THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
A blog by Barry Edelson



CRUEL JOKE 3:

Work Is Good for You



ANTAGONĒ
I'm afraid I can't stay too long today. I have to get back early for a meeting.

QUERIOUS
No matter.

ANTAGONĒ
No, not to you.

QUERIOUS
I can't do anything about the demands of your job.

ANTAGONĒ
Neither can I, it would seem. Who was it who said, "Life is not worth living if one must work"? A Frenchman, I believe.

QUERIOUS
A Frenchman of independent means, apparently.

ANTAGONĒ
Not necessarily. I have no money, yet I am capable of recognizing that work has no intrinsic value. And I thoroughly detest it.

QUERIOUS
Things must be pretty bad these days down in that deep, dark, cold, wet, dangerous coal mine where you endure your 14-hour days of backbreaking toil. At least they let you out for lunch.

ANTAGONĒ
Very amusing. Obviously, we are fortunate that the nature of work has improved greatly for many people over the centuries. But work is still work, and the truth of the matter is that all work is, by definition, prostitution.

QUERIOUS
How so?

ANTAGONĒ
Because it entails performing a task you would not otherwise choose to do, and subjecting yourself to the will of other people, simply to earn money.

QUERIOUS
I don't even know where to begin to refute such nonsense.

ANTAGONĒ
Start somewhere. I don't have all day.

QUERIOUS
Well, the major flaw in your reasoning is your assumption that everyone dislikes work. This is utterly and demonstrably untrue. To use a convenient example, the disproof of your statement sits before you.

ANTAGONĒ
You? You're simply too decent to acknowledge that everything that you were ever taught as a child is a damnable lie.

QUERIOUS
I am hardly the only one who derives satisfaction from his work.

ANTAGONĒ
The number of people who adhere to an idea hardly establishes its truth. You ought to know that. Why else do you suppose I am speaking nonsense?

QUERIOUS
You also seem to be harboring a dangerous delusion that life is possible without work. People simply have no choice in the matter.

ANTAGONĒ
That's preposterous. There are millions of people who don't work at all.

QUERIOUS
Yes, but only because most other people do. That's simply the result of economic imbalance and injustice, which are not to be taken for evidence that humankind could exist without effort.

ANTAGONĒ
Ah, but there's your mistake. Effort and work are two entirely different things. I never suggested that sustaining the body and mind doesn't require a certain degree of effort. We have to feed ourselves and seek shelter from the elements, which can obviously take a great deal of effort. But we do not have to slave away in the manner to which we have become accustomed in order to stay alive.

QUERIOUS
Do I really have to point out to you that living conditions in the present day — at least in prosperous countries — are vastly superior to those at any time in the past? The queen of England didn't live as comfortably 300 years ago as you and I do today in our ordinary middle class existence with our refrigerators and central heating and indoor plumbing. Eating, drinking, dressing, bathing, resting and all other daily physical necessities are incomparably easier to accomplish than ever before.

ANTAGONĒ
And do you imagine all of this has come at no price? Man today works longer and harder than at any time in the history of the world. Now, I know what you're going to say, that people like us don't work nearly as hard as a lot of other people who work in factories or on farms, people who haven't had our education or haven't yet caught up to our standard of living.

QUERIOUS
Not to mention the early period of the industrial revolution, when mechanization created a class of virtual slaves who had no choice but to spend their lives dying slowly in filthy, miserable factories or mines. How can you insist that conditions haven't improved enormously for many people, and are on their way to getting better for many more of the poor around the world? And what about farming, since you mentioned it? Do you honestly think that people who have worked in agriculture for thousands of years worked less than we do? It's probably still the single largest enterprise on the planet, and I don't ever remember hearing anything but terrible stories of misfortune about working the land. And even their lot has vastly improved because of machinery. Maybe you're just spoiled by your ease of living and have lost all perspective.

ANTAGONĒ
I may very well be spoiled, but my personal experience doesn't alter historical reality. The difference in our views is that my perspective is a lot broader than yours, because I consider both agriculture and industrialization to be part of one long decline in the fortunes of our species. Agriculture is the culprit that started the whole downward spiral. By all anthropological accounts, prehistoric people spent many fewer hours keeping body and soul together than we do today. You can't compare our work week with those of factory workers in the 19th century, or sweat-shop seamstresses today. These are economic atrocities necessitated by the engines of big industry. You and I are simply examples of the lucky ones who have managed to pull ourselves up to a higher level of servitude. But servitude it still is, whatever you call it. When I refer to the past, I'm talking about how people lived before anyone ever developed the insidious idea of growing their own food.

QUERIOUS
Insidious? I would have said that whoever is responsible for conjuring the idea of agriculture is the hero of all time. I just read an article about that, in fact. They've done genetic testing of wild grasses to determine which ones were the ancestors of the modern grains which are grown over much of the world. They think they've narrowed it down to an area of what is now Turkey. Somebody in this one region, ten or twenty thousand years ago, had the brilliant notion of making the food supply reliable by planting it, instead of relying on nature's random harvest to provide for everyone. A work of genius, and we'll never even know his name.

ANTAGONĒ
An entirely justifiable obscurity, if you ask me, because that was the beginning of the end.

QUERIOUS
Can you explain yourself? How is it that everyone in the world but you can see that we have gotten better and better off over time, that all of civilization and everything we've discovered, all of science and the arts, of building and transportation, are the result of the wealth and the leisure that agriculture has provided?

ANTAGONĒ
If you'll pardon the pun, we have been ingrained with this notion of how societies are organized around work for so long, and it has been so many hundreds of generations since the bulk of humanity has lived any other way, that we have completely forgotten that man managed to survive for hundreds of thousands of years before the discovery of bread. It was a stable ecosystem, perfectly capable of accommodating the reproductive rate of homo sapiens. Agriculture made life too good and started an endless, vicious circle: the birth rate increased enormously, thereby requiring even more land for farming and living, ultimately spreading man over every inch of the globe looking for more resources to exploit.

QUERIOUS
Somehow I can't picture you as a forest dweller.

ANTAGONĒ
Look, I am thoroughly a product of the modern world and I'm the first to acknowledge and enjoy the pleasures of civilization. But it is undeniable that in addition to overpopulation, the wonders of organized society also include war, slavery, mass murder and the threat of nuclear extinction, all horrors of which primitive man was blissfully ignorant.

QUERIOUS
You don't think prehistoric man fought wars?

ANTAGONĒ
No. Bronowski demonstrated quite clearly that war is nothing more than a highly organized form of theft. When men were hunter-gatherers, their lives were surely not without violence and cruelty. But there is a world of difference between a fight with sticks and rocks between small, wandering tribes and full-scale war between heavily armed soldiers. What reason did early men have to fight, except perhaps for the fear that another group might hurt them? Their primary strategy for dealing with the threat of attack was, most likely, to run away. One can gather food over there as easily as over here; why fight over a tree that doesn't belong to anyone? It's only when man settled down in communities, when he put a great deal of toil into making an area of land productive and so began to develop the idea of property, that fighting on a larger scale made sense — fighting to keep one's own land, food and water, or to take someone else's. Servitude was also pointless to the hunger-gatherer; there was simply no need for it. What would a slave do? All of the evils of the world have been visited upon us because of these marvelous twin inventions, planting and land ownership.

QUERIOUS
All of this is a highly romanticized vision of early man. Life in the forest was probably horrendously uncomfortable and terrifying. They would have been prey to every whim of nature, every animal and insect and disease.

ANTAGONĒ
On the contrary. With so little contact with other people, they probably had healthier immune systems than we do. How could a plague have been passed from one group to another? And as far as danger and discomfort are concerned, you are judging by 20th century standards. I'm sure they didn't sit around grumbling about how uncomfortable they were. You had to be damned strong to survive. And what else did they know?

QUERIOUS
You don't have the slightest idea if any of these suppositions about early man are even true.

ANTAGONĒ
It's a theory. But one thing that is not theoretical is human nature, which hasn't changed for tens of thousands of years, at least. One can make very reasonable suppositions about how man may behave in any manner of circumstances. Writers do it every day. You also forget that scientists have studied primitive tribes in Africa and Asia who still live as hunter-gatherers, so this line of reasoning is not entirely hypothetical.

QUERIOUS
Even if everything you say is true — which it isn't — you know as well as I do that there's no turning back. We're never going to return to being hunter-gatherers.

ANTAGONĒ
Highly unlikely. More's the pity.

QUERIOUS
Which means you haven't proven to me that we can manage to survive without working, short of being one of the fortunate few whose wealth is considerable and inherited, like your Frenchman.

ANTAGONĒ
There's another Frenchman who may help prove the point. There is a wonderful, eccentric movie, a comedy called "Alexandre", in which Philippe Noiret plays a good-natured oaf of a farmer who is run ragged by a taskmaster of a wife, whose name is La Grande. I think that literally means The Boss, but it's her real name. She is utterly greedy and ambitious, while Alexandre is the opposite: lazy, contented, unconcerned. He allows his wife to control his life to the extent that even her parents live as sloths off of his labor and in the comfort of his house. She has their lives so regimented that whenever Alexandre tries to sit down for a moment during the course of the day, she happens by in her car, or beeps him on a two-way radio, or uses whatever means she can come up with to prod him into working harder. In one very funny scene, he takes a moment to help a neighbor move a large armoire from one house to another. La Grande screeches up in her car while Alexandre is in the middle of the barnyard with the armoire on his back, badgers him into putting the piece of furniture down right there in the mud, and drives away with him. He never has another free moment to finish the move and, since he's the only person in the town big enough to carry it, the armoire sits out there for months until its owner, in desperation, turns it into a chicken coop.

QUERIOUS
Why does he put up with it?

ANTAGONĒ
Don't be so literal, it's a parable. But you may well ask what power La Grande has over Alexandre, and the answer is just this: sex. She is humorless and tough as cement, but rather good looking, and she simply bribes Alexandre with sex, much as the early hunter-gatherer women must have done in our popular anthropological model which you so casually reject. Gathering women were much more reliable providers of food than their hunting men, so they used sex as a social control over tribal behavior and thus formed man's earliest morality. The subjugation of women didn't begin until men learned to see them as just another piece of property — something else you can add to your list of civilization's great advances.

QUERIOUS
La Grande hardly sounds subjugated.

ANTAGONĒ
That's because the director has turned social organization on its head to make a point.

QUERIOUS
Yes, yes, get on with the movie.

ANTAGONĒ
La Grande pays the ultimate price for her grasping nature: she dies in a car accident while rushing off to implement some scheme to increase farm profits.

QUERIOUS
How does he manage without her?

ANTAGONĒ
You might think Alexandre would fall apart, but he doesn't. He simply falls to his own nature. He throws La Grande's parents out of the house and stops working altogether. At first, he spends his time in the town, hanging out in the bar, sleeping by the river with the requisite fishing pole by his side, and generally enjoying just doing nothing. Gradually, though, the people in the town start to resent his idleness, so he withdraws to his house and takes to his bed — permanently. He reads, he plays his tuba, he sleeps a great deal. His little dog does his shopping for him, carrying a basket into town in his mouth, haggling with the butcher and the baker on his master's behalf. (The dog, by the way, gives one of the greatest animal performances I've ever seen in a movie.) In short order, the property goes to ruin. Chickens and geese roam the house and the fields are filled with weeds. The townspeople are upset. They plead with Alexandre to stop his foolish behavior and return to normal. He won't even allow them into the house, and will only speak to them from his second-floor bedroom window. He refuses to work, of course, because he has no reason to: La Grande's meticulous bookkeeping and shrewd investing have left him with enough money to allow him to do nothing for the next five lifetimes. Despite the protests, he stays in his room, which he has rigged like some Rube Goldberg fantasy so that anything he wants flies to his fingertips at the pull of a string. The townspeople take desperate action. They set up a brass band beneath his window to try to exasperate him out of the house. This turns out to be a disaster. Not only does Alexandre fail to budge, but members of the band, after suffering days of cold and rain and exhaustion, one by one come around to Alexandre's way of thinking. "Why am I doing this?" they ask themselves. But, implicit in giving up the fight to sway Alexandre, is the admission that he is right after all. Human society is just that inflexible: if the work ethic is for one, it is for all, but if it is not right for one, then it is not right for anybody. Social organization can bear no deviations; if it cannot explain an exception, it will transform the exception into the rule.

QUERIOUS
It can't end like that.

ANTAGONĒ
Quite right. It would seem Alexandre has won, until he meets a girl who works, against her wishes, in the store of her aunt and uncle. She is intrigued by the tales of Alexandre's laziness, and follows his dog home so she can meet him. The band has disbanded by this time. She lures him from bed, another ironic twist. They spend idle days together. They fall in love. She has him literally to the altar before he realizes that she's La Grande all over again: she has been scheming to earn big money off the land. That's enough for Alexandre. He sees the light just in time, and is off and running, his ambitious bride literally left holding the bouquet, trying in vain to order him back. Marriage is thus exposed as just another institution designed only to benefit the economy and the morality of the community. The moral and meaning are simple: as hard as one may work, one is dependent upon the labor of others if one seeks what is generally termed prosperity. Wealth is produced only by groups, by society, never by an individual alone (see Adam Smith for details). If the so-called work ethic, and the religious and other social props that support it, are rejected, society collapses because the economy on which it is totally dependent collapses ahead of it. No order imposed from without is as strong as that morality nurtured from within and indelibly woven into the human spirit. Social order is too intangible, too fragile, to be guaranteed by laws; faith and acceptance are crucial. And they have to be nurtured in every generation, because they are not a part of human nature.

QUERIOUS
You are reading a great deal into a farcical movie.

ANTAGONĒ
Do you want a real-world example? When you were on your vacation in Hawaii last winter, did you happen to learn anything about the destruction of the native Hawaiians' religion and culture? They lived for hundreds of years under the strictures of a rigid taboo system which suddenly disintegrated in the early 19th century. The king of the day, at the urging of colonists, broke an important taboo in front of a crowd of his people and — lo and behold — nothing happened to him. Their society was literally shattered in a day. The truth is, we don't have to live as we do, and there is nothing more troubling and threatening than to see others discover this fact and do that which we cannot do, or have not the courage to do, ourselves.

QUERIOUS
It doesn't sound like courage that motivated Alexandre, but inertia. He put no more thought into his laziness than he did into his work.

ANTAGONĒ
Forgive me for waxing poetic. But the fact remains that it was totally unnecessary for him to have ever worked so hard.

QUERIOUS
Perhaps, but if he hadn't, he couldn't have enjoyed his early retirement.

ANTAGONĒ
All you can see is that work begets wealth, and wealth begets leisure. We simply can't shake the idea that life just has to be this way, any more than we are ready to reject the concept that the man who puts up the capital for a business has the right to dictate to the people who are forced to work for him. The fact that labor practices have improved for many people doesn't alter the basic, immoral premise that ownership automatically conveys power. You can't possibly deny that wealthy people wield vastly greater influence in the world than anyone else. We may live in a democracy, but we work in authoritarian dictatorships in which we have no rights except those we struggle to grasp for ourselves or which the occasional benevolent boss arbitrarily chooses to bestow. We take it as an article of faith, literally, that ownership is an indelible part of the human experience, a veritable law of nature, and that's exactly the way the Enlightenment philosophers talk about it. But attitudes change utterly over time. Only a few generations ago, there was hardly a man alive who wasn't absolutely certain that men were superior to women and had every right to control their lives. Who believes that today, at least in the developed world? Even ardent anti-feminists would cringe at the idea. In every epoch, people think human life is just what they see at the time, and even visionaries define their vision by the society they were born into, but its structure and organization, with or without deliberate intervention, are certain to change beyond recognition over and over again. Once upon a time, the concept of property simply did not exist, there were no laws or institutions to sustain it and no work ethic to propel it forward and keep the people in line. It is inevitable that this house of cards, which, at present, represents an immutable reality to most people, will be slowly blown away, and another, unimaginably different order will take its place.

QUERIOUS
You sound positively millenarian. I never would have taken you for a revolutionary idealist. Or a Luddite, for that matter.

ANTAGONĒ
Bite your tongue. The idea of fostering violence to achieve social aims is among the most abhorrent creations of modern man. I'm talking about the natural evolution of social systems over tens of thousands of year, not the crackpot schemes of social philosophers and paranoid megalomaniacs. I don't suggest for a minute that human nature will ever allow us to live a significantly more fulfilling existence, and fighting to create a utopia is simply idiotic. There will always be conflict and cruelty and sorrow, but under different systems they may be of a different order and of a lesser severity, and therefore preferable, to the evils we have experienced in the blighted Age of Property.

QUERIOUS
So you're not quite ready to throw away your reclining chair and your record collection and turn to spearing wild game for a living.

ANTAGONĒ
I am as unsuited to such a life as a man of 40,000 years ago would have been unsuited to sitting in traffic. But if our places had been changed at birth, each of us would have adapted to the world into which we were born, if either of us survived. What other choice would we have had?

QUERIOUS
But given the immutability of human nature, you might want to consider the possibility that the availability of choice is what makes our world a better one. The way in which work has evolved provides opportunities that this idealized prehistoric system of yours was simply unable to offer.

ANTAGONĒ
Such as?

QUERIOUS
Honestly, there is hardly any room for personal fulfillment in plucking fruit from a tree. Even running down a wild pig for dinner may give a man a momentary testosterone thrill, but it surely wears thin after two or three thousand generations. People in the modern age are able to pursue countless ambitions, the fulfillment of which has it rewards. And I don't just mean material rewards, but psychological rewards, as well.

ANTAGONĒ
I must confess that I've always found ambition to be a puzzling concept.

QUERIOUS
That's because you don't have any.

ANTAGONĒ
Not true. I aspire to do any number of things, but none of them, regrettably, has anything to do with working for money. In any event, we in our free and enlightened society celebrate the individual with such unwavering devotion that we don't realize that ambition is an entirely selfish enterprise. It's something each of us wants for ourselves alone, the fulfillment of a personal dream which may, and often does, cause great harm to others. Why else do we celebrate as heroes our great leaders, successful entrepreneurs, brilliant scientists, leaping athletes and creative geniuses — even when we know them to be drunken louts, wife beaters or some other kinds of scoundrel? They are the paragons of the work ethic, our prophets and saviors. Our faith in personal ambition is a kind of secular religion which doesn't allow any room for human frailty. We have vested so much in the glorification of work and the gratification of desire that we can only sustain our belief in the illusory happiness they provide by an act of mass self-deception. We are, all of us, the people in Alexandre's village.

QUERIOUS
I'm sorry, but work does provide many people with genuine satisfaction, and it's just unfortunate that you're not one of them. Overcoming obstacles and adversity to achieve a goal leads many people to feel much better about themselves and more secure about their place in the world. One of your prehistoric men who happened to be a lousy hunter didn't have too many other career options. Modern life doesn't produce only the misery you choose to see everywhere, but also instances of real contentment and even rapture. I refuse to believe that the way we live and work now isn't far more likely to lead to physical and emotional fulfillment than a daily tramp through the jungle.

ANTAGONĒ
Now look who's talking nonsense. It is nothing but sentimentality to believe that people are better off simply because life is more pleasant or more diverse. And as for the Calvinist assertion that adversity builds character, nothing could be farther from the truth. Adversity breeds bitterness and resentment, plain and simple. Why do you think people buy lottery tickets by the tens of millions, if not to spare themselves the hardship and relentless despondency of a working life? Civilization has managed to invent endless new sources of suffering from which we must constantly seek relief. The glorification of personal ambition is nothing more than a collective expression of a desire to achieve freedom through wealth, and a tacit acceptance of bondage as the ordinary rule of life. It is hardly a path to charity and righteousness.

QUERIOUS
And yet charity and righteousness exist, both of them born of civilization.

ANTAGONĒ
Precisely my point: we would have no need of them without civilization. And we have hardly enough of either to compensate for the misfortunes visited upon the vast majority of humankind who continue to be victims, rather than beneficiaries, of so-called progress. You've reminded me of the cynical, old donkey in "Animal Farm." When he complains about the flies, another animal suggests that he should be grateful that God has given him a tail to swat them away, to which the donkey replies that he would be better off without the tail and without the flies.

QUERIOUS
If I remember correctly, this character refused to do any work when all the other animals were hard at it.

ANTAGONĒ
Smart animal. Remember what happened to the rest of them, reduced to slavery and driven to death while their master preached to them about the virtues and glories of work.

QUERIOUS
The hypocrisy and cruelty of the masters doesn't make the work any less rewarding or necessary.

ANTAGONĒ
It occurs to me that the main difference between prehistoric and modern man is that the former had only to work for his own survival and the survival of his little group, while the latter, even the self-employed like La Grande, must by necessity work for someone else. Once we tie ourselves to larger and larger communities, the legal and moral entanglements of property envelop everything, even people — somebody owns us, too. But I see that I haven't changed your mind the slightest bit.

QUERIOUS
Nor have I convinced you that such interdependence has its advantages.

ANTAGONĒ
If I had a choice, which I admit I don't, I would rather not be owned. No tail, no flies.

QUERIOUS
Hadn't you better be off to your meeting?

ANTAGONĒ
Since you are such an advocate of slave wages, don't forget to leave the tip.


posted October 2007





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