What Are We Working For?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work.”

– John Berger, “Vincent Van Gogh,” Portraits

Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do.  I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival.  It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you.  Karl Marx wasn’t necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim “Thank God It’s Friday” spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides “into the city” and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings. It depressed me.  Yet I knew the goal was to “make it” and move away as one moved “up,” something that many did.  I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued.  And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations?  Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices?  Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received.  For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the…

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