Thursday, July 20, 2023

"Doing the Work"

The most peculiar thing about contemporary Western progressivism is how completely it has failed to engage working folks.

Marxism always managed to connect with the proletariat, to make it clear that it was worker-oriented.  The Jacobins, for all of their guillotine eccentricities and counterproductive obsession with changing everything everywhere all at once?  They still resonated with the masses.

But American leftism doesn't really have the vocabulary or worldview to connect with the workers of the world.   Why?  Because it conceptualizes "work" as meaning something very different.  It understands "work" as an abstraction, as examining and analyzing perspectives, as psychotherapeutic.  

This is nowhere better evidenced than in the prog-buzzphrase "Doing the Work."  

When suburban American progressives talk about "Doing the Work," they're talking about conceptual work.  Emotional work.  They're talking about reimagining and reckoning.  They're also talking about "justice work," which means making demands of power, organizing, and activism.

But they're not talking about "work," in the sense of things that are actually being done.  

"Doing The Work" doesn't mean doing plumbing or electrical work. It doesn't mean maintaining or repairing machines or HVAC equipment.  It isn't about preparing a field, or harvesting, or transporting that harvest.  It isn't about roofing or drywall or woodwork.  It doesn't prepare or serve food, and it ain't dishroom or pots and pans, neither.  It doesn't stitch up wounds, or fix potholes, or repair a tire.  It doesn't involve any material labor or action at all.  It's work as meta-work, work as a social construct that can mean anything at all, work distorted by the fun-house mirrors of semiotic sophistry, work as something immaterial.

Abstracted work doesn't have to change anything or move anything or make anything.  It's not labor, not as that term was ever understood in the modern era.

"The Work" involves meetings and trainings and more meetings, motions and amendments to the amendment to the motion.  It's work as the bourgeois and rentier classes have always conceptualized it, busy little bees bustling about doing the aforementioned "emotional labor."  It's the daydream of work, work as symbol, work as utopian fantasy.  Not to say that there's not pleasure in that at times.  But that pleasure comes from "work" in the same way that this blog is work, or that Facebook or tweeting is "work."

Actual work makes a difference.  Actual work, real work, material work in the physical world?  That's measured in joules and newton-meters, sweat and effort.  Most of what we do is not that.  Most of what I do is not that.  Our culture steers millions of us into ersatz labor, labor that does nothing, labor that is useless.  We know this, instinctually, viscerally.  That's one of the reasons we're all so anxious and listless.

Yesterday, before heading to church, I worked for about half an hour harvesting green beans from my raised beds.  I was squatting or on my knees in the summer sun, carefully sorting through the foliage for perfectly ripened beans.  At the end of that half hour, I had four pounds of fresh produce.  Half of that yield I kept for myself and family.  The other half I bagged for the produce stand section of my congregation's Little Free Pantry.  

I could have written a post about food insecurity in that time.  I could have Zoomed with an activist or two.  Those things would be fine, but they are not of themselves work.  Work is moving my butt outside.  Work is my quads straining, and my eyes and hands seeking out the beans, and the act of placing those beans where someone who's worried about feeding themselves can find, prepare, and be nourished by them.  There will be a change in the world because of that effort.  It will be small, it will be humble, but it will also be real.  

Work, in other words.