You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.
— Merle Travis, chorus of the song Sixteen Tons
Back in 1955, thunder-voiced Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded that song as the B-side of a single. Soon, nobody could even remember what the A-side was. DJ’s all over the country began flipping the disc — and within two months of its release Sixteen Tons had become the biggest single ever sold in America.
Sixteen Tons is a John Henry style fable about a coal miner who’s tough as nails — one fist of iron, the other of steel. He’s able to do the most back-breaking job and slaughter any opponent. But even though he’s been working in the mines since the day he was born, he can’t get ahead. Merle Travis wrote and recorded the song in 1946. But until Ford covered it, Sixteen Tons hadn’t done Travis a bit of good.
Far from it. Although Travis was a patriotic Kentucky boy, the U.S. government thought any song complaining about hard work and hopeless debt was subversive. The song got Travis branded a communist sympathizer (a dangerous label in those days). A Capitol record exec who was a Chicago DJ in the late 40s remembers an FBI agent coming to the station and advising him not to play Sixteen Tons.
Pretty big fuss over one little song.
By 1955, when the song finally became a mega-hit, most Americans had already moved away from coal-mine type jobs. It was the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the corporation man, the efficiency expert, and brokenhearted distress about conformity — from people who continued helplessly to commute, consume, cooperate, conform — and gobble their Milltown tranquilizers and beg doctors to treat their tension-spawned ulcers. This was a world far, far, far from the coal mines, with a seemingly very different set of tribulations.
Yet somehow that chorus still resonated: Another day older and deeper in debt.
Beyond all the fantasy lyrics about being raised in the cane-brake by an old mama lion, Sixteen Tons still resonates.
We don’t work for mining companies that pay in scrip redeemable only at the company store. But we work our asses off and end up with credit cards that hit us with 19.99 percent interest, $40 late fees, and other hidden charges so heavy it’s possible — even common — to pay for years and actually owe more than you started with.
We work even longer hours than our fathers, pay higher taxes, depend on two salaries to keep one household together, shove our alienated children into daycare and government education camps, watch our money steadily inflate away, and suffer mightily from a raft of job-related mental and physical ills.
We may not do manual labor. But we work even longer hours than our fathers, pay higher taxes, depend on two salaries to keep one household together, shove our alienated children into daycare and government education camps, watch our money steadily inflate away (while the TV tells us the consumer price index is holding steady) and suffer mightily from a raft of job-related mental and physical ills.
What’s changed but the details? For all our material possessions, we’re in the same old cycle of working, hurting, and losing.
And even though the FBI may not pay us a visit for complaining about it, rebelling against jobs is still a threat to the powers that be.
The government doesn’t have to worry about rebellion much, though. Because today we’re programmed from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed to value jobs, big corporations — and the things jobs buy us — over the real pleasures — and real necessities — of being human.
The news says it every day:
- 130,000 jobs were created in July. Jobs = Good.
- We’re losing jobs overseas. Losing jobs = Bad.
- Leading economic indicators say. Economic indicators (whatever the hell they may be) = Important.
- The Dow-Jones industrial average rose… The stock market = Vital.
Every day in the media, the health of the nation is measured — sometimes almost exclusively measured — in jobs and stocks, employment and corporations.
I don’t mean to imply that income, production, and other such measures aren’t important. They are important — in their place. In perspective. But why do we (via our media) believe these very few factors are so vitally and exclusivelyimportant when it comes to determining the economic health of our society?
We take it as a given that jobs = good, that high stocks = good, and that working harder and spending lots of money = more jobs and higher stocks.
Then we go off to jobs we mostly detest. Or jobs we enjoy, but that stress us out, take us away from our families, and turn our home hours into a frenzied burden, in which we have to struggle to do everything from entertain ourselves to making artificial quality time with kids who barely know us.
There’s something wrong with this picture.
In our current economic setup, which is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, development from 250 years ago, when the Industrial Revolution got started, yes, jobs are important. But that’s like saying that puke-inducing chemotherapy is important when you’ve got cancer.
Uh, yeah. But better not to get cancer in the first place, right?
In a healthy human community, jobs are neither necessary nor desirable. Productive work is necessary — for economic, social, and even spiritual reasons. Free markets are also an amazing thing, almost magical in their ability to satisfy billions of diverse needs. Entrepreneurship? Great! But jobs — going off on a fixed schedule to perform fixed functions for somebody else day after day at a wage — aren’t good for body, soul, family, or society.
Intuitively, wordlessly, people knew it in 1955. They knew it in 1946. They really knew it when Ned Ludd and friends were smashing the machines of the early Industrial Revolution (though the Luddites may not have understood exactly why they needed to do what they did).
Jobs suck. Corporate employment sucks. A life crammed into 9-to-5 boxes sucks. Gray cubicles are nothing but an update on William Blake’s dark satanic mills. Granted, the cubicles are more bright and airy; but they’re different in degree rather than in kind from the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Both cubicles and dark mills signify working on other people’s terms, for other people’s goals, at other people’s sufferance. Neither type of work usually results in us owning the fruits of our labors or having the satisfaction of creating something from start to finish with our own hands. Neither allows us to work at our own pace, or the pace of the seasons. Neither allows us access to our families, friends, or communities when we need them or they need us. Both isolate work from every other part of our life.
And heck, especially if you work for a big corporation, you can be confident that Ebenezer Scrooge cared more about Bob Cratchett than your employer cares about you.
The powers-that-be have feared for the last 250 years that we’d figure all that out and try to do something about it. Why else would the FBI try to suppress an obscure faux folk song? American history is full of hidden tales of private or state militias being used to smash worker rebellions and strikes. In the day of the Luddites, the British government went so far as to make industrial sabotage a capital crime. At one point crown and parliament put more soldiers to work smashing the Luddites than it had in the field fighting Napoleon Bonaparte.
Now, that’s fear for you.
But today, no worry. We’ve made wage-slavery so much a part of our culture that it probably doesn’t even occur to most people that there’s something unnatural about separating work from the rest of our lives. Or about spending our entire working lives producing things in which we can often take only minimal personal pride — or no pride at all.
We’re happy! We tell ourselves. We’re the most prosperous! free! happy! people ever to live on earth! We’re longer-lived, healthier, smarter, and just generally better off than anybody, ever, at any time on planet Earth. So we go on telling ourselves as we dash off to our counseling appointments, down our Prozac, or stare into the dregs of that latest bottle of wine.
Horsefeathers! You know what we sound like, assuring ourselves of our good fortune? We sound like the mechanized voices whispering to the pre-programmed bottle babies in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:
Alpha children… work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas.
To believe how happy we are we have to ignore our rising rates of drug abuse, our soaring rates of depression, our backaches, our carpal tunnel syndromes, and our chronic fatigue syndrome. We have to ignore the billions of dollars and billions of hours we spend on mood-altering pharmaceuticals, drug-abuse counseling, headache remedies, mindless escape entertainment, day-care centers, status purchases, unhealthy comfort foods, shop-a-holic sprees, and doctor’s care for all our vague, non-specific physical and mental ills.
You think that’s how a happy person spends his time and money? Gimme a break!
Quit listening to that little mechanical corporate-state whisper that tells you what you’re supposed to consider important — that tells you jobs are supposed to be the central focus of your life. Quit listening to that voice that tells you you’re happy when your entire body and soul are screaming at you that you’re unhappy.
Here’s something to shout to yourself: Jobs suck! Jobs are bad for you!
Shout it until you really hear yourself shouting it — then get out of the job madness, out of wage slavery, out of the grind that keeps you indebted to government, the boss, the bank, and the credit-card company.
Oh, but wait! You’ll die if you don’t have a job, just like a cancer patient might die without chemo. In our society, if you don’t have a job, you’re on the skids. You’re a poor unfortunate. You’re a lazy bum. You’re a leech. You’re a loser. And really, truly, if you don’t have regular employment of some kind, you’re in danger of going down life’s drain.
As an individual, of course you can escape the job trap to a certain extent. As a freelance writer, I have. I still have to work for other people, but I get to do it at an organic pace. When the sun is shining, I can often sit on the deck or go for a walk.
The man who sometimes mows my lawn has escaped somewhat. He can schedule his own day without having to ask permission or without screwing up anybody’s production line.
My ex-boyfriend the software engineer has escaped, too. He works out of his spare bedroom and gets to live and work in the computer dream world he most enjoys.
That’s the way it was for most people, prior to the Industrial Revolution. They may have worked hard and may not have had much. As in every age, they had to put up with the savageries of rulers’ power struggles, rulers’ wars, and rulers’ property confiscation. But generally they could move through their days as the seasons and their own needs (and the needs of their families and communities) dictated. They had a direct, personal connection to the goods they made and the services they performed.
Avon ladies, self-employed carpenters, security consultants, people who earn their living selling goods on eBay, reflexology practitioners, swap-meet sellers, self-employed gardeners, contract loggers, drug dealers, home-knitters, psychics — today they’ve all made a partial, personal escape from the job trap.
But escape can be perilous. When you’re self-employed, you often can’t afford to provide yourself the “safety net” that comes with a job (health insurance, vacations, sick pay, unemployment insurance, etc.). And the even deeper problem is that society — that hard-to-pin-down, but vitally important abstraction — still inflicts its values and its problems even upon those of us who make our best personal efforts to escape from them.
You and I may be smart and lucky enough to create for ourselves hand-crafted employment that doesn’t force us into gray cubicles, 9-to-5 routine, ghastly commutes, indigestion-inducing lunches gobbled at our desks, co-workers and bosses who grate on our nerves, three-piece suits, pantyhose, and total exhaustion at the end of the day.
But you and I, the cagey self-employed, are still stuck dealing with the consequences of a system that produces neglected, ill-bred kids, frantic consumer culture, impersonal corporations, television and drug abuse as a means of numbing the pain, unhappy and unfulfilled neighbors and family members and many, many more problems that hurt us as bad as they hurt the job holders.
Is it possible, then, to create a society in which work is more personally fulfilling and fits more organically into the rest of our lives? Is it possible to create such a choice for all who want to take it?
Nearly every writer who advocates the abolition of jobs and the celebration of leisure repeats the same handful of interesting, but slightly unhelpful messages.
First, they look back to hunter-gatherer societies (who work, on average, 3-to-4 hours a day) and say, If they can do it, why can’t we? They fail to note that hunter gatherers, whatever their other virtues, don’t invent vaccines, construct high-tech devices, or have such amenities as indoor plumbing.
Writers against jobs also talk about making work into a species of fun. That’s another great trait of hunter-gatherer societies. It’s easy to have fun when you’re harvesting berries or chasing deer with a group of friends. But nobody builds precision medical equipment for fun. Nor do they plunge a mile underground to â€œload sixteen tons of number nine coalâ€ for amusement.
Finally, anti-job writers are big on utopian theory: Society could work so well, if only, if only. Utopian proposals are inevitably lite on key details. They fail to consider how to wean ourselves away from corporate job culture without coercion. They fail to note how modern goods and services could be produced without the large, well-funded — and job-based — institutions that provide so much of modern life. (You cannot splice genes, split atoms, or build computer chips in your quaint Amish workshop.)
So the questions are:
- Is it possible to have an organic, work-and-leisure culture without slipping back to subsistence-level survival?
- And is it possible to have the benefits of advanced technology without having to sacrifice so much of our time, our individuality, and our sanity, to get them?
As long as government and its heavily favored and subsidized corporations and financial markets rule our work days, the answers to these questions will never come. We can find our way to a humane work-and-leisure society only through experiment and experience. And we’ll be able to make those experiments only in conjunction with (pardon my using the cliched-but-accurate expression) a paradigm shift. The current job culture, which imprisons us in the silver chains of benefits and the iron shackles of debt, looms blackly in our way.
The necessary sea-change seems far away now. Yet paradigms do shift. Institutions do fall. And often they fall just when the old paradigms seem most entrenched or the old institutions seem most immovable.
Some of the machinery of change may already be in place. For instance:
- Although automation hasn’t yet put us out of jobs, as it was supposed to, it still has the potential to eliminate many types of drudgery.
- Although computer-based knowledge work hasn’t enabled millions of us to leave the corporate world and work at home (as, again, it was supposed to), that’s more a problem of corporate power psychology than of technology. Our bosses fear to let us work permanently at home; after all, we might take 20-minute coffee breaks, instead of 10! But what if, say, a fuel crisis or epidemic made it imperative for more of us to stay home to do our work? The paradigm could shift so fast our bosses would fall over.
- A wide-scale attitude change could also topple the traditional job structure. And that, too, may already be happening. How many parents are looking around and saying, This two-job crap isn’t getting us anywhere? It’s only a short leap from there to the real truth: one-job crap doesn’t satisfy our real needs, either. How many of us have spent 10 or 20 or 30 years buying into the jobs = good; spending = good hype only to decide to walk away from the rat maze and do something less lucrative but more gratifying?
Do you hear many people wailing with sorrow after walking away from the job world and establishing a more home-centered, family-centered, adventure-centered, spirit-centered, community-centered life? Only those few who, through bad planning or extreme bad luck, tried and didn’t make it.
Until the larger job = good illusion shatters, it’s certainly possible for millions of individuals to live more organic lives, without job-slavery. As more people declare their independence, more support networks rise to help them (for example, affordable health insurance for the self-employed, or health care providers opting to provide more affordable services through cash-only programs like Simple Care.)
And we can begin to consider: What types of technology let us live more independently, and what types of independence still enable us to take advantage of life-enhancing technologies while keeping ourselves out of the life-degrading job trap?
Take a job and you’ve sold part of yourself to a master. You’ve cut yourself off from the real fruits of your own efforts.
When you own your own work, you own your own life. It’s a goal worthy of a lot of sacrifice. And a lot of deep thought.
In the meantime, unfortunately, anybody who cries, Jobs aren’t needed! Jobs aren’t healthy for adults and other living things! is crying in the wilderness. We Elijahs and Cassandras can be counted on to be treated like fringe-oid idiots. And anybody who begins to come up with a serious plan that starts cutting the underpinnings from the state-corporate power structure can expect to be treated as Public Enemy Number One and had better watch his backside. Because like Merle Travis and Ned Ludd, he threatens the security of those who hold power over others.
Translations for this article: