I recently managed to gain full-time employment, thereby leaving behind a life given over mostly to study and political writing, but also a life punctuated by bouts of paid labor and a durable fear of becoming destitute. Despite my fear, which was realistic, I preferred the mode of living I have just left behind. It’s what I would do if I were wholly free to choose. But I’m not that free or, when better put, I’m not free in that abstract and unlimited way.
I should feel grateful for my new job. After all, the real unemployment rate easily exceeds 20%. I do need the money. But I’m ungrateful. Why, I ask myself, should I feel grateful for having an opportunity to submit to a kind of social necessity? How might I appreciate my lack of autonomy while on the job? My subordination to others? My fatigue? My numb leg and aching back? My elemental need for money? I do feel grateful for being alive but I won’t live just to perform labor for pay. I sell my labor only because others depend upon me, upon my ability to earn a wage and my actually earning a wage. Heteronomy, as we know, passes into autonomy whenever one chooses for sound reasons to carry burdens which compromise one’s freedoms.
It’s a privilege to have the time and means to read and write. That is, only a few have the opportunity to devote their lives to this kind of work. It’s rewarding to those individuals who care about such things. The typical path to making good use of this opportunity requires years of study and a mastery of the relevant puberty rituals. One might, if one is lucky, find a job teaching at a university, as a holder of a tenured position with the time needed to do original research. Some, on the other hand, can live from their writing. But this is difficult. It too requires one to submit to social necessity. And making a living as a writer is especially improbable if one is a left critic. Even self-avowed liberals work at the margin. Leftwingers are mostly outcastes.
I am writing this short essay in order to remind whoever reads it that it takes considerable time and effort to develop a defensible position on matters of public importance. Most lack that time. They also are unaware that they need to make the effort to learn about the world. They have friends and family, jobs and homes. These are, for most, decisive constraints. They occupy time and often occlude the larger issues which make life what it is. It is easy to denigrate the many for their comparative lack of political sophistication, for voting Republican (or Democrat), for falling prey to authoritarian and fascist rhetoric, for believing nonsense economics, for devoting their lives to sectarian religions, etc. But, many of these acts and beliefs are just “havens in a heartless world,” to paraphrase and expand Marx’s critique of religion and everyday life. They give meaning to the various ways in which people suffer, meanings that are also ephemeral and even deadly in their effects. It is good to remember how difficult it is to live a fully human life.
But I’ll not think about these matters tomorrow, for I’ll be at work, earning a non-living wage, performing tasks which just about anyone can do, directly participating in a system which I would change if I could.
First posted at Fire Dog Lake