Labor Day, Jobs, High Hopes and Rubber Trees

To be a plumber  you need to know two things. Shit flows down and payday’s Friday. To be an economist you need to know that shit flows up and payday is whenever you say it is if you own the store. At least that is what a capitalist or a ‘free-market’ economist would say. Differences of opinion on the details of payday have given rise to the labor movement which we in America commemorate with Labor Day.

if you want to see a good example of the free market and where it naturally leads, take a look at feudalism. In a purely free market the wealth naturally moves upward or into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Before you know it the only players are Google, Exxon, The China Corporation or the Hapsburgs or Bourbons.

The invention of money made it possible to trade real things in a more streamlined way. Until about the twelfth century, money was itself a real tangible thing of value, it was gold or silver. Around that time, some Northern European bankers saw that the real essence of money was confidence. The concept of property-backed currency was born. The confidence comes from the assumption that the currency represents something of real value. Today money is a total abstract. Not only is it not worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s not even printed but exists only in theory in the computer ledgers of some abstract ‘person’ called a bank or a government or a corporation. It’s cyber-money.

Maybe it is because money is simply an idea and thus lighter than air that it rises in the atmosphere of the ownership society. It trickles up and only an illusionist like Ronald Reagan can convince us that it trickles down. The natural end of laissez faire or free-market capitalism is the same as a game of monopoly, one player eventually owns everything. In real life this is not so bad as long as the player who owns everything is infinitely compassionate or totally accountable. These conditions are not likely to occur but, thankfully, neither is the end-game.

Most humans take it for granted that we are the dominant life-form on this planet. We see ourselves as the Crown of Creation, the most intelligent species, top of the food-chain etc. Humans sit atop the evolutionary ladder which is of course a human invention. One of the other branches in the tree of life might see this differently. At the top of the invertebrate branch is phylum Arthropoda and at its top are the species like bees and ants and termites, the social insects. They’ve been around longer than we have. They out-number us, they out-weigh us and they occupy every diverse habitat demonstrating that they are as adaptable as we are. They have organized societies, they communicate with each other, they have architecture. They bury their dead. If they wrote books, those books would probably assert that they were the most successful forms of life on the planet and that God has antennae and compound eyes.

You may be asking the same question that almost everyone is asking these days, ‘What does this have to do with Jobs?’ Consider this: ants have no money and no unemployment.

If you turn on the television news, only moments will pass before you hear the word ‘jobs.’ Everybody seems to be clamoring for them. The government is promising to create them. The economists say that they are the answer to our problems. Those that don’t have them want them and those that have them are afraid of losing them even though they also hate the damned job. Why are we so obsessed with jobs?

It probably has something to do with the fact that we see a job as our sole means of support and our only claim to social status or community standing, Even if we have a job, we fret when we see the unemployment numbers go up because not only do we wonder if our jobs are secure, we are asked to work harder in order to take up the slack in productivity. Our jobs become like marriages only more important, and happy jobs are approximately as common as happy marriages. Ants don’t have unemployment or divorce. They must be very happy.

Obviously the Chinese have been studying the higher insects. Their society has always tended toward the hive model but state capitalism has nurtured this tendency. Strict division of labor always creates efficiency; conformity and group-think are qualities of Chinese culture that fit quite nicely with modern industrial realities. Americans don’t share these values. We pride ourselves on individuality and independence. We value competition over cooperation and our phobia of socialism has prevented us from productively reconciling the two.
Social evolution will determine and only history will tell which ethic is the more successful.

Labor Day is the day that we celebrate the American worker. We celebrate those who do the actual chores, who chop wood and carry water, who take out the trash, those who have real jobs. Another thing that we celebrate is the eternal conflict between labor and capital. The by-product of this conflict is jobs. Jobs are the social means that have evolved to resolve or at least manage this natural battle. Jobs are the arrangements that we make to share the fruits of labor and resource. We celebrate jobs even though that celebration may soon more resemble a wake for the American idea of what a job means. For several generations the standard for world labor was defined by American labor unions. But in the past generation capital has succeeded in doing an end-run on the unions and now the world standard for labor is what the Chinese worker is getting. But don’t worry, this is only cyber-money, remember? They make iPods and game-boys and we give them virtual dough. What’s not to like?

What’s not to like is that because money is a complete abstract, it can be manipulated. It can be made to flow even faster to the advantage of the few. The financial crash that we are witnessing now is the same periodic adjustment that we see every time the financial structure gets too top-heavy, when those in the ownership/investment class get too greedy. The oligarchs have gotten smarter over the centuries. They don’t sport their wealth in public like the dandies whose heads rolled during the French Revolution did and they have arranged for sufficient wealth-sharing so as to avoid unmanageable social unrest, but the natural conflict between labor and capital will continue as long as one man owns while another man toils. The ants are watching and waiting and smiling. They wish us a happy Labor Day.  

So any time you’re gettin low
Stead of lettin go
just remember that ant
Ooops there goes another rubber tree plant.
–Cahn, VanHeusen


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