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“The powerlessness of the workers is not merely a ruse of the rulers but the logical consequence of industrial society, into which the efforts to escape it have finally transformed the ancient concept of fate.”

– Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic Of Enlightenment. 1944/1947. Translated by  Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

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“Jail and the Workingman.” Kingston Daily Standard. Editorial. October 9, 1912. Page 04.

According to the annual return of Governor Corbett, of the county jail, there was a total of 162 prisoners committed during the year ending the 30th September 1912, of whom eight were females. The occupations of these prisoners were: Baker, 1; blacksmith and boilermaker, 1; bricklayers, 1; butchers, 1; cabinet makers, 5; carpenters, 8; cigar makers, 2; clerks, 1; engineers, 1; farmers, 3; hotelkeepers, 1; laborers, 109; masons, 1; moulders, 2; painters, 2; sailors, 1; servants, 6; teamsters, 1; tinsmiths, 1; woodworkers, 1; no occupation, 7; soldiers, 2.

In looking over these figures one is at once struck with the large number of laborers, 109, as against 49 of all other occupations. Two-thirds of the whole number are laborers. It may be said that laborers constitute the majority of working people and for that reason the proportion constitute the majority of working people and for that reason the proportion is not out of the way. That probably is true, but laborers do not make up two-thirds of the population of Kingston, and there are not 109 times as many laborers as there are bakers, or blacksmiths, or clerks or engineers or masons; for we find only one of each of these classes of workmen in jail during the year. The number of laborers imprisoned is clearly out of all proportion to their number in the community.

Only one explanation can be offered for this condition of affairs. A lack of education is at the bottom of it. A boy who is allowed to drift through school and leave it at an early age and is then placed at some work which leads to no trade, business or profession lands among the class of laborers when he reaches man’s estate. He is without a trade or business training and almost always without education except the merest rudiments of it.

The parent who thus neglects his child, who fails to make him attend school or who does not send him to learn a trade or business is almost criminally blameworthy. In Canada there is no excuse for allowing any boy to drift into the class of laborers. Here, there is every chance for any boy to get a fair education or to learn a trade. In the first place, it is the fault of his parents, in 99 cases out of a hundred if the boy does not get that chance; in the second place it is the fault of the State for for not passing and enforcing such laws as will compel the parents to look to the welfare of their children by seeing either that they are properly educated for the professions or are taught a business or trade. Our foreign immigration will provide us with all the laborers we need; it is a disgrace to Canada to have any of her sons among the class of criminal laborers, not because labor is not honourable, but because the people of Canada should be educated to work of a higher nature than that of the mere laborer.

The statistics furnished by Governor Corbett shows that of the 162 prisoners, 12 are Canadians – that is just 112 too many.

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“In so far as education has proved successful, in repressing vagrancy, I would answer, (without intending disparagement of the benevolent intentions of the projectors of the
scheme, or the zeal of the officials employed in its administration) No! 

The children of the dissolute and careless remain, to a great extent, outside its influences; progressing to crime and vagrancy is expanding yearly into still more frightful
dimensions, presenting now too alarming an aspect not to call for prompt and grave consideration
in the proper quarter. 

In the neglect of the proffered advantages of education, the children are frequently
to blame; but the parents are more generally the guilty party. Had they the welfare of
their offspring at heart, they would compel their attendance at school, where the opportunities
were available; but, instead of doing so, they, too often, not only connive at their
truancy, but absolutely encourage it, and find for them, instead, occupations calculated to
make them idlers and rogues; the children thus growing up pests to society, shunning
alike industry and education. 

Those who have gardens within a city, know the aptitude of the vagrant boys to strip
them of everything worth carrying off; and the owners of’ house property are aware, to
their cost, of the sharp artillery practice of this class, when the destruction of the windowglass
of their untenanted houses has to be accomplished. 

The encouragement given to vice, through the random charity bestowed in the public
streets on the “please give me a copper” class of vagrants, is much greater than the
benevolent contributors are generally aware of. The quantity of poison, yelept whiskey;
bought in a week or month with the alms thus given, would make a frightful flood, if collected
in one reservoir. 

Not alone by the parents and their vile associates the baneful beverage thus obtained
is consumed. hie youthful mendicant through whose doleful whines it had been procured, is also a partaker of it, and the harrowing spectacle of the innocence of childhood degraded,
through the example of the parents, to the level of brutality, may be witnessed on walking
through the slums inhabited by this wretched class, in the vagrant of some seven or eight
summers, the tyro drunkard, proud of mimicking, in its little maudlin swagger and hiccup,
the daily action of the miserable parent. 

Should any imagine that the picture here is overdrawn, let them but refer to the police
authorities of our populous cities, and they will receive the saddening confirmation of it.
It is, perhaps, whilst his heart is filled with the courage inspired by the liquor, the
youthful beggar first attempts a higher part in the role of vagrant life. The fear of being
pounced on by some lynx-eyed police officer, is no longer before his fuddled vision.  In
strolling about lie comes across something which his infant intelligence tells him can be
turned into money; he sneaks off with it unseen, and reaches home with it, undetected, where, through the agency of a “receiver,” or the accommodating officers of the grogseller,
it is speedily converted into whiskey.

From thus picking up small waifs on the wharves and market places, carrying home
“stray ” sticks of cordwood, taking off keys carelessly left in doors and such small beginnings,
the vagrant acquires confidence by success, creeping up into the bigher walks of
pickpocket, burglar, counterfeiter, in short everything which an adept in his profession
may aspire to until filling a cell in the Penitentiary…or a felon’s grave. 

The end so shocking, what was the beginning? Too generally, Vagrancy!


If the vagrant is to be reclaimed and the public spared the injury and cost of his misdeeds, some organized agency for the purpose is requisite.

This must necessarily be a state institution. The support desirable from private
beneficence is to uncertain to base on it the maintenance of a permanent undertaking. 

While simply pointing out the necessity that exists for some salutary measure, I do
not intend to enter upon the details of its organization, these would necessarily follow on
the adoption of the principle. 

The plans devised in those older countries, where vagrancy has been a subject of
state legislation, would supply the best information that made valuable by experience. 

That mode of treatment would best succeed, which would be gentle and compassionate.
The proceedings of the tribunal before which the vagrant should be brought for
examination, should be different from those pursued towards adult prisoners, and divested
of the exposure consequent on actual crime. 

The detectives employed (men tender and considerate) should be a body distinct from
the civic police, not alone in the duties discharged, but in the externals of dress. 

The vagrant, when taken up, should not be confined in an apartment used by the
criminals or disorderly classes, nor examined at the same time, or at the same place, with
them. Every harsh and repulsive feature should be put aside, that could give the appearance
of criminal prosecution to this first movement of benevolence in behalf of the vagrant.
The case should be enquired into in the presence of the parents, if the vagrant have
any, and they could be found; and every information possible should be obtained, in the
meantime, touching their reputation and habits. 

As, with every other scheme proposed for public consideration, objection may be made
to this one, on the ground of its expense, there need be but little room for this objection,
I imagine. 

Thus officers, one of them holding rank over the others, and competent to keep the
records of the department, and an office in which to keep these, which would also answer
for the Court, would constitute the bulk oi the expense, and this simple arrangement
would, at least for the present, embrace the necessary machinery for working the system. 

There are benevolent institutions at present in operation in Toronto which, under
suitable arrangements, would be found adequate to give the experiment a trial, and at
very small cost, I would suppose.
In the “ Boys’ Home,” an institution founded by some benevolent ladies of that city, and which has already done much to check the evil which is the subject of these remarks, would probably be found at least for some time a refuge for those vagrants of the Protestant
faith, and in the Reformatory Farm School, established by His Lordship the Catholic
Bishop of Toronto, would, I have no doubt, be received, those belonging to the Catholic
body. 

The establishment of such a tribunal and its machinery would, I have little doubt, be
hailed by many a sorrow-stricken parent as a blessing.
For the refractory youth-so often spoiled by blind indulgence, who does truant shuns from school and the parental roof, and associates with none but the worst of companions, and over when the parents have lost all influence, yet whom they cannot bring themselves to place in a prisoner’s dock; this tribunal and its-sentence of committal to a
strange but benevolent home, would be a merciful recourse, and, in all probability, restore
many a repentant prodigal to welcoming parents.”

– Inspector Terence O’Neil, “SEPARATE REPORT FOR THE YEAR 1864,” Annual Report of the Board of Inspectors of Asylums, Prisons &c for the year 1864. Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada, Sessional Papers No. 14, 29 Victoria, A. 1865. pp. 79-82

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“The Polish Workers’ Paradise,” Montreal Gazette. September 2, 1980. Page 07.

Poland’s crisis is a forerunner of what could happen in the Soviet Union

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unearthedviews:

TURKEY. 1998.
Renault cars factory.

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“Shipyard workers at Gdansk defy Polish leader Edward Gierek’s orders to return to work,” Montreal Gazette. August 27, 1980. Page 07.

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“Calling someone a “hipster” is a license to spew all kinds of demented hate. Since the term carries connotations of slackers and trust funds, the image of “hipsters on food stamps” is designed to provoke the conclusion that someone is lazily taking advantage of the system. Certainly that was how things played at the blogof the libertarian Reason magazine, which mocked the notion that someone might both deserve economic assistance and make art and wear odd clothes.

One wouldn’t expect any better from libertarians, who have built an entire ideology around the worldview of twelve-year-old boys. But they aren’t the only people who react to stories like this with rage or contempt rather than empathy. Consider the following comment, left under my friend’s response to the article about him:

I’m sorry but you are a selfish, whiny leach. I can say this because I a middle-aged woman and have been trying to find work for two years without success though I have a masters degree in a fairly desirable field. I have dwindling savings and two kids. Because I stayed home with them for a few years I don’t qualify for unemployment and that has also damaged my marketability in the job world. Despite all of this I have never resorted to public assistance and will not. In addition, I have a back problem that surgery did not correct so I am in physical pain 24 hrs a day. Still I have taken temp jobs and we have cut back in many ways. I am proud of my fortitude and resourcefulness, because we will make it through this time and my kids will learn valuable lessons from me about self-reliance.

Here we have a person who has been marginally employed for two years and suffers physical pain twenty-four hours a day — and rather than demanding something better for herself, she demands that other people suffer more!

Vicious and unhinged discourse is widespread on the Internet, but this example is worth noting because the sentiment it expresses is by no means unique. This attitude — a petty and mean-spirited resentment — is depressingly common even among the working class. It sometimes seems to amount to no more than the sentiment that justice consists in everyone else being at least as miserable as you are. At one level, it’s an attitude that reflects diminished expectations, and can be partly blamed on the weakness of the Left and the defeat of its historical project: when you don’t believe any positive social change is possible, there’s little left to fall back on but bitterness and resentment.

This resentment is also at the heart of a lot of hating on “hipsters.” People see others whom they perceive to have lives that are easier, cooler, or more fun than theirs, and instead of questioning the society that gave them their lot, they demand conformity and misery out of others.

But why? The false (but not without a grain of truth!) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but even if it were accurate it wouldn’t make the attitude of contempt any more sensible. For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hardworking or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification.

This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?

The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class.

After years of struggle, discipline was imposed on pre-capitalist people who rejected regimented “clock time” and were prone to take a holiday on “Saint Monday’s day” whenever they had been too drunk the Sunday before. In America, a Protestant ethic equating work, salvation, and moral virtue arose in an economy full of artisans and small farmers, and was maintained only with great difficulty through the transition to more grueling and alienated forms of industrial labor.

In the twentieth century, perpetual war and labor’s Fordist compromise with capital provided a moral and material justification for the work ethic: during wartime (hot or cold), work could be equated with the patriotic struggle for national preservation, while the postwar golden age rested on an understanding that if workers submitted to capitalist work discipline, they would be rewarded with a share in the resulting productivity increases in the form of rising wages.

Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The Right, including its latest Tea Party iteration, presents itself as the defender of the hardworking many against the slothful and indolent. To take just one recent example, a Republican candidate for governor of South Carolina has proposed mandatory drug testing for recipients of unemployment insurance, echoing an early proposal from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

On the Left, the rhetoric of “working people” and “working families” is ubiquitous; indeed, in the wake of Clinton’s assaults on the welfare state, it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.” So New York State’s social democratic quasi–third party calls itself the “Working Families Party,” and the union-led One Nation march in Washington promotes the slogan “Putting America Back to Work.”

Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political left and right is ambiguous.

But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages.

With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs — food and shelter — are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to — and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than — betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl.

This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.

Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system. He may well have contributed more than our anonymous commenter in her temp jobs, if they were anything like some of the temp assignments I’ve had: entering rejected applications for health insurance into the insurance company’s computer, for example, a tiny step in an inhumane decision made by an industry that should not even exist.

Note, moreover, that the commenter’s defense of her worth was based on her temp jobs and refusal of public assistance, and not on one of the few activities that is widely agreed to be valuable and necessary human labor — raising children.

In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work.

And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.

The threads of a different ethic are all around us, if we begin to think of all the subtle ways in which our activities contribute to social wealth outside of paid labor.

Feminists were the pioneers, showing how all of capitalism, and all of human history, was predicated on a vast and invisible structure of reproductive labor performed mostly by women, mostly not for wages. The rise of new ideologies of communal production, like Open Source and Creative Commons, have revealed how much is possible without the wage incentive. Even the great new robber barons of the digital age, Google and Facebook, are instructive. Their value rests, on the most basic level, on the work of millions of users who provide content and information for free.

If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself.

The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like food stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic — whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the nineties or hipsters on food stamps today.

Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked.”

– Peter Frase, “Resenting Hipsters.Jacobin, January 1, 2011. 

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