OPW: David Callahan on Honoring Work

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” a quote from the book I reviewed Monday, The Moral Center. I do feel the need to apologize for bringing it up again, but I can’t seem to avoid it. In this excerpt, Callahan makes some interesting observations about the how attitudes towards work and collective struggle have shifted over time.

In arguing that welfare betrayed work, conservatives offered a simple solution: Get rid of handouts and make people responsible for themselves. The solution fit naturally with American individualism and the belief that opportunity is available for all.

Democrats face a harder sales job. Most liberal solutions to the betrayal of work boil down to some form of collective action, whether it’s getting more people organized in labor unions or using government to raise the minimum wage and expand the safety net. The problem, though, is that collective thinking–the notion that we are all in it together–comes much less naturally to Americans nowadays. Institutions like government that once embodied commons hopes are now distrusted, and not just because we loathe the Department of Motor Vehicles. Given the choice, many people would rather do their own thing than compromise their autonomy to work with others.

Meanwhile, the workplace has turned more individualistic and atomized. Far fewer people work in coal mines and steel mills and big auto plants–places where it was easy to understand one’s common interest with others, and where a fusion between the ideals of hard work and shared struggle was easy to grasp. Worker are more alone now, both physically and psychologically. The same trends that have undermined the value of work have also isolated people in their own predicaments–as temporary employees or independent contractors or some other fleeting figure in our seven-jobs-over-a-lifetime economy. Unions are virtually defunct in the private sector, not just because of union busting, which has gotten worse, but because it’s harder to organize a fragmented labor force.

The more alone we are, the more alone we feel. When the screws are turned on people, their reflex these days is to pull inward and individualize their problems. The losers in America have always been told to blame themselves, not the system, but now they do so more than ever, encouraged by claims that character defect lies behind every story of economic hardship. The solution to our woes, we are taught, is to focus ever more intently on our self-interest: Try harder, get up earlier, make smarter investments, take bigger risk–and oppose taxes or social programs that cut into our paychecks. The potential for a reinforcing dynamic is obvious. And widening insecurity fans an every-man-for-himself mood, it undermines common efforts to make things better, which leads to even greater insecurity and further insularity.

It doesn’t help that the media cover the wealthy around the clock, with endless stories of the self-made rich that blot out far less sexy statistics about downward mobility. People may know intellectually that the traditional virtue of hard work doesn’t count as much as it used to, and they may know that the deck is stacked more solidly against them. Yet it is easy in the age of Powerball and the Google guys for them to imagine that they will e the one who defies the odds.

One response to “OPW: David Callahan on Honoring Work”

  1. “The problem, though, is that collective thinking–the notion that we are all in it together–comes much less naturally to Americans nowadays.”

    … So true … sigh. I could not have said it better either.