal with back and neck pain, my cats are getting fat (the stress gets to them too), and I find it a constant struggle just to shower regularly and eat a vegetable once in a while. The stress is nearly unbearable, certainly unhealthy, and still nothing compared to what some people go through and even compared to worse periods of my own life.
So what the fuck is going on?
It’s not just me–half of Americans make less than $30k per year, the average American household has $16,748 in credit card debt, and income inequality is only getting worse. Earnings for the top 1% have more than tripled since the 80s, while pre-tax income for the bottom 50% has stayed the same since 1980.
Fucking half of America, the richest country in the world.
What’s the Problem?
Okay, you’re thinking. Income inequality is a problem, Occupy Wall Street and Robert Reich already educated us all on that. But what’s your problem with work?
So besides the fact that we have to work absurdly long hours and stack jobs on top of other jobs just to stay afloat (while Melania Trump lives in a golden, federally-protected penthouse apartment in Manhattan that we pay over $100k per day to keep her safe in), I also have a problem with the labor system; the very way we work and what we work for (not work itself; obviously some amount of that is necessary).
This was difficult for me to come to terms with, because hard work being what determined your value was so fundamental to my understanding of the world. Maybe it will be for you, too. But I encourage you to really consider this.
Think about the system objectively for a moment. Human beings are animals. Our nature is to work as hard as necessary to eat and be comfy, and then rest in between. In nature, as in the early days of human history, this is how life functions. And it’s still, in some form, what most of us aspire to–we would all love to be rich enough to spend our time how we choose.
Today, we live in a society that is centered around capital gains–it’s called capitalism (appropriate, I know). Some people own what’s called the “means of production,” which put simply would be both the tools and raw materials used for production as well as things like farms, factories, and other workplaces where the goods we consume are produced. The majority of these places, especially the largest ones, are held by a small handful of people, namely the 1% which I mentioned earlier.
Another (small and shrinking) handful of people make up the “middle class,” which is defined in different ways by different people so to clarify who I’m talking about, I mean people who own property or don’t rely solely on someone else employing them for survival, but aren’t major capitalist earners. Think small business owners, doctors and lawyers, managers, some small farmers, people who are worth enough to actually own a home (and I don’t mean “in the process of paying a bank who actually still owns your home” either), etc. This social layer is often called “petite bourgeoisie” by people who like to sound smart and Marxists (there’s some overlap there, let’s be honest) and it’s distinct from both the “proletariat” (people who rely on employment to survive e.g. most of humanity) and the “haute bourgeoisie” (the ruling class; the “1%,” Sam Walton & Mitt Romney et al.).
The rest of everyone, the remainder of all of the people, *work* in these places. And it’s most of us. We’re the proletariat. We’re the 99%.
Okay, more like 80%. The bottom 80%, made up mainly of wage and salary workers (the proletariat), holds only 11% of the nation’s wealth.
How it Works
And how does this system function? The very few richest and most powerful people own the majority of the wealth, property and production. These people employ us (and we have no choice, because there is no other way to survive) to work forty hours a week (and even that is an improvement that we had to fight tooth and nail for) to produce all the food, clothing, housing, and other goods that we use, they then OWN the product of our labor, and they fucking sell it back to us for profit.
And unlike in nature, where if you’ve done all the work and you (or even your tribe) have all you need, you can rest, we still keep going to work even when there’s a surplus. This was one of Marx’s greatest critiques of capitalism, that excess of production led only to waste when it should mean rest and relief. And under capitalism there is now a constant excess of production. We are afforded short two-day weekends (if we’re lucky) and the occasional federal holiday off (if we’re lucky) and that’s it–no matter how hard we work, we don’t see the actual fruits of that labor. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, while the 1% has swelled over the past few decades, we are afforded no increase in percentage of earnings and it has only shrunk for the bottom 50%. They swim in excess while we fight one another for crumbs.
Consider this, also. This small handful of people uses our labor to produce things that they then own, for some reason, and then they sell it back to us for profit. They own most of the land and most of the products of the planet that we all share, for no actual reason. They get filthy rich while we fight homelessness and health crises and mounting debt even in the richest country in the world, and while wars and genocides and famines and other atrocities sweep the planet. Then they have the nerve to call us selfish for demanding that they at least pay some taxes so we can have healthcare and education and transportation to their stupid workplaces and other basic goddamn human rights, and for asking them to maybe try not to ruin the entire planet and actually sentence millions of people to death and suffering in the not-too-distant future while they’re making all of the money. What the blazing burning fiery fuck?
They treat every kind of minority as sub-human. They treat women as sub-human. They treat even the most socially advantaged straight white cis male like near-garbage if he doesn’t have a well-lined pocket.
Are you starting to see it?
How Do We Fix It?
Most people do see a problem with this system, on some level. That’s why we’ve had to make up lies about how hard work, merit and even “good genes” are why some people “make it” and the rest of us are poor. That’s why we talk about hard work in such a creepy, fetishistic way, like working at McDonalds till you’re 94 is something to celebrate. That’s why we’re constantly trashing the poor, blaming homelessness on drugs, making fun of people with both iPhones and food stamps, finding every possible racist explanation besides institutional racism to explain why black and brown people are still so disproportionately poor, and everything else we do to try to explain it all away.
Most people don’t want to face the possibility that they’re oppressed, because it would mean the whole damn system is oppressive. And that’s scary as fuck.
This seems to be especially tough for white people, who haven’t had to deal with our most forceful system of oppression in this country–racism. Black and brown folks are often a lot more receptive to the “capitalism is horrible for most of us” concept because most of them have already dealt with the fact that the system works against them anyway.
But there’s a reason that massive labor, liberation and other social movements keep rising up over the last couple centuries. Our entire system tells us to accept and even celebrate the oppression we live under (don’t get me started on worshiping the free market), but we can’t be kept in the dark for long, especially not those of us who benefit the least under this system.
And I think the years since the financial crisis of 2008 have slowly started to open people’s eyes to this issue. There still isn’t a coherent agreement about how to fix it, but most people seem to see that it’s there now. And a growing number of people, especially young people, are considering that doing away with capitalism might be the answer.
We need to come together to fight this. We need more and more people to add their voices of dissent to the mix; we need people of all backgrounds to realize the cause of their misery (and realize it’s not each other…*cough* white people need to stop being racist and/or hating immigrants *cough*) and come together to resist it. We need a mass social movement to make a change.
And we need to make a concerted effort to learn about the often-glossed-over social movements of the past. Because they’re actually really encouraging. Just some of the slogans mean a lot.
Take these, for example:
Nous sommes le pouvoir, or “We are the power” (1968 Paris uprising)
Si se puede, or “Yes we can” (1970s United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez)
Venceremos, or “We shall overcome” (Cuban revolution & Latin American socialist movement, plus the U.S. civil rights movement)
Vivre Libre ou Mourir, or “Live free or die” (French revolution)
We are the 99% (2011 Occupy Wall Street movement)
“Workers of the world unite; we have nothing to lose but our chains.” -Karl Marx
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Also check out this awesome report from UC Santa Cruz on “Who Rules America.”