A Philosopher Looks at Work in Our Modern World

Yves here. KLG returns to the work of Raymond Geuss, which KLG covered last year in a review of Not Thinking Like a Liberal. Here Geuss, and KLG, both of whom came from working class backgrounds, ponder what work might amount to as broader economies look likely to face substantial relocalization, whether they embrace it or not. It does seem helpful and timely to approach this topic with some rigor. Having said that, talking to my inner toddler, I am not sure I buy the definition that good work serves the common good. How does making my bed daily serve the common good? More seriously, how much of the definition of good work is tied up with bourgeois norms?

I know this may sound petty, but a lot of impetus behind the women’s liberation movement was based on the anomie married middle class women felt being relegated to housework and [not sufficiently esteemed] childrearing. But women had to get married because the labor market didn’t offer jobs to them that would allow them enough independence. Even now, employed women still lack the economic leverage and perceived rights to typically get their husband to do his share of house and child care duties.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

Work, jobs, making a living, right livelihood.  In this so-called modern world of Late Neoliberal Capitalism, there is no dearth of books and essays on what we (all of us) do for a living and how to navigate our political economy, especially in an era of forcible precarity.  In fact, this flood can be overwhelming, at times comprising much nonsense.  Thus, a good, readable treatment of work as a philosophical topic is much to be desired.  In A Philosopher Looks at Work [1] by Raymond Geuss, we have that book.  The author’s Not Thinking Like a Liberal was discussed here previously.  In my view, both works have benefitted from Professor Geuss’s thoroughly working-class origins.  An academic in any discipline whose father was a locomotive mechanic in a steel mill in Pennsylvania, especially a professor who worked at times during his college years in the same unionized environment, is very rare in my long experience (which includes similar work in a heavy chemical plant with a strong local and international union).

Raymond Geuss knows the world of work at all levels, and as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge, he is well positioned to treat the topic with the seriousness it requires.  He does this in four focused chapters that repay close study:

  • Chapter 1: What is Work?
  • Chapter 2: The Organization of Work.
  • Chapter 3. The Anthropology and Economics of Work.
  • Chapter 4. Radical Discontent and the Future of Work.

In what follows I will summarize his philosophical bases of work and then consider where we are and where we should go from here.

Work, we know it when we see it and, just as importantly, when we don’t see it.  By definition, work is a process that:

  • requires expenditure of energy and is strenuous: the product is not produced effortlessly or by magic, but by human exertion
  • is a necessity of life
  • has an external produced product that can be measured and evaluated independently

And in the industrial world, work is:

  • a distinct and almost self-contained activity, and thus (is) most appropriately conducted in its own space, a factory or garage, or mill (or eventually office) in order that it not be confused with anything else.

And due to the industrial nature of work, which would include office work that has accompanied the deindustrialization of North America and Europe, work is:

  • almost invariably distinct from what one might do for fun, for pleasure, or as a joke. It is paradigmatically serious.

Physical work is most often thought of as “work.”  It closely approaches the formal definition: “Work in physics is the measure of energy transfer that occurs when an object is moved over a distance by an external force at least part of which is applied in the direction of the displacement.”  The common problem with academics and especially the PMC in general is that too many of them have never had to “work for a living,” either moving things around or directly serving their fellow citizens.

Work is a necessity, both individual and social: “What we attribute to people is the need to lead a life which satisfies at least the minimal conditions of what they take to be a human life, where that is culturally defined; sometimes this is called a ‘decent’ life…and what counts as an acceptable decent life is (culturally determined) and (has) varied enormously through time and in different places.”  A social system that does not include meaningful work, i.e., work that is productive and useful, will collapse in on itself.  Work has an objective product, in the form of a good or a service.  Goods and services sometimes overlap but they are real and essential.

In the modern world, work is organized as jobs, careers, and professions, sometimes in succession for an individual.  While work is often thought of in physical as well as moral terms, it is also a social construct.  Work and employment are not the same thing.  A lot of work is done that is not considered employment, such as in the home or work done by volunteers.  Most importantly for the coming world that will get smaller of necessity, there are other ways of organizing work than the current industrial model.  This reorganization will be essential in the near future.

Which brings us to the anthropology and economics of work.  What makes people want to work?  What makes people who would rather shirk?  People will work because they are coerced or incentivized, but with diminishing returns.  What social, political economic, and cultural characteristics are best at facilitating the good work that must be done?  These have varied with time and place through history, and while we will probably not return to hunter-gatherer or pastoral modes, agriculture, properly practiced, and craft production for the people are likely to become more important in the coming world.  The sooner we realize this, the better.  The late, great anarchist anthropologist David Graeber was a leader in this anthropological approach to work in society and culture.

Discontent with the world of work is a given in our Late Neoliberal World.  A point made, most often on the notional Left, is why don’t we just “abolish” work?  The more intelligent and sensible question is, “How can work be transformed into something good?”

What is good and productive, useful and meaningful work?  As with science, good work serves the common good.  All other work is dispensable.  This good work includes construction of the built environment and production of the artifacts that make human life possible and rewarding.  This work includes the services necessary for that life.  We all know this at a fundamental level, but the disorganization and purposeful obfuscation inherent in our political economy hide it well.  It goes without saying that the most important and fundamental jobs are not paid in proportion to their worth: caregivers, cleaners; those who work in trades such as carpentry and plumbing; electricians and roofers; dockworkers and deck workers and truck drivers; railroad engineers, brakemen, and conductors.  Their recognition and often their pay may be insufficient, but their essential nature is never totally forgotten by those who believe they coast above it all.  Especially in an emergency.

[Digression: If Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has his way, the latter two jobs on the railroad will disappear if they have not already.  I worked with railroaders just after graduating from high school and it is hard to keep up, but it took more than one to operate a train safely.  The several railroads in the US and the Department of Transportation seem to think that a mile-long freight train needs only the person who “drives” the train.  No.  And the one thing I have never understood is the description of these laboring jobs as “unskilled.”  They are nothing of the sort.  I have worked in the “labor gang” in a heavy chemical plant at the lowest end of the wage scale.  It takes considerable skill and ability to work at any level in heavy industry without hurting yourself or others, or much worse.  I was taught well and learned much from the men (women were hired a few years later to work in production and maintenance) in that plant, now long defunct and currently a Superfund site (another lamentable but common story).  I will also add that in the mid-1970s I was paid well as that young laborer: ~$49,000 a year (~$23.54 per hour) in current dollars, not including substantial but optional overtime at “time-and-a-half, double on holidays,” while on a regular and guaranteed schedule.  This, as a high school graduate, which was the only absolute requirement for employment.  Although we were all just skilled laborers in that plant, very few were noticeably alienated from their work.  Most were proud to be producing chemicals that were essential in industrial applications.  And the transnational chemical company whose name was on One Times Square at that time?  It was profitable despite outrageous labor costs that had the highest paid (hourly, union) Relief Operator making more than $180,000 a year in current dollars.  The CEO also undoubtedly knew he was wealthy.  End Digression]

It is not only those with “mere” jobs who remain unrecognized, unrewarded, and often poorly paid.  This includes people with what may be called careers and/or professions.  Although not addressed explicitly in A Philosopher Looks at Work, this is kept hidden within the Neoliberal mantra “Do what you love!”  This is more properly described as “You will get very little from us and you will like it, because your job is your life (no matter that it will also consume you).”  See, for example, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary and his subsequent Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World.  The message here also applies to those of us who have had the privilege of pursuing our vocation, or calling, a concept with a theological connotation that goes back to the premodern world.  This includes innumerable teachers, nurses, social workers, scientists, architects, psychologists, and not a few physicians, pastors, priests, and professors.

From the individual and social perspectives, why work?  Because we must, but there is much more than this.  Work gives meaning to our lives, when properly required and pursued.  But following Jon Elster, whose work in this vein is largely consonant with A Philosopher Looks at Work, work has been corrupted in capitalism by the following: (1) the best life for the individual is one of consumption, (2) consumption is valued because it promotes happiness, (3) but there are limits to who gets what, (4) what gets produced is limited by what can be produced at a private profit, and (5) who gets what depends on how much money they have.  Elster argues to the contrary that “the good life is one of active self-realisation rather than passive consumption.” [2]  He is correct.  Moreover, humans are animals.  To remain healthy, we must be active.  On the other hand, the powers that be would prefer we continue Amusing Ourselves to Death.  The PTB are winning.

Work is also and most importantly a matter of solidarity.  This ethos goes back to the premodern world.  Solidarity has been largely destroyed by the paths taken as a naked Liberalism attendant to the Enlightenment has become our regnant political philosophy (both liberal and conservative).  Elevation of the individual above society is taken to be the root of all current political and economic evil by “Post-liberals” such as Patrick J. Deneen.  As much as I heartily support his excoriation of Liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future (2023), it is not only Liberalism that has destroyed the solidarity that makes a truly human life possible.  There were many choices taken along the way to the present that have little to do with Liberalism, and a postliberal future that is grounded in conservative Christianity instead of a legitimate social democracy, at the very least, is problematic.  Michael Walzer considers these cultural critics in the current issue of the journal Liberties (paywall).

This brings us to work in the coming world if our discontent is to diminish.  There will be no technological fix for scarcity in a full world or global warming as the inevitable consequence of the Industrial Revolution, contrary to the wishful thinking of the occasional apostate from the Chicago School, Deirdre McCloskey, who stated during an entertaining and enlightening roundtable discussion of Liberalism in Harper’s last year, “Global warming is already on the way to being solved by technological innovation, by the very capitalism that you (Patrick Deneen) think is so bad.” Actually, not so much.  Our only real hope, which leaves no room for optimism, is for the economy to approach a steady state as described in the life’s work of Herman Daly.  The solution is most certainly not to preen while tooling around in a Tesla.  Much more is required of us.

Work as we have known it, for example during the Great Compression in the thirty years after World War II, cannot reappear but there is still much to be done.  From the conclusion of A Philosopher Looks at Work:

One thing we have to learn is how to be meaningfully active while producing and consuming less, and while freeing ourselves from the pathologies of infinite growth and the ever-increasing development of human productive powers (impossible in a finite ecosphere).  The elements that came together to make up the traditional conception of work – the idea that most of the population will be engaged in the strenuous production of necessities organised into a series of jobs – have now separated, dissociated themselves from each other, and dispersed, and many of them have changed so much that they are scarcely recognisable at all.  Where we go now, if we survive long enough to be said to ‘go’ anywhere, is anybody’s guess.

We do not have to guess.  As the world necessarily gets smaller (if we do not blow it up first, which is a pressing and frightening question this very day), The Idea of a Local Economy becomes more believable.  Can we depend only on our local economies?  No.  We must rebuild our infrastructure (e.g., buses, trams, light rail, and passenger trains) so that the Tesla is not viewed as the entirely false solution of our distress.  The age of the Global Standard Consumersupported by Global Standard Industry and its adjunct Global Standard Industrial Agriculture is coming to an end, no matter what science and technology “think” about our predicament.  In living and acting locally we can begin to heal what has been ruined by thinking globally.  Yes, some unavoidable drudgery will be required, but as noted in A Philosopher Looks at Work “drudgery” is just another word for work that must be done, by each one of us doing his or her part.

Any serious analysis of work as an individual and cultural necessity must address how to make work more humane.  Raymond Geuss does this well from the philosophical perspective.  And in this he echoes the work of others, mostly forgotten.  Fifty years ago, the nature of work in late capitalism was described by Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.  Braverman worked variously as a coppersmith, pipefitter, and structural steel fitter before becoming Director of Monthly Review Press.  He knew work, just as does Professor Raymond Geuss.  Much earlier, John Crowe Ransom wrote in the Statement of Principles of I’ll Take My Stand [3] that labor saving devices don’t save labor so much as evict laborers from their land and their place in society.  Where have we read and heard this before?  Ransom also wrote that “it is a modest demand that work partake of happiness.”

Indeed, alienation is the most salient characteristic of work in the modern world.  The artist and intentional homesteader Harlan Hubbard often said, “What we need is at hand.”  No, we cannot and should not expect to live in Payne Hollowas he and Anna Eikenhout did.  However, we can begin to pay attention, while using properly what we have at hand to do good work for the common good, where we live.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in his lesson for all people in all times, few are guilty but all are responsible.  There is enough to go around for everyone.  But time is short.


[1] A Philosopher Looks at Work is part of a series in which philosophers write about Sport, Science, The Religious Life, Architecture, Digital Communications, and Human Beings.  I have read Science and Human Beings in addition to Work.  So far, the series has been very much worth the time, easily ordered from Blackwell’s if not available in your local bookstore.

[2] Jon Elster, “Self-realisation in work and politics: The Marxist conception of the good life.”  Reprinted in Alternatives to Capitalism, Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Cambridge, 1989.

[3] I’ll Take My Stand (1930) has been as willfully misunderstood as The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) and for the same reason by the same kind of people (rightfully called the Professional Managerial Class these days, or Caste as it has been aptly renamed by the NC commentariat). I’ll Take My Stand was followed in 1936 by Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence.  Remarkably congruent themes run through this work during the past 90+ years.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Something that should be mentioned is that in our society, your work is actually a large part of your identity. When two people meet for a conversation, how long is it before you hear one ask ‘So what do you do for a living?’ And people will treat you differently based on your answer. The type of work people do implies not only their class but would also infer their actual income. That is why for men, when their workplace closes down or they are made redundant, that it can be a devastating blow as part of their identity has now also disappeared.

  2. Goingnowhereslowly

    Thanks for this, Yves. There is much of value here.

    Incidentally, decades ago I made my bed every day as an important ritual of creating a bit of order in my world. I no longer do so, because it just doesn’t seem important to me anymore (and I have a cat who interferes). But I do cook for myself and my husband almost every day, and I think that is essential to keeping us both healthy and happy. My husband doesn’t cook, but he does do the dishes and restore order to the kitchen after I’ve blown through it. This is also important work and he finds it more satisfying than his day job, which is cleaning up and preparing for publication the mangled texts of economists.

  3. carolina concerned

    This article impresses me as being a stereotypical perspective on a stereotypical description of the world of work, a common problem with the social sciences. I had a hard time envisioning workers such as artist, organized crime professionals, care givers for the handicapped for example, and the non-employed or home owners who are maintaining their own lives and/or families, while reading. The world of work and the general social world to be studied by the social sciences are kaleidoscopic worlds and need to be addressed as such.

  4. Lefty Godot

    People don’t want to work. Meaning just work for the sake of work. People (most of them) want to contribute something to their community, which implies they want to have a community, and they want to be rewarded for their contribution by support from the community: praise, security, material goods or tokens to acquire them, camaraderie, a sense of being valued, assistance with their own chores, etc. Our species did not develop to be a bunch of lone wolves, with a few outliers in every generation, perhaps. And those who struck out on their own had to work anyway, just to stay alive, and just without assistance and without the give and take that being part of a community involves.

    People in particular don’t want to spend most of their waking hours working, preparing for working, commuting to work, and recovering from working. Some people will want regular hours that offer them a life with predictability and routine. Other people want to work like the dickens and then goof off for a extended period. In neither case do they want to be consumed by their work and have to struggle to find time for fun and socializing outside of it. In premodern societies both sorts of people could usually be accommodated.

    In the modern “on the clock” factory or office job, only the regular people are easily fit, and even they have regular hours that eat away at all other time in their waking hours. Because that lets business owners extract more profit (in theory) and because it takes away from time when workers could be organizing and engaging in communal efforts that might be anatagonistic to the desires of the owner and investor classes. What people especially don’t like is having to dedicate almost all their waking hours to a “job” that is meaningless, contributes nothing to their community, produces no valuable goods or services, does not enhance (and often degrades) their personal status, offers no sense of shared purpose and accomplishment, and sometimes even causes active harms in the world.

    One of the biggest failings of the labor movement was not continuing to push for a reduction in hours worked without overtime. We should have been on a 30 hour work week by now to ensure the benefits of enhanced “productivity” were spread around more evenly. And rather than raising the retirement age like all the right-wingers want to do for Social Security and Medicare, the retirement age should probably be no higher than 58-59 by now. Not that this would stop many people from working beyond that, but it would take immense pressure off those whose work has worn them down to almost the point of “life sickness”.

    1. Es s Ce tera

      I disagree with your premise, I do think people want to work for the sale of work. It’s an important part of inclusion and participation in society. Some with disabilities, for example, might look upon the masses commuting with very real jealousy and sense of helplessness or resignation. I don’t think I would analyze it as making a contribution to community since most jobs are BS jobs the world can do without. I think participation in the workforce, for the sake of participating in society, provides self-worth and is a reason people do BS jobs.

      But I think society will necessarily need to transition away from this as future generations will be largely unemployed. We’ll need to find dignity and worth in not working.

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        when my right hip died and i had to quit working…it removed all of my social status…as well as a good chunk of my self identification.
        by the tme i got a hip replacement, almost 7 years later, i was unemployable(and the rest of my bones were frelled by then from compensating for the dead hip)…all that started 18 years ago.
        and now that i really need to meet people(ie: wimmens)…i have no idea how, save for a job…but i’m still unemployable= especially in the winter months, i cannot promise you that i’ll be worth shooting tomorrow.
        (i work…a lot, of course, as i chronicle in these comments…but i cant plan ahead very far as to what im capable of doing…say…next tuesday.)
        so i toil away at the Plan for this place…because at least with the infrastructure i have the means of production…and can potentially do all kinds of things for a little $, and on my own time.(ie: i can take 3 days off if i need to)

        to be sure, i do not miss working for others…or the idiotic busywork that often entails.
        i like the work i do out here, but there’s as yet very little money in it…and very little opportunity for social interaction…which also means that whatever limited social skills i used to have have atrophied.
        our society is structured around working at a job…and unless you have a church or something(i do not)…or are independently wealthy enough to go hang around where people are(i am not,lol)…you may as well get used to isolation.

        1. Bleeding Heart

          > … i really need to meet people(ie: wimmens) …
          > … whatever limited social skills i used to have have atrophied.

          I hear ya, brother. My first, retrospectively nightmare, marriage was five years but then I found the love of my life and we had 40 happy years together. Now it’s two years since she passed and … while I’m in my early 70s, I’m still a healthy man and … I miss female companionship. Dating? What’s that, at my age? Online match-maker services? I’d be willing to try, but … the percentages are so ineluctably weighted against one, aren’t they?

          I’m almost tempted to move to Florida or somewhere where you find a high preponderance of widows. Romantic that I am, I’d like to think that I’d have a greater chance of meeting the right-one-for-now at a bus stop than at a Senior Mixer of some sort. But what was that line from the ’60s? ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with’.

      2. podcastkid

        I like your point, Carolina Concerned’s point, and Mark G’s point [haven’t gone farther; that’s enough to work with for right now].

        The opportunity Mark had has been nixed due to the job exporters. This makes me think of what Alfred McCoy wrote, if yall read it. A new world we maybe can make around 2050, when China stops exporting due to climate. Maybe we can repair things and do gardens.

        Your point is very valid in that academics really didn’t have to do the care giving during covid (though I think KLG can relate pretty well). Something must change so that work can HELP humans when these bugs we’ve created whoop up on us. It’s almost as stupid as genocide to have people doing BS jobs when a threat like that is coming down on us.

        I think participation in the workforce, for the sake of participating in society, provides self-worth and is a reason people do BS jobs.

        That seems to me a goodly half true, OTOH there’s a lot of mental anguish that comes with BS jobs.

        With Carolina Concerned’s argument I have to bring in this Payne Hollow thing. Firstly, whether they think they don’t want to or not, people really want to work due to job archetypes [Es s Ce tera’s self worth concept]. We’ve done it as long as our species has been around. But, as far as some won’t make it to Payne Hollow, I dunno. Vacations should come into the picture; too bad it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get the fast trains. They would have been a decent goal in the past, but now there’s so much REPAIR to be done, including on people, that if we do right I don’t think we’ll have the extra time to get there. I don’t think we should give up on light rail. With light rail and buses we should be able to get outta town. I think China’s seen the light on this, and of course they have the trains. It’s inspiring now that they’ve created a way to get away from it all. People worked their butts off over there, though, for China to get to where it is now; and sadly I don’t think the karma from that’ll be totally wonderful. Because the whole paradigm augments competition, and before you know it you have other un-innovative hegemonies wanting to break through the Great Wall and do a coup. It’s not totally that they should have seen it and eased up. It’s also that we touted our model so much they were actually convinced it was the thing to sweat blood to achieve.

      3. Paris

        Yes. Two goals for me: work allows me to socialize with other people and also allows me to pay my bills. I don’t do any meaningful work for the good of society, lol, I’m part of the PMC.

  5. Mark Gisleson

    Excellent read, thanks for sharing. Much as I hated the factory I worked for, those were almost the only jobs I’ve ever had that created worthwhile products. At the end of each shift I filled out a timecard to document my production.

    Nothing I have done since has been as meaningful or helpful. My longest running gig was writing resumes and letters, a job that absolutely would not need to exist in a well managed society with an adequate education system.

  6. Tom Pfotzer

    KLG, thanks for that excellent waterfront review of the role, value, and incipient redefinition of how to use work to meet our needs and achieve self-actualization. Great job.

    For the reasons you stated, and many more I advocate for a return to localized production, centered on the household and the immediate village and neighborhood.

    The problems we face as we evolve the economy toward localization are:

    a. We need to broader our skills base. To make “local” work, you have to be able to do a lot of different things, pretty well, that are outside the realm of the intellectual. There is a lot of local infrastructure to be built that doesn’t exist now

    b. The business models people are familiar with in today’s work world don’t translate all that well to the local construct; a lot of invention about organizational structure, team-building, deal-making, recruiting … all those things that “somebody else does” in the corporate world have to be done, by you and I, at the local level. We’re not currently all that good at it.

    c. Local will have to compete, on a price and quality basis, with highly evolved national and global supply chains. This implies a great deal of evolution – rapid evolution – of local entities.

    Allow me to illustrate point “C”. A few months ago, I sat among a group of people who are practitioners in farm animal welfare (AW) – they were farmers, branding program managers for animal welfare branding (set of stds the farmer has to adhere to in order to affix the AW brand to their package at the store) and several other roles in the AW space.

    I asked: “how much more will the customer pay to get food that conforms to the AW ethic?”

    Answer: “none”.

    I don’t necessarily agree with that answer, but it indicates that “local” has to become pretty much value-comparable (price .vs. what you get) with the Big Guys, or local won’t really work. People just won’t buy your stuff. This is a _big_ problem.

    The relevance of that story is this: to depart from the dehumanizing effects of the current work world is going to take a set of skills that we specialists don’t usually have. We don’t know (generally) what those skills are yet, and we certainly don’t have them yet (generally).

    “Local” can certainly address a lot of the problems that KLG set out above, and to achieve that goal, we need to re-discover and re-acquire skills we used to have, but have atrophied over the past few generations.

    1. Es s Ce tera

      Localization would certainly help us manage degrowth and would also make it easier to return to a pre-money/pre-finance civilization (eg pure debit/credit on trust, or perhaps even a gifting economy).

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Agreed. I think localization is absolutely crucial to achieving so-called “degrowth”.

        I say “so-called” because I think there’s going to need to be a whale of a lot of skills growth, facility-building (see below remarks to Bruce F), relationship-building, etc.

        A heck of a lot of growth at the individual and community level needs to be done to reconstitute all those things (tangible and intangible) that died off when we did the long-distance supply chain thing, which kicked off in a big way about the time the railroad network build-out starting in 1860s.

        If people think we’re going to just drift into this new local economy stuff, they’re going to be very disappointed. As Bruce F will tell you (below), this is not easy to do.

    2. Bruce F

      Hi Tom,
      I’m with you on the “localization” of many things, but this part (as a farmer) really bothered me.

      I asked: “how much more will the customer pay to get food that conforms to the AW ethic?”

      Answer: “none”.

      I run into this quite a bit as an organic producer. I’m often asked to do things for “free” to “compete” with the “market”. From my perspective everyone else is getting paid to tell me what to do, and I’m told to suck it up (the prices I receive are down 30-50% in the last year, while my input costs are going up). My response to people who are asking me to do this kind of work is “Are you working for free? (No) So why should I?”

      Stepping back a bit I know that there are all kind of externalities that larger enterprises can pass onto other people/entities/the environment. I don’t think you win anything by agreeing that this “value” is a real thing if you don’t account for all the things “they” don’t pay for when they sell cheaply.


      1. Tom Pfotzer


        I agree with all the points you made. This is a really important issue that needs further discussion.

        Let me state further that:

        a. Organic farming is way more expensive to do than traditional. It’s more work, takes more skill.

        b. Local producers, of any sort, are generally at a major scale disadvantage .vs. national or global producers. The big guys’ unit cost of production is usually way, way lower than that of the smaller, local producer

        So, when I make the point that consumers are reluctant to pay a significant price premium for “local” or “organic”, this is a _major_ problem.

        Why? Because it makes it really hard for the little guy to be in business long enough to develop the skills, acquire the tools, build the relationships, etc. necessary to somehow climb out of that scale-disadvantage hole.

        Up till now, the way local producers justify their price differential is “our product _does_ more. It’s nice to the environment. It provides local jobs. It’s healthier. It’s unique. It’s art, not commodity. Etc”

        What I’m saying is “that’s not enough, it’s not sustainable”. Even with those differentiators, we can’t charge enough to cover our (higher, because we’re small-scale) costs.

        That’s where the wheels (currently) tend to fall off the wagon. Customers aren’t generally willing to pay enough of a premium to offset the local producer’s (higher) costs.

        And that’s why I mentioned the need for “new organizational structures” and other forms of collaboration, cost-sharing, commons (like a warehouse-processing-retailing center, funded by the county, open to all county producers, located in some central area close to major road, etc.). This is the sort of facility that enables local producers to compete _way_ better .vs. the Bigs.

        If we’re actually going to “do” local in any major way, we’re going to need to figure out how to leverage “local” in order to overcome the major scale disadvantages that local (currently) implies. That facility I touched on above is just one of many new adapted-to-local business models and collaboration strategies we need to think more about.

        Hope that helps clarify some. And btw, this subject bothers me a lot, too. I have spent many years devising ways to address this core problem.

        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          as i said above, due to my disability history, i’m rather stuck on the path i started out on 30 years ago….building out the farm systems.
          almost 20 years ago, when i knew my right hip was dying, i doubled down on this…because, i reasoned, at least i’ll be able to feed Us(we havent bought any meat save bacon since like october…and i have various winter crops scattered around…as well as tomatoes and peppers in the small greenhouse).

          but back to the current issue: parity pricing vs market pricing…the latter means the very large get to dictate prices(while passing the blame to a diety(“The Market”)

          but also consider market access….numerous barriers to entry handed down from on high…either from government(state and federal…local is subject to them, or parrots their template)…or from those same very large entities.
          (see: milk cartels)
          to set up a frelling table in our one town, to sell produce(which is perfectly legal rn…unlike eggs or meat etc)…i have to shell out $, go beg the city gov for permission…and that permission is contingent on 1. having a tax id(even though produce is tax exempt), insurance(!),and 3 square yards of someone’s property in town to put that table, but that has to be in a place thats zoned commercial.
          so, if i have a surplus, i go essentially door to door…hit all the eateries, call up a bunch of teachers that are good prospects, and then drive around making deliveries.i dont even attempt to sell to the one grocery store…even tho i’m sort of friends with the manager. because the small, regional corpse that owns the place have systems in place that would require me to travel 300+ miles to houston to unload at the warehouse…and then follow their truck back here(this is a true story)…in addition to the vendor number(solid gold, apparently) and the requisite insurance($$$)…just not worth messing with.
          none of this is even contemplated in the texas lege,lol.
          (altho, to their credit, theyve loosened a lot of the regs to now allow the tamale ladies, jelly ladies and whatnot to operate legally)

          ergo, ive run on the theory that eventually, what i’m building out here(a working simple/complex farm system, with as few inputs as i can manage(including my labor(chickens are currently tearing up the 1/2 acre of raised beds on this side of the road))—-what i’m building will be useful/necessary when the wheels come off.
          in the meantime, it feeds me and mine(we eat better than anyone i know, including the local rich folks)…and i make a lil extra money, now and then(more and more frequently as time goes on).
          when the wheels come off, i can still produce…and anticipate hiring a militia of all the kids who have worked for me, no less…for the chaos/burning times.
          but beyond that…after the chaos, ive got the seed bank and stock for cuttings(fruit and nut, etc)…to build out local food production. i also have a lot of accumulated knowledge that would be useful in that situation.

          so there it is…ive come out,lol…collapse is my business plan.
          otherwise…if the empire somehow survives, i’m just a subsistence black market yeoman farmer guy…with a few arts and crafts tossed in.

          1. Tom Pfotzer

            Amfortas – not sure if your town has a farmer’s market assn. The one in my area buys a blanket insurance policy, spreads the cost over all members. (makes it very affordable!). Farmers’ markets bring a lot of customers to one place on a regular basis. It’s fairly efficient. Also, you could sell crafts, compost, chicken coops, heirloom seed…all manner of stuff @ same booth.

            Side benefit: lot of people come there that happen to share your values, incl. wimmen.


            Ya, you’ll still need a business license (so they can charge tax, let’s be clear about it) but it may be blood from a turnip time, and they can just lump it.

            Good place to socialize a little, too. Some (def not all) other farmers are some cool people. Already strayed pretty far afield of the comfortable lap of conformity.

            1. Amfortas the Hippie

              first openly gay couple in mason, texas have a winery…started wit a taqueria.
              they have a “farmers market”, but the city meddles….likely to protect the one grocery’s monopoly.
              i attempted to start a farmers market with a nursery owner 25 years ago, ran into same problem.
              free market and competition, my shiny, white….
              thats just the brochure.

              1. Lee

                There is also the food conspiracy model. But this multiple providers and customers to make it go. The network in the SF bay area involved thousands requiring high degree cooperative communication and coordination. It was all landline phones, and printed paper back then. It might actually be easier today.

                1. jonboinAR

                  From the article Lee linked to:
                  But the food-buying club model was very time-consuming and depended on volunteer labor. People grew weary of working so much to stock their kitchens. Activists felt that such buying clubs discriminated against full-time workers with kids, who may not have time to go to a buying meeting, run down to the produce terminal, or break down food orders. New models for “serving the people” were being looked at and discussed.

                  It seems some of the same problems have persisted. The economy of scale seems to have a powerful advantage in terms of time-efficiency, maybe in work in general. I don’t know. As long as we’re addicted as a society to having lots of stuff I fear we’re doomed to continue producing and transporting our stuff factory-style, or large-scale-economy-style. We may be locked into that also, by necessity, with the now size of our human population. I don’t know, but that has to be considered.

    3. Laura in So Cal

      Replying to Tom’s (a) point, so many people I know are one trick ponies and I think that the younger they are, the worse it is. My father is a true Renaissance man who can argue philosophy, fix a broken pipe, repair a washing machine, raise citrus trees, or design a flight control system (he is an engineer by trade). My husband is someone who is similar and can build a shed, fix a motor vehicle, and is a great storyteller. They are both in high demand helping their friends and neighbors, sometimes for guidance and advice, sometimes for actual physical help. So many people know their trade plus the basics of living, but have no other practical skills and what is worse, no desire to learn them. We have one friend who didn’t know how to get the hood of his car open. I get so impatient with people who use the internet for fun, but can’t be bothered to use it to figure out stuff for practical purposes. I also see a lot of ways that advertising/propoganda is used to make things seem super difficult, so that people will pay someone to do it for them. Suddenly, planning and shopping for meals is so difficult that we need to buy subscription boxes of pre measured and prepared foods ($$), taxes are so hard you need to pay someone to do them for you (which for most people isn’t true), etc.

      Sorry..a little bit of a rant, I guess.

  7. zach

    “It takes considerable skill and ability to work at any level in heavy industry without hurting yourself or others, or much worse.”

    Perhaps it’s been said, but there are no un-skilled jobs at the “menial” end of the employment spectrum, though perhaps “talent” isn’t as highly regarded. I would argue that the inverse is true as you travel higher up the employment ladder.

    Although I detest broad stroke descriptors, the “PMC,” who rarely have either talent or skill in any abundance (aside from obsequiousness), make up the mediocre middle of this spectrum.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      when i was a kid, in the 70’s and early 80’s, my grandad had a “small” sheetmetal and pipefitting shop(small…relative term…shop floor was maybe 400′ x 200′, and we did bigger stuff in the yard, renting cranes and whatnot)
      his business catered to very large corpse, mostly…we helped build the annheiser busch(sp-2) brewery on the east side of houston…bunch of refinery and can plant and plastic injection(sodabottles) factories…etc.
      so every now and again, he’d be expected to bring the family to a “bbq” at some fancy house, with manicured park like lawns, staff, and greek collumns.
      i was dragged along, as a wristwatch…along with brother and cousins.
      once the meal was done, and the scotch came forth, us kids would be shooed away to hang with the rich bastid’s kids.
      i have yet to meet, to this day, a more useless class of humans.
      i knew some of these kids until maybe 10 or 15 years ago…at least at a remove(faceborg)…they remain rather useless….and often destructive individuals…except that they are largely in charge of stuff…often big stuff(2 of them are billionaires, in derivatives and such…many of them are millionaires…
      all well and good,lol..good for them.
      but could they butcher a goat if they were hungry?…cultivate even greens?
      split wood?
      or any of a million things that i learned how to do to further my survival…as well as my comfort.
      i cant push a piece of paper across a table without wrinkling and smudging it….but i know i can spend the winter in a suitable cave, if need be….and live off the land pretty well, too…with the tools and skills ive accumulated.

      so that gets me around to an actual point,lol:
      our system of Value Judgements is frelled.
      the guy who digs the ditch i need dug is far, far more valuable to me than the fella who runs my bank(altho i like my banker, and consider him more than an acquaintance)
      and yet, i couldnt afford to pay the ditch digger the banker’s hourly rate.
      and the banker hold higher esteem literally everywhere in society, than the lowly ditchdigger.
      this…like all things economic…is tacitly attributed to the capricious whims of some diety(Market…holy…holy)…rather than an artifact of our value systems.
      which are human creations, however diffuse the creationing may be.

      1. zach

        I make no assumptions as to your whereabouts, but hourly ditch diggers in my immediate vicinity can fetch $25-$35/hr USD.

        The self-employed ditch diggers, fully equipped with truck trailer and mini- porta- steam shovel, charge upwards of $100/hr.

        My local credit union hires tellers at $16.50/hr.


  8. Alice X

    I didn’t want to work, I just wanted to play my fiddle. The great sky fairy gave me the passion, but not the talent to be great. Still, I worked at it. Work that benefits the community can also come as work that benefits the self, so long as it gives and does not take from the community.

    1. JEHR

      Like you, Alice, I only worked at what I had a passion for. So, first I worked as a teacher, then I joined the military, then I got married. My next job was to complete my University degree(s), then I raised my children and did supply teaching. Next, I went to Art School and learned how to paint and painted/sketched for about twelve years before retiring at about 80 years old. It was a great way to learn a number of skills and I enjoyed living at the same time.

    2. Lee

      “The great sky fairy gave me the passion, but not the talent to be great. ”

      For you the fiddle and for me the pen. I have a fair sized store of bad writing boxed up. I often consider revisiting my earlier scribblings to see if I could improve them but somehow never get round to it. As for working for pay, I was always happier doing physically demanding, at times dangerous jobs. With age came the pains of physical wear and tear so I went from blue collar to white collar jobs where I got paid considerably more for doing less of what I would call real work. I was in my final days of paid work like Willy Loman: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . .” But unlike Willy I decided to stick around to see my kids grow up and have kids of their own. I do miss the sweaty, muscle-testing grapple with obdurate physical matter. Now the kids do the heavy work.

  9. CanCyn

    Thanks KLG. Always enjoy your essays. I have added Prof Geuss to my reading list. As someone who retired early because I could no longer find my way in the neoliberal mess that colleges and libraries had become (I was a community college librarian), I still puzzle on how to fix the world of work. I do think that people want to do useful work. And I think they want to be fairly compensated. The solution is simple on the surface (better pay and benefits for all being the first step) but oh so difficult to implement at this point in late stage (one hopes) neoliberal capitalism. As a kid in the 70s, my Mom stayed home, my Dad worked in construction. And yet we had no problem affording to shop at a grocery store that had full-time unionized employees with benefits and pension plans. Too many think that’s no longer possible, but it is, more in theory these days I suppose.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      were i king for a day, i’d nationalise Big Ag, outlaw such large conglomerations, and give away all their stuff to those who want to be small farmers.
      localise every aspect of ag as is possible(regional trade is necessary)
      and divert all those billions sucked up by cargill, et alia to the little guy to get things moving.
      it would be a major shock to the consumer…and wall street, surely,lol…but oh well…we’re talking my fiat, here.
      with mechanisms/flows like the multiplier effect, this would soon invigorate local economies…especially in the hinterlands, undoing the decline and doldrums of the past 50 years.
      then i’d return to my plow the next day.

      1. Paris

        Sure way to go hungry is to leave big ag for the govvies lol. As far as I know, it didn’t work in any part of the globe. Like Cuba, Soviet Union, and all those awfully nice places.

  10. Randall Flagg

    Thanks so much for this post.
    Reading it and the comments I could not help but think of Mike Rowe, host of the show’Dirty Jobs”. A show highlighting the jobs and workers that quite often go unappreciated in our country. It’s kind of corny but at it’s heart a love story to the tradespeople that keep things going in the background of society


    >What is good and productive, useful and meaningful work? As with science, good work serves the common good. All other work is dispensable. This good work includes construction of the built environment and production of the artifacts that make human life possible and rewarding. This work includes the services necessary for that life. We all know this at a fundamental level, but the disorganization and purposeful obfuscation inherent in our political economy hide it well. It goes without saying that the most important and fundamental jobs are not paid in proportion to their worth: caregivers, cleaners; those who work in trades such as carpentry and plumbing; electricians and roofers; dockworkers and deck workers and truck drivers; railroad engineers, brakemen, and conductors. Their recognition and often their pay may be insufficient, but their essential nature is never totally forgotten by those who believe they coast above it all. Especially in an emergency.

    This paragraph struck home with me. After growing up on farms ( the lessons learned about life, animals and work on an almost daily basis!), and then having a career in the construction field after high school, starting as a laborer up to having hung out my own shingle, it was pretty easy to figure out those in society that looked down on those jobs, ironically mostly those folks with the biggest BS jobs themselves.
    I now get a kick out of being able to take a few days and drive around going past all the projects I have done, simple sheds right up to houses, smiling remembering the great relationships made with owners, tradespeople, architects, how have the projects held up after all these years, knowing they were happy and had improved loves from the work I and my crews had done.

    And farming… Yes the whole system is a mess top to bottom, subsidizing industrial Ag, a system that is only a few catastrophes away from bringing gridlock and hunger to many. The need for diversifying the food system to make it as local as possible for resiliency everywhere is imperative.

    Not pertinent to this discussion, I could not be more proud that my Daughter is a farmer, stressful? Yes. Never will get rich if money is your criteria but her farm is certainly appreciated by the area she lives in by all who get their meats and milk from her and it’s rewarding beyond words.
    Thanks again for this post that us little people can relate to.

    1. Lee

      Kudos for your fine comment, and for those of others as well.

      For whatever strange reason, what has been brought to mind is a poem by Carl Sandburg.

      The Muckers

      TWENTY men stand watching the muckers.
      Stabbing the sides of the ditch
      Where clay gleams yellow,
      Driving the blades of their shovels
      Deeper and deeper for the new gas mains
      Wiping sweat off their faces
      With red bandanas
      The muckers work on . . pausing . . to pull
      Their boots out of suckholes where they slosh.

      Of the twenty looking on
      Ten murmer, “O, its a hell of a job,”
      Ten others, “Jesus, I wish I had the job.”

      From Chicago Poems (1916)

    2. CA

      As with science, good work serves the common good. All other work is dispensable. This good work includes construction of the built environment and production of the artifacts…

      [ Really nice comment. ]

  11. GlassHammer

    We are going to do that thing again where we talk about “work” without talking about “mastery” aren’t we….

    Is “mastery” not a thing now?

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Pray tell more – I’m intrigued. What about mastery, and what role does it play in this work context?

      1. GlassHammer

        Okay, the simplest explanation for why we work is a split of inner rewards driven by mastery and external reward driven by compensation. Barring loss of capacity (injury mental or physical) mastery and internal rewards are the that which we have the most control over and that which sustains us in the long run because compensation isn’t guaranteed in either its bounty or frequency.

        Mastery is a crucial part of why we work especially for professions that don’t have scalable labor (or earn rents and other forms of passive income) which keeps their compensation rather low and infrequent.

        Even if you add responsibility into the mix (earning for your family, community, etc…) and they compel more external rewards at some point everyone hits a compensation ceiling (the scalability problem of professions) and they have to make their piece with that. When that happens mastery becomes the answer of why you persists because now you know the external rewards are set regardless of how they match to your responsibilities.

        So yeah I expect any deep dive into work to speak to mastery.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          On the possibility you’ll circle back to see this … I say “Thanks for that. ”

          It resonates with me because what I do doesn’t pay, but it needs to get done, and it’s hard, so mastery is crucial (given the resource constraints). There’s also the love of quality that some, maybe many have. That’s why it’s such fun to do a good job, and admire it from time to time.

          This is inner drive delivering outwards, not external-in rewards feeding internal effort.

          So, seems like we’re on the same page.

          1. GlassHammer

            I appreciate the “Thanks”.

            Because I work in the midpoint of blue collar and white collar worlds (each of which is hard at work fighting the Mastery of the other) I find myself needing to frame and explain things in terms of Mastery more and more lately to various parties. They quite literally forget that others have Mastery in their profession too and they need to be reminded.

    2. dave -- just dave

      I’d like to add a note about work in the physical sense. The discussion here has been about work as done by people – and of course that’s important. But in general we don’t realize how much work is being done by fossil fuels, and how when the carbon pulse is used up how much work will have to find other sources of energy, or not get done: the plowing and harvesting and fertilizing, the mining, the building, the supply of water and processing of sewage, the manufacture of goods, the moving of things and people and information across town and across the globe…

      As Nate Hagens of The Great Simplification says, “Machinery without energy is sculpture. A city without energy is a museum. A body without energy is a corpse.” Hagens has coined the term “energy blind” – see his six minute video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T19tHn_LA80

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