Submitted by Jackson Andrews (@liftoffstocks)
Over the last 150 years, there has been much discussion in the United States over the plight of the worker and the state of society. Wages, working conditions, and billionaires have been constant themes in the discussion over the plight of the worker in America. This discussion has continued today, with the narrative having changed little since the Gilded Age when the debate began to heat up in earnest. However, one thing that is not mentioned in any of these debates is the spirit of work and the spiritual principles that society is directed towards.
The 1896 Democratic Convention saw William Jennings Bryan win the nomination for President off of his now famous “Cross of Gold” speech. The main argument at the time was whether the US Dollar should be based on gold or silver. The nuances of the debate are unimportant in the modern era, what is important was that the theme of the debate was the same: the working man benefited from Silver while the Capitalist class benefited from the Gold Standard. Bryan concluded his speech on the issue by proclaiming “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”. It was a noble speech, with eerily similar themes to those being touted by Bernie Sanders (outside of the crown of thorns, that is). Ultimately, the argument being made by Bryan is only over the medium of exchange received by workers. It can reasonably be argued that even in 1896, there were many more issues affecting workers across the country. Bryan would go on to lose the election of 1896 to the capitalist-backed McKinley on sectional lines, with the North unanimously choosing the Republican to lead the country.
Bryan’s loss in the General Election of 1896 has some striking similarities to the failure of Bernie Sanders to win the nomination of the party in both 2016 and 2020. They both targeted their campaigns towards middle/lower-middle class workers who routinely toil in the workplace but have little to show for it. Both had their base of supporters in the smallest states in the country (Bryan in the rural Midwest and Sanders in Vermont/New Hampshire), while industry in New York and the larger states overwhelmingly supported their opponents. But all of that is to gloss over the fact that arguments solely over pay can easily be deflected.
Fast forward to the 1950’s and the issue over the soul of the worker had finally come to the forefront. While in the 19th century, many men engaged in monotonous and soulless factory work, they could at least feel like men while doing it as the work required strength and physicality. The rise of corporations and the emergence of the white-collar man in the 1950’s changed all of this to a large degree. Social commentators such as Arthur Schlesinger would comment on this phenomenon and argue that men needed to retake their role in society. Rather than lifting and engaging in physical labor, men were now dressed in suits and completing spreadsheets. To compound this emasculation, machines were now completing a lot of the work that men used to do, leaving many to search for a meaning to both their lives and their work. This comes very close to describing a problem with the role of “work” in modern society, but even in the 19th century, the work was largely soulless and only ordered towards the dollar.
Julius Evola describes the issue spot on in Revolt Against the Modern World. He writes
“The comforts available to everyone and the super production of consumerist civilization that characterize the USA have been purchased with the enslavement of millions of people to the automatism of work…. Instead of the type of artisan, for whom every job was an art and whose work carried an imprint of personality, we have today a herd of pariah who dumbly witness the work of machines, the secrets of which are known only to the person in charge of repairing them”.
Evola wrote this in 1934, but it became a mainstream concern in the 1950’s and has yet to be remedied. Men transitioned from physical labor to pressing buttons on machines that they did not understand. In the past there was a real, spiritual meaning to the work one did. Evola mentions the artisan, which is a perfect example of a trade where the worker left a unique imprint on his work. In general, a society of robots only working for the dollar is not healthy or beneficial to the society in the long term.
The issue of the worker has been a main topic of contention in the past and likely will be important going forward. As long as society prioritizes the almighty dollar over the spiritual direction of society, work will continue to be a mundane task which people tolerate in order to provide for their family. High wages are definitely important, and the growth of the family is critical for society. So long as there is a culture that worships profit above all, the Elite class will not pay a single dollar more than they have to and will go to extreme lengths to keep their cheap labor because their true religion is profit and they will never apostatize. While campaigns such as that of Bryan and Sanders are considered “for the worker”, they are generally materialist in nature and tend to miss the real issues at play.
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I don’t believe white collar work is any more dehumanizing than physical labor work. In some ways, it is less so since one is valued more for mental qualities than being a warm body that moves things. This article seems like grass is greener nostalgia to me. The dehumanizing parts of work have more to do with the completely artificial, structured nature of things such as the process of applying and interviewing, the workplace politics, the overly complicated tax forms and the clocking in at x time and clocking out at y time and behaving in z way in between. No matter what job you have, there’s no real escape from these things in societies of scale, not even owning your own business. There’s not much that anyone can do to fix them. The pain could be greatly mitigated if we facilitated the formation of healthy communities and home lives, but we all know where that’s at.
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The point is not that office work is more dehumanizing than physical labor. The point is that at least physical labor has some masculine elements to it.
This was a very real issue in the 1950’s and was written about at the time by many social commentators. Men were now doing the same work as Women, hence the crisis of masculinity
This essay brings up a recent observation of mine. I’m involved in three restaurants–all of them local, no chains or franchises. Each features food made by executive chefs. At the top of the cooking world, executive chefs are almost all men. The executive chefs and line cooks are good at what they do because it is personal to them and they have pride in what they turn out and personal status as a result. It’s a learned craft that hasn’t been automated. The covid panic has shuttered all of these type of restaurants–they don’t have drive though windows, the food isn’t automated for packaging–it’s art for a moment. I believe the panic is going to kill many of these places and they are some of the last places left in the country where personal craftsmanship exists. The cruel rules of social distancing make it impossible to sell enough to cover costs–how do you operate at 50%? I guess my guys are going to have to do something else–perhaps assemble food widgets for the drive through chains–but I can’t see them doing this without despair.
What is your art?
Artisan of words.
What bloggers can do-self publish-mechanics do now with parts. Where before you would have had to go to a publisher, now you self publish. So mechanics (those who make or repair things with their own labor) so mechanics and those so inclined do with materials via additive manufacturing/3D printing. They also can design and even market them from home.
Technology has poised the small artisan not only for a comeback but indeed a supremacy not seen in centuries.
Coders and engineers call it piecework.
My point is narrow, only that the technology has posed the artisan or engineer, or wordsmith as never before and on that matter there is great potential and hope.
The spiritual rest of it now belongs sadly for a time to politics, but will likely return to that of morality and religion.
But the artisan himself has at present no excuse.