Tuesday, April 6, 2010




Last week, the White House announced some encouraging news about the economy. It said that the "Job Report" for March showed "significant gains." Apparently, more people found private employment during the early spring; and that meant more people were getting paychecks. Since late 2008, the "Job Report" had consistently reported losses. So last month's news was cause for celebration: When people have private sector jobs, it is a national victory.

What makes jobs cause for celebration in America? After all, what exactly is a "job," and why do Americans fetishize them so much? Is there something magical about jobs that makes people live their whole lives seeking them and toiling at them? I say no: In most cases, jobs are a poor way to spend your life; and they are sure way to obliterate your spirit as an individual.

Viewed in the abstract, jobs are nothing to glorify. In most cases, they are just a waste of time. People only work because they need to earn money to stave off material ruin at the hands of creditors, landlords, banks and other superior economic beings. They do not enrich people intellectually or spiritually. Rather, they commit people to a "service obligation," namely, unswerving dedication to the employer's economic mission. That economic mission might involve questionable ethics or outright deceit. But jobs require people to put those concerns aside and "do what the company wants." Worse, if the employee does not "do what the company wants"--or if he simply does not justify his cost in company profit--he is fired. If anything, jobs are gloomy reward. In return for a paycheck, an employee not only must sacrifice his time, dignity, ethics and individuality; he must also commit himself to another's material gain. That is a high price to pay for freedom from bankruptcy.

But still Americans thirst for jobs. Everyone wants one. Economists even measure national commercial strength by evaluating "job creation" and "job robustness." In other words, the entire economic system depends on everyone getting a job and doing what they are told so that larger commercial interests can profit and pay more employees. Jobs depend on hierarchies and disparities in power. Some live to benefit the employer; meanwhile the employer makes off with all the money. The employer expects total dedication to his economic mission; he pays just enough wages to keep the employee fed and under a roof. The employee must follow instructions and be productive.

It is not a fair system: No matter what free market apostles say to the contrary, very little labor is actually voluntary in the United States. True, no one is pointing a gun at employees to force them to work. But deluging people with ceaseless economic obligations under threat of homelessness amounts to practical coercion. If the choice is between letting one's children starve and taking an unfair job somewhere, is it really a choice?

If the field is so tilted, why does everyone want a job? If jobs are inherently unfair, coercive and wasteful, why does the White House tout them as the ultimate measure of national success? Does it not say something about our collective life expectations that we view our jobs as the highest expression of who we are? After all, most jobs are quintessentially counter-creative and anti-individualist. To understand that, consider that in American discourse it is often possible to replace the question "Who are you?" with "What do you do?"

Language relating to employment paints a bleak picture. It tells a story of banality, wasted time and exploitation. By investigating a few common words that regularly appear in the employment context, we see an oppressive, anti-individualist motif at work. And in the process, we begin to understand that the whole mythology surrounding "jobs" in America is exactly that: An elaborate hoax that sustains itself on false expectations and wretched servility.

Let us begin with the most obvious example: "Job." The word "job" is ubiquitous in modern American discourse. We cannot escape it. We even think we know what a "job" means; we visualize some guy slapping on a Starbucks apron and serving up mocchachinos for $5.50 a pop. But do we really understand the word? Where does it come from? What does it tell us? Is it really the sacred thing the propaganda tells us it is? Is it really the thing that determines our strength as a nation? Is it the be all and end all of our lives?

Let us look.

No one can agree on "job's" precise etymology. Most scholars agree, however, that "job" relates to the Middle English word "gobbe," meaning a "lump or mass of something," like clay, mud or grime. Dictionary.com says that "gobbe" did not imply "work" in 1400. But by the 17th Century, it began to assume a new meaning. Specifically, it meant a "specific, discrete piece of work done for an agreed-upon price." That distinguished it from long-term employment; jobs were "petty" and "inconstant." The handyman did "jobs," while the priest had a "profession." A person with a "job" was common trash. The fact that the word relates to "gob" tells almost the whole story. Jobs are grimy, unsavory and despicable ways to spend time. They are like lumps of filth with which people contend every day for a few lousy shillings. And they have always occupied the lowest spot on the "employment hierarchy." Only the meanest types worked "jobs." "Better people" spent their time with "professions" or "callings."

In this historical context, who would ever want a "job?" The etymology tells a nasty story. Only common rogues would deign to be "jobbers" slaving away at their daily lumps. What a horrible way to spend a life. While the word "job" may have taken a more neutral meaning over time, etymology never lies. It is indisputable that the word "job" reflects low social standing and abject surrender to a superior master. Only the most wretched people did "jobs" in the past, like cleaning privies or washing horse dung. Yet now Americans fetishize jobs. Who would have ever thought that so many Americans would have wanted to be the linguistic successors to Elizabethan shit sweepers?

Other employment-related words do not really improve the overall linguistic image. Those fortunate enough to avoid having a "job" might have a "career" instead. Like "job," "career" has become ubiquitous in American discourse. And like "job," Americans think they know what a "career" is. They also understand that "careers" are somehow "better" than jobs. They might not know why; it just seems that "career people" make more money than common slugs with "jobs."

But from an etymological perspective, "careers" are just as pernicious as jobs. While "career" has always elevated itself over "job," both concepts do the same thing: They voraciously consume time. "Career" especially implies a lifetime dedication to a chosen economic pursuit. It derives from the Latin word "carriara," meaning a "road intended for vehicular transport." See Dictionary.com, v. 1.1. "career" derivation. The dictionary's definitions stress "career's" temporal demands: "1. An occupation or profession, esp. one requiring special training, followed as one's life work; 2. A person's progress or general course of action through life or a phase of life." Id.

On its face, "career" does not necessarily imply economic service to a private master. But in American discourse, it does. People go to "Career Schools" and learn how to "prepare for their careers." They hear that it is "great to have a career" and that losing a career is worse than death. In all these usages, "career" implies dedication to a particular economic mission. It is wonderful to have a "life's work" if you believe in it, but how many "careers" really inure to individual benefit? A corporate "career," for instance, is not about the worker; it is about the corporation. A lawyer's "career" is about purposeful economic activity, not individual enrichment or creativity. In this light, "careers" in American discourse paint a disheartening image: They show people slavishly dedicated to a particular economic master for their entire lives. While "career people" may need special training to have a "career" rather than a "job," and while they may earn more money at longer engagements than "jobbers," they are no better in dignity. After all, to have an American-style "career," you have to give up your life to a "particular course of action;" you must "get on the road." In most cases, that means disciplined, directed service to a private economic master. If you do that, what time do you have left for yourself? Very little, if any. In this sense, "careers"--like jobs--generally reflect an essential hostility to individuality and creativity, as well as dedication to superior economic masters. And that is exactly how it is supposed to work, too.

American discourse about employment reveals its hierarchical function through other words, too. Beyond the basic distinction between "jobs" and "careers," there are also "professions." In modern American usage, "professions" are "special careers" that involve some unique learning or discipline. They pay more than other careers and certainly more than mere jobs. "Professions" even conjure mystical connotations because they involve special skills that average people cannot even fathom. "Professionals" use highly specialized language. They ply highly specialized procedures to obtain almost miraculous results. Generally, they go to school for a very long time before going into business. And on that basis they demand more money for their services. The word "profession" is all about "exclusivity:" Not everyone can be a "professional." We cannot all be so smart or skilled. If we were, we could pull our own teeth or conduct our own trials--that would not be good for dentists and lawyers.

"Profession's" etymology bears out these colloquial connotations. The word derives from the Latin "professio," meaning the "taking of the vows of a religious order." Dictionary.com v. 1.1 (profession etymology). In modern usage, the word means: "1. A vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science." Id. Professionals, then, are modern-day mystics. Their very name invokes a "religious order." But they are not free spirits; they "took oaths" to the "religious order." This commits them to their "craft," or--in modern terms--their "knowledge of some department of learning or science." And they are essentially secretive: Not everyone can join a secret religious order, let alone master its complicated rituals or rites.

In practical terms, there is not much difference between a "career" and a "profession." Both refer to constant work for pay, most likely in the service of a private master. In that sense, "professions" consume time even more than simple "careers." Some "professions" genuinely do good. But in most cases, "professionals" band together to maximize their profits by exploiting public need for their "special knowledge." And in America, people do not become professionals to do good. They become professionals because they want "high-paying careers." In the process, they commit themselves to the profession's narrow "department of learning or science" for their entire lives, ruling out all else. Like jobs and careers, then, professions work strongly to suppress individuality and creativity. There is simply no time for anything but the profession--and profiting from it.

Finally, there is a general word that applies to almost all employment-related terms: Occupation. In many ways, occupation perfectly summarizes the temporal difficulties involved in employment. It is a relatively simple word; the subtlety lies in the imagery.

Occupation derives from the Latin "occupare," literally meaning to "occupy." But beyond the familiar "occupation," the word implies a "taking of possession of time or space." There is an element of both superior power and control in the word. It implies that someone or something takes possession. Obviously, anyone or anything possessing someone or something else is superior to the person or thing possessed. In this sense, "occupation" requires a subject and an object, a dominant element and a subordinate element. There is an "occupier" and an "occupied object." It is all about power.

These are revealing insights when applied in the employment context. After all, if a person has an "occupation," who is occupying and who is being occupied? Does the work "possess" the worker, or does the worker "possess" the work? I would venture that the work possesses the worker. It possesses his entire being, including his mind, his time, his creative strength and his focus. He allows someone to occupy him for pay. But he sacrifices his dignity in exchange. It is fundamentally submissive. And it confirms the essential power struggle that pervades all employment relationships: Someone occupies; another is occupied. The occupier profits by occupying the occupied object; the occupied object receives "compensation" for allowing the occupation. Yet make no mistake: It is always the occupier who holds the power, just as a carpenter holds power over his tools.

Where does all this leave us? It leaves us with an ugly picture about employment. American employment propaganda tells us that we should all want jobs or careers. Or a career of jobs. Or maybe a profession, or a professional career. Or at least an occupation. But if we understand what those words actually mean, we should hesitate before so zealously pursuing them. Jobs are just gobs of nasty filth. Careers are time thieves. Professions are hypnotizing, mind-narrowing cults. And occupations are invitations to be "possessed" or "owned." They are all about surrender. They are all about submission.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe we're supposed to surrender and just do what we are told. After all, the White House says we're a stronger nation when we all have jobs.

That is pretty scary if you ask me. Then again, not everyone reads the dictionary like I do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article, glad I finally got to read it!