Let us first realize how unprecedented our situation is. The great Emile Durkheim identified the key new feature of modern society as its being built around “organic solidarity” as opposed to “mechanical solidarity”. In premodern societies, each household performs similar economic functions and does so largely indepedently each other. Thus, it makes sense to have a single standard and set of expectations for everyone (or, rather, one for men and another for women), because, except for small ruling and clerical classes, everybody does pretty much the same things. In modern societies, we’ve replaced this with a system where everybody’s pooled into one tightly connected economic system, and we’ve pursued specialization and a division of labor so that people do very different things. Each person has a single, tiny focus, and relies on everybody else to supply his other needs. This destroys the “mechanical” solidarity of one standard for everybody, but it creates a new “organic” solidarity around our much tighter interconnection. In the short run, modernity creates alienation: specialization and individualism erode our sense of community. But Durkheim was convinced that the cure was to go all out for modernity, and it will cure its own problems. Once inheritance is gotten rid of (based as it was on the idea of household independence and thus no longer making sense) and wealth is based on merit, our economic system will no longer seem unfair. Our sense of alienation will be cured by the specialization that caused it: new profession-specific societies will provide us with the sense of belonging we have lost. Individualism itself will serve as a common creed to replace all the other social creeds it destroyed. (My understanding of Durkheim is based on these selections.)
Modernity’s true ideology, one shared by nearly everyone, is the “career”. Every adult should have a career, and this career should be the main organizing principle in his life. A career presumes organic solidarity: a man’s career is supposed to take him away from home and family and set him to work producing something to be consumed by society at large, rather than by his own kin. This, however, isn’t enough to make work a career; this just makes it a “job”. A career is also supposed to be the prime outlet for a man’s creativity, intelligence, and initiative. His bonds with his coworkers (with whom he spends more waking hours than he does with his spouse) provide him a sense of belonging and common purpose. Career is the ultimate fulfillment of Durkheim’s vision.
Career has largely devoured older forms of belonging–home, tribe, religion–just as Durkheim hoped it would. There are certainly economic factors in this: the extreme division of labor certainly brings certain efficiencies with it. It could well be–I will not speculate on it here–that a sufficiently dense population is stuck with organic solidarity. What interests me, though, is the ideology, the fact that we have decided to regard this as a liberation rather than a curse. What’s more, we have outpaced economic forces, deliberately attacking other ways of organizing one’s life.
The romantic conception of work–that it uniquely manifests the “species-life” of man as an intelligent, creative individual–arguably goes back to Locke’s defense of private property. It is given full expression in Marx’s early writings (especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844). Of course, for Marx, this vision was an indictment of the modern system, because it was obvious to him that the wage-employed hyper-specialized laborer of his day was not engaging in expressively creative work. Similar criticisms came later from the Agrarians/Distributists. For both Marxists and Distributists, employment and the division of labor are inherently alienating and must be abolished.
The ideology of the modern age, which we may call “careerism”, has done a remarkable thing in accepting the Marxist/Distributist romanticized vision of work as the outlet for creativity and saying that the current system instantiates this ideal, at least for those with true careers. Adherents of feminism, an aspect of careerism, would no doubt take offense at the idea that they are proponents of the capitalist system, but this is hardly credible, given that they preach that no woman can be fulfilled without being part of it. Most people, of course, wouldn’t call themselves anything as radical (i.e. anything as explicit) as feminists, but they accept the careerist creed. No one thinks it controversial to tell children to start dreaming about the careers that could “empower”/”fullfil”them and let them “change the world”. When we tell these kids to study hard and get good careers so they can “make something of themselves”, it doesn’t strike us as insulting to those without careers–who are therefore presumably not “something”–although it should. We never come out and say “your career should be the focal point of your life; everything else should be organized around it”, but this is implied in the way we live and the advice we give our children.
Well, what’s wrong with telling everyone to look for a rewarding and challenging career that will make them “something”? The ideal of careerism is, after all, somewhat broad; it blesses a great variety of callings. The trouble is that it’s still not broad enough. One of the main criticisms leveled at medieval Christianity (and at medieval Buddhism, to the extent anyone but me criticizes Buddhism) is that it was a religion aimed at clergy. Its vision of human excellence supposedly required one to be a priest, monk, or nun, and it had nothing to say to a layman who wanted to acheive holiness in his lay life. In short, it valorized a far too small part of the human experience. Now, whether or not this is a fair criticism of medieval Christianity is a topic for another time, but it is quite odd that the same people who level this charge don’t realize that their own ideology is obviously guilty of it. Most people don’t have careers, not in the sense of careerist ideology. This ideology is then forced to regard these people, or at least their way of life, as fundamentally defective.
Today’s world is an exact analogue of the popular image of the “theocratic” Middle Ages: a society designed for clergy where a majority of the populace were not clergy. Today, we offer career as the priviledged means of personal fulfillment, but most people don’t have careers. Thus, careerism has shown great intolerance, or at least a stunning lack of sympathy for, those who don’t fit the careerist pattern: religious contemplatives, unskilled workers (i.e. those with “jobs” rather than “careers”), and housewives.
The hostility of modernity to the consecrated religious life is so open and extreme that little needs to be said about it. Closing monastaries and convents is a quintessentially modern thing to do (as is guillotining their former occupants). What’s really striking is that the contempt for the contemplative life has seeped down even to Catholic apologists. How often have we heard them tell us that the great thing about the Rule of Saint Benedict is that it forced the monks to work and so valorized labor as a path to holiness, or some such nonsense? We are then unseemily eager to point out that the monks performed social services like distributing alms. We seem positively embarrassed to admit that the primary purpose of these institutions was prayer and worship. (Here modernity has been more gentle with the Buddhists. Nobody asks how much of Buddhist monastaries’ resources goes to poor relief or reclaiming swamps. People seem to accept that that’s not the purpose of these organizations. Sometimes they even recognize that having an organization with explicitly spiritual aims might be a valuable thing.)
What about that majority of men (and now women) whose jobs involve no particular skill or creativity, who generally don’t see their job as a calling but mostly as a way to pay the bills, who work 9 to 5 and then return to their more cherished home life, who find their life’s meaning in family, hobbies, or something other than the job? For rhetorical purposes (the purpose of posing as a voice of the majority), the careerist ideology will sometimes say that these people have careers, but if it says that, it must admit that they are inadequate careers. They certainly don’t measure up to what a career should be. Something is wrong with these people. We may say it is their fault: they’re just lazy or dumb. We may be more generous and say it’s society’s fault for not educating them enough. What we certainly won’t do is defend their way of life. Our rulers rather work to destroy it through free trade and mass immigration. There’s something very wrong that it is becoming harder and harder to support a family–or even maintain a job–without becoming some kind of college-credentialed specialist, but for our politicians (especially, I’m sad to say, our Republican politicians) the answer is always career retraining and more higher eduction so that everyone can become an engineer or entrepeneur. This is how beholden to careerism they are.
Finally, there are the housewives, who endure as much hostility as the monks. They are the last representatives of mechanical solidarity: the home as a place of valuable and creative work, not just relaxation and consumption. Feminism exists largely to eliminate this holdout. According to careerism, one needs a career to have an outlet for one’s creativity and initiative and to be socially engaged. I am fond of pointing out on this blog that most jobs (and even most careers) involve less, or at least no more, opportunity for creativity and initiative than organizing and keeping a household and educating children. In fact, Chesterton’s argument against women having jobs basically comes down to the claim that it would dull them. Men have already been narrowed by specialization; let us not lose the womans’ generalism too. Of course, Chesterton’s goal wasn’t just to keep women in the home; he was more ambitious than that. His goal was to bring the men back home too, as farmers and artisans. Is it workable? Or is it–like Marxism–an accurate diagnosis of the tendency of careerism to distort the soul tied to an unworkable cure?
I’m not sure. I’m convinced that conservatives must fight careerism, explicit and implicit, when it erodes the morale of these other honorable ways of life. We are the natural allies of the cleric, the unambitious family man, and the housewife. Some people, men and women, indeed have callings to a career, and God speed to them. I decided I wanted to be a physicist in third grade. In fifth grade, my mother once punished me by forbidding me to read about the theory of relativity for a weekend. By junior high, I had taught myself multivariable calculus. (I used to sneak into my parents’ bedroom to read my father’s college calculus book–I needed it to follow an exposition I’d found on the Euler-Lagrange equations. For some reason, I thought this was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.) Most of the other kids I knew weren’t like that. As seniors in high school, they didn’t know what they wanted to “do with their lives”, even as the pressures to find a career calling in their souls got ever stronger. Most people don’t have a particular career calling–their passions lie elsewhere–and there’s nothing wrong with that. It may be necessary in today’s world for the man to take on a career, and not just a job, anyway, to work as if he had a passion he doesn’t have. I do not concede this, but I admit the possibility. Let us put up a fight, though, before we let careerism devour home life as a whole. We certainly should not push women, whom nature has particularly ordained to the care of young children, into the careerist path unless they have a genuine calling for it. It may still be necessary (and given how the non-work related social world has been practically deserted, it may even sometimes be desireable) for noncareer women to have jobs, so long as their maternal duties come first. Patriarchy gives no inflexible rules here. It only demands that family duties come before work in our self-understanding. In fact, family duties inform our understanding of work, i.e. seeing it primarily in terms of the father’s provider role rather than as a means to “self-actualization”.
Filed under: economy, Gender roles, In praise of dependency, My Life | 14 Comments »