Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why Work? (part II)

Pride movie poster
Four years ago I was worrying about work.  I still am.

The immediate cause of my present fretfulness was attending a showing of the wonderful movie Pride, sponsored by the Centre County LGBTQA Support Network.  The movie is set in Margaret Thatcher's Britain of 1984, and is based on a true story - a story that I had never heard. It dramatizes the unlikely story of a group of gay and lesbian activists in London who determined to raise money for striking miners in Wales, at a time when the Tory Government, emboldened by its victory over General Galtieri in the Falklands, seemed determined to starve the miners' union into submission.

I was a graduate student at that time and it was astonishing to me how vividly the movie brought back my memories of that era.  Arthur Scargill - Ian MacGregor - the Orgreave coking plant - the ballot arguments - the "flying pickets" - it came rushing back.  I remember being told at the time that my disdain for Margaret Thatcher and her policies would pass away as I became older and, presumably, wiser.  Looking back now I recognize an element of youthful misogyny of which I have tried to repent; but I still feel the same anger at the deliberate destruction of community that her government engineered, a destruction summed up in her often-quoted statement, "There is no such thing as society".  That community was founded on a certain culture of the "honor of work".  So I get back - again - to worrying about work.

Because behind all the uproar, one of the things the strike was about was what work is to mean.  The miner's jobs were dirty and dangerous, but the men who did them knew that they were contributing to "society" in a direct way, giving light and warmth - powerful metaphors in every society, metaphors which coal made absolutely literal.   There was honor in bringing this about.   Contrast the description in a recent Guardian article of what the mining areas of South Yorkshire have become - "a landscape of shopping centres - people working to sell things in shops to earn money to buy things in other shops".

I ran into this question again at the recent PERC awards ceremony, where Richard Alley was speaking.  He was giving an upbeat presentation about moving to a clean (renewable) energy economy and was asked a pointed question about its impact on mining communities.  It is hard for workers in such communities, who have for generations felt themselves to be fulfilling an honorable and dangerous calling, to be told to "leave the coal in the ground" - because what was once a vital fuel now counts as a pollutant.  How should we approach this?  "We haven't done a good enough job of honoring the past while still pointing to the future" said Richard in his response.

But what is the future? Can there be jobs which carry the dignity of light-bringing and warmth-bringing, in the robotic age that is bearing down upon us? (Surely this question is somewhere in the mix of emotions that are sustaining support for Mr Trump.)  Or should we simply say goodbye to the idea that jobs produce dignity? If so, what replaces them as a source of personal honor?

Some believe that a post-carbon, post-growth era will be one where, of necessity, the demand for manual labor is increased - if you can't fuel your gas-powered mower, you may mow your lawn by hand, or (even better) grow vegetables where your lawn used to be.  Perhaps (though this hope does seem to belong to the silver linings department) but, even so, will it be dignity-bringing manual labor?

What brings dignity? may turn out to be a central question of 21st-century politics.

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