(For the answer, see E. J. Dionne Jr. below)
"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
I thought of starting this note by saying something like: "Allow me to be the last person to remind you that Labor Day sure ain't what it used to be." Then it occurred to me that the condition is so well settled that only the die-hards even think to mention it anymore. "Labor" has become a joke, and the people who perform it a cheap commodity, totally replaceable and barely worthy even of contempt.
I feel guilty patronizing the big new dollar store that opened a couple of years ago in my neighborhood, one that doesn't have a lot of big or new stores. (By "new" I mean an actually new building, of which this store occupies the ground floor.) I've found some products they sell that suit my needs fine at a substantially lower price than either the same products or unnecessarily fancier equivalents would cost me elsewhere. But I know perfectly well that none of the cashiers are "employees" in the sense one would once have understood.
They're all part-timers, with schedules calculated to make sure that none of them are entitled to any benefits beyond their hourly wage, which I'm guessing hovers pretty near NYS's mandated minimum. I wonder how those women (naturally they're almost all women) put food on their families' tables, especially if they're the sole wage earners in their households. They must surely need at least one other part-time job just to provide shelter and food.
To make myself feel less guilty, I consider that at least those people are being paid something, and I would hardly be improving their employment situation if I withheld my exceedingly modest patronage. As it is, the store rarely seems to me to be generating enough business to cover what I don't imagine is a modest rent for so much space in a brand-new building.
Not surprisingly, E. J. Dionne Jr. gets it all. Here's how he begins his column "The last Labor Day?":
Imagine a Republican saying this: "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the Tea Party. They'd likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861. Will President Obama dare say anything like this in his jobs speech this week?
But we are now inundated with news (and "news") about the world of capital. CNBC and the other financial media are for investors what ESPN is for sports junkies. We cheer the markets, learn the obscure language of hedge fund managers and get to know some of the big investors in off-field interviews. Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they're consumers; at worst, they're "labor costs" cutting into profits and the sacred stock price.
Workers have faded away in both high and popular culture, too. Can you point to someone "who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them"?
The phrase comes from a 2006 essay by the critic William Deresiewicz, who observed that we have few novelists such as John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos who take the lives of working people seriously. Nor do we have television shows along the lines of "The Honeymooners" or even "All in the Family," which were parodies of an affectionate sort. "First we stopped noticing members of the working class," Deresiewicz wrote, "and now we're convinced they don't exist."Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class," Jefferson Cowie spoke of how little we identify working-class people with their labor. "Workers occasionally reappeared in public discourse as 'Reagan Democrats' -- later as 'NASCAR Dads,' " he wrote, "or the victims of another plant shutdown or as irrational protectionist and protesters of free trade, but rarely did they appear as workers."
With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn't it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it's there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.
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