A Labour Day Post

“Work” was the title of a column I wrote on Labour Day last year, and later submitted as my mid-September contribution to CultKW. 

It began as further thought on a question that had emerged in the wake of the Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter: “but what can a poor boy do”?

The answer that had kept coming to mind was: “Get to work.”

Here’s a revised version of the piece, which I’m posting here as a best wishes greeting for Labour Day 2021.

Call to Work

Marching is not getting to work. Ideally, it’s an expression of commitment and resolve, which are prerequisites for both effective work and purposeful association. 

If the march is to protest, it is talk, not work; reaction, not action.

If the intent is to speak truth to power and move political, managerial, professional and economic leaders to take action, it is not true activism, but a kind of persuasion.  

If the aim is to build solidarity, it can strip away difference and personal resolve. The result can be association with militaristic elements, in preparation for mobilization. For those who are not in command, this is not getting to work but getting ready to be put to work or marched into battle.

Although command is normally at the behest of the powers that be, and perceived as oppression, it doesn’t have to be. Order can be service to shared purpose as well as to private gain; a division of labour like any other.

Work doesn’t always have to be in service to and for the benefit of those who have developed the capacity to organize.     

Despite all the improvements modernity has brought, it is becoming increasingly clear that standard ways of organizing things are extremely wasteful, not just of land, air and water, but of human lives and capacities. We can do a lot better. 

There fact is, there is virtually no limit to the work we could do for one another. And there is no shortage of people to do the work: 7.87 billion of us, and counting. 

So let’s get at it.

A Labour Day Wish

Right now, because I’m almost completely unaffiliated, all I can contribute is the kind of wishful thinking I’ve been dishing out in this forum.

My wishful thinking for Labour Day is that we start moving away from the association of work with drudgery and toil. 

I know there’s a biblical injunction that supports this view of work: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In this telling, work becomes a curse, a punishment. But it can also be a gift, a blessing. In many respects, work is life, and life is work: It’s what defines us and our place in the world. Work can and should be what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

The idea of setting just the right “work-life” balance, usually through various lifestyle and leisure offerings from purveyors of health and happiness, seems twisted: The implication is that we’re truly alive only when we’re not sacrificing hour after hour to making a living. 

Chamber of Commerce style promotion of a city or a region as a “great place to live, work and play” strikes me the same way. 

Work, play, recreation, leisure and rest are all living.

The distinctions between “work”, “recreation”, “leisure”  and “play” have always been vague. That’s especially true in the arts:

“The play’s the thing,” but it is the work of a playwright, i.e. a maker or a builder.

Performers are “players,” but they commonly work in companies, train within disciplines, and create productions. 

The play aspect of art making is a major part of why it is so difficult to get policy makers and the public art large to pay serious and sustained attention to working in the arts as an integral part of a healthy economy.

Art Work is the Key

For a long time, arts advocacy was my business, and I’m not sure if anything I said or did in this line of work ever made the slightest difference. Nevertheless, I’m more convinced than ever that arts-related work is the key to a smarter, stronger, more advanced  economic future. 

Any way you look at it, in 2020-21 smarter and more advanced means more sustainable. We’ve reached the point where the ecological balance sheet is of far greater consequence than anything that can be measured in terms of dollars and cents. 

It would be wise to take this break from the normal that the pandemic provided to work on updating our conception of what prosperity means.

My sense is, if culture-related work, culture-related exchange, the infinite bounty of arts-related production, and the ever-increasing riches of our collective cultural inheritance are not at the very centre of our conception of true prosperity, the future starts to look very bleak.

The arts are, after all, the original work. From before the beginning of historical time, what people do, as soon as there’s enough food and no enemy at the gates, is tell stories, sing, dance, depict, decorate, embellish, make special. 

Full Employment

There will always be work providing the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, security, healing. But this needn’t take anywhere near the amount of effort we put into covering these essentials today. 

If we distributed the workload more equitably, we wouldn’t have to work so arduosly. But we may still want to work long and hard. All work could and should be more like arts-related work: varied, open-ended, creative, done for its own sake, with pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

What I’m getting at here is that it might be time to extend some of the confusion between work, play, leisure, learning, creation, recreation and entertainment that we associate with artistic practice to work of every kind. 

If there are aspects of our working lives that make us miserable to the point where we feel a need to seek relief or escape, it’s because of the way we organize the work that needs to be done to make a living.

The habit of thinking that living life to the fullest requires choosing “lifestyles” and buying “experiences” from the purveyors of such compensations for living meaningful and wholesome lives is perverse.

There can be pleasure even in drudgery, but not if you’re bound or relegated to it, and when you’re looked down on for having to do it. There are better ways to organize these things, starting with working towards a free and open market for work. 

The system of having twenty workers seeking employment for every ten decent jobs is cruel and wasteful. In a healthy, mature economy, these proportions are reversed. We can all be rich in possibilities. Everyone seeking gainful, meaningful employment will be able to pursue whatever they feel a call to do. 

To “pursue” an objective will involve either proposing a project with a view towards finding people able and willing to work with you to make it happen, or signing on to a project already in the works.  

Mudsill jobs will have compensatory rewards. The key to getting a project off the ground will be the credentials of the people committed to working on it, not the wealth or borrowing capacity of the person or organization behind it.  

Work as Fun

Part of the inspiration here is a comment from Jimmy Wales, the prime mover behind Wikipedia, the for-purpose, non-shareholding enterprise that has produced miraculous results relying largely on unpaid, voluntary work. 

According to Jimmy Wales, “It’s a misconception people work for free. They have fun for free.” Researching, writing and editing the site is painstaking work, yet capable people do it willingly in part because they trust the organization and believe in its purpose, but also, as a survey of Wikipedia volunteers revealed,  simply because “it’s fun.”

Judging by the kinds of things people do as a hobby, a pastime, or for recreation, almost every kind of work can be pleasurable, even fun. And my hunch is that as we move toward conflating work, play, leisure, learning, creation, and recreation, we’ll not only be happier and healthier, but also more steadfast, conscientious, and consequently a lot more productive.  

Organized Labour

Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean people needn’t and shouldn’t be paid for doing it. If there’s no money involved, it may still be work that is beneficial, but it would not be part of the measured exchanges that are an economy.  

There may come a time when we can do it all on trust. For the time being, however, I’m suggesting that we keep track, and try to keep it reciprocal. We can start by getting to work wherever we happen to be, each in our particular corner, according to our own lights, with whatever capabilities we may have been gifted with or developed. 

I firmly believe that each and every village, town and city in the land of the Canadas is, or can be, a great place to live, play, work, learn and associate.

Association is the critical component. The fact is, there is almost nothing one can accomplish alone. Even a rock’n’roll band is an organization of sorts: a company.

Company” was the title of my next column, which I posted here, not as CultKW musing.

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