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The Servant Problem

In search of the lost battalion of America’s unemployed.

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 3:25 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

[A longer version of this essay appears in "Lines of Work," the Spring 2011 issue of Lapham's Quarterly and is reposted here with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Man must be doing something, or fancy that he is doing something, for in him throbs the creative impulse; the mere basker in the sunshine is not a natural, but an abnormal man.—Henry George

The news media these days look to outperform one another in their showings of concern for the lost battalion of America's unemployed. Consult any newspaper, wander the Internet or the television talk-show circuit, and at the top of the column or the hour the headline is jobs. Jobs, the bedrock of America's world-beating prosperity, the cornerstones of its future comfort and well-being—gone to Mexico or China, deleted from payrolls in Michigan and Ohio, mothballed in the Arizona desert.

The nation's unemployment rate, officially pegged at 9.4% but probably nearer to 17%, in any event no fewer than 25 million Americans, a number more than equal to the entire population of North Korea, out of work or on the run. The metrics, so say President Obama, the Wall Street Journal, and A Prairie Home Companion, are not good. The stock markets may have weathered the storm of the recession, as have the country's corporate profit margins, but unless jobs can be found, we wave goodbye to America the Beautiful.

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Not being an economist and never having been at ease in the company of flow charts, I don't question the expert testimony, but I notice that it doesn't have much to do with human beings, much less with the understanding of a man's work as the meaning of his life or the freedom of his mind. Purse-lipped and solemn, the commentators for the Financial Times and MSNBC mention the harm done to the country's credit rating, deplore the trade and budget deficits, discuss the cutting back of pensions and public services. From the tone of the conversation, I can imagine myself at a lawn party somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, listening to the lady in the flowered hat talk about the difficulty of finding decent help.

Speaking Tools Versus Busy Bees

The framing of the country's unemployment trouble as an unfortunate metastasis of the servant problem should come as no surprise. The country is in the hands of an affluent oligarchy content with Voltaire's observation that "the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor." During Ronald Reagan's terms as president, the income that individual American families received from rents, dividends, and interest surpassed the income earned in wages. Over the last 30 years, the wealth of the emergent rentier class has been sustained by an increasingly unequal sharing of the gross domestic product; the percentage of GDP accounted for by manufacturing fell from 21% to 14%, and the percentage accounted for by finance rose from 14% to 21%.

The imbalances become greater over time; as between compensations awarded to the high-end baskers in the sunshine and those provided to the low-end squatters in the shade, the differential at last count in 2009 stood at 263 to 1. With wealth comes power in Washington, so it's also no surprise that the government, whether graspingly Republican or scavengingly Democratic, adopts the attitudes and prejudices of the monied sultanate. So do most of the nation's news media, their showings of concern expressed in the lawn-party voices of the caterers distributing the strawberries.

The lines of work are as numberless as the hooks in the sea, but they divide broadly into employments bent to one's own purpose and those bound to a purpose other than one's own. It is the former that reflects the founding idea of America. The Puritan settlers of the seventeenth-century New England wilderness arrived from an old world in which the civilizations both east and west of Suez fetched their food and shelter from the work of variously denominated slaves.

The ruling classes of antiquity, like those in medieval and early Renaissance Europe, regarded the necessity of having to earn a living as a mortification of the body and a degradation of the mind. Aristotle had classified slaves as "speaking tools," available for every purpose except their own, and for the next 2,000 years, in Asia as in Europe, it was generally understood that the terms of a man's employment were settled at birth. The newfound land of North America afforded an escape from the burdens of the past imposed by the divine right of inherited privilege as well as those enforced by Barbary pirates and British naval officers, the architects of the New Jerusalem bringing with them the Protestant belief that it was by a man's work that he was known, not only to himself, but also to God and to his fellow men.

On no less an authority than that of John Calvin, they had been given to understand that there was "no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our own vocation) as not to appear truly respectable and be deemed highly important in the sight of God." The thought embraced St. Benedict's Catholic certainty that "Idleness is the enemy of the soul," as well as the meditation of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who likens the work for which men are by their nature born to that of "craftsmen who love their trade," equivalent in turn to that of the "sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his own part toward a coherent world order."

Further searches for a coherent world order on the western shores of the Atlantic encouraged the authors of the Constitution to conceive the document as a tool turned to the making of things, of laws as well as of ships and cider mills and songs. As with the plow and the surveyor's plumb line, the instruments of government were meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. In answer to questions being asked in Europe about what sort of persons were likely to be well received in the new republic, Benjamin Franklin in 1782 published a pamphlet, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, in which he observed that in America people "do not inquire concerning a stranger, What is he? but, What can he do? If he has a useful art, he is welcome… But a mere man of quality, who on that account wants to live upon the public by some office or salary will be despised and disregarded."

The love of country followed from the love of its freedoms of thought and action, not from a pride in its armies, its monuments, its manners, or its debts. Thomas Jefferson, writing his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, envisioned a republic of free-standing husbandmen who till the earth, "the chosen people of God… whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." The newfound land and its newfound independence both were to be cultivated by employments bent to purposes of the individual, their joint venture resting on a democratic holding of one's fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they were rich or beautiful or famous but because they were fellow citizens.

The Elephant on the Table of American Politics

So at least was the spirit and intent if not always the practice or the case. In return for the Constitution's ratification by the Southern slave-holding states, the politicians in Philadelphia in 1789 had compromised the principle that all men are created free and equal. They assumed that slavery was soon to become extinct, certain to be swept away on the rising tide of freedom, and so they allowed the Southern planters to temporarily retain their prize collections of speaking tools.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 remanded the case for liberty to the higher court of money. Between 1800 and 1860 the demand for cotton on the part of Britain's satanic textile mills furnished the newly minted United States with its richest flow of capital, serving the purpose that the Saudi Arabians now extract from oil. The opulence of the trade (60% of America's export in 1860), in large part conducted, to their immense profit, by New York banks and New England ship owners, financed the country's westward expansion and the early development of its commerce. Without cotton, there would have been no industry, and without slavery, no cotton.

The "darkies" said by Stephen Foster to be singing sweetly in the fields subsidized the music that Walt Whitman heard elsewhere in the country in the singing of "the carpenter," "the deckhand," "the mason," "the shoemaker," "the hatter," "the woodcutter," and "the plowboy"—the voices of America's leaves of grass, the fellow citizens in the 1830s and 1840s plying trades in Massachusetts and Ohio, felling trees and building roads in Illinois, piloting Missouri and Mississippi River steamboats, tinkering with farm equipment and firing pins, going west to Texas and California.

Victory in the war with Mexico added another 529,017 square miles to the inventory of spacious skies and purple mountain majesties acquired in the Louisiana Purchase; the population went forth and multiplied (9,638,453 in 1820; 31,443,321 in 1860), its restless collective energies geared to vocations apt to prove to be their own reward. Frontier people holding fast to what Mark Twain later claimed as "a maxim of mine that whenever a man preferred being fed by any other man to starving in independence, he ought to be shot."

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the shooting would have needed to become extensive. The Civil War had rousted slavery from the plantations of the South, but the industrial revolution in the North required an even greater supply of hired hands bound to purposes other than their own. The employments on offer in the Kentucky coal mines and the Pennsylvania steel mills matched Karl Marx's job description of alienated labor—a "diabolical activity," entailing the loss of self. "What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal."

How then to accommodate both man and beast under the same beach umbrella of the American dream, make the freedom-loving argument that Franklin's craftsmen and Jefferson's husbandmen differ only in their angles to the sun from the hostess in the bunny costume checking coats in a Playboy club? By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of what constitutes the meaning of labor as well as a fair return on its performance was the elephant on the table of American politics.

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