Common Dreams is one of my favorite websites for understanding our world. Today it reposts an article by Jeff Faux that examines a very hot book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty. The book’s thesis is pretty simple: the rewards of capitalism are now flowing to very few people. After WWII, the opposite was true. Economic expansion built the middle class in America and allowed Europe and Japan to rebuild after a terrible war. Poverty in America shrank. Now the opposite is true. Even though workers are more productive, their pay has declined.
Piketty claims that capitalist growth is fueling income inequality. Looking at capitalist societies over 300 years, he finds that most periods of growth increased inequality. The post-war period in the U.S was an outlier. Piketty refutes the claim that markets are self-correcting. Instead, they benefits most often go to those who do not have to work for a living (big investors, capitalists). Faux is careful to point out that Piketty is not a radical, that he is closer to Keynes than Marx. What excites me about a book like this is that it will challenge the way people think. It will force people to reexamine accepted wisdom, which is often the first step to real change.
PS: In Daily Kos, Mark Sumner criticizes Ross Douthat’s attempt to pooh-pooh Pikkety’s book.
[On Sunday, this blog explores different aspects of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
The Right Kind of Work
Even when English majors studied Victorian literature, few learned the name of William Morris (1834-1896), who was a poet, novelist, essayist, artist, and textile designer. Morris believed that art and design go together. He also believed that most people could bring some kind of art or creativity to their work.
Penguin Books has published a small paperback collection of Morris’ essays that is entitled Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. The title essay addresses many concerns that still plague us in 2012. Morris criticizes the rich as doing no work and producing nothing. He says the middle class are little better because they aspire to be like the rich, people who “will not have to work at all.” Most people fit in neither of these classes. Their work is drudgery and supports those on the upper levels of society.
What should work be? Morris linked it to the word hope: “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure.” Hope of Rest is what it seems, having time to live outside of work, especially in retirement. Hope of Product is that we can make something of use, something “Nature compels us to work for.” Hope of Pleasure focuses on the kind of work that makes the person doing it feel engaged in body and mind. Morris’ vision of what work brings is radical beyond anything imagined today: “Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.”
Morris imagined a time when machines would let people enjoy more leisure time. However, he doubted that the current system would let such a revolution take place, since “capital” drove wealth to the upper classes and asked for more work from the lower. Clearly, this critique would make sense to the Occupy protesters in America and their fellow protesters in Greece and Spain, who are asked to endure austerity for debts run up by their governments and the banks they serve. Morris sums the problem up in these words: “For all our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the outcome of the profit system.”
For Morris, our society will change with our work: “To compel a man to day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.” This sentence might initial make us think of factory works, the kind that Charlie Chaplin spoofed in Modern Times. But many people we know, white collar workers, face a similar torment of meaningless work in sales, analysis, and service. The workload is unending without any sense of producing a meaningful product.
Would Morris see our time as no better than his? To some degree, I think he would. Too many people work at jobs that give them no pleasure. They work for money. Most of the wealth they produce floats up and away from them. However, there is a trend that I think Morris would cheer: the craft movement. From small farms to craft brewers and coffee roasters to independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners, all are working with the kind of “hope” that Morris advocates. Mass produced products still dominate the market, but it is possible to enjoy and support the work of a craft worker. Too many people still buy Bud at Wal-Mart and eat breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner) at McDonalds. Often, it is all they can afford, the outcome of a rigged system. Even so, new options are growing by the day, which gives us hope that someday “useless toil” will give way to “useful work,” the kind of work that makes us happy.