Revisiting the Alienation of LaborPosted: February 8, 2014
“Capitalism is what happens when property rights are respected — nothing more, nothing less. It is the voluntary self-organization of economic affairs.”
[The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory at Amazon]
At the risk of doing an injustice to Mr. Loy’s argument, the fullness of which cannot easily be communicated in this limited space, it must be understood that the thing that worries him here is not optional. “Manipulating the world in order to get what we want from it” is a pretty good definition of work, which is fundamental to our lives, so much so that in most of the ancient religions it is regulated in much the same way as sex and diet. Buddhism has a very developed philosophy of work — “right livelihood” being one of the requirements of the Eightfold Path — while the Christian story of the Fall is in the end an attempt to explain why we must labor: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” What happens in the meantime? “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” The message is the same elsewhere: The literal meaning of “karma” is “work.”
The problem of work, and the related problem of unemployment, is per Mr. Loy’s observation one in which the collective experience is recapitulated at the individual level. Unemployment at the individual level often is traumatic: Economic stress is difficult in and of itself, but it also can disturb family life, may lead to isolation from one’s friends and community, and may provide an occasion for shame, even when that shame is unjustified. Because we are the richest people that human civilization ever has seen, there is no reason for anyone to go wanting for the mere essentials of subsistence; because we are the richest people human civilization ever has seen, it is very difficult to be satisfied with the mere essentials of subsistence.
From a historical point of view, there are effectively no poor people in the United States or Western Europe. Those who go without shoes or sleep on the streets do so almost exclusively for psychiatric rather than economic reasons. (Our wealth makes their neglect more of a scandal, not less of one.) At the national level, mass unemployment constitutes a heavy brake on the economy…