The Alternative to Work isn’t Working

The work of survival, be it agriculture or hunting and gathering, though it can be hard and grinding, can also be fun and hugely satisfying. Growing food can be immensely rewarding. Cooking for others can take on a sacramental significance. The work of being a breadwinner gives our lives meaning and worth. A friend once lamented the loss of productive work in Scotland. “We have become a nation of hairdressers. We just do each other’s hair”. He was lamenting the demise of productive work. Britain has become by and large a service economy but the current financial crisis exposes the vulnerability of an economy that produces little more than a notional value to traded debt.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a hairdresser or a banker, but there are also growing numbers of people who have never worked and perhaps have no intention of working. There are people for whom life on the dole, life in and out of the criminal justice system, lives of chaos and occasional homelessness, lives compensated by drug and alcohol abuse, are all that people aspire to.

A Native American tribal chief visited Scotland a few years ago. He was anxious about his visit to the country from which many of his ancestors’ oppressors had come. He was coming to the homeland of the colonial masters who had displaced his people from their tribal lands in eastern Canada and exploited and, in some cases, ravaged the natural resources of his homeland.

When he was taken to a housing estate in the east – end of Glasgow he saw how even in this land of the oppressor there were displaced people. People whose ancestors had been cleared from their highland crofts to work in the shipyards of the Clyde and then cleared again as the traditional industries of the Clyde declined. Stone Eagle wrote, “Canada’s victim has at last found someone worse off than him. We at least can hunt and fish on our own land. We have our treaty. But you are living here in cold, damp housing conditions that we wouldn’t keep our dogs in”.

What this Native American found was a land full of “reservations”, where people are “kept”, so that the “men in suits can have the leafy suburbs and the open country for themselves”. (Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul: People against Corporate Power, Aurum Books, 2001, p 244.)

William Cobbett, the 19th century writer on farming and the countryside glories in the rustic upbringing he enjoyed, rolling about in the dirt, filled with laughter and joy in the outdoors. His childhood was an adventure of inventiveness, fresh air and work in the fields. He was convinced that if it had been otherwise, if he had been pampered and fussed over, he would have grown up quite differently. He writes that he might have ended up, “to be as great a fool, as inefficient a mortal, as any of those frivolous idiots turned out of Winchester or Westminster School or from any of those dens of dunces called colleges and universities”. Cobbet could think of nothing that could make a human being more happy than retiring to his bed after a good meal around the table with a warm fire burning, knowing that a good day’s work has been accomplished.


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