A Story for Labor Day

It’s Labor Day weekend. I should have something new to say about labor, but I’m feeling lazy. Which is itself one of the rights of labor: “The genuine wealth of man is leisure,” as Godwin put it. So I’ll post an excerpt from a piece I did for Dissent about 15 years ago. Which opens with one of my favorite stories about work.

TOURING WEST VIRGINIA during the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy was accosted by a miner demanding to know whether he was indeed “the son of one of our wealthiest men.” Kennedy admitted that he was. “Is it true that you’ve never wanted for anything and had everything you wanted?” the miner pressed. “I guess so.” “Is it true you’ve never done a day’s work with your hands all your life?” Kennedy nodded. “Well,” the miner drawled, “let me tell you this. You haven’t missed a thing.”

Mindless drudgery or moral elevation? In the Western tradition, work has been both, and for good reason. On the one hand, work, whether physical or intellectual, can be fulfilling. Reversing the usual stereotype, Karl Marx criticized Adam Smith for lamenting the burdens of work and failing to grasp that “the overcoming of . . . obstacles” was a basic component of human freedom. Work pressed men and women to develop their full capacities, a prerequisite for the realization of self. Less romantic types have celebrated work for the relief it provides from the misery of the human condition. Without work, Sherlock Holmes confesses to Watson, there is only tedium— and cocaine. “My mind,” he says, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.”

But work can also be the misery of the human condition. It often requires demanding physical effort. It takes men and women away from more satisfying activity. It can be mindnumbing and oppressive. There is a reason, after all, that work is a biblical curse. And not only hard labor can seem onerous: whatever the charms of the life of the mind, Anthony Trollope noted, they alone could not compel a writer to put pen to paper; only the rewards of money and fame compensated for the painful effort writing required. “Take away from English authors their copyrights,” he archly observed, “and you would very soon take away also from England her authors.”

In recent years, this historic ambivalence about work has given way to a more flattened consciousness. In our post-welfare era, work is an unqualified good; the only bad thing is not having it. It gets people out of poverty— and out of bed. Going to work “constitutes a framework for daily behavior,” writes William Julius Wilson, without which “life . . . becomes less coherent.” Work instills discipline and responsibility. It converts the self’s drifting energies into vital currents of industry and design. These claims are not new; centuries ago, John Calvin praised work as “a sort of sentry post” preventing us from “heedlessly wander[ing] about through life.” What is new is the failure to acknowledge that work does not always fulfill its appointed mission. So complete is our faith in its virtues that George W. Bush, whose own life is not exactly an advertisement for steady work, can nevertheless luxuriate, without a hint of embarrassment or criticism, in its moral grandeur.

You can read more here.


  1. Will Boisvert September 5, 2015 at 1:53 am | #

    Nitpicking, but the West Virginia story sounds apocryphal. Politicians don’t just sit still and meekly concede the point when a working-class Diogenes starts interrogating their privileges. Why didn’t JFK fob off the miner with obfuscatory rhetoric or just turn to someone else in the crowd?

    And why would he agree that he had never done any hard labor in his life? The man was a Navy combat veteran; he must have done something with his hands.

    • Jon Margolis September 6, 2015 at 12:24 pm | #
      • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 1:59 pm | #

        Or Col. Mustard in the parlor with a candelabra?

      • Will Boisvert September 6, 2015 at 8:52 pm | #

        Hmm. I googled “John Kennedy West Virginia you haven’t missed a thing” and got lots of hits attributing the story to JFK’s W. VA campaign, including David Pietrusza’s book, the book “The Wit and Wisdom of John F. Kennedy,” “Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes,” and the compendium “The 1001 Funniest Things Ever Said.”

        Not saying you’re wrong with your Ted Kennedy citation. It is utterly believable that Ted would expropriate an anecdote from his brother’s campaign for his own cocktail-party repartee, with himself as the star.

        But the dueling Kennedy citations makes it even more likely that the story is a fabrication dreamed up by campaign advisors to give their rich playboy candidate the imprimatur of a man of the people–his Rat-Pack hedonism being in some sense the fulfillment of blue-collar aspiration.

        • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 9:04 pm | #

          “History is bunk.” Henry Ford

        • Jon Margolis September 8, 2015 at 10:51 am | #

          Probably neither expropriation or fabrication. Look at the context. It was the day after the first debate of the primary campaign, Kennedy v. Ed McCormack, at the end of which McC said, “you never worked for a living.” So the subject was in the air. No surprise that a worker asked the question.

  2. graccibros September 5, 2015 at 1:13 pm | #

    Thanks Corey. I didn’t think anyone else remembered Labor Day. This one brings back my memories counted here:


    As I’m want to do these days, I consider what Labor’s public persona ought to be, given the circumstances, and given the media’s focus on other selected public one’s. You know who I mean.

    Maybe some “smart” New York psychoanalyst could explain just why the range of human emotions available to non-entrepreneurs is so limited – as least the public arena.

    Seems there might have been a wider range available around nation’s founding. Why should the Tea Party have a monopoly on them?

    About the most democratic thing on working at Target was the non-discriminatory way I spread my germs when I worked sick.

  3. jonnybutter September 5, 2015 at 2:58 pm | #

    “the West Virginia story sounds apocryphal. ”

    Too good a story to matter, IMO.

  4. graccibros September 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm | #

    If you can understand West Virginia voters, and the changes over time, you can understand why we are where we are on Labor Day. A very humbling experience for the left.

  5. Joel in Oakland September 5, 2015 at 3:28 pm | #

    Sherlock was talking about a desire to feel engaged by something vs. economic need to submit to potentially abusive authority and do potentially mindless tasks that have potential to damage body &/or health, now &/or later.

    Another step or two gets to a discussion about entitlement.

  6. lazycat1984 September 5, 2015 at 4:06 pm | #

    I’m with Bob Black. Work as it’s understood in current political discourse is just a tool of enslavement and the American Work Ethic is whip kissing. It’s interesting that in an age of increasing automation, people are convinced to fall over themselves and cut one another’s throats for a chance to bloody their knuckles for someone else’s aggrandizement.

  7. originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 12:28 am | #

    “’The genuine wealth of man is leisure,’ as Godwin put it.”

    So that explains where Charles Wentworth Dilke got, “a nation is really rich if no interest is paid for the use of capital, if the working day is only 6 hours rather than 12. WEALTH IS DISPOSABLE TIME, AND NOTHING MORE.” Keats called his friend Dilke a “Godwin perfectibility man.”

    • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 12:30 am | #

      To be more precise:

      “After all their idle sophistry, there is, thank God! no means of adding to the wealth of a nation but by adding to the facilities of living: so that wealth is liberty — liberty to seek recreation — liberty to enjoy life — liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time, and nothing more.”

  8. graccibros September 6, 2015 at 1:29 pm | #

    Some further thoughts upon Corey’s posting, rooted in fact or myth, the exchange captures more that first appears.

    Marx in the 19th, and Keynes in the 20th century, could look ahead to the great and often wasted productivity of a poorly shared capitalism’s bounty, to the time when the “grandchildren” (in Keynes’ dashed hopes) for not have to work as long and brutally as their forbearers for basic maintenance needs.

    Ironically, or, I guess if you’re doctrinaire left, predictably and by the logic of capitalism, both their notions seem like smoke signals from a remote Utopia; yes, accurately enough the productivity of capitalism is greater than ever, but in the West its benefits are shared more unequally than after WWII. Bill Greider got in a lot of trouble with Krugman, remember, in 1997 when in “One World, Ready or Not,” about globalization he pointed out that the grand capitalism of the freed market produced more cars, steel, airplanes and computers…capital goods, that it could sell. “Marxist” went the cry, the ghost of Marx was found in Princeton educated, Mid-West sympathizing (hopes for the common man) Bill Greider, for pointing out the obvious! Krugman demanded: where are your models? You’re a mere journalist…

    I think the attitudes towards work reflect the class differences within the left; the reality of capitalism is that there is simply not enough work to go around, and what exists doesn’t pay well or deliver many benefits to the bottom 60%. Flooding contemporary labor markets with immigrants and a couple of billion new Asian workers has only inflamed the structural situations and all the ugly passions that go along with it. Smug economists from Harvard lecture the West to not get down on itself, you’ve raised hundreds of millions out of poverty – good job; I’m waiting for Trump to grab that K. Rogoff line of thought and hit it over the centerfield fence.

    And let’s not forget Germany-Greece and white American worker versus the various forms of gutting the ghetto for its lousy character traits. Anyone who can’t hear the same neoliberal tropes about character and work and “earning it,” in the German response to Southern European laggards, and the American response to the black ghetto since the riots of 1965…on…doesn’t have much of an ear.

    So while Corey is intellectually right about work, he’s missing the very practical dynamic that in US politics public support and aid needs to be accompanied by work, as FDR well understood. With all that neoliberalism in America has left undone, infrastructure and unrepaired environmental wreckage, that’s shouldn’t be a problem.

    This is a pitch that the left should have no trouble in hitting over the center field fence. And I can say that after rowing in the galleys of Target for less than $9.00 an hour and no sick or vacation time for almost two years. If insisting on work is the price of a re-vitalized, left, I’m all for paying it.

    (PS And Dean Baker’s proposals to share work, while logical, are missing the whole emotional, cultural and racial history about the work ethic and the American Dream…there’s just not enough solidarity to pull it off – and all that work left undone staring us in the face. On this, the Modern Monetary Theorists have a leg up, building on the experiences of high governmental debt for now ambiguous public purposes…war…we need less bellicose motivators…and we’re not there yet….

    • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 2:51 pm | #

      “the reality of capitalism is that there is simply not enough work to go around…”

      But the reality of “work” is that not a naturally occurring substance. There are all kinds of things to do but any particular activity only gets categorized as work by some inscrutably arrived at social consensus. In this regard, work is like money — or “glory” for that matter. Humpty Dumpty was right after all.

      There not being “enough work to go around” is the concern that journalists and economics textbook authors have disingenuously derided as the “lump-of-labor fallacy” also known as the assumption that there is a fixed amount of work to be done. It never occurs to these geniuses that “not enough” and “a fixed amount” are not and have never been synonyms.

      I’ve done a lot of research on the alleged fallacy and have come to the realization that it articulates the paradox of value that economists labor mightily to conceal from themselves (and everyone else). I highly recommend Andre Orlean’s “The Empire of Value” for another peek at this paradox.

      The reality of capitalism is that it invents “work” and “property” and prescribes as “natural” a relationship between the two that is wholly factitious. And I do mean factitious, not fictitious. The model for capitalist industry is not M-C-M’ any more that it is Y = f(L,K). The model for capitalist industry is free land + unfree labor = rentier income, in other words, plantation slavery (“primitive accumulation”).

      Money originates as plunder. Work, too, originates as plunder. Is there not enough plunder? Godwin concluded the thought mentioned by Corey in the O.P. with the question, “Is there not a state of society practicable, in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?”

  9. graccibros September 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm | #

    Work, like medical care under our system, is yet to be seen as a universal right, a beginning, not an end to higher and better human ends (and the means of getting there).

    I don’t deny the merit and truth, partial and better, to what you wrote, but I should add that to get to a better world under current assumptions, in addition to FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, political necessity might demand a list of “obligations, duties” to go with those rights…and some of the ones I would add concern participation in the democratic processes…such as they are…conservatives and technocrats have “economic education” programs for the young and impressionable…but if you think across the chasms of the groups I listed as making up the left in the US, a good grounding in political economy is not seen as a necessity, or universal…far, far from it if you hear the same notes of those stuck in the glorious Clinton economy of the late 1990’s, with its future land mines protruding from its very proclaimed “successes.”

    If the work ethic is so important to American life, and the realm of political rhetoric demands its ritual citations: “hard working…middle class…” “Playing by the rules…” you know, Bill Clinton’s glib formula….but let’s call the system on its poorly disguised failure to deliver…if most of the population isn’t engaged along those lines, are you really going to successfully launch into the history of work and leisure under capitalism…?

    • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 5:23 pm | #

      Off topic but, graccibros, I would like to use your narrative of work at Target for my collective bargaining class unless you object.

      • graccibros September 6, 2015 at 8:33 pm | #

        You have my permission, originalsandwichman. Doubtless you know, Target does not like or want unions; the work force badly needs them. Whether the workforce as I met them would vote for protection, I don’t know. I would have.

        And one other clarification, just to be as clear as I can be: one night when I came in I was so sick that my shift leader in “PFresh,” the food-grocery operation, said I could not work there because it was not allowed in the fresh and frozen food sector; so I spent the time stocking the canned good section. That was ok. So it goes. And I only qualified for the president’s health care plan after I stopped work with the heart troubles and my income dropped substantially. You may want to include that background too for your class, at the Daily Kos under “Field Notes from a Lagging Indicator, July 2014.” It appeared in the NY York city area at “First of the Month” and Karen Garcia’s “Sardonicky.”

        Good luck to us all.

    • originalsandwichman September 6, 2015 at 5:55 pm | #

      Admittedly my comment was at a high level of abstraction. In terms of practical politics, though, I think this level of abstraction is useful in formulating demands that will not necessarily be met but will exert sufficient pressure to elicit some kind of accommodation.

      “Reasonable demands,” it seems to me, are invitations for the opponent to demand concessions. The fulcrum for the FDR New Deal policies was passage by the Senate of the Black-Connery 30-hours bill. Elsewhere, I have explored what kinds of policy proposals might be scary enough to provoke a compromise counter offer.

      One element of that policy alternative is a fundamental break with enterprise accounting conventions. It is impossible to encapsulate such a technically complex approach in a blog comment other than to indicate that work time reduction fits the approach while jobs guarantee or guaranteed income approaches rely on modifications of conventional accounting rather than a clear rejection of it and fundamentally different approach.

  10. G Hiatt September 6, 2015 at 8:03 pm | #

    Yeah, I’m too lazy to attempt a coherent sentence, so….

    “Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society…It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; and without labour there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.” – Patrick Colquhoun, 1745 – 1820

    “Legal constraint [of labour) . . . is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise, . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but is the most natural incentive to work, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach civility, obedience and subjugation” – Reverend Joseph Townsend

    “The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.” ― Helen Keller

    “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half”. — Jay Gould (financier, railroad developer)

    Some say this last quote by Gould is spurious, but there’s no disputing that he hired thugs (aka Pinkertons) to break Unions.

  11. SteveWhite September 7, 2015 at 4:08 pm | #

    Not having done a days work is not exactly appropriate for Kennedy, who did finish Harvard, and did become a real hero on PT109 during WWII

  12. graccibros September 8, 2015 at 8:37 am | #

    How’s this for a finish to “the Labor Day story”:

    Here is my “Editor’s Note” which I just added this morning to my Saturday’s “Labor Day, 2015: My Life and Hard Times at Target” posting at the Daily Kos:

    Editor’s Note: I’m posting this on Tuesday morning, September 8, 2015 and it’s hard to believe what actually happened with Trumka on Labor Day. There was no big speech, no independent voice, no seeming awareness that this was the time to be candid, blunt, independent, to help create a new public persona for the AFL-CIO and Labor; no, instead Trumka demonstrated he’s oblivious to the “authenticity” race, as relevant for the missing white blue collar voter as any other block of the citizenry…so what does he do? He walks with the President, and touts the Vice-President in a Pittsburgh march and brief introduction. Inside the beltway as usual. Hey Richard, I’m available as an advisor for a reasonable $60,000 per year and I sure think I can give you better advice than you’re getting. But then again, I’m now far, far from the beltway. There was no need to “endorse” Biden now; the nation needs a “from the gut, from the heart” speech of the working person’s reality, detached from party politics. You rushed to serve up leftovers…there’s plenty of time to assess Biden. You’ve apparently “bought him” already. Here are two links, the first to a pretty good speech from early August that Trumka gave in Iowa – it “could have been” (do you hear Marlon Brando’s voice from “On the Waterfront?”) nationalized for Labor Day very easily: http://www.aflcio.org/… and then the Boston Globes’ account of the coming agenda for Labor Day – set a week at least in advance…

    I see so much history, bad history of American labor in these events, and the primary fault is the inability to see themselves as powerful independent actors on the stage of American history. Chasing Joe Biden! What bullshit.

    My full posting is here: http://www.dailykos.com/blog/billofrights/


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