Friday, November 6, 2015

Does the Center Hold?

I've been thinking lately about what the central focus is of people, families, even entire cultures. For example, as is sadly the case today, incarceration and its effects has, unfortunately, become central for far too many Black families.* In other words, much of daily life, even life over years and decades, gets defined and directed by incarceration. What about other ethnicities? This is such a sweeping question as to almost be meaningless, but I would tend to think that work is the central focus of other ethnicities, and here I am thinking specifically of American cultural groups. Since the standard definition of full-time employment is the 40-hour workweek, that means that the majority of the average working individual's day is spent in some kind of workplace, thus making work central to life. Since the days of an individual earner's income being able to support an entire family are largely gone, women, for example, are increasingly found in the workplace, as are, sadly, older workers (senior citizens) whose retirement, savings, and Social Security cannot keep up with the cost of living. So across age and gender, with a current 6% unemployment rate (which I suspect is not accurate), a lot of people are working in the US, and therefore work is central to millions of people's lives.

In the recent, second Republican presidential candidate debate, there was a funny moment when multiple candidates scoffed at the "French work week," ie working less than the 40-hour US standard. Besides work, especially the notion of hard work, being a perhaps quintessential part of the American character, my suspicion is that politicians in general of all stripes fear an underemployed populace, because then people would have more time for activism, rebellion, and imagination. While work is to some degree unavoidable and a necessary part of surviving/making a living, there is also an element of work that provides people with an identity, serves as a means of social control, sometimes leads to workaholism, and keeps people too busy or distracted to engage in activism, rebellion, and imagining alternatives to how society is currently structured and run. Thus it has been said that work is the cornerstone of capitalism, and critiques have been leveled at work specifically as part of more overarching attacks on capitalism itself. See the writings of Bob Black (author of The Abolition of Work, Anarchy After Leftism, and Debunking Democracy) or Work by the Crimethinc folks.

If work is not central to people, often times people will say that their family, creative passion, or activist work is central to them, which is admirable. In a potentially meaningless universe filled with a seemingly infinite amount, and permutations of, suffering, people need something to live for, a focus, drive, passion. So: what is your center? What is central to your life?

* This tends to impact lesser-educated, poorer, lower socio-economic Black families, of course; I am fully aware of middle-class Black families, the black intelligentsia, etc, whose central focus may not be incarceration.