How many times have you heard this: “So, how’s work?” And by this I mean, heard this before you are asked how you are, how your family is, or what’s new in your life. As if everything you are is defined by your job—or your ability to hold one or have one. It somehow comes before your personal well-being and your family.
If that isn’t enough, how many times have you heard this: “So what do you do for a living?” Or, “Where do you work?” This is often the question one is asked when meeting someone for the first time. It’s often asked before you are asked what your interests are, what you like to do, or how you define yourself as a person. Again, the “you” is defined by the job you hold.
What I find troubling about this is the way in which we come to define the worth of a person by their ability to earn money. And, by that, their ability to make money for corporations. Asking after someone’s work status when a person is unemployed is rather like asking people at the funeral of a loved one, “How you guys feeling?” It is crass and insensitive. But, the problem in this defining people by work is it denies the very nature of what it means to be human. Right now, our society is chock full of meaningless, futile jobs people are forced into by economic conditions. Asking people, “How’s work?” right now is like asking indentured servants on a 1600s Virginia tobacco plantation, “How’s the job going?”
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” ― Karl Marx,
We should be asking people more important questions. How are YOU? How is your family? Read any good books lately? Jumping right to asking after one’s work status or job satisfaction is what pathetically passes for discussion these days. And placing such paramount importance on it is why we see things like Medicaid work requirements passed as law.
How so? Because we are defining human worth by their ability to work. Thus, anyone who does not work is seen as a non-person; a parasite. The disabled, the homeless, and the unemployed are all seen as useless in a society where we are defining human worth by job status. Unintentionally, people contribute to this every time they make work the first topic of discussion with people they don’t even know. And even with people, they know. Or, more accurately, they think they know.
Capitalism puts forth the premis that the individual sells their labor on the market to earn wages for food and housing. Therefore, those without labor to sell due to a disability or because the market will not buy their labor (the unemployed) are without the wages to buy their food and pay their rent. Social programs were created by governments to address this massive design flaw of capitalism. But now we see conservatives who think people receiving social assistance should work for it. Hey, geniuses, the social programs were created to address the design flaw of capitalism which does not provide for those unable to work or who cannot find work. And now, also those who are not paid enough to live, by the places they do work.
And, to be sure, we all buy into this when we go around asking people about work. Here’s another gem: You work as a cashier at a store. Customers ask you, “How’s business?” As if that means anything to you, earning minimum wage, how the rich owner is doing. This is like asking the field workers picking carrots, “Say, folks, how’s the grower doing on his profits?” You see carrots in every store, right? You figure it out! I mean, really, what is that to me or to you how a store is doing insofar as business goes? Why even ask such a stupid question?
When people are trying to juggle rent and grocery expenses with paltry paychecks, asking them how their wealthy employer is doing financially is more typical American disregard for others. We need to ask how are YOU doing, not how is your employer doing. We know how the employers are doing. The news sees fit to regale us with stock market reports that appear in every broadcast. Unlike news from Yemen where a Holocaust-level genocide is taking place and the news does not cover it.
I don’t give a damn about the employers. They’ve fattened themselves with tax cut after tax cut and not one penny has “trickled down” into peoples paychecks. Nor have new jobs been created for the unemployed. Nor are the disabled and homeless taken care of. Why? Because capitalism throws one piece of meat into a cage with ten dogs in it. They must compete for it. We know that really means fight over it. But capitalism defines that as “compete over it”. That is exactly how the job market in capitalism works. Those unable to fight for a piece of the scrap get to starve. They didn’t compete hard enough.
This is why asking someone, how's work? Is like asking them, how goes the fight with everyone else over the scraps capitalism throws you? Because that's all work really is. Click To Tweet The second an employer finds a way to cut your wages, hire someone cheaper, or downsize and force one person to do the jobs of three, that is what an employer will do. An employer has zero loyalty to its employees, but it demands the ultimate loyalty from them.
You must sacrifice your health and your family to bend to the employer’s demands. Because, again, you must compete for intentionally scarce resources. It’s not that capitalism hasn’t got enough meat to throw into the cage. It does. It’s that it wants to keep all the meat to itself. Plus, by intentionally throwing in scarce quantity, it ensures fighting over what little is there, and thus, destroys cohesion among those in the cage. Also, it ensures they will fight over that little bit and come to actually be grateful for it. As evidenced by how many times have you heard this: “You should feel lucky to have a job!” No matter how horrible that job is.
The truth is that capitalism is an illusion. The world did fine prior to capitalism. Capitalism itself hasn’t even got the lifespan of a pimple on the buttocks of the Earth in comparison to the 200,000 years of human history alone. Capitalism is simply another failed idea, like feudalism. But people became attached to this concept that capitalism is the only way things can be done and nothing can be changed. We must “work within the system”. If people had become attached to that idea (“we must work within the system”), we would have never discovered the use of fire, agriculture, or tool-making. We would still be bare-assed hominids pushing scavengers off animal carcasses to eat. Though, to be honest, that is exactly what capitalism is turning us into.
Capitalism has sold people on the idea that those who control it are entitled to more than a good or service is worth. In fact, far, far more than it is worth. That is, if a car is worth $5,000, the automaker is entitled to $50,000 for it. See, we keep hearing social programs referred to as “entitlements” but, actually, profits are entitlements. Businesses feel entitled to far more than their shoddy products are worth. This is absurd and foolhardy.
A system that needs more than an even and equitable exchange is absolutely going to create environmental destruction and human misery. Cutting down enough trees to satisfy needs won’t be enough to make a profit. Having people work 8 hours a day instead of 12 for the same $50 isn’t enough to profit from their labor. If people took morphine in the same manner by which capitalism does business, they will overdose and die within a week. We must get rid of capitalism or it will eventually kill us all.
We need to have honest discussions with one another and those around us. We need to stop defining one another by our jobs. We need to value people as human beings first and let them initiate the discussion if they feel like talking about their jobs. But the truth is, the discussion we really need to have is why we feel so attached to capitalism that we allow it to define who we are, and decide whether we have worth or deserve dignity.
“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.” ― Albert Einstein
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