Work Makes Us Soar, Money Not So Much

Laura Knight, "Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring" (1943)

Laura Knight, “Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring” (1943)

Monday – Labor Day

As today is Labor Day, here’s a clarifying conversation about the nature of work that appears in Rachel Kranz’s novel Leaps of Faith (2000). The scene involves Rosie, a union organizer, who is trying to establish a union at an urban university (modeled on Columbia University). Jack is a clerical worker and an ideological leftist so they often clash about whether revolution or incremental change is better. Rosie loves her work but the stress is taking a physical toll on her.

The “leaps of faith” mentioned in the title are the conviction, held by several of the novel’s major characters, that significant change can occur even when there’s seems no objective reason to hope. Change includes same sex marriage (note that the novel was written in 2000), various theatrical breakthroughs, and a successful strike. Rosie believes that the university workers can prevail, but she is frustrated by how they hold back from committing themselves and experiences moments of deep doubt. Her conversation with Jack helps her realize some of the internal factors she is up against:

“Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being,” Jack practically smacking his lips with satisfaction. “This alien essence dominates him, and he enjoys it.”

“What?”

“Karl Marx,” Jack says, taking a bite of his eggplant Parmesan sub…

“Don’t you just love that?” Jack is saying. “Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being. Money represents something that used to be this wonderful part of human beings: their ability to work, to accomplish things in the world. Their essence. And then the essence gets alienated, it gets taken away and used against them. So instead of doing good work that they love, they have to go work for money, they have to work for some boss, who makes a huge profit off of their work. And the richer he gets, the more power he has over them, so they’re actually helping him to dominate them.

“And then they want that money. They envy their rich boss, never realizing that they’re the ones who make him rich. But as if that whole process weren’t enough, Marx has to say that they enjoy it.”

“But most people don’t enjoy their jobs,” I say…

“Do you enjoy your job?” Jack says, one of those sudden switches in conversational direction that I never expect from him.

“Oh, I love my job,” I say. “But I don’t have a real job. My job is to change everybody else’s job. Of course I enjoy that.”

Jack laughs. “So you’re exploited, but not alienated,” he says. “Because I think the union takes incredible advantage of you and all the other organizers, as far as I can see, although you obviously work the hardest—“

“No, I don’t. Plenty of other people—“

“Yes, you do. But that’s not my point. My point is, people don’t enjoy their jobs, obviously, except for weird exceptions like you—because face it, Rosie, most people who work as hard as you do are lawyers or stockbrokers or something, and they usually don’t enjoy their jobs, per se, but they do make tons of money. Or else they’re factory workers or nurses or whatever, working double shifts and overtime because they desperately need the money. Which is my point. Or rather, Marx’s point. It’s the money that dominates people, the money they themselves create by working so damn hard and so miserably, and then it’s the money that they enjoy being dominated by.”

“And this is important because—“…

“It’s important because—I mean, Rosie. Why are people so invested in keeping their lives the way they are? Instead of making revolution, I mean, instead of changing everything?”

“Oh, Jack, for heaven’s sake,” I say, which I find myself saying to him fairly often. How can someone with whom I basically agree make my own ideas sound so simple-minded? “It’s hard to change things. It’s dangerous. You could lose your job. Or, if you’re talking about revolution, I don’t know. You could get beat up, or shot, or put in jail, or tortured, or whatever else happens to people who—“…

“No,” Jacks says, “it’s not just because they’re afraid of getting shot that people don’t want to change things. It’s because they actually like things the way they are. They like all the stuff they buy. They like all the stuff they think they’re going to buy. They’d rather have that stuff, or the prospect of it, than to think about how the world could be different.”

“So you basically think people should work all day and then go home and feel so miserable that they’re ready to change everything?”

“I don’t think people should be miserable,” Jack says. “I think they are miserable. And what they enjoy is being dominated. By television. The things they buy. The money they go out and spend. Their jobs make them miserable, and they go out and spend as much as they can so they’ll feel better, and it doesn’t work, and they have to keep working harder just to stay in place, and it still doesn’t work, and then they think it’s their fault, and they buy some self-help book to tell them why, and it still doesn’t work. And then they fall in love, and that doesn’t work, and then they’re really at a loss—“

“And all that time, they could just be making a revolution.”

“Right,” says Jack. “And then, like you, they’d have jobs they’d enjoy.”

I can’t help laughing. “Jack,” I say, “I’m no different. I watch television. I buy things.” I eat, I think, but I’m not going to say that to him. My life is killing me, if [my doctor] is to be believed, but I’m not going to say that either.

“Well, you’re part of the society you’re living in,” Jack says. “You’re not a saint.” He grins at me, which I didn’t expect. “Thank God.”

A little later in the conversation, Jack lays out his foundational beliefs and then challenges Rosie to do the same:

“I’m a Marxist,” Jack says. “This is my creed.” And he quotes [from The Communist Manifesto], “‘Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man’—people,” he interrupts himself, making a face, “but the quote doesn’t work if you say ‘people,’ so ‘man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relation with his kind.” Meaning that—”

“I know what it means,” I say, with some asperity. “I have read Marx.”

Jack grins at me again. “So what does it mean?” he says. “In twenty-five words or less.”

“I suppose it means that we can’t have any illusions anymore about how brutal everything is,” I say slowly. “How brutal everything is, and then how we have to be honest about that. About why. We can’t say it’s fate, or God’s will, or destiny, anything solid, anything holy. It’s just—a few stupid people with power lording it over the rest of us. And we help them dominate us, first by working for them and making them rich, and then by buying whatever they want us to buy, and then by believing whatever they want us to believe, and then by telling ourselves that it’s our own idea. And then it is our idea, because if you have something inside you long enough, then it is you, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how sick it makes you—then it is you, and at least part of you does everything you can to hold onto it. And then, to add insult to injury, we enjoy the way they dominate us, we enjoy the little crumbs they throw at us, because what else are we going to do with ourselves. How else are we going to keep on living?!”

Well, I certainly didn’t expect to get this upset.

“But you are doing everything you can to change things,” Jacks says finally. “And that is what keeps you going.”

I point to myself, to my secretly bleeding body, to my exhausted throat, to my, all right, all right, all right, to my weight. “I’m certainly a great advertisement for the cause,” I say with a bitterness that surprises me. “I’m sure anyone who saw me would want to jump right on board.”

“Well, I would,” Jack says softly.

“You don’t count,” I say, blinking back the tears that seem all too ready to intrude these days. “You were already on board.”

There is a long, awkward pause.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says finally, leaning toward me over the table. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He smiles, a very, very small smile. “See,” he says, “I find it a relief to say the way things are. It makes me feel—I don’t know. Exhilarated. You feel bad about it. But still, you don’t despair.”

I look at him skeptically.

“No, no, what you just did, that wasn’t despair,” he says. “You just feel bad that it takes other people so long to see what you already know. But you don’t give up on them.”

Throughout her writings Kranz asserts that efforts directed toward taking control of our working conditions bring us deep satisfaction. With that in mind, we need to keep fighting the good fight, no matter how hopeless it seems.

Currently she is nearing completion of her next novel, which is about the greatest leap of faith of all: in the late 1850s, when abolitionist movements were falling apart and it appeared that slavery would endure indefinitely, certain activists kept on striving to end it.

Less than a decade later, almost miraculously, slavery would be no more. Kranz challenges us to apply that same hope to our current problems.

Further note: Since it’s on the subject, go here if you want to read a quick account of how much better the Fair Labor Standards Act (1937) made the lives of working class Americans. The efforts of people like Rosie and the ideals of people like Jack meant that there is a ban on child labor, workers no longer have to put in 60-hour days, and owners have social and economic obligations to their employees.

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