(Nick’s Notes: This post was originally written in June 2014 but was never published and that was part of the reason why I stopped working on this individual blog at C4SS. I’m perfectly happy just doing op-eds, features and book reviews anyhow. I think that’s enough work for me! Plus, this is my own individual blog and so having Hardly Working at C4SS just ends up being superfluous in that respect.)
Recently Mr. Conscience of a Liberal himself, Paul Krugman, had a post praising the fact that “…prime-age French adults are now much more likely than their US counterparts to have jobs.”
In turn, a Slate writer named Jordon Weissman has cited this as a reason to criticize Americans – that we are all looking, “lazier on these graphs than the French…”.
Both Krugman and Weissman think they are being the leaders of a progressive (here, I am using the terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably) society with these views on work. Weissman even uses this point to position himself against conservatives who, “…tend to operate on the presumption that a generous welfare state will automatically sap people’s incentive to work.”
And neither are wrong about this leader status, in a sense.
Because the history of defending work is a history of defending paternalism and as Thaddeus Russel points out paternalism is well within the spirit of liberalism:
Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” deployed legions of social workers, armed not only with the power to extort proper behavior from the poor with welfare payments but also with the prevailing idea that their subjects should be treated as children, with restrictions imposed on their sex lives, leisure time, diet, spending habits, clothing, and grooming styles. In 1996 the welfare regime tightened its grip with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), signed into law by another Democrat, Bill Clinton.
Or if that isn’t convincing enough,just look at this quote by the author of The Other America, by celebrated liberal writer Michael Harrington:
One story that Powell has been said to tell of himself reveals the poverty of Negro politics as of a piece with the poverty of Harlem generally. Some candidate has taken on the impossible, thankless task of trying to unseat Powell. He was speaking at a street meeting and, as legend had it, Powell was parked in a car on the fringe of a car. “Adam Powell,” the speaker said, “is a congressman and a minister. But he has an apartment in New York, and a place in Washington, and he’s seen in night clubs, and he travels to Europe all the time, and he’s hardly ever in Congress.” From the crowd, someone yelled, “Man, that’s really living!” The story is funny enough, but at bottom it is made of the same stuff as Amos ‘n’ Andy: the laughing, childlike, pleasure-loving Negro who must be patronized and taken care of like a child. (Emphasis added)
To attack paternalism from a more personal angle I had two different bosses when I worked at Walgreen’s. Sometimes one would be my boss (let’s call this one Asshole) and sometimes the other one would (let’s call this one Decent Enough Boss – DEB). And on special occasions they would both give me the wondrous privilege of being told what to do and, occasionally, talk down to me.
But Asshole was the real problem.
He was a young guy, really into video games so maybe he’d understand slacking a little bit. But one of my coworkers (it may have even been the DEB) told me he was really set on climbing the corporate ladder so that went right out the window. And so he had everything that went along with this: Everything was my fault. I was never working fast enough. I got better (in his eyes of course), but it was never good enough.
The only thing that will correct these mistakes of biblical proportions are their tutelage, of course. And everything that was wrong was a matter of Weberian/Tayloristic rationalism. It was a matter of calculations, predictions, lack of enforced routine and structure and so on. In other words I needed to emphasize our institutionalized roles instead of my individual ideas about my role. After all, creativity isn’t just frowned upon in the prisons and schools, but the factory of Work too.
The DEB on the other hand was more like a partner. He would often be working alongside me, striking up funny and interesting conversation and getting personal at times. He told me that he used to be higher up on the rung but after needing some time off during his messy divorce (which involved kids) management decided to demote him. He had a chip on his shoulder about the whole thing.
But you know, like Weissman says, he should have just worked harder. That will show the French!
To be clear, my point isn’t merely restricted to bosses. Anyone within the work environment is a lot more free to be paternalistic. There was an especially brown-nosing worker who drew my ire for literally lecturing me about not doing a better job. Keep in mind that where I was working in (not Walgreen’s) was in complete disrepair almost all the time. So magical thinking isn’t just relegated to authority figures but also those who aspire to be like them or act like them.
Regardless, I faced paternalism constantly, working with Asshole. My conclusions would be questioned constantly. My judgment flat out scoffed at and it got to the point where I asked (like a child) for them to make sure my work was satisfactory. I was periodically checked on and spoken to like I was five and when I messed up I was almost never given leniency.
Under these circumstances, do the calm and soothing liberal voice of Weissman ring true, “work harder!”?
Besides the advice of “work harder”, Krugman compliments Weissman’s approach by making it sound like retiring earlier and not needing to work through college is a good thing. And such a move on his part seems quite the non-liberal thing. But then you are reminded that he is only praising when people are either being prepared for work or after dedicating most of their lives to work.
All of this is still leaving out that both Krugman and Weissman are full of BS when it comes to insinuating that somehow it is a matter of Americans being lazy. There have been article after article and book after book in the past few years about how Americans are overworked, underpaid and generally speaking, over-stressed. Not just about their jobs but about their lives. Ya know, those things we are supposed to have?
Sure, we may not be employed as much as the French are but that really says nothing about the laziness of a given country in terms of when it does work. Maybe the problem isn’t with those struggling to survive but the problem lies with the ruling class that helps perpetuate this poverty?
Maybe working harder isn’t much of a problem when work itself is the problem.
Finally, in both of these articles it is basically assumed that more employment is good, that laziness is default bad and so on. Krugman doesn’t even bother arguing any of these things and neither does Weissman. Once again they are great paragons for liberals. For employment is generally a good thing to liberals and some even want “full employment” because that’s just how good it is!
But why should we take these things as good and bad de facto? Should we just accept our current economic standards just because? Has it gotten so desperate and depressing within the realm of the modern liberal that they cannot even begin to bear the thought that some of us may not like our jobs?
That when we walk home from work we feel as if our souls have been crushed, regimented and ordered around into nothing? And while we feel like that, it isn’t as if we can get much confirmation from the other people around us besides weak signs of bitter agreement. These signs that, in the end, mark defeat more than anything else. And this is usually the best we can get out of our fellow workers.
The bosses, if they knew how we felt may just fire us or laugh.
So, if not wanting to work hard under these conditions makes me “lazy” then I am lazy and proud.