"Commodities will be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost
and consumed wherever they will bring the highest price.To make too cheap and
sell too high has always been the program of industrial capitalism. The global
'free market' is merely capitalism's so far successful attempt to enlarge the
geographic scope of its greed, and moreover to give its greed the status of a
'right' within its presumptive territory. The global 'free market' is free to
the corporations precisely because it dissolves the boundaries of the old
national colonialisms, and replaces them with a new colonialism without
restraints or boundaries. It is pretty much as if all the rabbits have now been
forbidden to have holes, thereby 'freeing' the hounds." ("The Total Economy,"
Saturday, February 6, 2010
On Work and Leisure, part II
What kinds of work do we find ourselves doing?
There are all sorts of work we do. We do the work, as I discussed in my previous entry, of creation - works of art. We do "good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." We do housework: dishes, laundry, cleaning, etc. We go to work - we perform assigned tasks for monetary reward.
But by and large, what is the sum of the work we do? Will the majority of what we do add value to our lives and the lives of others? And if we say no to this question, why do we persist in it?
When we consider work, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is our jobs: the 9 to 5 employment for which we receive a paycheck that pays our bills and expenses. This is life for almost everyone we know. We go to high school, maybe college, then graduate and get a decent-paying job in some industry or profession or another and do assigned tasks in order to buy a house, a car or two, and raise a family. Nothing wrong with that. That's normal life. Right?
I would say that it depends on the work you do. It depends on the tasks assigned to you, and the way your employer does business. The impact that they have on the community around you, and the world at large. Do you work for a defense corporation, programming computers used to target missiles? Do you consider the implications of how those could be used, or do justify it by saying that if you weren't doing it, somebody else would be?
Or maybe you work for a bank. Do you consider the millions who lost their jobs and homes because of decisions made by financial corporations to build illusory wealth? Do you continue to work for them because you as an individual weren't a part of "all that," or do you think about what it means to work for them and how that might make you in some way culpable for the fallout of their actions?
Or perhaps you work for a school. Do you observe what institutionalized "learning" does to students who participate in it? Do you see what effect it has on their innate curiosity about life?Or do you accept it as "the way we do it" and slog along in blissful apathy?
Just to clarify at this point: I am not advocating a mass exodus from traditional jobs - I am asking that we count the cost of doing what we do and working where we work. I am asking that we ask ourselves if we're comfortable being associate with our workplace and what it stands for. Can we perform our jobs with a clean conscience, or do we go home laden with unease that we try to stifle? Do we keep from thinking too hard about the ramifications of the actions of our employers, and subsequently ourselves, in order to keep at bay the nagging doubts about what we do?
The reason I put all these questions to us is this: we as a culture are marked by exploitation of people and resources at alarming levels. Corporations by and large only operate in terms of exploitation, both of their employees and their customers, as well as nature itself. Institutions - government, education, industry - almost without exception survive through exploiting, and any benefits received by the exploited are incidental, as much as the institutions claim to have the intention of serving.
Now before you dismiss this as conjecture, consider this: we all have heard of or know someone who has spent "their best years" with a single company, but one day he's laid off because another company took over and is restructuring. Those who work for these institutions are subject to the whim or mercy of commerce and profit. If the corporation can see an opportunity for profit that would require them to jettison a long-term employee, they wouldn't hesitate in most circumstances. "It's just business," we hear repeated. Since when does something done in the name of "business" make it justifiable and moral?
Or consider a school: How does a school exploit its students? Because the main reason that the public school system is in place is to create employees for the workforce, where they will be exploited and used for the rest of their lives. As many lofted stated goals as educators claim to have, the system is set up to create people who can "go out and get good jobs." It's what teachers and parents are always telling children as the justification for doing what they're told in school. "Work hard in school so you can get a good job." "Nobody will want to hire you if you don't have good grades." Never mind that they'll be used and exploited by their companies until their employers decide they're through with them. We lie to them and encourage them to fit into a system that is strangling our culture, and punish them if they don't fit in.
And I'm sure I don't need to discuss government's exploitation of its citizens. Rather than being the servant it is Biblically intended to be, government draws from the livelihoods of its citizenry to expand itself and its powers in the name of even more "services," and uses the sons and daughters as weapons to exploit other nations for their resources in the name of "spreading democracy" or "defending our borders."
Wendell Berry describes our current system like this:
We have accepted as an unavoidable reality an economy of mutual exploitation, even in some instances seeing it as good. Meaning, even as we are exploited, we tend to exploit in return, in both intentional and unintentional ways. We buy products that come at the hands of those who are forced to live in conditions worse than we would ever dream or imagine, but often we do this in ignorance or because we believe we have no choice. We strive to "climb the corporate ladder" by competing with our fellow workers and politicking to get raises and promotions. We vote for leaders who support policies that allow corporations to continue in their evil ways because to do anything about it would be "bad for the economy." The question is, do we participate in these things because we believe we have no choice, or because we have calculated the cost of not participating and decided we don't want to pay that price?
But is this our inevitable end, to be cogs in the machine of an exploitive economy that assigns us tasks that churn out profits for some at the expense of poverty for many, not to mention the irresponsible uses of our God-given natural resources? Or are we meant for something better? Even as I speak to all people, I speak even more to Christians, who ought to even more closely examine our interactions with our world. We who are salt and light to the world ought not participate in the world as our fellows do. Often we boil down this principle to mere piety - we don't swear or sleep with our neighbor's wife. But we stop too short, and forget that it should be our entire life that reflects Christ and His principles, not simply our adherence to some of the more obvious angles of morality. We are a people who should be infected by the Holy Spirit's influence in every angle of our lives, including how we use our time, our labor, and our money.
So we return to the original question: What is the sum of our work? We ought to give this careful thought. Our culture tends to define people by their career paths and occupations, perhaps more so than other cultures. Therefore it seems even more relevant for us to consider what our work is and decide if this is something that, in fact, we could say is a "kingdom" work.
And one final note: I do not wish to say I think it is wrong for a believer to work in a bank or school. But I do think that it is wrong for a believer to work in a bank or a school without examining the systems in existence in those places and making sure that his conscience allows him to still do the job, and work to subvert the ungodly systems set up there in any way he can. My final word on the subject: Don't hesitate to listen to your conscience. Often I believe we silence its voice because it tells us the hard things that we don't want to face. But a conscience ignored is a conscience dulled. So may we all sharpen our consciences as we consider our employment.