American efficiency, American organization, and therefore American prosperity has been something of an example around the world -- at least since
A few kinks have developed in the American image since -- like the Great Depression. And occasional lapses in that once vaunted made-in-
Much like economics itself, the American attitude toward labor can be a curious paradox: simultaneous admiration and distaste for work. Surely no other civilization -- if that's the right word for this American experiment, general hurly-burly, and great adventure -- has labored so hard to make labor obsolete.
Americans long have sought to avoid the kind of labor that demeans: dull, rote, repetitive, unthinking work. The kind of brutish labor that will follow orders right out the window. But we never seem to tire of the kind of labor that elevates and expands the human consciousness, that approaches a craft or even art. Whether it was the Shakers in their neat little colonies full of music and workmanship ('Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free...) or Jefferson at Monticello, Americans have been fascinated with labor-saving devices. Inventing and perfecting them remains our favorite form of labor.
To equate labor with inevitable drudgery is a European confusion, and a positively un-American habit of thought. The labor that is celebrated on this holiday is the opposite of drudgery; it is the kind of labor intended to set us free, give us self-respect, and is not to be confused with mere work.
Naturally, a day of rest has been set aside to honor labor. If we really loved work, we'd be working -- not picnicking and taking that last dip in the lake. "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do," Mark Twain explained in "The Adventures of
The assembly line and the efficiency expert are American inventions, too, but they represent the dark side of our relationship with labor, the reduction of man to machine. For Americans, labor tends to be an activity rather than an identity, what we do rather than what we are. We have balked at efforts to reduce us to just economic units: capital or labor. Instead we look on both as just different aspects of ourselves at different times in our working lives. We may go broke from time to time, or hit it rich, but we refuse to be considered part of any permanent class -- upper, lower or in-between.
Unlike Europeans, here we tend to view labor as a means to an end, perhaps a phase that one passes through on the way to becoming just another anonymous millionaire, certainly not "our station in life." This is entirely too fluid a society for anybody to be assigned a permanent station in it.
Everybody's got something else going: The little investment on the side, the private start-up after business hours, the extra shift at the plant, the new invention or rock band that we're putting together out in the garage.
Every man an entrepreneur! The phrase "working class" rings foreign in our ears despite all the efforts of those who would like to pigeonhole us. We never did pick up European phrases like the masses, the proletariat, the underclass. ... We're much too varied, too individualistic, even quirky to let ourselves be labeled. Much as our intelligentsia (another un-American concept) would like to put us all in little boxes. But we keep getting out, wanting to make our own decisions, even our own mistakes. Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments that can be made in this country against even the most entrenched institutions -- whether the welfare system or farm subsidies -- is that they'll result in the creation of a permanent, dependent class.
In American society, community is a good word, but dependence a bad one. We're all for
The idea and reality called class exists in this country much as it does in any other, but we don't like to acknowledge it, which may explain our remarkable social mobility. For myths shape reality much more than the other way around. Our myth is called the American dream, with its hope/illusion/goal of equal opportunity for all. If we believe in that dream, it needn't remain just a dream. If we don't, it'll never become a reality. Maybe that's why, though ours is not a classless society, it also is not a class-bound one. Happy