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Globalizing Americana: Part 6

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Americana and the Philosophy of Work

Between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday through Friday, neighborhoods throughout the United States vacate as a procession of workers begin their weekly commute. As simple as this may seem, the 40-hour work week drives America’s economy. It is through this exchange of labor for capital that Americana conditions a national workforce to the importance of labor.

American culture, then, is inextricably tied to labor. We are a culture of laborers and Americana habituates its citizens to the necessity of work. We are a culture of workers and therefore any attempt to understand Americana must be met by an equal attempt to understand how Americans work.

Generally stated, a philosophy of work is an attempt to locate the essential conditions wherein work is meaningful. In discussing how a culture goes to work and how their effort to work is meaningful, one must take note of the concept.

It is argued that either laborers work as a means of exchanging their labor for capital, or in certain instances they work for the sheer satisfaction of working. Note, I am here not taking into account forced or enslaved labor. In discussing Americana, the vast majority of the population has to work because of an acute sense of economic necessity, that is, they work because they have to. Generally speaking, only the very wealthy or those who have retired have the “luxury” of working for its sheer satisfaction. I emphasize “luxury” because such emphasis presupposes the value of leisure, something I will return to later in the discussion.

Now, if it is assumed that the population can be divided into those who work out of necessity and those who work for the sheer satisfaction of working, one may then begin a more in-depth analysis of work within Americana.

To assert that the vast majority of the American labor force works because of a necessity to work suggests that without employment many, if not all, of these laborers, would inevitably lose their possessions and their standards of living. In actuality, the loss of a possession — especially if that possession is a home, which for the vast majority of Americans will be their largest purchase — is typically devastating.

So, for those working because of a necessity to work the loss of their possessions presents the necessary incentive to continue working, that is, the motivation to work is either to amass more stuff or sustain the stuff one has already amassed, which gives rise to the Joneses.

The Joneses purchase only new cars. They have all the latest gadgets and wear only designer clothing. They live in the biggest home and have the perfect plastic lives. The only problem, however, is that the Joneses do no exist. They could not theoretically exist because there wouldn’t be enough space for all their stuff.

Americana is based on collecting stuff. We collect gadgets and doodads, trinkets and thingies. We collect any and everything. It is never enough to own one of a thing. Things are always collector’s items. We are attached to things and in time, over time, these things come to represent who we are. I am my car. I am my house. I am this purse. I am this blouse. Americana represents things more so than it is represents people.

The people, nonetheless, are obsessing about their things. The more things they collect, the more they have to work to continue their collection. The more they work, the more things they can have. And so the cycle continues. But as noted earlier, this is only one half of the equation.

Remember, it can be generally stated that the American labor force is divided into those who work because of necessity and those who work for the sheer satisfaction of working. With respect to those who work because of necessity, one can then divide this segment of the population into two parts. On the one hand, we can discuss those who work to maintain and procure possessions and, on the other hand, we can discuss those who work to maintain a standard of living. Thus far, I have briefly discussed the former but not the later.

With reference to those who work to maintain a standard of living, their plight is the same as those who work to amass and maintain their stuff, with the only difference being one of degree. To suggest that I am working not to pay my mortgage or my car note or some other bill, but that I am working to maintain a standard of living, suggests that if that standard is stripped from me I will have great difficulty maintaining the process of living. Simply stated, for those threatened with losing their wealth or their job, which – for them – maintains their standard of living, when that standard is truly jeopardized there is no longer an incentive to continue living, which partially explains the mass suicides surrounding Black Friday and other financial catastrophes. Though there is certainly more to say, I will leave a further analysis of the topic to psychologists.

The secret, however, something not even the brightest of execs have yet figured out, is how to motivate their labor force to want to work for the sheer satisfaction of working. Of course there are those who have not retired and are not wealthy and they report to work every day happy to work, to do their jobs, and they are motivated by the sheer satisfaction of simply working. Organizational psychologists have amassed millions “teaching” corporations how to make their workforce more effective. While I certainly respect my colleagues in psychology, I take serious issue with the notion of workforce efficiency.

Work is an essential component of Americana. It is who we are. It is what we do. Why Americans work and what motivates their will to work varies across the demography. What is certain, however, is that one cannot discuss Americana without also discussing a philosophy of work.

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About Jason J. Campbell