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Against Work

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

(Westmoreland to the king, inciting him to the St. Crispen’s Day Speech in Henry V)

When did hard work become such an unquestioned virtue?

Aren’t there virtues that are more, well, virtuous?  Not to get all mushy here, but what about love?  Abstract, sure, but it reeks of merit.  Or what about goodness, or mercy?  Beneficence is always nice, although maybe it has a little taint of self-righteousness.  Let’s see.  Oh, I know, peacefulness, or its altruistic twin, peaceableness.  Or compassion.

If it weren’t for the fact that hard work is the fetish virtue of the most powerful empire, it might not even rank as a virtue.  It might have come to be something more like a virtue’s helper, like endurance or fortitude or hope.  What dictator doesn’t get up in the morning and look forward to the day’s debaucheries with a heart full of hope and expectation?   Genghis Khan had hope for the young virgins in his neck of the woods, and to this day, they say, a significant percentage of the DNA is his.  “You can’t…” say the naysayers.  “Yes we can,” say those filled with hope.   I remember James Hunt in seventh grade, fine figure of a youth.  He used to drag me around the football field by the mouth guard of my football helmet.  He was filled with hope.  Seize the day.

Hard work as a virtue.  What this means is that if someone shows up at work with a bad cold and breathes and coughs on everyone, we’re meant to admire their pluck.

If it hadn’t become the religion of the empire, hard work might have been something unimportant but mildly virtuous, like thrift or courtliness or not swearing.  Or unimportant and unvirtuous, like change.  Change is the stuff left over after you’ve given away the real money.  It doesn’t become a virtue until you actually do something, like perform an action on a diaper.  These secondary potential virtues only become virtues if they’re linked to a real one, like the way an assist in hockey only counts if it’s connected to an actual goal.  And speaking of sports, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which hard work is so secondary that it’s something like hustle, the moderately virtuous little leg-and-buttock action performed to please Coach.  Definitely extra-curricular.

Hard work is a strangely neutral virtue upon which to found a social experiment.  My kids have intuited my ambivalence about it and have responded by seldom emptying the dishwasher, an act of minor malfeasance I repay here by taking the time to mention it in a journal with a wide international readership.  Not that they care.  But justice will out.  Hey, remember justice?  There’s a virtue for you.  Often named in the breech.

Readers of CounterPunch are likely to be familiar with Joe Bageant’s oddly satisfying missives from the working class front lines.  I say ‘oddly’ because Bageant gets the vernacular of a certain kind of suffering so nicely that readers are liable to enjoy the pieces even when we are being targeted, in one or other of our subject positions, as the problem.  Whether we are middle class, or are rehearsing the prejudices of our own liberalism, or forming half-cocked opinions of southern culture, we might well find ourselves with egg on our faces.   On the other hand, it’s not as if Bageant spares his own neighbors down there.  We see his fallen angels in all their patchy glory in his ribald nuts-and-nipples hagiographies.  I have been a street person and a professor for an equal number of years in my life, and I have wandered off-trail in the south—the South—in most of the nameless places, been chased as often as helped along, come to love and hate rednecks in equal proportions.  Have been called, in my turn, a redneck.  Have passed certain portions of the Jeff Foxworthy test, “You might be a redneck if…” Reading  Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus reminds us that the single defining virtue of a southerner, and the standard by which other cultures are judged, is this commitment to hard work.  My parents are on the Tennessee River downstream from the horrific spill reported here in CP by Mike Roselle (Jan. 9-11), but no one in their reddish neck of the woods is likely to make too much of a fuss against an employer like the TVA.  To me, this reticence is counter-intuitive.  Why would you work against your own interests?  But if work is the fetish virtue, all the rest follows.

We tend to think of southern culture as laggardly, but in fact it yields to no one in this most essential of American traits, its highest virtue.  To adopt wise King Solomon’s words about industry (the concrete form of the more abstract word ‘industriousness’):  Go to the Bageant, thou sluggard.  Consider its ways, and be wise.  We might have a whole class named after a minor and barely virtuous virtue, but they really are what’s made America.

So about that first question, when did hard work become such an unquestioned virtue?  Thanks for asking, and the answer is 1637.

In the old days, classes were about possession of land.  On one whole set of continents, in what came to be known as the Americas, all the people possessed all the land, and were possessed by it.  Not a perfect system, but not bad, either.  Nice trees, too.   Elsewhere, not so good.  A landed class that was tiny.  A beholden class that got to do stuff on someone else’s land, like it was a privilege.  Courtliness a big virtue, not just a set of minor rituals like opening a door for a lady as it is now.  Common use in warfare of the trebuchet, a device invented by the French that combined the best of the catapult with the comfort and convenience of the indoor toilet.  I fucken love history.  And French people.

But the reason we have a working class in the Americas these days, instead of a class denominated by some other virtue—the justice class, the mercy class, “yeah, he has a goodness class background, real salt of the earth”—is because of the hidden revolution of 1637, where the conspirators took everything over and re-wrote the history books so thoroughly that no one noticed.  Now here’s a conspiracy theory even Alexander Cockburn could believe in.  The triumph of the works guys.  And we got—the works.  Just for the record, I’m not saying Cockburn’s even heard of this.

What we have been calling The American Revolution was actually a minor rivalry between some English aristocrats.  The king’s side found it so unimportant it used German mercenaries to do the fighting, and the king would often forget there was a war going on, though a bit of tea might occasionally be used to help him maintain focus.  The stakes were infinitely low, as the comparison state, Canada, makes clear (both pro-king Canada and anti-king America would end up driving the same Detroit cars in the end).  The squabbling in the late eighteenth century didn’t matter because everything important had been decided in 1637.  And the most important thing was work.

Someone should write a book on this.  Someone almost has.  Stop nagging me.  I’ve been working on it.  But not too hard.  Wouldn’t be much point in hustling.   It’s a book against hard work.  Form’s as important as content.  Still, I haven’t changed a diaper in a while.  Things are coming on apace.  There’s hope for me yet.

DAVID KER THOMSON is the recipient of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to write his book, A, a history of American radicalism since 1637.  He apologizes to the American taxpayer for the tardiness of the manuscript.  The latest portion is published in South Atlantic Quarterly, the “Home” special issue, January, 2009. He can be reached at dave.thomson@utoronto.ca