The Featherbedding Files, Entry 8

On entropy and postwar US capitalism:

Exhibit A: Alexander Heron Why Men Work (1947)

(We should note that the very existence of a book entitled Why Men Work is in and of itself historically interesting. For the vast run of human history, such a question could never be formulated, let alone asked).*

Foreword by John P. Troxell, professor of Industrial Relations, Stanford Graduate School of Busines: “This book challenges the belief that financial rewards and penalties are wholly equal to the important task that we entrust to them–inducing men to work.”

“But to most of the gainfully employed, there is no clear promise of a prize for sustained effort, and no great likelihood of penalty for withholding it–not in time of full employment.” (v)

“True, we would rather work than loaf, and we enjoy productive work; bootless effort or ‘made work’ of any type is despised. But a general distaste for loafing is a very different thing from that zeal for hard work which is essential to full production” (v-vi)

Crises like wars bring out the impulse for hard work–but “crises are not always at hand to spur men on”

With the achievement of full employment: “we were forced to realize that what we urgently need is not full employment alone but full production as well”

The phrase “Why Men Work” may seem at first to lack aptness as a title for this volume, since the author probes deeply into why men withhold effort. (vi)

Incredible distillation of the Elton Mayo ethos: “Can we develop an aggressive willingness to share the satisfactions which are yielded by creative phases of work? Can we find ways to provide a more democratic participation in the planning of work, without losing the advantages which flow from the centralized and basically autocratic direction of the production process?

Exhibit B: Why do we always forget the “exhaustion” in Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties? Why “exhaustion”? There’s a reason!

Exhibit C: Harvey Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker” … the impression is left that the problems of the workers in the background (or underground) have been stabilized, if not permanently solved”

the middle class in general, and middle-class intellectuals in particular, see the worker vaguely, as through a cloud. One gets the impression that when they do consider him, they operate from one of two unspoken assumptions: 1) The worker has died out like the passenger pigeon, or is dying out, or is becoming acculturated, like the Navajo; 2) If he is still around, he is just like the rest of us—fat, satisfied, smug, a little restless, but hardly distinguishable from his fellow TV viewers of the middle class (170)

Against accusations of exaggeration, Swados quotes a recent article: “Now there are no workers left in America; we are all almost middle class as to income and expectations”

I do not believe the writer meant to state–although he comes perilously close to it–that nobody works any more. (170)

But there is one thing that the worker doesn’t do like the middle class: he works like a worker… (170)

The worker’s attitude toward his work is generally compounded of hatred, shame, and resignation (171)

The following observations are simply impressions based on my last period of factory servitude, in 1956.

The average automobile worker gets a little better than two dollars an hour… (how does he survive?) For one thing, he works a lot longer than forty hours a week–when he can. Since no automobile company is as yet in a position to guarantee its workers anything like fifty weeks of steady forty-hour paychecks, the auto worker knows he has to make it while he can. During peak production periods he therefore puts in nine, ten, eleven, and often twelve hours a day on the assembly line for weeks on end. And that’s not all. If he has dependents… he also holds down a ‘spare time’ job.


Nor is that all. The factory worker with dependents cannot carry the debt load he now shoulders…. (171)

If the working class family is “at best a precarious arrangement”; “as for its toll on the physical organization and the psyche, that is a question perhaps worthy of further investigation by those who currently produce themselves bored with Utopia Unlimited in the Fat Fifties” (172)

But what of worker’s middle-class expectation? … If these expectations have changed at all in recent years, they would seem to have narrowed rather than expanded, leaving a psychological increment of resignation rather than of unbounded optimism (172)

Now I should like to return to the second image of the American worker: satisfied, doped by TV, essentially middle-class in outlook. This is an image bred not of communication with workers… but of contempt for people, based perhaps on self-contempt, and on a feeling among intellectuals that the worker has let them down (173)

But in the decade following the war intellectuals have discovered that workers are no longer either building socialism or forging the tools of victory. All they are doing is making the things that other people buy. That, and participating in the great commodity scramble. The disillusionment, it would seem, is almost too terrible to bear… ” (173)

It is not simply status hunger that makes a man hate work which pays less than other work he knows about, if more than any other work he has been trained for… It is not simply status hunger that makes a man hate work that is mindless, stupefying, sweaty, filthy, noisy, exhausting, insecure in its prospects and practically without hope of advancement (173-74)

The plain truth is that factory work is degrading…

For the immigrant laborer, even the one who did not dream of socialism, his long hours were going to buy him freedom. For the factory worker of the Fifties, his long hours are going to buy hime commodities…. and maybe reduce a few of his debts.

Almost without exception, the men with whom I worked on the assembly line last year felt like trapped animals. Depending on their age and circumstances, they were either resigned to their fate, furiously angry at themselves for what they were doing, or desperately hunting other work that would pay as well and in addition offer some variety, some prospect of change and betterment. They were sick of being pushed around by harried foremen… sick of working like blinkered donkeys, sick of being dependent for their livelihood on a maniacal production-merchandising setup, sick of working in a place where there was no spot to relax during the twelve-minute rest period….

But since the assembly line demands young blood… the factory in which I worked was aswarm with new faces every day; labor turnover and absenteeism to rampant… that the company was forced to overhire in order to have sufficient workers on hand at the starting siren.

to those who object that the white collar commuter also is anomic–Swados says “this is proof not of the disappearance of the working class but of the proletarianization of the middle class” (175)

Sabotage–bananas stuck in tailpipes, nuts and bolts thrown in tail fins, raw aggression

Sooner or later, if we want a decent society… we are going to have to come face to face with the problem of work. (…)

If this is what we want, let’s be honest enough to say so. If we conclude that there is nothing noble about repetitive work, but that it is good enough for the lower orders, let’s say that, too…. But if we cling to the belief that other men are our brothers… including millions of Americans who grind their lives away on an insane treadmill, then we will have to start thinking about how their work and their lives can be made meaningful… (176) In Leon Litwack, ed. The American Labor Movement (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962)

Exhibit D: Vance Packard The Waste Makers (1960)

Climax of featherbedding fights in 1960s—and the “death drive” dimension of anti-featherbedding discourse– can be seen in Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers. Entropic vision (its epigram: Dorothy L. Sayers ‘A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand’).

Packard’s dystopian fantasy of Cornucopia City: “One fourth of the factories of Cornucopia City will be located on the edge of a cliff, and the ends of their assembly lines can be swung to the front or rear doors depending upon the public demand for the product being produced. When demand is slack, the end of the assembly line will be swung to the rear door and the output of refrigerators or other products will drop out of sight and go directly to their graveyard without first overwhelming the consumer market” (4)

The laborers in Corncucopia City: The Guild of Appliance Repair Artists “has passed a resolution declaring it unpatriotic for any member even to look inside an ailing appliance that is more than two years old.” (4) Identifies “death drive”: “Man throughout recorded history has struggled—often against appalling odds—to cope with material scarcity. Today there has been a massive break-through. The great challenge in the United States… is to cope with a threatened overabundance of the staples and amenities and frills of life… The United States… is already finding that the challenge of coping with its fabulous productivity is becoming a major national problem…” (paradox of productivity; moral crisis—”prodigality” (6-7)

*See, for example, Andre Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason: “‘Work’ as we know it is a modern invention. Work in the form which we recognize and perform it, and to which we give a central place in the life of the individual and society, was invented, then subsequently generalized only with the coming of industrialism. ‘Work,’ in the modern sense, bears no relation to the tasks, repeated day after day, which are indispensable for the maintenance and reproduction of our individual lives. Neither should it be confused with the toil, however demanding it may be, which individuals undertake in order to complete tasks of which they, or their family, are the sole beneficiaries…” (13)

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