Manual Labor vs. Retail Labor

“I love working with my hands. You can actually feel the job being done. And at the end of the day, you can look at what you’ve accomplished. I can walk over this plaza in 30 years and know that I laid these stones.”

As a self-identified slacker it felt a bit weird when I spotted the above picture from Humans of New York which read:

I love working with my hands. You can actually feel the job being done. And at the end of the day, you can look at what you’ve accomplished. I can walk over this plaza in 30 years and know that I laid these stones.

And after I read that I found myself nodding my head and agreeing.

I expressed my befuddlement on Facebook saying:

It’s weird for me [as a self-identified slacker] to kind of agree with this but yeah. I actually (in some ways) prefer manual labor over retail work. At least I can much more concretely see, feel and experience the change I’ve made in the world.

And I’m usually far more directly helping people than if I worked retail. And even when I *did* directly help people (customers, fellow workers, bosses, etc.) during retail work it usually didn’t feel as meaningful or as important when I helped someone with their garden, their house or whatever.

So yeah, I totally get (and actually sort of agree) with this guy.

That seemed to be the general theme for the comments as well with one commenter remarking, “I want to feel a connection to something tangible, useful, and inspired out of my imagination. I want to get lost in the hums of the saws and repetitiveness of the chisel.” 

There is this common thread of feeling in some substantial way connected to the work that you’re doing when you work with your hands. Whether you’re just picking tomatoes from a garden, helping dig out a house from dirt or even helping build a house (all of which I’ve done) there’s something meaningful in the aches and pains that comes later. This, as opposed to the aches and pains you might get from retail work. The sort of pains that comes from a job that makes you put on a fake smile, tends to be mind numbing in its repetitiveness and is largely not self-directed.

Manual labor is often different and even when it isn’t as self-directed you are still liable to feel like your actions will have a bigger and more direct consequence to the space around you. If you did something wrong while trying to build the house then, for better or worse, your actions had a big impact on something obvious and tangible. With retail labor it isn’t so clear what you’re accomplishing in the world.

Most of the people who come to buy the clothes you are helping sell, the jewelry you are watching over, the toys you are picking up off the store’s floor, etc. aren’t things these people don’t generally have. If you don’t have any toys, clothes or jewelry then you’re probably not going to your local Kohl’s to get your first batch.

So the impact of…whatever you’re doing is pretty much lost. You’re just helping people buy more stuff. You’re not giving them a place to live or helping their pipes work a little better so they wash their hands more effectively or something. You’re just helping perpetuate people’s feeling that they need more things in their life.

Now, let me back up for a second. I’m not saying that this desire for more stuff is inherently wrong. I think there’s a difference between being a consumer and being consumed. And I think there’s a difference between wanting more stuff and seeing “more stuff” as your primary goal in life.

As Ellen Willis explains in Women and the Myth of Consumerism:

Shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years.

The profit system is oppressive not because relatively trivial luxuries are available, but because basic necessities are not. The locus of oppression resides in the production function: people have no control over which commodities are produced (or services performed), in what amounts, under what conditions, or how these commodities are distributed.

Corporations make these decisions and base them solely on their profit potential. It is more profitable to produce luxuries for the affluent (or for that matter for the poor, on exploitative installment plans) than to produce and make available food, housing, medical care, education, and recreational and cultural facilities according to the needs and desires of the people.

We, the consumers, can accept the goods offered to us or we can reject them, but we cannot determine their quality or change the system’s priorities.

Even so, I know that there are lots of people who feel really disconnected from their work and part of it is the basic problem historical socialism has tried to address which is: who owns the means of production?

When people own the product of their labor or are actively and enthusiastically engaged with what goes into producing the products they sell then it seems less likely they’ll come home dissatisfied. It seems much more likely that they may be exhausted at times but exhausted from unbridled joy rather than a feeling of engaging in some sort of toil.

The work is hard when you’re doing it manually and there’s no question about that. But it’s similar to when I come back from a run that I just did. I’m sweating, I’m tired and I’m going to need some water ASAP. But when I look back on it I feel accomplished. I’m taking steps to make me a more fit and healthier person even if they are just small ones and that makes me happy and makes me feel better about myself.

Likewise, when I had tasks that involved manual labor they made me feel better about myself (in retrospect if nothing else) because of skills I learned or people I helped. Almost anytime I had a manual labor intensive job it was for someone I personally knew and liked and the pay was usually good too which didn’t hurt either.

The notion of “connection” to our work is something I should try to write on more thoroughly but for now let me say that in matters of digging, I side with the digger. Not the planner of digging, the executive CEO of Digging Inc, the boss who instructs the digger but the digger themselves.

One thought on “Manual Labor vs. Retail Labor

  1. Pingback: Automation and Alienation in an Anti-Work Society - Abolish Work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *