Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Lutz's diligent research on a range of lazy and slovenly subjects, from French flâneurs to New York bohos, ultimately leads him to side with the bums. Flying in the face of yuppie values and critics of the welfare state, his "slacker ethic" emerges over the course of this history as both a necessary corrective to—and an inevitable outgrowth of—the 80-hour work week.

I just ordered Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America to top up an Amazon order so that I could get free Super-Saver shipping. I did, admittedly, read a review a while back and was looking for the chance to get it.

The work ethic is one of those evolutionary fossils that was once adaptive but has become detrimental to our well-being--like our proclivity for gorging on meat and fat. We evolved, socially as well as biologically, to cope with hardship and scarcity so we're geared up to gorge, fight, and work until we drop--and now we're stuck with it.

I have to say that for myself, though I like eating, and like fighting even better, I've never had any interest in working. In fact the focus of my entire moral and political agenda is on the badness of work and organizing things so that more people can get away with doing less of it. What I seriously don't get is why even amongst progressives, intent on promoting human welfare, so few understand the badness of work. They understand the badness of poverty, disease and ignorance and are committed to doing something about it but most just don't get the badness of work much less show any interest in doing anything about it.

Yesterday evening, while cooking dinner and waiting for the BBC News on PBS I found myself watching Heuell Hawser's feel-good travelogue, California's Gold. Howser, reporting on the avocado industry showed a processing plant where a crew of Hispanic women were sorting avocados into "ones" and "twos"--pretty green fruits for the supermarkets and ugly brown ones for guacamole. Howser stressed repeatedly, with approval, that the business of processing avocados hadn't changed for 50 years--no chemicals, no high tech, nothing inorganic--just a room full of women sorting avocados while, presumably, their male counterparts were in the fields picking them, also without the benefit of labor-saving technology.

I don't understand why neither Howser, nor most of his viewers, grasp how miserable the lives of these workers are. Of courseif they're progressive and enlightened, they believe that people who do these jobs should get decent pay and benefits--and I do too. But I don't know anyone who is grabbed in the gut imagining how utterly miserable these jobs are, how utterly inadequate any compensation--whether wages or benefits or working conditions--is to the sheer misery of the job. I don't understand why.

I looked at the women in the background, while Howser was interviewing the manager, sorting avocados and it wasn't that hard to imagine their lives. 8 am you go to work, get out onto the floor and start sorting the avocados--the ones and twos. And that's what you do for the next 8 hours--ones in this bin, twos in that one. Nothing to learn, no way to achieve, nothing of interest, no future, no way to excel, no chance of advancement, no scope for originality, no long-term goals, and nothing to show at the end of the day. Then you go home and cook, do some cleaning, go to bed, wake up and the cycle starts again. That's life, that's all there is. How can anyone watch this and not be moved--this is the life most people live and only a few of us, by plain dumb luck, have managed to escape it.

This is work--and I'm agin' it. I'd pay 10 times as much in taxes to see to it that no one is forced to do that work day after day, year after year with no hope and no possibility of escape--largely I suppose because it could so easily have been me: sorting avocados, scanning groceries, inputting data, working fast food. People look at pictures of starving kids and are moved. They read sob stories in women's magazines about dying children, feel compassion, and give until it hurts. Somehow they can imagine poverty and sickness, and empathize, but they can't seem to imagine the sheer misery of being locked into a life of endless drudgery, which is most people's lot. How can anything make up for being trapped in a restricted space for 8 hours a day, doing a job like this, buried alive?


DBB said...

While I'm not exactly a fan of having to work either, how exactly would that, well, work? I mean, if nobody works, where would the taxes come from to pay for everyone not to work? What incentive would there be for anyone to do anything if you could just sit at home and play video games all day and not work and just get a check in the mail?

I've always thought that work sucking was the part of the reason you got paid to do it. If it didn't suck, you'd do it for free.

H. E. said...

Here's a nice article with some thoughts on this matter: and here's another, with additional links: And a dandy book is Juliet Schor The Overworked American.

One thing we can do is work less and consume less. Currently that choice isn't feasible for most because there's a ratchet effect: cut hours and you get bumped down to "part-time" which usually means no chance of advancement and loss of benefits. Another thing is to see to it that lousy jobs aren't any lousier than they have to be--even dumb little things like allowing supermarket checkers to sit rather than stand. Another idea might be to organize things so that individuals have more effective freedom in choosing jobs so that they can make trade-offs.

Naturally, the market won't produce these results so as a libertarian you're not going to buy this even though it would mean a wider scope for individual choice and lots more overall utility.

Of course work stinks--if it didn't stink it wouldn't be work--so people need incentives. I'm fine with incentives--just suggesting that some improvement is possible.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't take a ton of cash to sit home playing Nintendo all day. But cars, cell phones, restaurant meals, fancy clothes, cable TV, day care, much needed vacations, and all the other accessories of the full time American that adds up to some serious bank.

H. E. said...

You can also sit home reading, writing, playing the piano, knitting and doing woodwork the proper way, with hand tools, without spending that much. You can bike, swim and play tennis on public courts without a major outlay. You can wander around and sketch for just the cost of a drawing pad, charcoal and comfortable shoes. If you want to travel you can do home exchanges or, if you're young, stay in hostels, and get there on cheap flights or frequent flyer miles--a little bit more expensive but not big bucks.

In the run-up to Sarko's election, we watched his supporters complain that the leisure they got with their 35-hour work weeks and 5-week vacations was useless because they didn't have the money to enjoy their free time. Anyone who can't enjoy leisure without buying expensive entertainments is dull of soul. Nintendo isn't the only alternative.

J. Kevin Benson said...

I disagree with much that has been said in this commentary. One must consider what one is working for. Work encompasses much more than working for pay at a job. Many things worthwhile can only be accomplished through work. For instance, any of the arts. There are thousands of young people who participate each summer in a grueling activity that requires lots of work. They work hard for many reasons and they produce a very entertaining spectacle from with they do not earn a dime. Check it out.

Kevin B.

H. E. said...

Looks like a super program, but drum and bugle corps is a whole 'nother thing from sorting avocados.

When I was in serious training to be a musician I practiced two to four hours a day--and practicing the violin is seriously physical activity--besides lessons, orchestra and much, more more. It was exhausting, occupied all my time (and kept me out of trouble), taught self-discipline--and was in every way wonderful. My impression though is that most Americans wouldn't call this "work"--most don't count an activity as work unless it's done for pay, is done to the clock, regimented and supervised.

Lots, e.g. many of my students and their parents, have the idea that only drudge work is real work, and that somehow flipping burgers is a learning experience and builds character, whereas writing a term paper, doing a science projects, being seriously into athletics or being involved in drum and bugle corps aren't real work, don't promote self-discipline, build character and aren't as worthwhile as flipping burgers or sorting avocados.

I have student come to me to explain that they missed tests/didn't do homework/didn't come to class because they were working. And what's striking is that they aren't apologetic or offer this as an excuse in the way they might cite being sick or having family emergencies as excuses. The cite work as something for which I should congratulate them and, of course, accommodate. And these are rich kids.