Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Sanuk is not a four-letter word....


I've been wanting to address this particular topic for a while but wasn't quite sure how to do it. Most people who read here are fairly tolerant of my being an open cultural dissident but I haven't previously gored too many sacred cows.

The supposed "work ethic" is one I've wanted to gore for a long time. Each time I've started to do so, the post gets far too long because these things develop historically. Then they are shaped socially. They don't come out of a vacuum. The posts ended up reading like a sociology white paper and that isn't what I want to do here. At the same time, it is worthy to examine this because it is hurting families and communities.

So.. briefly, here's the history:

Most societies prior to The Reformation didn't have a work ethic - which isn't to say they didn't work. They worked to get the food and goods they needed to live. Sometimes they worked three days in a week, sometimes four days, sometimes seven. Once their basic needs were satisfied, they spent their time doing other things that mattered to them. They spent time with their families or engaged in community activities.

In order for capitalism to thrive, that way of life needed to end. Protestant religious leaders such as Calvin and Luther made work a calling. It was considered a way of serving God. The more you did, the more God would favor you. So creating profit became a virtue.

The more money someone made, the more he or she would be considered as receiving favor from God. In other words, God likes rich folks better than poor folks. (This is where prosperity theology which I mentioned yesterday originated.)

Since societies are generally more secular now, there isn't quite the same emphasis on working for God. Instead, it is considered a sign of "good character" and "success" is defined by the amount of money one has and the power he or she exerts over other people. This idea is consistently pushed by business people, religious leaders, corporations, politicians and teachers.

The social values that follow are that those who work hard must have good character. Those who are poor must have bad character because they are unable to work hard and take advantage of opportunities.

So that is the core of the legitimization of a whole status system as being based on individual effort rather than class or social structure.

The truth is that it is a complete myth.

For one thing, it assumes there is a "level playing field" and that everyone has the same access to education and opportunities. The truth is that most poor people don't "make it". Real wages are going down because of all the unnecessary work that is being done and most people are treadmilling their way through life without anything necessarily satisfying to show for it at the end. Fairness is also a myth. People can work hard all their lives and still be poor at the end.

Still the ideology, the values and the culture of the work ethic continues on. It doesn't continue by accident or through momentum. It is actively promoted.

Schools are, of course, the first place the indoctrination begins. Classes are fashioned after work places where children are taught to work hard, to show up on time and to do what their teachers tell them. They are a place where there are bosses (teachers) and workers, where time is structured and activities disciplined. There's been quite a bit of talk about the amount of homework children are required to do, getting them to work even when they are away from school and at home is part of pushing the work ethic. Creativity and talent are often sacrificed for this regimentation.

The most destructive means of promoting the work ethic is through the negative attitude toward people on welfare or disability. And this is something that goes on in all cultural media. The media love to denigrate the unemployed. Newspapers and television programs include stories about 'people on the dole' who don't want to work and who are just enjoying themselves at the taxpayers' expense. This is all part of the strategy of blaming unemployed people for their own situation, by saying 'Well it's because they don't want to work', rather than acknowledging that there isn't enough work for everyone.

That is not to mention unemployment income and disability income, both of which are notoriously low. Interestingly (or not), disability income is just a bit higher because it is perceived that those who are disabled are not at "fault" for their inability to work. On a personal note, I can tell you that I am now living on one quarter of what I earned when I was working. I worked in the Information Technology field making in the $40-50K a year range. I now live on less than $15K a year.

Honestly, it benefits employers to have the unemployed. It allows employers to set up a horrid system of competition where small groups of people must dogpile each other for one job opportunity. This system allows employers to keep wages low. Just in case people might find alternative lifestyles, manage to live on less income, not be desperate for work, and not provide an army of reserve labor competing for the jobs, the propaganda system plods on. Once welfare was introduced after the Second World War there has been a policy of making welfare as unattractive as possible: by not paying people very much, by always searching for those who might exploit the system, by having work tests, by stigmatizing the unemployed through the media, so that they don't have any self respect and feel worthless because the work ethic says that your worth is totally based on the work you do and your income.

There's not enough room left on my template to even bother talking about how consumerism perpetuates this whole cycle.

This is the point: With people living lives that are so dominated by their work, they don't have time to do the things that make people happy; spending time on relationships, with friends and family or pursuing their talents. Many people don't even have time to sleep well and their health suffers. Levels of stress are increasing, suicide is increasing as well as escalating levels of depression, and meanwhile it goes on, producing more and more in order to keep people in jobs, when all the extra production is only creating more and more unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

But very few get off the treadmill. No one wants to be unemployed because the unemployed are denigrated and the income so low. So, while at one point in history the work ethic may have been useful in raising living standards, it has run its course. We need to look for other, more humane, organizing principles for our societies.

We humans have lots of qualities other than the ones needed to work and make products. And those qualities have been far too long neglected.

~*

38 comments:

Molly said...

I can't remember the name of the book off the top of my head, but someone wrote about how our education system is not about educating us, but about providing drones for industry and menial jobs. My oldest son feels really strongly about it, as, being a very smart kid, he felt school was just a holding pen for youth, to keep them out of trouble. He's sending his children to an alternative school that he feels emphasises helping children to really achieve their potential, as human beings, as well as in the wider world. Just some random mumblings prompted by reading this very thoughtful post....

ThomasLB said...

"Money is God's way of saying, 'This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.'" ~J. Paul Getty

(And I have no doubt that he really believed that.)

Sober Briquette said...

Good timing with this post. It says something I needed to hear.

Every day, as the end of the day draws near, I start to get stressed out because I haven't done "things." I have a tendency to recite my accomplishments to my husband at the end of the day, even though he often says he doesn't need to keep tabs on me. But I do. I have so internalized this that it's making me nuts.

Today I am especially nervy, because my pushy, perfectionist mother is coming over to "help" me because I don't get enough done. She leaves after Christmas. I'm wondering if my dysthymia will improve then...

liv said...

So, so happy to be off the treadmill, honey. So happy.

QT said...

Interesting post Chani - altho I do have a small bone to pick. Unemployment insurance is a tax paid by employers and it is HELLA expensive ~ so I don't know that it benefits them (in a true sense) to have people unemployed.

riseoutofme said...

I must apologise for lurking around here for so long and not leaving any comments ... usually, it has all been said by the time I get here ... But not this time ..

I think society will continue in this self-destructing pattern until individuals make their own decisions about how much is enough. Human greed seems to greatly outweigh human compassion.
Its too easy to say "c'est la vie" with a shrug of the shoulders. We can't expect governments and policies to change if we are not prepared to get our own priorities sorted first.

Sorry for being so long-winded!

Blog Antagonist said...

GREAT topic, and I agree. Husband and I have made some conscious decisions in our lives to accodmodate our priorities in that regard. That means we have less stuff, but more time for family. It pays off.

PeterAtLarge said...

That's how it goes. And everybody knows... Old black Joe still pickin' cotton/for your ribbons and bows... Thanks, Chani, for this thoughtful piece.

Julie Pippert said...

You aren't going to get any argument at all from me. And intriguingly, Chris (the new guy, one of the Nov Blog Pledges) wrote about this today, too.

You probably read my rant a while back about the alleged virtue of workaholism and the unreasonable expectation of job loyalty (and time) first all for a paycheck that never seems to cover quite enough and costs a lot too.

So amen.

Julie
Using My Words

DMB said...

In Japan, the work ethnic is based on Confucianist theory which shaped the Bushido philosophy--otherwise known as the "Code of The Samurai".

This spirit lives on today. Japanese workers are liable to simply drop dead at work from overwork. TOTAL DEVOTION and SACRIFICE to the company is expected and given freely without thought--because of course, it is indoctrinated that work is important above all, for the soul, for one's character, for society, etc.

Japanese households are essentially single parent households with absenteee dads. (This doesn't seem to cause a ripple in society seeing as this is expected.)Sick days and vacation days are nearly unheard of--for various reasons.

People are not regarded as individual human beings, they are simply a part of the group, to which obedience and loyalty and sacrifice is expected at all times.

While I agree with you on your observations, you must pardon me if I've come to see America as sort of a Utopia (in THAT respect)compared to Japan! Americans seem absolutely self-indulgent and pleasure seeking compared to the Japanese--generally speaking!

slouching mom said...

Very cogently argued, Chani. IMO, there's not much to disagree with here!

Anvilcloud said...

Excellent post (he said from the cheering section). In a way, perhaps I do believe in the sacredness of work if work can be re-defined to mean "that which you are meant to do and enjoy doing."

SUEB0B said...

The system is getting better and better at producing Good Little Workers, too. Now we have pretty much eliminated that pesky childhood period, as kids are consumed with planned, imagination-killing activities from the time they can walk.

It used to be enough to have a house and enough to eat. Now you need a big house, a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops and a commercial range, designer clothes, brand-name everything...it is a sickness and it is quite difficult to cure.

The other day a co-worker said "I have friends that go to Europe and spend thousands on handbags." Even though I know it was mean and judgemental, I was unable to stop myself from snapping "Then they are stupid idiots."

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I loved Riseoutofme's comment, and I also agree with your well-reasoned argument for the humanization of those who have been required to become machines.

I have always known that when I am engaged in something I love to do, which gratifies my soul, I am capable of doing it without a break for hours and even days, and I do not consider it "work."

Work is what I have to do to pay the bills and to eat every day. The work ethic is seriously overrated in this country, and leaves a great emptiness in those parts of us that make us unique individuals.

It is disgraceful that those without huge amounts of money are so often looked down upon by those who have it, even in those instances where they didn't make it themselves but inherited it.

Money is not the root of all evil, but the misuse of it surely is, and believing that it elevates one soul above another is both misinformed and dangerous.

crazymumma said...

The almighty dollar. It brings such creature comfort and at what price?

mr mumma has been working dawn until almost bedtime for almost one month. And the kids have sort of forgotten about him. And that is sad.

I reminded him tonight, that many studies have shown that girls, in particular, make far better life decisions when they have a good father relationship.

They read alot together tonight. It made me happy.

Amy Y said...

Wow.
I don't even know where to begin...
Thank you for putting all this on paper (or out in blogland).

flutter said...

and if work is what makes you happy?

Liz said...

I do believe that work can be a form of worship. Doing something you love and contributing to the beauty of society is a wonderful thing. But overwork is probably some form of vanity or something. It's individualism and ego run wild.

Now that I'm working at home and getting to actually be around for my kids lives, I think I must have been on drugs to be working 80+ hours a week for YEARS! But no one else I worked with had kids and they were totally fine working all the time because they wanted to be the top dog at our office.

Wow, lots of thoughts on this, but I'll stop there.

Melissa said...

I have points of agreement and disagreement! First, neither Calvin nor Luther preached a doctrine of God only blessing hard working people, therefore valuing rich over poor. Both men were actually socially conscious individuals, and of course it is clearly stated in the Bible numerous times that the poor are seen as the greater of all, and that riches are worthless. But there are also many times in the Bible where the value of hard work is mentioned - but not for the purpose of acquiring money, but rather to honor and care for our families. There's a big difference!

The real problem is not the love of work, it is the love of money, and the love of things that money can buy for us. Americans and actually people all over the world are so obsessed with acquiring "things". Clothes or knick knacks or gadgets or cars or whatever, people need their "stuff". That's the issue! It's the love of stuff!

I totally agree we don't spend enough time on relationships etc. I hate that! I try to work a consistent 8 - 5 day so that I can spend my own time doing other things I value. Though I also find value in the work I do. But I do need to work, I don't have the luxury of not doing so, otherwise I would not be able to eat!

There has to be a balance in our lives. And we need to not be so in love with stuff.

blooming desertpea said...

Yes, too sad but true that very few get off the treadmill, even if they wanted to because in some fields it is "follow the rules or you're out of the job".

Yes, we do have lots of qualities other than to work. I wonder how much longer it's gonna take until the cicle collapses and changes are made.

Susanne said...

You say that people spend so much time on work that they don't have the time to do things that make them happy. I agree. But there used to be times when "life" and "work" were not that separated. Where you didn't have to keep your personal life out of your work-life.

It is possible to work and be happy doing it. Though probably not in a big corporation as far as I know.

Emily said...

It is about balance. You need to work because it is important not to squander the life you have been given and the talents you have. Yet, you need to rest because it is important not to squander the life you have been given.

I want my children to work hard, but I would never say that someone is poor because she does not want to work. That is just plain ignorance.

MsLittlePea said...

I agree with many points you raised here. And funny I just read,"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Aliki2006 said...

No argument from me with the overall sentiment behind this post...I'm enjoying reading the other comments about this as well.

L.P. said...

It's those of us who can take that "working world" and mould it somehow, to our own standards and benefits, that truly rise above. For that you must be willing to take chances.

Catmoves said...

Thank you, Chani, for this post. I am taking the liberty of adding a link to it in a post.
You have said something that we really need to consider.
Without realizing it, I was guilty of what you criticize so gently.
Thanks, again.

My Reflecting Pool said...

yes. But, how do we change? How do we pull the plug from the treadmill and get all those people to get it too?

Angela said...

Hmmmmmm...this is so interesting. What if I love my work? Find it rewarding? Feel I make a difference? What if I am working to change that big bad awful education machine from the inside out? What I feel that it's important to change that system, and what if I know that the only way to change a bad system is by being within it sometimes? What if work is the only way to accomplish that? Sometimes, I do work tirelessly. Overtime. I am absolutely, at times, a workaholic at work. And sometimes, I'm one at home too. Not for money. Because it matters. And sometimes, I need to work HARD for what matters. I think the nature of the job and whether or not it feeds or saps our soul has everything to do with it. Don't you think? I'm just thinking aloud. This is a great post, Chani. You've left me with a lot to think about.

niobe said...

I guess one benefit of work -- from a kind of social control standpoint -- is that it keeps people busy. While there are many people who would lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives without work, there are probably just as many who would use their free time to harm, oppress and exploit others or to destroy themselves in various ways.

Of course, they can do those things at work as well, but the workplace itself and the requirement of getting things done do set certain limits.

Galt-In-Da-Box said...

Yeah, work is demeaning.
Being a lazy gimmee/moocher/looter bureaucrat is ever so much more fulfilling, just ask the Jesuits or any of the pagan spiritualists they modeled their polytheistic, transcendental heresies after.
Why think and work and produce, when everyone knows meaninglessness and uselessness are much more admirable qualities.

painted maypole said...

oh yes, yes! there ae so many jobs that are unnecessary, so many people doing "busy work" - and you are so right that they start training us for it at such a young age.

ack!

I don't know, thought, that just because work is a "calling" means that God favors us more for doing it. I will have to look into luther's take on this - this does not seem to fit into the theology of Luther that I am familiar with. I think we can be called to a vocation, but that doesn't mean we have to do MORE of it to get favor. a calling is not about favor. it's about using the gifts God has blessed us with to do something that is satisfying to us and helpful to others.

thailandchani said...

Galt, I just have to say this: I find western dualistic either/or binary thinking to be a total pain in the behind. It's a brainsore. Does it have to be one extreme or the other?

With all due respect, you've completely missed my point.


~Chani

Galt-In-Da-Box said...

It is a very ignorant, arrogant and erroneous assumption to lay the blame for lies like salvation-by-works/"Work will make you free" at the feet of Western Civilization, and especially the Protestant Reformation!
The heresy was originally propagated by Rome, not Luther, Hus or their fellow-workers with God to liberate the minds of men from the Dark Ages of "Christian"-ized paganism (vis-a-v, the RCCult).
Nevertheless, you have a right to express yourself in whatever way you wish. There are very prominent organizations other than Babylon the Great that fill the earth with their ill-formed, poorly-conceived lack-of-thoughts on a daily basis, NPR and ABCNNBCBS to name but a few.
Perhaps next time, before just stating how you feeeeeel about something, some background research would be in order. If you really think Biblical Christianity is to blame for the world's ills - including horror of horrors: The dreadful notion one should earn one's keep - you might care to venture to your local library and check out an obscure little tome known as Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (She was an atheist, but her defense of diligence is worthy of note).

BTW: Thailand is one of the most beautiful AND productive nations on the planet, precisely because of the influence of Western thought on its culture.

Galt-In-Da-Box said...

And to this very day, the Japanese make U.S. look like a bunch of slackers.

thailandchani said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
: ) said...

Awesome photo! I also have some photos of Thai people sleeping anywhere since it's something I have a hard time believing... one guy (well a bunch) but I only got a photo of one - is sleeping in the street! Thai people sleep anywhere! :) Vern

Galt-In-Da-Box said...

Don't get too hot and bothered, Vern...That's probably The Boss in that picture!

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