Belaboring the PointRonald KL Collins
You’re beginning to be a nuisance with all these scrapes you get yourself into.
So a Le Puy policeman warned Simone Weil in January of 1932, this for stirring up the passions of the unemployed. The headline in the local paper, the La Croix, certainly must have caught the eyes of teachers, parents, students and townsfolks: Lady Lycée Teacher Stirs up Le Puy’s Unemployed. As the paper portrayed her, this “red virgin of the tribe of evangelists of the gospel of Moscow” was inciting workers and creating an uproar. Despite some parental complaints against the Le Puy teacher, Weil was unapologetic: “I don’t care if I get myself sacked!,” she told her students. In time, she went to work as a worker, first in an electrical factory, then in a stamping press factory, and thereafter at Renault factory.
This experiential side of Weil’s thought opened the windows of her mind to the real workings of human labor. Once opened, she viewed labor in more psychological, political, philosophical, and ultimately spiritual terms. She moved beyond theory to practice, beyond Marx and Marxism to realism – the reality of work and the forces that govern it. Work cleared the crust of abstractions from her mind; it moved her to focus on the workings of the body and the human spirit. “When I think that the great Bolshevik leaders proposed to create a free working class and that doubtless none of them . . . had ever set foot inside a factory . . . politics appears to me to be a sinister farce,” is how Weil summed it up.
In that move, certain words informed Weil’s thoughts about labor: hierarchy, mass production, mechanization, progress, quantity, force, and science. There were other words, to be sure, but let us begin with those words, the very ones that first stirred passions and then stimulated minds.
Automatic machines present the most striking image . . . [of] a paradoxical situation; namely, there is method in the motions of work, but none in the mind of the worker.Simone Weil, “Theoretical Picture of a Free Society”
The wheels of change came with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Spurred on by the invention of the steam engine and various mechanized tools that followed, modernity began. But the real turn to tomorrow and the mechanization of labor came in the 20th century as ever more machines performed more complex operations once left to skilled workers. Electricity sped up the entire process; hence the obsession with quantity.
In this machine-driven process, and as cultures were reshaped to serve the emerging technologies, the idea of progress itself took on new and revolutionary meaning. So, too, with the idea of value. As working men and women began to tend to the needs of machines, the idea of meaningful human labor was likewise reconfigured. All of this raised questions – sociological, political, economic, and philosophical:
- What is the relation of people to progress?
- What is the relation of humans to machines?
- What are the values of production, what counts, what does not?
- How does the modern mechanization of labor affect the governance of labor?
- What is the role of the State in the domain of private business?
- Finally, does the utility of labor determine its sole, or main, value?
From rural farms to urban factories, such questions were seldom asked as “progress” pushed its way into the modern mindset.
True: Weil’s critiques of labor, both in her early 1930s writings and later in 1943, focused primarily on factory work. By either measure, if one steps back from there and takes a longer look, what is at really stake in the commodification of work is the dehumanization of workers. Gauged thus, whenever a person is treated as little more than a tool – be it in a factory, on a farm, or in the services industry – a debasement of the person has occurred, replete with its political, sociological, philosophical, and spiritual ramifications.
And what is the proximate cause of this debasement? Power (or “force” as Weil used the term). To understand how power works within social relationships and even defines them, that was the great insight of the likes of Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Marx – how each sought to address that power dynamic, however, is another matter altogether. When such power or force is left unchecked, oppression is often the all too natural consequence, be it in the political realm or in the workplace. If it is left unrestrained, it is because there is not checking principle, there is only the power principle.
Such an ethical predicament may prompt the question: What does a philosophy of labor look like? What does it take into account? What is its method of analysis? Too often such a philosophy, if we can truly label it such, begins and typically ends with production, as in mass production. More is always better, everything flows from that. The principle of more points inescapably to the principle of power, which produces oppression, properly understood.
On the one hand, we’ve become accustomed to the dehumanization of workers, of men and women who “are reduced to the condition of automata” – Weil’s words. This is so much a part of our culture that we no longer see it as a real problem. Those who do are portrayed either as starry-eyed crusaders or radical socialists. Even if one were to concede the problem, it is one, so it is argued, that money can cure . . . as in increases in hourly pay. That said, and on the other hand, we lay claim to the creed that one cannot buy a man’s soul, or purchase a woman’s spirit, or own a child’s life force. These are truisms, or in Jeffersonian-like vernacular “self-evident truths.” Yet even such ideal truths must bow to lived hypocrisy, and bow they do, daily, in both democratic and despotic governments. The truth is breached with no less vigor than when a lie is preached.
Turn a human into a machine (mechanical or computerized) and you smother that spark that gives her life meaning. This crime against humanity is no less if it is salaried, or well compensated, or even union endorsed. To “consent” to the automatization of one’s personhood cannot, in principle, be any more legitimate than to “consent” to indentured servitude. Justice, after all, is not synonymous with any “consent” born of subjugation. Men’s perpetual longing for being treated fairly – their hope that good and not evil will be done to them – cannot be squared with the market forces that govern the workplace. And yet those are the forces that rule our world:
- A man starts his work day at 9 a.m. He sits at his desk, peers into the depths of a flat screen, and rapidly and repetitively clicks on computer keys. He takes a bathroom break or two and a lunch break. After eight screen-enslaved monotonous hours, he exits with eye strain, shoulder pain, and the likely onslaught of carpal syndrome . . . and then robotically repeats it all countless times over the years. In a real sense he is a servant of the machine; he works for it. Is the injustice against his person, this slavery to the machine, any less because he is paid slightly more than the minimum wage? Is the absence of any communal engagement with is fellow workers any less abhorrent because he gets “free” garage parking or because he works in a modern all-glass skyscraper?
Cosmetology workers are reassessing their jobs, including the chemicals they’re exposed to.Headline, Vox, June 20, 2021
- An immigrant woman toils in a nail salon for up to ten hours. She is obedient to the clock and how many clients she can do in eight to ten hours. In a day’s work she comes in contact with women of means, this while routinely being exposed to chemicals found in glues, polishes, removers, emollients, and other salon products. She, too, is inert matter in the form of a human machine that services customers. Though the pay is better than back home in Vietnam, she has no health care insurance to take care of her when sickness comes – when she suffers from asthma or other respiratory illnesses, skin disorders, liver disease, reproductive loss, or is diagnosed with cancer. Does the idea of “freedom of contract” justify this purchase and disposal of her personhood?
And what of matters such as consumer convenience and price? Do they excuse the automated plight of modern workers, such as those who work in assembly-line factories? Heed their voices: “My experience as an Amazon warehouse worker was, at best, completely mediocre. . . There are two metrics that Amazon uses to evaluate a warehouse picker: units per hour and takt time (the amount of time it takes you to process one item).”
- A group of men paint a three-story Victorian home. Dangerously, they lean from tall ladders in order to extend the length of their reach. It’s work, and though quite unsafe, it’s better than what their relatives at the chicken farms endure where life is even cheaper. Yes, it’s dangerous work but they need the money, so they take the risks. It is a sort of Hobson’s choice. In reality, it is little more than the illusion of a choice. What makes it so is the structure of the workforce in certain cultures where the value of human safety yields to the scale of price.
- Farmworkers – the world’s forgotten workers – live an isolated existence and work in fields and on ranches with little or no transportation. Strenuous work, heat stress, contaminated water, discrimination, harassment, low wages, and appalling housing conditions are their common fare. Long hours, toxic environments, little diversion, little hope for their children – they long for Sundays with God and family and time to savor moments of escape from the aching experience of their lives. Putting food in our supermarkets too often leaves them with fits of anxiety, bouts of depression, and any variety of health problems. They are uprooted from the very land they toil. While there is value in their very real contact with nature, that value is degraded by the conditions of their labor and the degrading status of being farm workers. Hence, institutionalized slavery is the badge of their existence.
Mars, Nestlé and Hershey pledged nearly two decades ago to stop using cocoa harvested by children. Yet much of the chocolate you buy still starts with child labor.Washington Post, June 5, 2019
When cost-benefit or convenience analysis (both power principles) dictates the workings of traffic in human labor, economic values supplant moral ones. In such markets where labor and commodities are sold with bullish drive, the human element is not part of the monetary equation. If anything, it is that human “cost” that must be discounted if the desired economic benefit is to be attained. Or was Weil put it: “If the workers are exhausted by fatigue and want, this is because they do not count for anything and the growth of the factories counts for everything.” By that norm, modern American chocolate companies are free to trade with African cocoa farms using child labor – as they have done so well into this century. Again: there is no moral component, no concern for the wellbeing – physical, psychological and moral – of the person. There is only production and profit.
To procure human labor as if it were a commodity is to exterminate something precious in every human being. It is not enlightened capitalism; rather, it is laissez-faire barbarism. Much the same holds true for socialism of the kind that reduces people to the means of production tied to some economic theory. The collective purchase of a person’s soul is no less depraved because it subjugates all equally when it steals the human element from everyone’s labor.
A person’s labor is more than a paycheck; it is, in a vital sense, who she is and how she exists within her world. It is her interaction with her world, and her obedience to it (more on that later). So too, a man’s labor must reflect his status as a human being; he is not a cog in a machine or a computer chip in a lifeless operating system. And as a man, he must be able to take pride in his labor and in its value to the world in which he lives. What is a stake here, to echo Eric Springsted, has less to do with monetary matters and more to do with treating workers with dignity rather than contempt, with relating to them without force or degradation.
Labor, at least in factories, is likewise inhuman when it is unduly specialized and particularized so as to be robotic. The problem here is not only the assembly-line mindset – satirically portrayed in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times – but also the worker’s exclusion from knowledge of the entire production process. Her knowledge, what she needs to do her work, is so limited as to deprive her of any meaningful understanding of the larger processes at work in production. True, she knows “widgets,” but little about the GE9X high-bypass turbofan engine of which they are a small part. While she need not know every aspect of the production process, attempts should be made to bring workers into that larger realm of knowledge of which their work constitutes an integral part. Piecemeal-type work on farms mirrors the human horror of it all –the alienation from self, community, work, and world.
In an ideal (and therefore aspirational) sense, Weil’s idea here (both as to mind and body) is something akin to the ethos of an Amish barn building. Her vision, then, is one in which each worker knows not only her role in the production process but also coordinates her role “with the roles of all the other members of the community” in factories or on farms.
By Weil’s measure, we need to reconsider the very idea of what it means to work and be a worker in the fullest sense. The sociology – let alone the philosophy and spirituality – of her thinking demands a reordering of culture, one rooted in different values, both radical and soberingly realistic. That such a culture may be impossible in its fullest sense does not deny the worth of Weil’s critique in its severest sense. To summarily dismiss her critique is to invite a system of labor to remain, in Weil’s words, a “mechanism of oppression.” When one changes the operative calculus of labor as Weil did, one thereby alters the way oppression is conceptualized. In the process, Weil’s sociology of knowledge led her to a new philosophy of oppression which, in time, took on a spiritual orientation, one about which more will be said later.
Work is boring / work is exhausting / work is not enjoyable – such is the lament of many workers who feel alienated from their work and even humiliated by it, so much so that for some it represents a slow and docile march towards death. For the estranged, their life begins when their daily work ends, when the boss’ clock permits them to flee. Clock-work – it is their agony, their lives. But “workers need poetry,” wrote Weil, “they need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity.” The tunnel needs light . . . and at both ends! Such metaphors (poetry and light) reveal an all-too-human side of Simone Weil, a genuine commitment to improving the plight (personal, social, and spiritual) of workers. Work must be something more than oppression as suffered and practiced; it must be something more than an emotionally barren domain in which there is no imagination, no creativity, no engagement, and nothing uplifting. Indeed, workers need poetry!
From such a conceptual perch, paycheck compensation is woefully inadequate; it can sometimes even be counterproductive. That is, a person’s labor must not be absurd in the sense that it lacks purpose or finds “purpose” simply in punch-card economic terms. A worker’s happiness, said Weil in a 1943 essay on Marxist doctrine, “consists above all in a certain attitude of mind towards [one’s] work . . . .” That attitude, that relation of the mind to work and one’s workplace, depends on certain conditions be fulfilled. Hence, to pay someone a “good salary” is not perforce the same as making her work meaningful or of making his happy.
Mindful of such necessary conditions, a decent society must take steps to humanize labor more than it commodifies it. But such actions can never occur so long as autonomized work remains unchecked, or sexual harassment remains unrestrained, or construction work remains unsafe, or when the power dynamic between management and its workers is oppressive. To ignore such wrongs cannot be justified by claims that workers are “free agents” and can sell their labor to the highest or lowest exploitative bidder. A captive’s choice is no choice – it is no more than the act of a desperate person.
One does not see exploitation if one is inattentive (in Weil’s sense) to the plight of the other, the captive. Every time one considers someone as a faceless other, Camus warned, “you make him abstract. You set him at a distance; you don’t want to know that he has a hearty laugh. He has become a silhouette” – a shadow of a person.
Again: What explains such depersonalization? From a Homeric perspective, as Weil expressed it in her “Iliad or Poem of Force” essay, there is this: As in war, as soon as some realize that they can exploit others without legal or other consequences, nothing is more natural than to treat workers as matter, to treat them as chips in the programs of production. When the focus is first and foremost on price and product, people’s dignity and their very humanity become expendable. In this realm governed by force, even an iota of compassion is most rare, a sort of a “gift” from their master.
Inextricably linked to the master mentality is the idea of privilege, naked privilege, unchecked privilege, the kind of privilege that claims an entitlement (intentional or otherwise) to exploit others. For some activists, the operative principle is “class struggle.” Thus gauged, privilege became a governing principle in capitalist cultures. They too wanted to be part of the privileged class. This troubled Weil. Why? One answer, among others, had to do with the notion of hierarchy, which she did not see as an evil if properly understood. It is a fact: there is a hierarchy in every profession and trade, in every job that requires some skill. But such hierarchy ought not to be confused with any form of privilege, especially privilege of the kind that is untethered to justice.
In the work setting, such hierarchy implies greater responsibilities when it comes to one’s work and to one’s relations with fellow workers. Privilege is not part of that equation, though duty certainly is. In a factory, or on a farm, or in an office, the “boss” is neither autocratic nor democratic; she is attentive in the same sense that a soccer coach oversees a team so that the players work together as a group with each doing his part. Viewed thus, hierarchy is not a form of privilege since it is not I-focused but them-focused. It is a mindset informed by one’s obligations to others and not one’s self-proclaimed rights.
How else are wrongs against the person normalized in the workplace and elsewhere? Such questions lead quite naturally to the collective and how its views shape our view. That is what collectives do; they summon us to “think” like the herd. When that occurs, exploitation becomes normalized after a long chain of abuses. So much so that few even see it as such. Thus countless wrongs have been normalized over the centuries. That does not make them any less so; rather, it reveals how severe the problem has become when so many people are numb to it when they don’t see it when they come to think that this is just how the world works. Insofar as collective “thinking” is more obedient to the collective mindset than to the plight of the person, is not equipped to seek real justice in the processes of production. To do so would undermine production and thereby interfere with the scale of profit that capitalist commerce demands.
Writ large: What is the employer-employee relationship? How ought we to view it? Does everything revolve around production and pay, around commerce and consumers? And what about national labor unions? How do they fit into the calculus of values affecting workers? What of consent and how ought it to be understood in the worker context?
To ask such questions is to expose the alienation felt by so many workers, be they coal miners in West Virginia, Tesla workers in Nevada, or chicken-farm workers in Delaware. Such questions also lead to larger issues, ones that point to yet other words in Weil’s lexicon: obedience, obligation, order, attention, and why she summoned such words in the opening and closing pages of The Need for Roots. And then there this Weilian observation from Richard Rees: “the purpose of all work is to bring man into contact with God, or the supernatural, and that physical labour is, or rather could be, specially privileged in that it is the most direct method” – all matters to be explored later.
To be continued . . .
Thanks to David McLellan for his always helpful comments.
- Jacques Cabaud, Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love, New York: Channel Press, 1964, pp. 61, 63, 67 (re “You’re beginning to be” and “local paper” and “I don’t care”). See also A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, “Elastic Worker: Time-Sense, Energy and the Paradox of Resilience,” Philosophical Investigations, vol. 43, nos 1& 2 (Jan. 14, 2020), pp. 177, 178.
- Sylvie Weil, At Home with André and Simone Weil, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010, p. 29 (re :“Lady Lycée Teacher Stirs” headline).
- Thomas R. Nevin, Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991, p. 79 (re “she went to work”).
- Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil, A Life, New York: Pantheon, 1976, Raymond Rosenthal trans., p, 232 (re “When I think that”).
- Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973, p. 92 (re “Automatic machines present” & “are reduced to the condition”), pp. 83-124 (re “We need to reconsider” & ibid. at p.140 (re “If the workers are exhausted” & Ibid., p. 56 (re “mechanism of oppression”), and p. 179 (re “consists above all in a certain attitude”).
- ______, The Need for Roots, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 52-88 (re workers, their plight, and their “moral wellbeing”).
- ______, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956, vol. II, p. 596 (re “Workers need poetry” – also in The Need for Roots, p. 61).
- Ryan Fan, “Here’s What It’s Like to Work in an Amazon Warehouse Right Now,” OneZero, Aug. 19, 2020 (re “My experience as an Amazon worker”).
- Eric Springsted, Simeon Weil for The Twenty-First Century, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021, p. 90. (re “What is a stake here, to echo Eric Springsted”).
- Roy Pierce, Contemporary French Political Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 102 (re “with the roles of all the other members”).
- Albert Camus, Notebooks: 1942-1951, Justin O’Brien trans., New York: Modern Library (1970), p. 182. (re Camus quote).
- Richard Rees, Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966, pp. 33-34 (re “the purpose of all work”).
This essay also benefitted from Maria Clara Bingemer’s thoughtful and informative book Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015, pp. 38-64.1 Recommendation