Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama and Shorter Working Time

by the Sandwichman

My premise is that the US Presidency is 90% symbolism and 10% muddle. As far as I know, Barack Obama has taken no major policy positions addressing the hours of work. But in the realm of symbolism, Obama's nomination throws open a door that has been tightly shut for 150 years: American exceptionalism.

One persuasive answer to the old question of why no formidable socialist or labor political party ever emerged in the United States has to do with the legacy of slavery and the faux "work ethic" ideology of white working men. Historically, rather than viewing themselves as antagonistic to the robber barons and captains of industry, a large portion of white working class men have derived their identities from being "not slaves". "I work hard because I believe in hard work. It is my choice to work hard, that is how I know I'm not a slave. What is hard work? Working hard!" The white work ethic hints at the same confused and ashamed closet that homophobia dwells in (this is not to indict the work ethic per se, but an exclusivist version of it peculiar to white males).

Whiteness, itself, is simply a negative residual of being not black. There is no such thing as white culture. There's Italian cooking, English theatre, Irish pub music and Dutch painting but no white culture. Coincidentally, there's no such thing as black culture, either. There is, however, a parody and representation of plantation entertainment that generated the stereotype of black culture -- the black-face minstrel show of the 19th century. The really odd thing about the minstrel show is that the slave entertainments the minstrel shows parodied often themselves already performed parodies of the plantation masters' peculiar folk ways. So the Northern white man's fantastic image of Southern black slave culture was itself already a parody of a parody.

Hegel once said something about great events and persons in history happening, as it were, twice. Marx added that the duplication appeared the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The great tragedy of American exceptionalism is that it has been farce all the way down. It should go without saying that slave labor was a form of labor. Moreover, American slavery was a variety of capitalism. The New York merchant bank of Brown Bros. & Co. -- subsequently Brown Bros. Harriman, employer of Bush Grampa Prescott -- owed its fortune to financing Southern plantations in their purchase of slaves and trade in cotton.

One of the delicious ironies of the work-ethic ideology is that it ascribes financial success to individual effort and poverty to sloth. Thus, it was presumably George and John Brown who planted and picked all that cotton while their slaves were too busy shuckin', jivin' and eatin' watermelon to do a lick of work. And yes, I know that Barack Obama is not descended from slaves but false stereotypes don't bother with such distinctions.

The miracle of the African-American experience under slavery is that people retained their humanity -- even their sense of humor -- through harsh, inhuman, conditions. I wonder if perhaps the initial impulse of the black-face minstrel show wasn't more a celebration of this triumph than a disparagement. Somewhere along the line, though, audiences forgot they were watching burlesque and starting mistaking it for documentary. It is inevitable in the coming election season that a lot of creepy-crawlies are going to come out from under their rocks. On the one hand, that is deplorable. On the other hand, though, airing the potency and taken-for-grantedness of the tradition of American racism may provide just the innoculation needed to move on to other questions that have been perpetually sidelined by the racist agenda.

So what does that have to do with shorter working time? It's a complicated argument but the starting point is in the anti-slavery origins of Ira Steward and the eight-hour movement in the 19th century. Steward's arguments for the eight-hour day derived initially from his analysis of slavery. More recently, David Roediger has written histories both of the movement for shorter working time, Our Own Time as well as of the role of racism in American exceptionalism, The Wages of Whiteness. Rather than recapitulate Roediger's analysis or Steward's, I will simply end this note with the hope that the symbolism of an Obama presidency -- even its mere possibility -- will proclaim America's emancipation from the ideological and political chains of racism.


Robert D Feinman said...

Frederick Douglass analyzed the white working class ethic in his autobiography. His take was that the plantation owners fostered racism among the poor whites as way to distract them from the fact that they were in a no win situation.

As Douglass explained the working class whites could never compete against people who were being paid nothing. The residue of this still exists.

The other author who also understood the work dynamic was Max Weber in his book "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism". He traced the idea that work was fulfilling back to Calvin and his ideas of salvation through work.

One of the ways to "solve" our employment problems would be to redefine how much work constitutes a job. There have been many attempts, the French lowered the workday down to 35 hours and shortened the days worked. Business hates this, but the public seems to like it.

A more utopian arrangement can be found in Edward Bellamy's novel "Looking Backward". His ideas were quite popular after the book came out, but he died before a lasting movement could get started. Basically he suggested everyone getting the same pay, but the more unpleasant the job the fewer hours needed to be worked to earn it. He also expected retirement after 20 years.

Anonymous said...

'There is no such thing as white culture. There's Italian cooking, English theatre, Irish pub music and Dutch painting but no white culture"

There is a white culture:

You're just so caught up in it that you can't see it, but it's there.

Anonymous said...

I've heard something along similar lines before. In most of the world there was Nobility, so the common people were far more open to ideas of getting their fair share and removing privileges. But in the US wealth redistribution was opposed because it could be so easily painted as favoring a black underclass.

Bruce Webb said...

My favorite along these lines is the "No poor man ever gave me a job" defence of wealth. The notion of employment as gift is so wrong on so many levels. For one thing is implicitly concedes the power argument from the start.

And I would agree with e. gandy, there is indeed a white culture, or at least a white American culture, the problem is that cultural elites dismiss it as being lowbrow or kitsch and so assign no value to it as opposed to Irish pub music. I am not one to worship at the alter of small town White America, in a lot of cases that culture is a product of driving your best and brightest out leaving the bland behind but it is not any less real for all that. It is just hard to describe without coming off looking like a condescending coastie looking down over flyover country.

Anonymous said...

The issue of hours of work is not all that complicated, and is, in my opinion, a no-brainer. The "core business" of government is the economy, and the president is the CEO. In no business would you find administrative costs absorbing 20-45 percent of the total value produced - shareholders would not stand for it.

Well, we are the shareholders of this "business," and it is silly we allow government to add such heavy costs to everything we buy domestically and everything we export overseas.

Shorter work time is, first, a policy aimed at reducing the heavy burden we all bear resulting from the vast expansion of government - a burden experienced each time we try to make a purchase or compete with low wage producers. (Who should be our customers, not our suppliers.)

I don't imagine Obama will realize this; there is just too much "noise" in the system from mainstream economists, pundits, soothsayers, and ossorted special interests.

If the only legacy this guy leaves is being the first black president, he will miss a much an opportunity here to elevate himself to the likes of Lincoln and FDR. (And, in his own way, Reagan - who identified government as the problem.)

Anonymous said...

@E. Gandy:

That blog isn't about "white culture." It's about something like Progressive Yuppie White Culture. There is no such thing as purely white culture. Every culture shared by SOME white people is a type of white culture. It has an adjective in front of it.

Here's a better, more insightful blog than the one you mentioned; its writer often deals with this lack of a purely white culture:

Stuff White People Do