Wheatley Contra Winthrop Monday, May 19 2008 

En route to what would become Massachusetts John Winthrop laid out his vision for the new society in a sermon called A Model of Christian Charity. He lays out codes of behaviour and ethics for the emergent community and says that it should be, “as a city upon a hill.” (Winthrop) Here Winthrop is referring to Matthew 5:14 in which the Christian community is set apart to function as an example to the entire world, and in so doing he suggests that this group of puritans should endeavour to establish their colony as a guiding utopia. Then Winthrop explains what a successful and what a failing City on a Hill will look like, and in so doing inadvertently undermines the rest of his vision.

The condition of failure for Winthrop is such: “if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them… we shall surely perish out of the good land.” (Winthrop) Conversely, in a successful City on a Hill Winthrop writes, “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemy.” (Winthrop) Winthrop believes so fully in an interventionist god that he places all evaluative measures of his new society in its material survival and success. He does not imagine a mechanism by which the community can examine and change itself from within, and for him this is not necessary for surely should they fail morally then God would not allow them to thrive. As a result, physical conditions in the new community become the barometer for moral ones and no procedure for self-evaluation and improvement is adopted; these are the critical oversights that tilt the City on a Hill concept into the abyss of failure. (It is important to note that the failure implied is one of concept rather than substance, because the new colony did indeed become a prosperous new land to which many in the world would look to for starting anew) The society where individual worth is measured by material demonstration (as it was in Puritan culture through “signs”) creates marginalized populations who suffer the stress of being labeled inferior or wrong for conditions beyond their control.

Slaves are a prime example of such a marginalized population. Blacks were said to be descendants of Ham, and therefore condemned to slavery by god through Noah (Gen 9:25). Much of the argument that blacks were inferior was predicated on the condition of African civilization, a stance which seems to mirror the logic of Winthrop, but in a negative sense. At the time it could have been argued that if slaves were intended to be free and reap the bounty of New England then God would provide them the means by which to raise themselves up. Alternately, it was argued that slavery is that means in as much as it gave blacks access to knowledge of Christ and thrall to whites was either of little consequence due to the fact that bodily suffering was regarded as temporary and acceptable to gain salvation or slavery was an improvement to barbarism and apostasy in Africa (Saffin). For Puritan society on the one hand the trappings of this world are transitory and pale when compared to the bounty of the divine so we shouldn’t revel in them, but on the other hand, they are so important that they define if we are a success or failure, damned or saved, slave or free. We find parallels in Winthrop when he says at first that for Christians worldly possessions and status matter so little compared to status with God that we should give freely of ourselves to help our fellow man, and then in the same turn that as a community our worldly status matters so much that it demonstrates how God feels about the group.

A lonely voice of contradiction comes in the pen of Phyllis Wheatley, a slave and poet. In her poems Wheatley describes the disconnect between the suffering of slaves and the freedom of Christians when the two are joined in a single individual. The poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is especially informative of her arguments. The text of the poem is as follows:

“’Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/ Once I redemption neither sought now knew./ Some view out fable race with scornful eye,/ ‘Their colour is a diabolic die,’/ Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

Wheatley’s poem can be read as an attempt to highlight the imbalance between her moral/spiritual freedom as a converted Christian and her material oppression as a slave. The first line of the poem, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” (Wheatley) can be taken to refer to the land of the unconverted soul rather than literal land. The word mercy is particularly telling because it guides the reader to think in a context of religious language. Also note that italics are placed on the words Pagan, Saviour, Christians, Negros, and Cain further implying the religious subject matter and that the blackness and ignorance in the context of the poem is spiritual instead of racial. The Christian notion of mercy had elevated Wheatley to a religious status equal to whites. There is something missing, however, and in the final two lines of the poem Wheatley nudges the reader to fill in the blank, “Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (Wheatley) If blacks, through salvation, “May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” along with whites then why can’t they be raised to the level of whites on the mortal plane? The poem seems to be telling the reader that while he or she sees and hears of Africa as a savage place because the physical conditions in which its people live that the souls and the people of Africa are equal but for want of freedom and opportunity. Wheatley’s poems and Wheatley herself help whites break out of the cyclical argument that Africans have been enslaved because they are inferior and they are inferior because they have been enslaved. If she had ever judged herself in the terms of whites and of Winthrop would she even have bothered trying to pray or write?

Alienated Labor Monday, May 19 2008 

I. Introduction
In the arena of modern philosophy the problem of defining membership in the human community has been of paramount importance. Where up until that point thinkers such as Descartes, Berkley, and Hume focused primarily on the interaction of forms and objects philosophers of the modern period began to take a more humanist course.
It became essential to define the actors (humans) in relation to activities of reason. For Hegel and Kant this meant agents existing and adhering to a moral dynamic that was determined apart from humanity by reason (to Hegel reason is given specifically by God). In adopting a materialist stance and divorcing a moral dynamic from anything beyond human interaction Marx was forced to frame his examination of personhood in purely social terms. He accomplished this in his essay “The Estrangement of Labor” by evaluating the status of a person as a dynamic between activities (labor) and objects (products). His conclusion: when a human is alienated from the activity of life (for Marx, labor) in relation to objects they lose what it is that makes them human: “The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things.” (Marx)

II. Four Aspects of Alienated Labor:

Marx identified four ways that workers are alienated from labor in the capitalist system. First, Marx claimed that workers are alienated from products. As a result of the interaction between private property and social labor a product’s value increases the more labor is put into it. Compare say, a t-shirt to a single stage 2 MeV linear Van de Graaff particle accelerator. The labor in the first case is probably performed by a single individual and the wage paid to that individual reflects the low value of that product. Also, at the very least the worker can own a similar object to the one produced. In the second case the product is the sum of the labor of an uncountable horde of individuals contributing knowledge and effort to this object, so when we consider the worker in the Chinese factory who soldered one of the many circuit boards together, he has no idea what his labor has accomplished, he has been given compensation far out of proportion to the product he has created, and he could never hope to match the value of the product to his labor.

Next, Marx says that workers are alienated from the act of producing. Workers do not own what they produce and “the product is simply the resumé of the activity, of the production.” (Marx) so therefore a worker can never “own” the process of production, his/her very own labor. This separation of actor from act creates a situation in which the act of producing an object that has become alien means that a worker “does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.” (Marx)

Marx’s tertiary facet of estranged labor is that workers are alienated from themselves. To this point Marx introduces the concept of species-life in that man derives his being from nature both physically and in consciousness. Man’s self-definition results from his life activity, but unlike animals this activity (work) is not spontaneous or instinctual. Also unlike animals man can engage in work beyond his needs and in this way it becomes separate from his essential being and able to be commodified. This is where the alienation arises: “Estranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means for his existence.” So what should be then end of life is the means and a worker is divorced from the very purpose of his being.

Finally, Marx argues that workers are estranged from other men. He poses this question: “If the product of labour is alien to me, and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it then belong?” (Marx) Implying that if a product is not owned by a man the one who does own it becomes necessarily an alien other. This alien other who owns the product can not be related to by the worker because they did not participate in the labor process that created that object. The nature of private property comes into play in creating a division between worker and owner: “he [the worker] regards the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile, and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man – alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him – is its master. If he relates to his own activity as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man.” (Marx) In being estranged from object and activities man must in this way be estranged from other men in relation to their position in the process of production. For Marx this manifests as classes, because the process of production creates a psychological necessity for the worker to regard the owner as hostile and separate in the same way he must regard the object.

III. Resolution

How is it that if the process by which man derives survival, meaning, and interaction is so corrupt we can hope for better? For Marx the answer comes in the elimination of private property. For all the estrangement and problems hitherto described Marx identifies private property as the source: “Private property as the material, summarized expression of alienated labour embraces both relations – the relation of the worker to labour and to the product of his labour and the non-workers, and the relation of the non-worker to the worker and to the product of his labour.” If private property were eliminated in a Marxist context this would mean that the process and product of labor would be owned by the worker and therefore be absorbed into his essential being. Given that in this context the worker would not likely want to sell of what is no longer alien to but is indeed part of the worker production would limit itself to social need. Also rather than relying on an arcane web of production to meet various needs the worker would engage in a variety of labor and this form of multifarious expression would be universal and therefore relatable.

IV. Conclusion

In examining estranged labor Marx identified private property as an essential component of class struggle. The fact that the worker did not own the product of his labor creates a tension between worker and task which filters into all of the other relationships that the worker must enter into as a result of labor. Therefore, according to Marx, it is of paramount importance that private property be abolished and the worker free to reclaim labor as the essential activity of his species-being.

Working at the Grocery Store Monday, May 19 2008 

Here it is, the whole awful history, my perdition. Tuesday was “grand” opening, grand in that every one of the few customers entering the store was mobbed by an overabundance of “help” Men in red blazers with carts on the ready and loaded with unwanted adds and maps of the store. Maps and adds that were always left in the basket, to remove when putting it away, or blowing across the heavily sloped parking lot. Parking lot where carts to be put back inside always roll down that heavy slope, out of control, and away from us. Then back inside where the men in red blazers with carts on the ready stood obstructing where to we would put them back in. Corporate officials, trainers, managers, head clerks, red vests, black vests, suits, hovered over every underling criticizing every misstep, however minor, especially the minor, the ignorable. Always these criticisms were repeated three times, by each official that noticed it. Even when rewarded, recognized, with a cupon that gave a free soda drink (for which we were rabid, insatiable), it was with the same patronizing tone. Always nicknames, so they could avoid learning our real names, or reading the tags that were pinned to us, Tiger, Number One, That Kid, Jeff, Steve, Stud, My Boy.

Friday comes, Friday is the worst day. Thursday night I closed the store at 11 and drive a co-worker home across town, so I get to my home around 12. Friday I start at 8 in the morning. The schedule is being made on Friday. I want the weekend off. Traitor! Treason! It’s opening week. I don’t care. The blisters grow on my feet. A truck driver has a mishap with a hand forklift, on top of which rested twenty-so boxes of eggs. A box of eggs contains fifteen cartons. Scott to checkstand five. I need you to go back to the loading dock and inspect all the eggs, see which ones aren’t broken and put them aside. Two hours pass next to a hole in the wall that contains festering garbage. I ask if I can have a break, they ask me why I’m not done yet. I say because I have to look through 3,600 eggs. Time is long, the blisters grow on my feet. Plans of microscopic revenge grow in my mind. I get home and I rest, my heart feels its fervor, my heart.

Saturday and Sunday pass long, more being demeaned, more pain, my lower back and neck are fusing crooked, I think. I decide which clerks I like and are good and which are awful both at checking and that they revel in their marginal position in the hierarchy. All of the management has a great inebriation with its power. Saturday I see the schedule. Three people work full time, the all work 40 hours, every week. I work 36, all other part-timers work significantly less than this. For me eight hours daily, save Tuesday and Thursday where I have school and work a paltry six immediately after my six hours of class. I wore a fake mustache Sunday for halloween knowing we weren’t supposed to dress up, no one told me to take it off, I had wanted to quit in protest.

Monday comes and passes long. This charade needs to end, I’m being bled. Microscopic revenge. Paper or plastic becomes: On a scale of 1 to 13.5 where one is paper, 13.5 is plastic, 6.75 is paper in plastic, 27 is double plastic, and .5 is double paper, what would you like? With absolute metaphysical certitude please. I hum to myself, loudly, in front of management, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” I begin telling customers made up pieces of trivia, composer George Friedrich Handel invented a special bag in which to carry his compositions, a bag with handles, after which our modern grocery bags are modeled. I ask for two hours off to vote, but make it obvious that I could easily vote before my work begins and just sort of don’t feel like it. They just sort of give it to me. My aim had been that they protest and that I quit in the face of civic interference.

At 5, with 2 hours to go, I decided that it was Extreme Plastic Monday and that today only customers had the options of not only paper and plastic, but also extreme plastic. No one would dare try extreme plastic. I try to have fun, I try to get fired, but at the end of the day my body just aches and there is an infinity of hours ahead of me.