18 April 1990, DENVER, COLORADO: “Painfully will you get your food from it [the soil] as long as you live. . . . By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground, . . . So Yahweh God expelled him [Adam] from the garden of Eden, to till the soil. . . .” From those preceding words from Genesis 3: 17-19 (NJB), many people find the root cause of the “W” word—WORK! From that instance of man’s fall from grace and expulsion from Eden to the present day, few would disagree that work has remained essential to the survival of human life.
Work brings the reward of life yet causes pain and frustration in the process, as the Genesis text has shown, and as the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 98-95 B.C.) has further illustrated in the following passage from Book Five of his philosophical poem, On The Nature of Things:
“Unless by turning up the fruitful clods with the share and labouring the soil of the earth we stimulate things to rise, they could not spontaneously come up into the clear air; and even then . . . when things earned with great toil . . . are all in blossom, either the ethereal sun burns them up with excessive heats or . . . the blasts of the winds waste them by a furious hurricane.”
As if it was not excruciating enough to have to labor for existence, a most unfortunate event occurred along the path of civilization to cause labor to become truly torturous. This sad moment in time was illumined by Swiss music teacher and political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his On the Origin of Inequality (1755). He wrote:
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, . . . and crying . . . the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
For the approaching twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, on April 22, 1990, there are, perhaps, no words more ripe than the final fifteen words of the preceding passage by Rousseau.
The birth of the idea of ownership, specifically the owning of land, led to the idea of having others work the land for the owner. This required motivation for others to do the work, which led to slavery (the owning of the workers themselves), which led, ultimately, to a more subtle form of slavery—wage labor.
Today, the owners of the earth are the corporate directors. One of the largest corporations is Time Warner, Inc., which in June of 1989 had a work force of 35,460 employees (The Nation, June 12, 1989). The motivation to labor for these owners is to earn wages with which to buy the fundamental necessities of human survival (blue jeans; mesquite-barbecued fajitas; a Victorian townhome; a Volkswagen; insurance coverage for one’s car, home and life; and so on).
As a further motivation, it is possible to earn beyond one’s needs of survival to one’s wants of comfort, such as a movie (Batman), a magazine (Batman), music (Prince: the Batman soundtrack) or television (Unsolved Mysteries)–all the enjoyable additions to life that just happen to be owned by Time Warner, Inc. or its corporate siblings.
Ownership today has moved far beyond Rousseau’s “piece of ground” to the entire earth, the people of the earth and all that the people of the earth consume—mentally, digestively, and physically. The instrument of ownership today is the system of wage labor, in which people labor to own the right to exist and to experience comfort beyond existence.
The historical progression of labor into wage labor, as the result of the idea of ownership, is also a progression from the simple effects of labor (pain and frustration) into more complex effects of wage labor (torture, anguish and despair). These hellish fruits of wage labor are presently found from the bottom to the top of the work force.
At the lower depths, people struggle simply to exist. Their torture is a fear of the icy gray-tinged human skin that precedes the relief of their death.
Those in the middle struggle to prosper. Their anguish is a fear of the cramps that accompany a shrinking stomach.
At the top, people struggle to tighten the grip on their prosperity. Their despair is twofold: they fear the fall from the “financial high wire” to the abyss of poverty, and they fear the confinement of a prison cell that comes if their methods of reaching the top are deemed foul.
Within the system of wage labor, fear is the prime motivator that causes all laborers to struggle and to suffer the travail of contemplating a possible drop in earnings.
Two effects that branch from this fear of being without income are escape and compromise. On the lower end, some escape into the extreme of crack addiction and some into alcoholism; others escape through suicide. Some compromise their sense of dignity and value by deviating their creative talents in order to pursue the wages necessary for survival and comfort. They compromise through prostitution or by marketing drugs; some even compromise by marketing children.
In the middle, people escape to the endless fantasy worlds found in the movie theatre; they escape to the mall to spend money on a new book or a CD that should be spent for an overdue credit card bill (providing the illusive relief of being prosperously free); they escape to the beguiling freshness of life found in an extra-marital affair, or a divorce. They compromise by cheating on their income taxes, and by lying to their employers by calling in “sick”when they really wanted a day just to kick back and relax.
People at the top are like Donald Trump; they escape to Aspen, Colorado and compromise by giving donations to charity. Their fur coats give them all the warmth necessary to keep them as distant as possible from the icy gray-tinged skin that precedes death.
There are tortures born from the system of wage labor that are of a more personal nature. Nine years ago, my wife and I both worked for oil companies. Our wages soared to new heights. As our income rose, our lifestyle followed suit. We purchased a house in the spring of 1983.
At first, it was simply a piece of ground with a hole dug for the basement. We watched the concrete foundation as it was poured, the wooden framework as it was assembled and the panels of dry wall as they were set into place. We chose the carpeting, the floor tiles and the oak cabinets. We took pictures at least once a week for a before-and-after album. We watched the fence go up.
Then, in 1985, my wife lost her job with Petro-Lewis when they laid off all but a handful of employees. In 1986, I lost my job with Atlantic Richfield Company when they closed their Denver office. As our income from the oil companies evaporated before our eyes, we struggled to replace it with income from other jobs. My wife worked as a daycare provider for infants and toddlers, and I worked as a temporary draftsman for less than half of my oil company salary. As a result of the drastic loss of wages, we eventually filed bankruptcy and lost the house to foreclosure. My wife wept as we drove away from the house and moved into a smaller townhome. I held my tears inside along with the feeling of wanting to put my clenched fist through the nearest plastered wall.
Now, I work eight hours a day (still for less than my oil company salary); I attend night school in order to finish my degree and to push towards a career change; and I spend, with my wife, the little time that is left.
In his treatise of 1762, The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains.” Today, Rousseau’s words are more valid than ever in our own country that is known ironically as the land of the free.
In the system of wage labor, true freedom does not exist. In its place, there is only the fear that fuels the struggle for earnings, the escape into transient illusions of freedom, and the compromise of human dignity and value for the required dollars that buy what is, in fact, our most fundamental human right—a comfortable existence.
by S.A. Bort / 2 August 2013 (18 April 1990)
1). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Song_of_the_Lark_(Jules_Breton,_1884).jpg 2). http://www.artistrising.com/products/166305/the-invisible-man-37.htm 3). http://www.tv.com/shows/unsolved-mysteries/ 4). http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/man_on_wire/pictures/#2 5). http://strategicchange.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/draftsman_advert-lg.gif
I originally wrote this April 18, 1990. After twenty-three years, I thought I would tune it up a bit and publish it here on the blog, along with the two accompanying essays.
I sent these three essays to Burlington, Vermont’s Brautigan Library, named for Richard Brautigan and initiated by his daughter Ianthe. The essays were among the first (in 1990) accepted, bound and placed on the shelves under the “Mayonnaise System Catalog Number” of: “Social/Political/Cultural: SOC 1990.007.” My accompanying certificate states: “LET NO MAN block the light of wisdom and inspiration found therein.”
See: http://dtc-wsuv.org/brautiganlibrary/?s=Stephen+Bort , http://www.cchmuseum.org/research/the-brautigan-library/ , http://www.thebrautiganlibrary.org/Blank.html , http://www.brautigan.net/responses-library.html , http://brautigan.cybernetic-meadows.net/tiki-index.php?page=The+Brautigan+Library and https://www.facebook.com/BrautiganLibrary for current information on the library.
Shortly after I was added to the shelves, I was contacted by Lawrence Ingrassia of the Wall Street Journal, who was writing an article on the opening of the library. He had seen the above foreward to the first essay and was curious about the concept of “abolishing money.” He asked if I was a socialist. I answered no. He asked other questions, but in the end, his article of May 28, 1991 did not mention me. His article can be found here: http://brautigan.cybernetic-meadows.net/tiki-index.php?page=Ingrassia+1991+Fictional+Library+Becomes+a+Real+Place