Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Many Sides of Work: A Response to Msgr. Charles Pope

Work is variously seen as both curse and blessing; as the penalty for sin and a means of sanctification. For example, in a blogpost titled "Labor is a Gift From God that Precedes Original Sin," Msgr. Charles Pope takes note of the good of labor, which he sums up in five points:

1. Human Labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but part of our original dignity.

Human Work is a duty and prolongs the work of Creation.

Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.

Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

To work is participate in the Common Good.

Now, in order to frame a response I think it might be necessary to make some clear statements and distinctions about work or labor, which I will use interchangeably throughout this post. Work is human activity done not for its own sake but which is aimed towards the achievement of some goal. This is in distinction from leisure, which is human activity aimed not towards the achievement of some goal but for its own sake.

There are two kinds of work: Servile and liberal. Servile work is done by necessity. In today's economy, it is wage slavery. One works in order to secure basic commodities necessary to survival or some minimum standard of living. Servile work is also the appropriate name for any work in which the achievement of the end has become so consuming that one goes beyond the bounds of necessity: that is, a greedy man who works only to accumulate more money is just as enslaved to his work. Liberal work is work done freely, without the burden of necessity: hobby jobs, for instance. There is a way that such work is a kind of hybrid between work and leisure.

Now, I believe that Msgr. Pope quite rightly points out that work can be good. Not only is there the basic insight that only through labor can a human society achieve great things, but more basically we have become dependent on an interconnected series of economic, labor-based relationships. As Adam Smith noted, labor is in a sense the basic resource of an economy, and the more efficiently that labor is managed the higher a nation's standard of living will be.

Not to be a killjoy, however, I think it necessary to point out why work has traditionally been considered a curse, and why there is great and even grave reasons to pause and reconsider the notion of work as gift. I will present these reasons, not as counter-arguments, but merely as questions that arise in my mind when I consider each of Msgr. Pope's points.

Human Labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but part of our original dignity.

"But doesn't the Genesis narrative recognize that as a result of sin, whatever original labor relations existed were fundamentally altered?"

According to Genesis mythology, there was an idyllic pre-lapsarian paradise in which all work relations we perfect, and furthermore in which work was not toilsome. But whatever relations this hypothetical arrangement provided seem far removed from our more practical considerations: instead of a self-watering garden pre-provided with a natural and apparently replenishing store of food, we have a world with more or less difficult to reach resources which can only be had "by the sweat of our brow."

Furthermore, not only has work become harder and toilsome, but there is a degree to which work has become tainted with sin itself. We see this notably in greed, the callous destruction of the environment, and systems of exploitation ranging from slavery to class warfare that constantly threaten workers. I do not mean to dismiss the ideal of perfect and paradisaical labor arrangements, but merely to point out that these arrangements do not currently exist; instead, we find labor to be burdensome, or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it,

"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod..."

2. Human Work is a duty and prolongs the work of Creation.

"But what if we really didn't have to work?"

As I noted before, work is a necessity socially. But I do not think this necessity is from the essence of work itself, but is rather due to man's lack of resources. In other words, we work because we lack certain sorts of resources that we consider necessary to our survival. If we were in a situation in which unkempt nature provided for all these necessities, both because we lived in an adequately lush or fertile region and because we were willing to forgo the luxury commodities that drive the majority of contemporary human labor, this necessity would not exist.

Of course, this is not the situation most of us are in, and for that reason there is a degree to which work will remain an accidental social duty. But the degree to which this is true is already lessening. Because of increases in the productivity of a single worker, a superfluous amount of commodities and resources are available to us with an ever decreasing labor cost. This quite recent development has altered the way in which we view work, since now it is not the case that the majority of the human race must labor from strict necessity, as was the case during the era of subsistence farming. Instead, we are faced with an increasing number of work options, as well as an increase in our leisure time.

It is not an impossibility that sometime in the future technology could further reduce work requirements, until a quite large population could be provided with a remarkable number of goods with the most minimum labor cost. In such a society, would it really make sense for work to be a "duty?" Wouldn't it make more sense to use the time provided by such a society to allow mankind to pursue both liberal work and leisure in order to improve themselves and others?

Finally, human work quite as often - in fact, more often than not - destroys creation. Today's economy of total work, which measures all things - land, animals, nature, and people - in terms of sheer productivity has resulted in some of the most barbaric and callous exploitation and disregard for nature. Even in the fact of continued international unanimous pleas from the scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying natural phenomena to reduce carbon emissions and otherwise cease polluting the atmosphere, America, among others, continues to show no signs of stopping the ravenous juggernaut of human work.

3. Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.

"Can it not also be vicious and destructive?"

You'll get no argument from me that the suffering undergone through work, as well as its fruits in both the person working and in terms of those whom it benefits, can be redemptive. But suffering can just as easily make one bitter, especially in cases in which one gets only a pittance in return for one's labor due to an inequitable economy.

There is also the problem of greed, especially in affluent societies, being the impetus for work that otherwise would seem amazing and virtuous. But there is something unhealthy about this obsession for working longer hours in order to secure a promotion or add another for dollars to the quarterly earnings. Those who pursue work for this reason are quite possibly guilty of disordered loves, but perhaps more strikingly they confirm that for them the goods of leisure are inferior to the goods of work, in contrast to our Lord's confirmation that Mary had chosen better than Martha.

4. Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

"What about leisure?"

I have no doubt that God accepts our work, especially when we place it through prayer in union with the suffering of Christ. I also believe, however, that there is a way in which it is an even greater sacrifice to dedicate our leisure to Him in the form of meditation, prayer, devotion, worship, and so forth.

5. To work is participate in the Common Good.

Here, I have absolutely no quibbles. But I will only repeat my remark that the common good might be served without the requirement that all work, especially if circumstances of technology provide ways to multiply the labor of one into the goods for many.

It is not that I do not believe that work can be a good thing, but rather that I know that the over-glorification of work can be part of a project of devaluing the human person by measuring his dignity in terms of production rather than intrinsic worth. In the post-reformation world, there is something irreducibly Protestant about the notion that work is sanctifying, not only because Protestants ended up making successful work a sign of the elect (ironic considering their mistaken objections against what they believed was a "salvation by works" theology), but because, as Weber as taught us, Protestantism provided the force behind the winds of what is today global capitalism, a system of interrelated series of exploitations that consistently alienates the worker from his own work and prevents work from being a truly fruitful experience for him.

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