Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor and Discipline

I seem to have accidentally established a tradition of Labor Day posts. Therefore, I'm obligated to come up with one today, therefore, it starts to take on some of the less pleasant aspects of work. Not that I really mind, and not that there is actually anything forcing me to do it. In a way it's good to have my choices of what to write about slightly constrained, rather than wandering all over creation like I usually do.

One of the chief status markers in our world is enjoying work or at least appearing to. People who work at tasks they dislike for the sake of a paycheck are low-status; high-status people are supposed to be working for the sheer joy of it. This makes intuitive sense, because if you don't like your work then you need to have someone telling you what to do and thus are inherently lower status than your boss. But almost everyone answers to someone.

It may be that figuring out a working relationship between what one wants to do and what one is obligated to do is the key to life. Certainly religions work with this problem (see the recent post on submission, eg); so do political ideologies (what is libertarianism but a bogus answer to this question?). It was the foundation of Freud's theory of mind and later theories of moral development like Kohlberg's.

The issues come up in education and child rearing. I am, in theory, a great believer in self-direction in education, since it largely worked for me (or at least, it's how I learned whatever it is I know -- perhaps I'd have been better off with more externally imposed discipline, but there's no way to know). Schools always seemed like broken institutions since they are inherently designed to undermine whatever natural joy a student has in learning and replace it with a top-down authoritarian model. But people are different -- one of my kids, for example, is teaching himself music largely on his own; the other has had discipline and attention problems in school but (to my great and ongoing surprise) responds well to the extraordinarily strict discipline of his classical ballet instructor.

A large part of the process of becoming an adult is an ongoing process of learning to get oneself do certain things whether one wants to or not. It's always been problematical for me anyway, but I wonder how universal my experience is. Some people seem to manage without a struggle, others are happy to rely on the external discipline of a corporate hierarchy or similar authority system. Do hunter-gatherers have these problems? Do they work?

Work in the abstract is an intriguing and irreducible combination of the spontaneous and the disciplined, the autonomous and the externally imposed. I think that's why the concept of labor is so fetishized by Marxists; it is something that must be done and yet there are so many different ways it can be done and so appears to be a potential fulcrum for harnessing economic forces and transforming society. Buddhist meditation (in so far as I understand it, which is not far) treats breathing in much the same way; it's a bodily function that can be completely automatic or the object of focused conscious attention or both at the same time, and thus is a fulcrum for reconciling the willed and the inevitable.


Anonymous said...

I always thought labor was 'fetishized by Marxists" because the labor theory of value, which Marx borrowed from the classical economists, is the linch-pin of his reasoning. If it is not true, then the rest of the Marxist argument collapses.

mtraven said...

Marx's theory of alienation is probably more germane. Here's a good summary from Erich Fromm:

For Marx the process of alienation is expressed in work and in the division of labor. Work is for him the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself. (Intellectual activity is of course, for Marx, always work, like manual or artistic activity.) But as private property and the division of labor develop, labor loses its character of being an expression of man's powers; labor and its products assume an existence separate from man, his will and his planning...Labor is alienated because the work has ceased to be a part of the worker's nature and "consequently, he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased."

Anonymous said...

René Guénon drew very different conclusions from the same premises as Marx's theory of alienation - and while I don't agree with him any more than I do with Marx, his example is enough to show that the superstructure of Marxism is not necessarily implied by that theory.

On the other hand, the labor theory of value, coupled with David Ricardo's "iron law of wages" (which Marx observed to be true under capitalism, but the necessity of which he rejected), lead directly to Marx's conclusion that the profits of capitalists represent the expropriated surplus value of labor, and hence to the rest of Marxist doctrine.

mtraven said...

I know nothing of Guénon, but from what I can find on the web (like this) I'd lump him in with Marxism, the scientific romantics I wrote of a while back, and a whole lot else besides as noble (or not) efforts to stave off the relentless onrush of modernism, which is roughly composed of equal parts science, capitalism, and the instrumental rationality that ties them teogether. Marx thought he'd get ahead of it, Guénon wanted to go backwards, but since both efforts are doomed they amount to the same thing.

The Labor Theory of Value is akin to vitalism in biology -- an attempt, mostly wrongheaded but addressing real concerns, to locate and valorize some kind of soul inside a vast inhuman machine.