These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. Fourteen young men left the village in 1909-1911 to join the army, There wasn't a recruiting drive, they just escaped. And some people just changed their sky, as they say, and I was one of them.
- Ronald Blythe, Akenfield, "Leonard Thompson"
* * *
When I came across this passage from Akenfield I knew I'd have to write about it but I didn't quite know what I'd say. I'd set it aside, but invariably it echoed back and I'd sit with it wondering how to sort through whatever it was that kept me coming back to it. There are hundreds of passages in the book, an oral-history of a forgotten farming village on the Eastern edge of England, that speak to me for they speak in the voice of those who are long dead and lived extraordinary lives of poverty, labor, faith, and yes, joy. But Leonard Thompson's comment about meanness and how some people just changed their sky because of it, has stayed with me. It wasn't til a week ago that I understood it.
* * *
We spend the strength of our lives at work. We do not spend that strength with our families, our beloved, or ourselves. We trade our strength for pay and count ourselves lucky to have a job, to have a job that covers the bills, to have a job that adds money to save, to invest so that some day we don't have to trade our life's strength for pay. Mostly we cash the check and go back to work for others who profit from our labor.
There was a brief moment in this country where that deal meant a growing middle class and a single job could fund a family's life and men (almost exclusively men) took that deal. It was fine, except for those excluded from that ride: African Americans, women, new non-European immigrants and as ever, farm labor. The ferocity of the stupidity and anger evident in the body politic today is simply all the white guys realizing they've been fucked just as badly as they once fucked over anyone who wasn't them. Sputtering rage. Infantile tantrums. Violent hatred. It all churns forth from an immutable law that has withstood time and place: the famous meanness of employers who trade a life's strength at the lowest cost for their profit. Once it was the size of families who kept the labor pool full and cheap. Somewhere mid-century last unions broke that cycle and pay rose and then the tide turned against labor and the lie was repeated that wages are too high and so from 1980 to today the decline took hold. The first twenty-five years the pain was distributed downward, but once the middle white lost their homes and heroin became a past-time all hell has broken loose.
Forgive my admittedly brief, caustic overview of economic decline. There's a point to this and Leonard Thompson is the key.
* * *
When I read that passage above I recognized the truth of it and I saw it played out in my life, my father's life and even my brother's life (a man who has achieved much), the truth about being worked to death for the small recompense of a bit of folding money. I can think of no employer who's had an interest in my labor except for the transubstantiation of it and turn my body and blood into gold. Take a minute and run the inventory of those whom you have worked for. Be honest. How many of them saw you as a complete human being? Saw you as worthy of fair pay? Worthy of consideration and respect for the effort you bring? No doubt you've had a few good bosses, but the business itself... How much of your life's strength and goodness, how much of your good name have you given to your employers? And what have they returned for such a fantastical offering? Odds are there is some meanness in the exchange. I am not so foolish as to believe that all employers are feral thieves, but it's close. And the next question I have for you is this: If your life is fucked and stuck and going nowhere, how much of that is defined by the work you do and the strength you sell to others?
In Leonard Thompson's time, as it is today, one can always join the Army to escape and the poor do escape along that route, trading the chains of poverty and no opportunity for the chains of conformity and violence. They change their sky, but is that the only option here: the military or crushing inequity in labor?
No. There are other ways to find a new bit of sky.
* * *
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
* * *
We run in ruts, well-worn from overuse, that keep us cycling through the same effort for the same pay and time ticks on and we don't notice at first and then the catalog of ailments and the wear and tear on our bodies and spirits accumulate and the sky over our head does not change. We have debt. We have kids who are getting on their treadmill and going to college where the tuition has risen over 300% while wages are flat and well, welcome to student loan debt, and the dream of a bit peace and all the bills paid at the same time and not owing anything to anyone just gets a bit further out of reach and the strength you once relied on to push through is a little less these days.
Except you can quit.
Maybe you quit the job entirely.
Maybe you simply speak up and make the deal better for yoruself.
Maybe you keep the job and reorganize your life to point you in another direction and leave in a year or so.
Maybe you live with fewer belongings and use your job to fund travel instead of pay bills.
Maybe you wait for the gold watch.
Maybe you reject the terms of employment entirely and work for yourself.
We cannot avoid working for pay. What matters is that you choose it rather than go along with it. Your sky changes when you choose to see your life's strength as something for you to use as you see fit and not simply as a means of profit for others. You can keep the same job and do the same work, but if you see yourself as choosing this labor for the benefit you derive from it then the sky above has changed. This isn't semantics or a self-soothing lie. It is transformative and relives you of the anger and self-doubt you've been dragging around.
The waves of anger and violence roiling the waters is a sign of the impotency at the loss of one's strength and all the calls for a return to greatness are the dirge of those who have realized too late the devil makes no deals he doesn't win.
To unfuck what's gotten fucked you need to choose it and never lose sight or trade away your strength for another man's profit. Let the harvest rot in the field if necessary. Be no man's slave.
* * *
I wish you well.