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What’s Work Worth? On Capitalism and John Lewis

I woke up this Sunday morning worried about money — making enough of it, selling enough stories to make enough of it, saving enough of it for my kids’ school and for retirement and for emergencies, having enough of it for our monthly budget. I was worried that I wasn’t working enough, trying to balance caring for my children with the amount of freelance work that I take on. Someone has to care for my kids — me — but someone also has to earn money.

Those two types of work — the care I give my family, and the work I do to earn money — often crash right up against each other.

Then I opened Twitter, where the issue of our President-Elect’s insult of Rep. John Lewis’s work and legacy was still buzzing. A troll had unfortunately stumbled into my timeline, and he had this to say:

The tweet reads: “has he ever held a real job where he had a payroll to meet and a product/service to provide in a competitive environment?”

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but I wanted to expand on it here. Because this issue is way more personal that an insult against a great man. It’s an insult against all who devote their lives to public service, and against those who labor in small, crucial, unremunerated ways.

The first problem with this trollific tweet a person I’m dubbing “Prod-Serve,” was that the Prod-Serve decided the best way to insult John Lewis was to attack his public service. Here’s how he did it.

Prod-Serve states in his tweet that the only kind of “real job” is one where a person pays “payroll” or creates some “product/service” in “competitive environment.”

In making this statement, Prod-Serve reveals a complete and total capitalist-centric worldview. We’re all immersed in this worldview in the U.S., so it’s easy to buy into the idea that Prod-Serve’s kind of work is the best kind of work, or even the only kind of work. But you’d be wrong.

By stating that the only measure of human worth is making-a-product-in-a-competitive-environment, Prod-Serve implies that public service is worth nothing. The implication is that unless you are making a widget in competition, your work has no value.

But most work that is done, even in the uber-capitalist U.S., is not widget-in-competition work. Every day, beds get made, food gets prepared, and children get cared for — by their parents or by caring parental substitutes. All of this work is non-widget work, and without this work, we’d all die. It’s that simple.

Shelter. Food. Survival of the species. Small, unremunerated work that is required for life to go on.

And then there are those who devote their life to public service. To the pursuit of human justice. There are people like John Lewis.

You don’t measure human work in widgets. You can’t.

If we reduce people to “people who make payroll” or to “people who produce widgets,” then we reduce people, themselves, to widgets.

Which is why this entire issue is personal. My choice can’t be this choice: Do I take care of my 5yo and 7yo widgets this morning and not get paid for my labor? Or do I write another widget-article for pay? If I were a good person-widget, wouldn’t I be maximizing my widget-production? Is that really what my choice comes down to? Are we really widgets?

Do we measure a life spent in public service against widgets?

No, of course not.


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Originally published at katieroseguestpryal.com on January 15, 2017.