Long ago, I first worked as a printer and, after that, a journalist for a small West Coast news service. In the years that followed, I've been a freelance editor and writer and would, for decades, be an editor at two publishing houses, Pantheon Books and Metropolitan Books (where I co-ran the American Empire Project). For the last nearly 18-plus years, I've also run the website TomDispatch, which turned out to be as close to a 24/7 job as I've ever had (though, unlike so many other jobs, a largely self-imposed one). And as I head for the age of 77 in July, I still can't imagine the idea of "retirement." Even if TomDispatch were to end, something I don't expect anytime soon, I think being a pack rat of the first order I'd promptly head for the top of my bedroom closet. There, over these many decades, I've packed away letters and papers of every sort (including World War II-era documents from my parents). Up there, in garbage bags, are things I wrote from the age of 12 to relatively recently and that people wrote to or for me. There are letters by the hundreds (from the era before emails and texting), my unpublished novels, my earliest journalism, and god knows what else. Somewhere in that mass of material that undoubtedly won't outlive me, I dream that I might find the inspiration for a new late-in-life career looking back and writing something. But retire? Not work (however I might define that word at any moment)? I truly can't imagine.
Of course, I've had one great luxury most of my life that so many Americans haven't had. I've generally been paid to do what was, to my mind, meaningful work that mattered if not to the world, then at least to my own small universe, the one I inhabit every day. That, I know, has been and remains a luxury of the first order in our American world, a reality the pandemic of the last year-plus has only made worse for so many of us, forced into unwanted, unfunded, unneeded "retirement" in a world from hell. Today, TomDispatch stalwart Rebecca Gordon looks at work itself in the pandemic moment and in the context of a society in which, when you work, with rare exceptions, someone is always making money off you often to your detriment, often to your bitter disappointment and pain.
She takes up the very nature of work, a subject rarely addressed not just at this website but more generally in this country at a time when the issue of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour is at least a major point of political contention (and when, for the first time in god knows how long, an American president has come out strongly in favor of union organizing). In a country where work is often hell and inequality at record levels (even as America's billionaires made an extra $1.3 trillion in the pandemic period), this is certainly a time to consider, once again, the role of work in our lives. Tom
Rethinking Employment in the Biden-Harris Era
And My Own Looming Job Crisis
A year ago, just a few weeks before San Francisco locked itself down for the pandemic, I fell deeply in love with a 50-year-old. The object of my desire was a wooden floor loom in the window of my local thrift shop. Friends knowledgeable on such matters examined photos I took of it and assured me that all the parts were there, so my partner (who puts up with such occasional infatuations) helped me wrangle it into one of our basement rooms and I set about learning to weave.
These days, all I want to do is weave. The loom that's gripped me, and the pandemic that's gripped us all, have led me to rethink the role of work (and its subset, paid labor) in human lives. During an enforced enclosure, this 68-year-old has spent a lot of time at home musing on what the pandemic has revealed about how this country values work. Why, for example, do the most "essential" workers so often earn so little or, in the case of those who cook, clean, and care for the people they live with, nothing at all? What does it mean when conservatives preach the immeasurable value of labor, while insisting that its most basic price in the marketplace shouldn't rise above $7.25 per hour?
That, after all, is where the federal minimum wage has been stuck since 2009. And that's where it would probably stay forever, if Republicans like Kansas Senator Roger Marshall had their way. He brags that he put himself through college making $6 an hour and doesn't understand why people can't do the same today for $7.25. One likely explanation: the cost of a year at Kansas State University has risen from $898 when he was at school to $10,000 today. Another? At six bucks an hour, he was already making almost twice the minimum wage of his college years, a princely $3.35 an hour.It's Definitely Not Art, But Is It Work?
It's hard to explain the pleasure I've gotten from learning the craft of weaving, an activity whose roots extend at least 20,000 years into the past. In truth, I could devote the next (and most likely last) 20 years of my life just to playing with "plain weave," its simplest form over-under, over-under and not even scratch the surface of its possibilities. Day after day, I tromp down to our chilly basement and work with remarkable satisfaction at things as simple as getting a straight horizontal edge across my cloth.
But is what I'm doing actually "work"? Certainly, at the end of a day of bending under the loom to tie things up, of working the treadles to raise and lower different sets of threads, my aging joints are sore. My body knows all too well that I've been doing something. But is it work? Heaven knows, I'm not making products crucial to our daily lives or those of others. (We now possess more slightly lopsided cloth napkins than any two-person household could use in a lifetime.) Nor, at my beginner's level, am I producing anything that could pass for "art."
I don't have to weave. I could buy textiles for a lot less than it costs me to make them. But at my age, in pandemic America, I'm lucky. I have the time, money, and freedom from personal responsibilities to be able to immerse myself in making cloth. For me, playing with string is a first-world privilege. It won't help save humanity from a climate disaster or reduce police violence in communities of color. It won't even help a union elect an American president, something I was focused on last fall, while working with the hospitality-industry union. It's not teaching college students to question the world and aspire to living examined lives, something I've done in my official work as a part-time professor for the last 15 years. It doesn't benefit anyone but me.
Nevertheless, what I'm doing certainly does have value for me. It contributes, as philosophers might say, to my human flourishing. When I practice weaving, I'm engaged in something political philosopher Iris Marion Young believed essential to a good life. As she put it, I'm "learning and using satisfying and expansive skills." Young thought that a good society would offer all its members the opportunity to acquire and deploy such complicated skills in "socially recognized settings." In other words, a good society would make it possible for people to do work that was both challenging and respected.
Writing in the late 1980s, she took for granted that "welfare capitalism" of Europe, and to a far lesser extent the United States, would provide for people's basic material needs. Unfortunately, decades later, it's hard even to teach her critique of such welfare capitalism a system that sustained lives but didn't necessarily allow them to flourish because my students here have never experienced an economic system that assumes any real responsibility for sustaining life. Self-expression and an opportunity to do meaningful work? Pipe dreams if you aren't already well-off! They'll settle for jobs that pay the rent, keep the refrigerator stocked, and maybe provide some health benefits as well. That would be heaven enough, they say. And who could blame them when so many jobs on offer will fall far short of even such modest goals?
What I'm not doing when I weave is making money. I'm not one of the roughly 18 million workers in this country who do earn their livings in the textile industry. Such "livings" pay a median wage of about $28,000 a year, which likely makes it hard to keep a roof over your head. Nor am I one of the many millions more who do the same around the world, people like Seak Hong who sews garments and bags for an American company in Cambodia. Describing her life, she told a New York Times reporter, "I feel tired, but I have no choice. I have to work." Six days a week,
"Ms. Hong wakes up at 4:35 a.m. to catch the truck to work from her village. Her workday begins at 7 and usually lasts nine hours, with a lunch break. During the peak season, which lasts two to three months, she works until 8:30 p.m."
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