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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hard Work

There is a myth floating around about Americans ability to "do work" that looks at the number of hours worked compared to other countries, the focus on jobs and professions, and the innate ideological "frontier" type rhetoric that assumes that American's are self made "hard workers".  Simply put, that those that work hard are destined for success in America.  This of course is a fallacy as there are myriad factors, both social and individual, that play in.  Perhaps a more constructive way to examine the individual's role as a worker would be to look less at what an individual themselves contributes in effort, but more at what or who their contribution is for or on - how targeted, well-placed, and strategic their efforts are.

If a person wakes up in early in the morning and finds a job to do around the house and works hard at it until it is completed successfully they can sit back at the end of the day with satisfaction of a good day, that they worked hard and accomplished something.  This is the same if a person wakes up, gets themselves ready for, and then heads to work at office jobs, construction jobs, as project managers, engineers, retail, whatever.  These individuals go to work where success is measured less in terms of the effort put in, but through daily affirmation from colleagues/customers, in upward mobility, future career standing, etc.  While hard work may gain them this affirmation, it is not as much about how hard they work, but rather by how specific and strategic they work.  Both of these people have put in a solid days work.  But our society values one more than the other.  Working at home is not a paying position, thus does not carry financial value in the same way as work for pay or with a career orientation.  It is not just that you work hard, but what you work at and what the outcomes of those jobs are.

It used to be that a person could live off of the land and work done anywhere had a value in terms of satisfying life's needs.  You produced your own sustainable existence   That is no longer the case for virtually all of America and much of the world.  We now live in a "capitalized" world.  Our society is no longer based on "use-values" but strictly on "exchange values".  And the means of this exchange is based on money.  You have to make money to be able to exchange it for things even to barter with (or you can use debt, but that is another story, and still requires monetary capacity to obtain debt).  Thus if being able to have things is paramount to success and even more so to survival, whether you are a hard worker or not does not matter.  It is in fact whether you are the "right" kind of worker.

The capitalist system is based on capital being distributed throughout a local area, the globe, whatever and finding the cheapest or most efficient way of producing marketable things.  This capital - or the ones that control this capital - have power in this situation and can dictate what needs to be done both on a macro scale and in individual projects (companies), and jobs.  Thus if "the boss" or "the man" tells you this is the way something has to be done, or what needs to be done, then that is what is important, that is where your value as a worker comes from and where your value as a business asset lies.  It is not in your ability to work hard, this is a secondary factor.  For if you work hard, but do not do the job the way it is asked to be done, you are not a good worker.  You may be given some respite if they saw that you worked hard, but you will not find long term success if you keep doing the job "wrong" or for the "wrong" people, i.e. not the way the powerful capitalist reigning over you deems "right".  Therefore if you want to be successful, it is not about working hard, but continually doing what you are told and then working hard at doing it the way you are told.

This differentiates a lot of people in our society.  A hard worker does everything with a sense of drive and pride in their "productive output" whether their "job" is for "the man" or simply for themselves, their family, friends  whoever.  They approach even the mundane task with a sense of urgency and care that is guaranteed to do a decent job that doesn't cut corners or leave things undone.  A strategic worker works hard when it benefits them directly, and slacks off when it doesn't benefit them.

The problem here lies in that the strategic worker is one that will garner success in the capitalist system.  They do what they must to move forward in the capitalist system, yet may lack the integrity to move forward in another system.  Yes integrity is a strong word.  But isn't putting a genuinely solid effort into everything you do about the integrity of what you are as a human being?  When no one is watching do you cut corners, do you work hard?  When it "doesn't matter" financially or socially do you "work hard"?

No our society isn't made up of hard workers, it is made up of "strategic" workers.  They work when they must to move ahead - or simply survive - in this society.  There are plenty of workers that are actually much harder workers than so many other people but end up with little to show for it in material terms, lagging behind others of perhaps more questionable effort and principle.  The hard worker works hard at everything, and gains satisfaction from the mirror - not the pocket book.

This is even further exacerbated if they work hard in some capacity that runs against the social grain; that someone works towards altering the flow of the capitalist torrent.  Then no matter how hard they work, they are virtually guaranteed "failure" (as per our neoliberal societal measures).  There is no money in changing the system, no matter how hard you work at it.  It is inherently contradictory for a system not to maintain itself, to not self-perpetuate itself through its own unique and intricate system of social and cultural mores, rewards, and controls that maintain and expand upon its own unique status quo, its "equilibrium".  In Capitalism it is wage-labor, career success.  We also wrestle with religious and social factors, nationalism, prejudism, sexism, classism, etc.  But logically, any agent that works to change a system will not inherently be rewarded by that concurrent system unless that current system is in fact change itself.  That actor is bound to struggle and in our society today that individual is bound to be looked at as someone that "can't just put their head down and work hard".  That can't just "fit in and do as their told".  No, maybe they can't do that, but it is because the concept of a hard worker and "putting your head down" does not take into account what they're working on, only that someone in a position of (currently) Capitalist power deemed to be important.  If you're not working hard for them, as they want, you are looked at as not being a hard worker.  This is however so tremendously far from the truth.  Hard workers work hard no matter what they do or why, not just because they are told to or it strategically benefits their broader interests.  It is simply the way they do things.  If only our social and economic systems could perpetuate hard honest work over strategic shortcuts that don't bare as nice a reflection in the mirror...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Real Demographic Shift

Much of the analysis of last Tuesday’s election results has centered on the need for the Republican party to "reinvent" itself with respect to the changing demographics and the evolving electorate in the United States.  The main crux of the discussion has centered around Hispanic and woman voters, who overwhelmingly cast ballots for Democratic candidates, and with women in some cases voting against female candidates running on the Republican ticket.

Yet this demographic critique dismisses an analysis of the changing socioeconomic demographics of this country.  The disparity of income between a CEO and the average worker has exploded since the 1970s, from roughly 20 to 1 then to as much as 500 to 1 by some current measures.  During that same period, real wages have gone down by most measures despite worker productivity having increased exponentially.  Productivity and pay had tended to rise mostly in unison in the years following World War II, however they diverged around 1970. As productivity continued to rise (over 100 percent to present day since the early seventies, real wages stagnated, with virtually zero growth. While the country has become more prosperous in many ways, the average person has not.  This is especially true in the last few years of recession, as the median income in the United States has dropped. In a place like New York City--where the median income of $49,461 is now below the national average of $50,502, despite having the highest cost of living in the country--life is becoming more and more difficult to maintain for the general populace.  To put it bluntly, Americans are becoming poorer in real terms.  The cost of goods continues to rise, yet incomes are not keeping pace and people are having to work harder to keep up, resorting to more incomes per household, more jobs per person, more education for getting ahead, more loans for investing in a future that no longer carries the same probability of success that it once did.  

All of these issues are having a real effect on people's views and political desires, and especially on Americans’ beliefs for the future. Several recent polls have shown that fewer people now believe in the American Dream and its promise of “making it” through individual hard work than they did just a few years ago. And they should be less optimistic about their future and current economic realities as well, especially comparatively: it is now statistically more prevalent for individuals in Europe to move up the class ladder during their lifetime than it is in the United States.  The “dream” is beginning to show cracks under an increasingly difficult reality.  Whereas previously many people opposed taxing the rich because they believed that perhaps one day they too could be wealthy, those beliefs are coming more and more into question as that reality is not materializing.  If this trend continues (and the realities of globalization, climate change, increasing debt levels, and myriad other economic realities weighing down individuals and families leave little doubt it will), then this go-it-alone myth—one of the great obfuscations within Republican party ideology—will finally come further to light and bring the party fewer and fewer votes as the future trends away from them.  

People can talk about Arizona and Texas being swing states in eight years based on their rising number of Hispanic voters, but what will the entire nation be by that point if real wages keep decreasing, disparity of incomes keep rising, and the general public can't get out from under school, house, and credit card debt?  Demographic proportions are shifting: we are trending in a poorer, more indebted direction.  Yet despite this, the Republican party's ideology has even further embraced an idyllic pathway toward success that favors the wealthy.    

If the Republicans continue to be "the party of the rich" while more and more individuals slip back a rung or more on the standard of living ladder and see their prospects for regaining that ground fade away, then the GOP will certainly be on the wrong end of any future voting demographic.  They will slowly become less and less favorable—not based on the color of people's skin or which restroom they use—but simply based on how far underwater people's mortgages, student loans, and general existence have become.  If the Republicans are to move forward in America as the country becomes comprised less and less of the rich, then the party needs to redress first and foremost its views on poverty, working families, and lower income America.