‘Soul Murder’ in the American Workplace

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

—W. B. Yeats, “Among School Children”

As someone whose labor movement roots are still strong enough to ruin some dinner parties with seemingly inexplicable rants over NAFTA, I could be expected to wax wroth over the big yawn with which the corporate media greeted the August employment numbers on Friday (the commonest headline: “Job Losses Smaller Than Expected”).

And wax wroth I shall.

Okay, corporatized newsies: You say that “only” 216,000 jobs disappeared last month? Folks, we’ve got 15 million people without jobs and in desperate shape out there. Toss in people who’ve stopped looking, and it’s more like 20 million. Official unemployment stands at 9.7 percent—the highest it’s been since 1983—but still more ominous is the sharp jump from a year ago in the duration of joblessness (five million people have been out of work more than six months), and an even sharper jump in the number of persons working part time but needing full-time work (up 54.4% from a year ago). Mandated work time reductions in both the private and public sectors have pushed the average work week down to just 33.1 hours, which might be nice if this were France and there was no loss of income.

But this isn’t France. Far from it. This is the United States of Anxiety. We’ve got six workers for every job that comes open. Oh, and did I mention that we’ve now got 35 million Americans on food stamps—an increase of 700,000 people since this past May and a 22% surge from June 2008. I won’t even mention the 60-year high in teenage unemployment.

“The labor market is just murder.” That was NPR’s Frank Langfitt on Friday, commenting on the August job numbers. And although Langfitt didn’t mean it theologically, that is where I wish to take it. Only I want to get beyond the nightmare experienced by the jobless to explore as well the murderous pressures on those still working. These two dimensions cannot be separated. Both point to the sheer brutality of the American view of what work is—a view that in its outlier status among the views widely held by civilized people almost matches the outlier status of our obsession with owning guns and our delight in locking people up and throwing away the key.

Great to hear from you, bishops—but we’re not having that conversation yet

Last week it was good to have the US Catholic Bishops weigh in with an appropriate and urgent commentary on the state of working America. Catholic social teaching on work and human dignity couldn’t be much better, but in this area they are talking to themselves; and for two reasons, I think. The first is that our ears are so primed to hear Catholic hierarchs talking pelvic politics, that for some there is a kind of disconnect when a whole different (yet related) moral discourse is spoken. But the second reason no one is listening to the bishops is far more alarming and has to do with our incapacity to take the ethics of work seriously. Some irony there, of course, in view of how hard we all work.

But that is actually my point: we Americans accept overwork and we accept unbelievable amounts of workplace stress precisely because we don’t think seriously about work and what work means. We don’t want to think about how beaten down we are in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave; we don’t want to think about the extent of human degradation associated with making it (or failing to make it) in America. This widespread denial is what I mean by not taking the ethics of work seriously. And I admit that this subject is sufficiently terrifying to warrant some degree of caution. Open it up too quickly and people’s heads will just explode. Yet it is a conversation we must start having if we wish to be at all serious about addressing the toxic levels of violence within ourselves and within this society.

Work-related degradation (and the humiliation of not working) is a theological issue because of that “image and likeness” thing: that imago dei in each of us. The God in whose image we are made understands balance; this God sets appropriate boundaries; God works and then God rests—and invites all of Creation to rest as well, but especially us humans. And that invitation is given because when humans fail to rest we end up abusing other creatures and the earth itself.

Of course, many Christians—mostly in English-speaking and Protestant-influenced cultures—believe that the ‘rest’ thing is overrated. After all, did not the Creator God expel humans from the Garden of Equipoise and sentence us to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows? Well, yes, but Sabbath and Jubilee blessings were then given in order to allow us to take a bit of that Garden with us, even after our banishment. As well, does not part of our incorporation into the divine (the salvific work) mean returning to the Garden in significant measure? Is this not God’s “gracious good will” (Jonathan Edwards, you bet)?

I digress, but only slightly. Here I am having a kind of dialogue with myself about work as blessing, not punishment; but this is the desperately-needed dialogue we are not having in the culture at large or even within US religious communities.

I mean, think about it. Our president is a “socialist” because he thinks there might be something wrong with letting 50 million go without health insurance? Imagine what he would be called if he suggested there is something fundamentally wrong with having 35 million on food stamps, 20 million unemployed or underemployed, and at least another 20 million in mortal fear of getting the ax themselves—accepting, therefore, all kinds of abuse from their bosses.

Three degrees of trepidation: Getting over, getting by, and getting screwed

I maintain that fear is the common denominator uniting workers at every level of our wildly unequal wedding-cake economy. Fear is the source of the soul murder blighting so many lives, even the lives of children who feel acutely the impact of their parents’ work-related torments.

Let us view the wedding cake and observe the waves of fear emanating from each tier. At the top are the economic winners—and no one should pretend that their fears and travails are morally equivalent to what people on the bottom suffer. But successful people in America do have the very big problem of having to stay on top to keep from sliding back down the greasy pole.

Just below the winners is the “getting by” middle group whose lives are virtually defined (historically and sociologically) by their degree of job-related anxiety. These are the people who won’t or don’t take a decent vacation for fear they will be perceived as slackers. Nowhere else but in America will one find a middle class that is quite so miserable as this one. This misery affirms what the Europeans like to say about us: we live to work, whereas they work to live.

Drop down to the vast “getting screwed” tier of the labor market and there may actually be less free-floating, job-related anxiety because who really has time to be anxious when you are being pummeled every day by outright economic violence? I.e., by wages so low you need two or three jobs to make a “living,” by hours that keep changing, by bosses who can and do harass and threaten you (especially if you try to unionize), by low or no job-related benefits, and by the constant humiliation that a wealth-obsessed culture heaps upon the unwealthy and unlovely who must scramble to get by (read Barbara Ehrenreich for the full range of humiliations).

So yes, degrees of fear at every level. And I have not yet raised the special kind of fear that many new entrants to the labor force will tell you about if you are willing to listen. I am speaking here of high-achieving college grads who played by the rules only to discover that one relatively new “rule” for young people whose parents are not loaded is having to borrow a shitload of money in order to obtain the cherished degree. I am friends with one such grad who sometimes can’t sleep at night on account of money worries. He is working (two jobs, in his chosen field) but the two jobs combined aren’t paying him enough to continue to pay his share of food and rent in a so-so shared apartment and make required payments on over $100,000 of student debt. Bright College Years, we used to call them. But again, unless Mom and Dad are in the elite income group, we should perhaps start calling them Fright College Years, layered as they are with apprehension about the high-stakes struggle to pay back all of that debt.

Considering the Alternative

Nothing changes until we are able to imagine the world as it should be. Religion’s job is to assist our imaginations in this regard. So let us consider the many visions of “enough” in the sacred scriptures: images of each person thriving under her own vine and fig tree, of people building houses and inhabiting them securely (Isaiah 65), of feasts to which all are invited and at which the beggars and outcasts are called to the head of the table, and (not least) of workplaces in which workers are never cheated but are paid their full wage before the sun goes down. Shared abundance is the biblical tradition’s notion of what a healthy economy looks like. But we don’t believe in abundant living; deep down, we seem to require an economics of scarcity. If US religious leaders won’t engage this, won’t expose and challenge it, who will?

We do have visionaries in America today who seek to put work—and the need for better-balanced work—into the center of the national conversation. Wendell Berry, obviously. Riane Eisler. David and Frances Korten (who have been about this for a long time). Theirs should all be household names, but they are names belonging to people who still remain pioneers on the frontiers of serious thinking about finding a sustainable path.

And they have far too few allies in the religious community. There are those Catholic bishops, of course, and more than a few Jews (Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner come to mind) who totally get the making-bricks-without-straw echo of Egypt in the contemporary US workplace. But a broad-based and growing network of theological types who have made good work the center of their focus? Dream on.

We need such a network, and we need it soon, because even if the economy recovers and “full employment” returns we will still be encountering a US workplace that remains a site of utter terror in some instances, and a site of routine abuse and low-grade anxiety in others.

On this Labor Day, I invite my colleagues in religious leadership to do their own reflecting about the responsibility we share for opening up the almost-taboo subjects of economic oppression and economic violence. “Soul murder” may seem like a very strong characterization of what our lethal labor markets do to human beings. But look more closely, and that is exactly what you will find.