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Pin- and pencil-making in the twenty-first century, 2.

 Part two of a two-part series.


WHEN WE COMPREHEND the natural unfitness of moderns, in their extremely divided state, for self-government (see part one), one possible response is resignation. Another is to view it as a call to action. What would it take to create a society of Whole Men or nearly Whole Men and Women, fit to govern themselves on a part-time basis while also serving each other in their divided state as hairdressers, computer support technicians, and financial analysts? How could we re-man the ghost ship?

Today, in many advanced nations, public education has taken an extreme turn toward the narrowly technical, the “vocational.”

We’d have to take seriously Kant and Smith and Emerson’s prescription of universal education for citizenship. It needn’t even necessarily be “public” education, but it should be civic and humanistic education, calculated to produce responsible citizens and critical thinkers. Today, in many advanced nations, public education has taken an extreme turn toward the narrowly technical, the “vocational.” Certainly there is a need for technical training, but that only exercises the hand or the brain–the Man or Woman needs cultivation too.

We’d have to follow Smith’s precept and Thoreau’s example in setting commercial values in their proper place at every opportunity. Commercial values are seductive and tend to insinuate themselves into every arena of modern life. Even education has become commercialized, with school “sponsorship” by soft drink companies intent on colonizing children’s minds with subtle advertising. And in colleges and universities, once bastions of humane and civic values, the logic of “business culture” and a new focus on the bottom line has been distorting institutional cultures and creating perverse incentives and outcomes, as James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield document in Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. Fighting commercial values, like weeding a garden, is an uphill struggle in every instance. It requires the quiet heroism of many individuals to do the right thing when faced with decisions—and not only by administrators in charge of budgets and personnel, but ordinary individuals too who are capable of create oases of culture in the commercial wasteland, as Morris Berman prescribes in Twilight of American Culture.

We would want to have more direct civic engagement, especially at the local level where business is conducted face-to-face and individual involvement can have the greatest impact. Iroquois and Cherokee decision-making traditionally was conducted at the level of the village and clan as well as the tribe, and everyone—both male and female—had an opportunity to participate. To make this work in the modern world would require that working people have more leisure time—more on that below—and while we’re at it, how about making voting day a national holiday, to underscore that we live in societies where civic engagement is a priority?

WE WOULD NEED to take precautions that we not sink too deeply into our tools, as Emerson warned. The most obvious solution—and here we’re getting into more radical territory—would be to shorten the workweek. More than a century ago the labor movement succeeded in getting the standard workweek reduced to 40 hours. Although with subsequent technological advances workers have become many times more productive and efficient, meaning that we could accomplish just as much or more with much less effort, the workweek in most nations has not diminished. In the last 20 years, in fact, even as productivity has gone through the roof thanks to the digital revolution, working hours for many have expanded (while the median wage has remained stagnant —the windfall of all that increased productivity trickling upward to owners and shareholders). Given the toll modern life takes on health, family life, and civic life, it would make a lot of sense to adopt the policy remedies of the “Take Back Your Time” movement and shorten the workweek. A three- or four-day weekend would allow us to resume our upright posture, both physically and spiritually, after a solid few days spent hunched over a computer or workbench. There would be resistance to this sort of reform, of course—including internal resistance on the part of many a workaholic. It is a fear of the abyss. If we took the plunge we would be compelled to confront the mess that is our neglected health, family, community, the often depressing state of national politics and the world. Spending less time at the factory or the office might be traumatic, but it would be salutary. Even for white people, as John Lame Deer would say.

If we really want to make people masters rather than slaves of their tools (occupations), we could institute a citizen’s dividend—a guaranteed minimum income. Underscoring the Native political freedoms that European explorers so admired was a significant degree of economic independence (bounded, of course, by norms of mutual aid and the territorial claims of enemies and rival kinship groups). That is, under normal circumstances every Native American had access to what is called the “means of production.” Women (in most societies) were able to grow crops, men could hunt, and anyone could gather food and materials for crafts and construction. Today the option of independent subsistence is closed to most people, because the land has been enclosed. An obvious remedy is available though, and variants have been proposed by numerous thinkers over the centuries, including Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century and Peter Barnes most recently. That is a trust fund, paid into by those who exploit the commons (that is, those who use and derive financial benefit from land, minerals, the broadcast spectrum, and other finite resources to the exclusion of all the rest of us and paid out to all citizens, or all persons in a defined geographic area. We are used to thinking of entitlements as benefits paid out of public funds, and therefore in terms of scarcity. We should think rather in terms of abundance. How much wealth do oil companies and large mining concerns and agribusinesses and media conglomerates, etc., derive from their exclusive access to resources that were once part of the commons? The Alaska Permanent Fund is a great example of a citizen’s dividend in action: every resident of the state gets a small annual share of the state’s invested oil revenues. It’s very popular, and no wonder: it is fair and equitable (why shouldn’t the drillers give back to the community whose resources they are exploiting?), and it’s a sort of entitlement that confers dignity (not a handout for the helpless, but a share to which every member of the community is entitled). If everyone had this sort of minimum base income to fall back on—it might be large or small depending on how extensively it is implemented, but even a small entitlement would be a hedge against homelessness and hunger—it could revolutionize the way people think about their relation to their place of employment. Their place of employment would be a place they choose to be (or not to be) rather than a place to which they cling for survival and on account of which, therefore, they inexorably compromise their integrity. (It is, after all, as Upton Sinclair noted, difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.)

There are a variety of structures available to give people more autonomy and dignity in the workplace, some more radical than others…

ALL THE ABOVE presupposes that the workplace is a place governed by norms of autocracy and subservience antithetical to civic values. What if we changed the nature of the workplace itself? What if, as Christopher Mackin has suggested, the same standards for governance we expect in the public sphere were applied to the workplace, where people spend most of their waking hours?1 That is, what if we let go of the prissy public/private distinction Kant made for the sake of the Prussian censors, and recognized that it would be unbecoming of an enlightened adult to show abject and blind obedience to anyone at all, even an employer? There are a variety of structures available to give people more autonomy and dignity in the workplace, some more radical than others—including several with established track records of viability in the global marketplace. Cooperatives represent simple, direct democracy. In the United States, employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) provide a means to make employees part owners of an enterprise while retaining the traditional structure of a corporation. Other possibilities exist as well. Someday we may live in a world where the standard employment contract of the twentieth century, essentially a contract of human rental, looks as quaint and barbaric and incongruous as voluntary slavery, the pactum subjectionis (by which a people give up their freedom and autonomy to a ruler), or coverture (by which a women loses her legal identity upon marriage), all of which were once considered acceptable but, as philosopher David Ellerman has argued, run counter to the notion of inalienable rights that is part and parcel of the Enlightenment project.2

Finally we must ask: if we were to seriously apply an aristocratic warrior ethos to civic life in the modern world, what would that entail? Certainly not that we all need to become warriors, any more than Thoreau did—though some certainly do honorably exercise their patriotism that way. But as Thoreau said, one can serve with the body, the mind, or the conscience. And the essence of the warrior ethos is in fact service: consecrating oneself to the welfare of the community or the greater good. Today there are many opportunities available for citizens (especially young people, who tend to be the greatest moral perfectionists among us) to dedicate a year of their life to serve their communities, their nation, and the global community—ranging, in the United States for example, from City Year to Peace Corps. There is scope to expand this, to provide new defined-term service opportunities. And there is a need for more encouragement and material support—a citizen’s dividend would be a start—for those who, like Thoreau, choose a precarious living so that they may make a career serving others in the caring professions, the ministry, social entrepreneurship, activism, the arts, and the humanities.

Brent Ranalli is a Boston-based policy professional, a scholar at the Ronin Institute, and co-editor of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Yale University Press). His research on Henry David Thoreau’s interest in and emulation of Native American virtues was recognized with a 2012 Thoreau Society fellowship. He serves on the editorial advisory board of the Thoreau Society Bulletin and comments on current and ancient affairs at The Globalist.

The first part of this discussion is here.

  1. Christopher Mackin, “Political Metaphors and Workplace Governance,” July 2013.
  2. David Ellerman, “On the Renting of Persons,” October, 2013
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