Is Labor Day Meaningful?
Possibly the most curious notion is that we needed a “Labor Day”. Given the obvious necessity of laboring–the bottom of our pyramid–it speaks volumes to the modern world’s obsession with artifacts–works.
This isn’t to suggest we are all working. Far from it. Most of the industrialized world is focused on building capital using laborious activity. Labor moved from the fields to the factories, just as the machines moved from the factories to the fields.
The low cost of food and high value of finished industrialized products has led to considerable improvements in quality of life (over all). But we have been experientially divorced from the source of life.
Farmers sculpt with ancient forces
Before, the farmer arranged the earth and water to support the seeds he or she planted. The earth and the seeds did most of the work, relying on a geologic-scale hydrology, and a epoch-scale evolution of plant genome–carefully selected for high yields.
The factory laborer operates similar to the mitochondria in the wheat-plant. They do one task that contributes to the production of the end result. As distasteful as this comparison may be, it is apt. Capitalism is the new soil, international trade the new water. But the laborer is not shaping these forces. The market creates scarcity, and industrialists move laborers and capital into the same room and rely on trade to satisfy that scarcity.
And history is replete with the “Human Resources” approach to labor management. They are just as much a resource as steel, oil, or cotton. They are managed statistically, with reactants like “wages” & “benefits” applied like the farmer applies nitrates or carbon to the soil.
The farmer had to bring goods to market, with all that entailed. By and large, that market demand has been consistent since the agricultural revolution. People got to eat. There was a unending seasonal consistency to the farm. It never meant anything else: people got to eat.
Industrial works are fraught with meaning. They are, strictly speaking, unnecessary for the sustainment of life. So without meaning, no one would buy them. The industrial work product needs to be incorporated into a social paradigm for it to be assigned a value. Ultimately, the industrial work must be converted into food for the workers and the industrialists. So it must realize an agreed upon exchange value. The ultimate currency is neither dollars nor bit coins, but turnips and potatoes.
It is ironic that the modern labor has been consumed by the plant instead of growing the plant. The pain is that, where as the natural cycles of the weather enforced a certain degree of rest for the farm-hand, modern factories can churn day and night–grinding the shop-hand down to a nub. So long as demand is rampant, the industrialist wants to supply that demand to the point of market saturation. This is a recent problem, and it is structurally and biologically not compatible with humans who’ve evolved with the cycles of weather to create a natural time to rest.
It is frustrating that agriculture is not inherently meaningful. It is necessary, and a great many cultures have imbued meaning to the land, the crop, the rain, and so on. But at the end of the day, all that can be forgotten and the corn must still be sown. But in the industrialized plant, a lack of meaning to the end result is fatal. If the product does not attain meaning to other aspects of life, there is no demand, no market, no shop, and no labor.
Given our narcissistic tendency as thinking sentient beings, labors without meaning only remind us that things end, that we end. To seek some shred of immortality, we invest ourselves in family, in religion, or humanity and the human-built world. I know I’m guilty of the last–why else would I write all this?
At its core, labor is inherently meaningless. It is an endless cycle that promotes life. How that life manifests can lend meaning to labors, but it is not necessary. That is a cultural manifestation. Culture is ephemeral, hence all meanings are ephemeral.
We can then say that Labor Day is meaning full because we want to build the human world, build families, attend church. Our culture holds those meaningful, and without labors they cannot happen.
Barrell making is no longer meaningful.
Wagon wheel making is no longer meaningful.