We speak of a woman “in labour,” at the approach of childbirth: the word is associated with creation, and travail. From its etymological origins, and through its history ancient and mediaeval, it was associated with farming, with ploughing, with the work of oxen; with creation (especially of food, which is important), and travail. “Work” in turn is “what one does,” or by transference what one makes, by the sweat of one’s brow.
I thought of women first, because except in the most perverse arrangements, they are not actually paid to have babies. The rest of their work, in “co-creation” (in partnership and obedience, with men and with God) was seldom paid in cash. Yet that work was absolutely necessary to our survival. Beyond this, the best works of men and women alike seldom pay very well. They are labours of love, done as ends in themselves, beyond worldly calculation. Curiously, almost everything that makes the world better is done without strict accounting; and almost everything that makes it worse contributes measurably to the Gross Domestic Product.
Consider: many governments throughout the West, including “conservative” ones, now tally the proceeds of prostitution and drug-dealing in the national accounts, or are planning to do so. (And if it moves, tax it.) This is where we are, or where we have got to, “by the numbers”: labour, with indifference to what that labour creates or entails.
The idea of a class of labourers, as distinct from a class of exploiters, is a modern abstraction. It is the Marxist poison still flowing in our veins. May Day in Europe and Labour Day in America do not celebrate work, as a spiritual good when properly directed, but the organization of workers into a political force. We have the unions which replaced the ancient guilds, in which the member is only incidentally a labourer, and need have achieved no craft skill at all. His real identity is that of an anonymous and dependent cypher, serving the interests of men with power, who serve his interest by getting him more paper money, through “collective bargaining”: a legalized process of threats and extortion. The modern worker is a faceless man, or interchangeably a faceless woman, employed in office or factory, including our factory farms. He is part of the machinery. He must be “efficient” in machine terms, or like any other defective part he will be replaced.
It is not the labourer, but the employer, who is freed today from personal responsibility. The labourer may have made all his friendships at work, may have served the company all his adult life, may live in a community the company dominates, and have formed in that his whole way of life. But a day comes when it is cheaper to transfer what he does to some prison camp in China, and there will be no ceremony when the man is disposed of. He, and only he, had the obligation to loyalty recognized in all the old feudal arrangements. His liege lord was a joint stock company: not even a man. His boss’s loyalty was to the shareholders. The loyalty of the shareholders was to no one. If the man he thought was his boss should find him, in retirement, lying in the street, he will take out his cellphone and dial 9-1-1, and the state will take care of it.
Adam Smith wrote about this, incidentally: about the evil of joint stock companies, where all responsibility is diffused. I once endured scorn, at a gathering of Adam Smith enthusiasts, for insisting on this point.
But we are supposed to celebrate this: in particular the reduction of that element of “travail” in working life — as joy in the work itself is extinguished, by the technology that makes possible economies of scale. For an economic reality lies behind the political one. There will always be supply and demand, within any system regardless of constitution, whether nominally “public” or “private.” The truth is that the modern labourer holds his job so long as he is cheaper than the machine that can replace him; the skilled worker only until an unskilled worker, or better a robot, can take his place. The exercise is scored statistically, in dollars; it is competition for price, and almost alone for price. Yet it depends upon intangibles.
That is where advertising comes in. Modern production requires it, for most of it is unnecessary, and a demand for worthless goods must be created. The consumer must be persuaded that he needs what he does not need, and thus to buy the thing that will plug the hole in his imagination. The first principle of advertising is to associate one’s product with something that is better — something, perhaps, that would be worth saving for. “But this is just like it and you can have it now.” So far as we are surrounded by advertising, we are surrounded by lies.
The advertising is both “public” and “private,” for goods and services of many kinds. Notice all the billboards and posters of people blankly smiling.
While walking about the city, recently, I conceived a creative reactionary act. It was to arm myself with a spray can, and alter all these ads. Wherever I found yet another depiction of persons vacantly smiling, I would add the caption, “Grinning idiots.” But on thinking it through, I rejected the idea. Really, for dramatic effect, I would need a large team of vandals, to do it all in a single night. And I couldn’t afford to pay them. Too, unless done to the highest calligraphic standards, it might appear leftish and transgressive.
My views have changed over the years. As a young man, I was with the capitalists against the socialists. I associated “freedom,” a cant word unless honestly qualified, with “free markets” and that other cant word, “democracy.” In a sense I have come full circle, for as an even younger man — an adolescent — I had questioned this Punch and Judy show. I was for a time under the spell of Ruskin’s Unto This Last. By the peculiarities of parentage and upbringing I was susceptible to that. Ruskin allowed that there will always be competition; he did not dispute the operation of supply and demand, as a law of nature. He argued, however, that if the competition were only for price, the whole world would fill with the shoddy and disposable. Let the price instead be fixed, in the mediaeval manner, and let the competition be instead for quality. Let those who can’t afford, do without, and stop dressing themselves in a sad tawdry parody of what the rich wear. Let us go to war with envy.
Gentle reader is invited to look around. This is just what has happened. The world is now comprehensively cluttered with the shoddy and disposable. Beneath an idealism that is unambiguously materialist, we have very low material standards. Every corner that can be cut, is cut, “progressively.” Craftsmanship, so far as it remains, remains a luxury for the rich, specifically the rich in spirit — for the rich in money are increasingly crass. Most, at all income levels, live amid a welter of goods whose cash value depreciated almost to zero, from the moment they were purchased. They are buried in worthless, unnecessary junk — nested within it; addicted to the acquisition of more and more. They have not the discipline to stop “shopping,” even when they are deeply in debt; and yet they are allowed to vote in elections.
There is, to my mind, a liturgical order, also written into nature. Habits are formed from environment, and custom accommodates to what is accepted; or not accepted. Fine buildings and splendid works lift the spirit, call us to more vivid attention. Silence improves the ears. Music, and harmony in the dance of life, lift us up; cacophony depresses. Examples are set by good behaviour. As also, unfortunately, by bad: and we are ever rising, or falling — individually, and in the aggregate.
Conversely, the squalor in our environment contributes to the squalor in our souls; the sense that nothing really matters. We fall into the spiral of Gresham’s Law, by which bad money drives out good, the inferior drives out the superior by its cheapness. Indeed, the systematic debasement of our coinage had consequences far beyond the price of gold and silver, for what was done by our governments in the shadow of the First World War enabled credit-sharking on a planetary scale, with every Keynesian illusion that followed.
By increments, the culture of inflation has consumed us, for it operates even in the spheres of intellect, morality, and spirit, replacing the gold of deeds with promissory notes; inward stability with outward pretence.
A week ago I was travelling by bus through Peterborough, Ont. My seat-mate was some kind of environmentalist, raised in that town; born around 1990. She had noticed some phenomena of urban sprawl, even around little Peterborough; the waste of so much land. This was in accord with my own observations.
I invited her to imagine what the town would look like if all the sprawl were taken away, and replaced with farmland and woodland; if the apartment towers were taken down, and the malls and parking lots eliminated; if all the franchise operations along the main streets were replaced by family businesses and — so on. She seemed rather dazzled by my utopian “vision.”
Then I explained that this was not a vision. I was simply remembering Peterborough the way it was forty-five years ago. It was probably even more attractive forty-five years before that; before the cars took over, and began inflating space.
In the comparison we see the result of all our labour. We are making the world uglier and uglier, and ourselves uglier within it. By which I mean not merely unpleasant to look at, but ever more boring, wearying, without interest. One may drive great distances on the highway, hurtling at speed, and see nothing but more of the same stream of cars, feel nothing but frustration that we cannot go faster. For we are most of us in a hurry, against a tight deadline, to get from nowhere to nowhere, there being no there there, anywhere.
To my mind, there is a relation between this, and the loss of religion in the masses — just as and where they are transformed into the masses. I have seen, driven past, vast new subdivisions in which there is not one church spire; nor any other focus from which the eye may begin to see. (Sometimes, however, I spot a new mosque; or perhaps a new mall with a Cineplex.) We create an environment from which God is excluded, and increasingly this environment resembles Hell.
It is for this reason I support the cause of Idleness. I propose the establishment of idleness in oneself, and also collectively in a counter-culture — idly aloof from the culture that prevails, contemptuous of its economic values, and perfectly quixotic by intention.
As a principle of organization, voluntary and not legislated, I suggest embracing the received, traditional outlook and practices of the Catholic Church — which I take to be Christianity, par excellence. That is, after all, what everything good in our civilization was built upon, and we may at any time re-graft from her living roots.
I think we should create little islands of this culture, and gradually join them together. They should be visibly other-worldly: stressing the true, the good, the beautiful in all things; rejecting the false, the bad, the ugly. We should create little islands of rich particularity, invested with significance in every object and gesture; little neighbourhoods or parishes in which every human being counts, and has a role to play, and is not a number; and not one man is equal to any other. To which end, we must refuse, constantly, the easy way out, the formula, the production line, the cheap copy. For the sleepwalking tedium of the modern world must be met with a joyous defiance, bristling with poetry, music, and art.
An entire world could be reconstructed around the Mass, celebrated as it demands to be celebrated, with reverence, with attention, fixed beyond ourselves and instead upon Our Lord — upon verities transcending space and time. By increments, we then communicate that reverence through our works and days: refusing to honour what the world honours, and honouring instead what we, in growing sincerity, believe will be pleasing in the sight of God.
Not to accommodate the world, but to make the world accommodate us. And not because we are better armed, but because in the end Faith, Hope, and Charity are more attractive than fear, greed, faithlessness, and despair. This was the strategy of the first centuries. It involved martyrdom, but it did win through. For when God is with us, who can stand against us?
In labour, I think we should seek to rediscover the use of our eyes and hands, of our ears and voices: to be unhurried, to do things well. Not quickly, nor more efficiently; rather carefully and thoroughly and to the highest standard of which we are capable. Tirelessly and patiently we might set about the work of replacing what is fake with what is genuine; what is disposable with what is solid; what is loud with what is quiet; what is low and sleazy with what is elevated and noble. And not for show and for special occasions, but for use in everyday life, with less and less selfconsciousness.
I envision this as an evangelical operation: each task a movement away from the squalor, and towards the Gloria. It was the instinctive Christian conception that the world made by man should be a work of art, each man and woman contributing to it according to his talents, in all their diversity: for God made no two of us the same.
From a world of waste, where few of these talents are put to any use, we should not angrily rebel. That would be leftish. Rather we should be aloof. We should keep an ironical distance from its lazy habits, its lame sentiments, its postures and poses, slackness and slogans; which is to say, quietly adjust, adapt: Christianize and re-Christianize. For almost every smug post-Christian stance I encounter is a Christian idea, that has been satanically twisted, like a street sign turned 90 degrees; and we have only to complete the “revolution,” until it is turned back the right way.
Note my re-appropriation of that word, revolution, which came to mean “a violent uprising” only after the Reformation; prior to which it was a celestial circuit, a going around, and when used figuratively of human affairs, a turning over and back, a Restoration. Note, too, the task which Pope Benedict so vividly foresaw: for there are times when we have lost everything, and we must start building anew, seizing the opportunity to build better.
Such tasks require us to pause, to think things through, to be often outwardly, and inwardly, idle. The artist must stand back, and consider what he is doing. This idleness is necessary to industry, to the design and construction and reconstruction of everything in the echo and reflection of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
For where else could it begin, except in stillness, in silence, in idleness — in prayer.