A Hard Day’s Night
July 11, 2015
This is an amazingly revealing article, in a liberal magazine of Catholic credentials, although its author seems quite unaware of how revealing it is.
The article takes as its launch point, Chris Christie’s speech announcing his bid for the presidential nomination in the Republican Party and, particularly, his tribute to “his hard-working parents and grandparents.” This strikes J. Dionne, one of our most prolific pundits, as significant because “work, its rewards and its discontents will be central to our nation's debate going into the 2016 campaign.” And this is confirmed by the fact that “President Obama has laid down a marker for testing how seriously politicians take the obligation to make hard work pay.” As Dionne points out: “Obama is putting forward new rules that would make up to 5 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay.”
Now, in our current situation there is little doubt that what Obama is recommending is needed and just because companies are dodging overtime by “a scam through which employers designate even relatively low-paid workers as managers to get around the law, which requires an overtime premium after 40 hours per week.” So, in that regard, Obama’s proposal makes sense.
But what Dionne seems unaware of is that this emphasis on “work,” by which he of course means wage work, is or could be controversial and not as something so uplifting that no one bats an eye when Christie “bestowed praise across gender lines, describing his grandmothers as women ‘who knew how to work and who knew that hard work would deliver something for their children.’” Apparently, work in this sense, has become central in our pantheon of virtues. In fact, from Christie’s words of praise, one could reach the conclusion that work, in and of itself, wage work, constitutes “making it” in the United States.
Now, this is revealing of how distorted or truncated our political discourse has become in that, once upon a time, the idea of “work” as “making it” was questioned, to say the least. In fact, work in the sense we mean it today, as having “a job” and earning wages, was seen as merely the stepping stone to what was a better condition, viz., independence, a condition where one was not defined by the “work” they did. In fact, work was seen then as a danger to independence, as a way of making people, ordinary people, dependent on those economic forces, called corporations, and subject to their whims. This was not seen as an adequate basis for creating “citizens,” that kind of person thought essential for creating a “republic.” No citizens, no republic. All work, no citizens, just what were essentially peons.
One way it was thought such a situation could be avoided would be to use technological advances, which were thought to be a good thing, to reduce not the number of jobs available but to reduce the number of hours people would have to work, thereby employing more of the “unemployed” and making it possible for people, ordinary people, to live lives culturally, socially, domestically satisfying and uplifting. [The pedigree of such an idea goes back at least as far as Adam Smith, who understood the deadening effect “labor” would have on those forced to be “employed” in those ways and who recommended ways that these results could be avoided through what we call “labor organizations.”]
And this is what makes Obama’s proposal for ensuring more overtime is paid so revealing because it suggests that what is needed by ordinary people today is not less work but more work! Yes, of course, pay people for overtime. That is only just. But what would be better, more humane, would be to work toward a society in which ordinary people have to work less in order “to make it,” not more.
Ah, but as Dionne’s essay illustrates, we are so far from thinking such thoughts that his only concern is to educate the Republicans that, to get people to work more, to define themselves solely by the jobs they do, government interventions will be necessary. So, what we have then is a “debate” in which the “conservatives” argue that people should be made to work more, to take work more seriously, by means of government inaction, while our “liberals” argue that people should be made to work more, to take work more seriously, by means of government action.
And there you have it: The utter paucity of our political discourse, a discourse that serves to underwrite and even fortify our oligarchy.