On Labor

Today, Monday, September 5, is Labor Day in the U.S., a holiday no longer much celebrated in honor of working men and women and their unions, organized as a counterweight to “capital,” keeping money power from making excessive demands on workers in capitalist systems.

The formation of labor unions was the foundation for the modern welfare State.  But now in the U.S., Labor Day is more appreciated as the official end of summer and family vacations, the beginning of the school year and the formal start of election campaigns seeking political power in a constitutional democracy.

So, should we honor “labor”?

On one level, “labor” is just a factor of production, along with land and capital, a necessary fact of life, one which supports the creation of wealth and so more opportunity and better lives for humankind.

On another level, “labor” correlates with exploitation.  Workers are not paid fairly for their contributions to economic and social well-being.  Capital – money – has such power that it can squeeze “value” out of labor, said Karl Marx, creating inequality.  Those with capital thrive.  Those who labor manage, at best, and suffer, at worst.  My junior year tutor, the noted American Marxist, Barrington Moore, drilled into us the narrative that all society is structured to “extract the surplus” from labor, be it farmers or factory hands.

In the Judeo-Christian traditions, labor is punishment for our sinfulness.  It is associated with drudgery and hardship.  We are not entitled to ease and enjoyment of our desires, but must work in creation to sustain ourselves.  In English, we even say that the pain of a woman when giving birth is her “labor.”

The Old Testament describes jubilee years, when debts are forgiven, a social mechanism to offset the power of money, as it subjugates those who must borrow in order to fund their “work.”  The Qur’an prohibits “riba” or paying interest on money borrowed.  The Qur’anic alternative is a joint venture, where the parties are collaborators, sharing between them the risks of work.

Labor has also, in many societies, become intertwined with social status and reputational superiority.  Those who “labor” are on the bottom of social hierarchies, while those who don’t – priests, merchants, investors, landlords, aristocrats, bureaucrats – enjoy privileges.

For most people, across cultures, the thought of rising above the laboring class or enjoying the ease of elite lifestyles is a source of motivation, but also of resentment.

Interesting to me is the different take on labor found in several Asian religious understandings of the human predicament.  Buddha focused on the individual person, not on class or labor.  He was universalistic in his teachings, believing that they applied to all persons everywhere, no matter their social power or status.  The core to his thinking was developing mindfulness, to seek and keep the middle way of balance and equilibrium.

To him, a poor working person was just as capable of seeking and finding understanding as the greatest of kings and potentates.  Internalization of the Noble Eightfold Path into our personal character was universally possible among humans.

Similarly, in China, Daoism ignored the social, political and economic confinements of labor. Living in the Dao was presented as possible for everyone.  One only had to wu wei – not strive to live up to a name or office or to measure oneself by a socially constructed status.

Even Mencius can be read to proclaim the possibility that everyone can aspire to living in the practice of jenyi (with humanness and righteousness) and not in a Darwinist struggle for wealth and dominion.

In Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther sought to transform labor and work into a calling of more transcendent virtue by reframing “work” as “vocation” (beruf), as efforts to live up to God’s expectations, not society’s.  What is of God is worth no matter how much money it brings home.  And no amount of money, earned or privilege inherited, can ever become something of God.  Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, proposed that we, in our work, are co-creators with God of his work and it continues until the end of time.  Each of us, then, has a vocation.  We may not be conscious of our goodness or how our lives, as disappointing, banal and exhausting as they may be, have higher purpose.

John Paul II affirmed that “Work is a fundamental dimension of man’s existence on earth.”

He continued: “As the “image of God,” he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being, capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself and with a tendency to self-realization.  As a person, man is, therefore, the subject of work.  As a person, he works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.”

John Paul II held it as a “fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares, by his work, in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man, in a sense, continues to develop that activity and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.”

Awareness that man’s work is a participation in God’s activity ought to permeate even “the most ordinary, everyday activities.  For, while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society.  They can justly consider that by their labour, they are unfolding the Creator’s work, consulting the advantages of their brothers and sisters and contributing, by their personal industry, to the realization in history of the divine plan.”

Taking these religious insights into our consideration, let us not look down upon “labor” or associate it primarily with the injustices of subjugation and exploitation.  Let us, rather, consider everything we do – including our use of money – as contributing to our vocation as a person of goodwill and grace, seeking the optimum intersection of our own well-being, considered upon the whole of life’s possibilities, tangible and intangible, with the common good.