The Great Conversation:
Labor

By Gabriel Blanchard

We know Labor Day as a popular holiday, but what exactly is it celebrating?

Labor—or as we more often call it, work—is one of the salient features of everyone’s life. Even most children normally have the work of students to do, and adults have all kinds of work to do, both to earn income and to manage a household (even a household of one).

For Jews and Christians, work is represented in the book of Genesis as having a twofold aspect. Before the Fall, while there was still no evil in the world, God places man “into the garden of Eden to dress and to keep it,” implying that work is not purely punishment, but one of the original purposes of humanity. After the corruption introduced by the serpent, both Eve and Adam are warned that their work (in Eve’s case identified by the text as labor in the narrower sense) will now involve pain and frustration: “cursed is the ground for thy sake … thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee … in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”; but this is represented as a concomitant to human labor, not as part of its inherent nature. J. R. R. Tolkien represented this difference in his Elves, stating in one of his letters (often partially reprinted as an introduction to the Silmarillion) that

Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. … The Enemy in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines …

Labor thus ramifies into many other topics that at first glance would appear unrelated, like creativity, human suffering, and ecology. However, the economic and political significance of labor have had perhaps a greater impact on the Great Conversation than any other single facet of it, and it is to this that we now turn.

My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.

Indira Gandhi

For most of human history, labor in the political sense meant not only the economic underclass, but slaves. At first, the politics of slavery were fairly simple: as Aristotle put it in his Politics, some men were only fit to be slaves—though he admitted that not all legally enslaved people deserved that status. But in any case, slavery was held necessary to keep society running; in an uncanny and unconscious prophecy of the machine age, he wrote that “If every instrument could accomplish its own work … the chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.” Both abolitionism and slave revolts seem to have become more common once the Industrial Revolution set in, enabling much work previously done by hand to be done mechanically (and later, via automation); W. E. B. Du Bois recounts a number of slave rebellions (including the successful though complicated Haitian Revolution) in The Souls of Black Folk. Today, at least on paper, the only place where forced labor for little or no wages is considered acceptable is the prison system.

But besides slavery, there is the question of that economic underclass more generally. Though the theory of economics is also at least as old as Aristotle, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw radical changes in it as a discipline. Alongside the Industrial Revolution, a new, laissez-faire economic system developed, receiving support from some quarters and severe criticism from others. Taking over the labor theory of value from Adam Smith, Karl Marx argued that labor is the essential producer of value: what he called capital property (an oven, for example) was useful only when combined with the human labor of a baker, so that it was actually the person whose work used the oven that made the oven profitable, whether they owned it or not; it was from this that he derived his accusation that this new “capitalist” system stole the value of the laborer’s work.

Even apart from the horrific conditions of the poor in nineteenth-century Europe and North America, which in themselves sparked widespread unrest, Marxian ideas—variously given utopian, revolutionary, or even religious interpretations by different parties—produced political foment across the globe, especially in conjunction with the success of the American and French Revolutions. Other economic theorists attempted to rebut Marx, some by proposing the utility theory of value, which defined a good’s worth by its marginal utility (how well it satisfies the preferences of the user, whatever those preferences may be), making value an essentially subjective thing, unrelated to the work involved in creating a good. There is no single mainstream theory of economics today, and accordingly, no single theory of the significance of work that commands a general consensus from economists.

Suggested reading:
Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus
St. Patrick, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Capital
Frederick Douglass, Three Addresses
Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

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If you liked this post, check out some of our other content here at the Journal. We have author profiles ranging from Æschylus to Wollstonecraft, more “Great Conversation” pieces like this one, essays composed by our top students, arguments on the theory of education, and more.

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