Friday, February 05, 2010

Where did all the hand-knit socks go?

I promised to write about socks. But it’s really hard to talk about the disposable culture of modern America without talking about oil, the nature of women’s work, and technology.
Let’s jump back about a hundred and forty years or so.

Once upon a time, men and women might leave the family farm in the teens or twenties to go work in a factory or a home for a few years to earn enough money that when they married they could buy their own farm. When they had enough, they would stop working in the factory or home of a wealthy socialite and return to the country where they could grow their food, make much of what they needed, and barter or sell off excess produce (or product) for cash for the things they couldn’t make.

Some men, and women, continued to work outside the home after marriage. Sometimes it was because they were good at what they did (like a skilled dressmaker, craftsman, or carpenter) and sometimes it was the family business (like bakers, shopkeepers, milliners). Some families didn’t work the soil at all, but bought everything they needed from others in their community (which can’t happen if no one is growing food and selling the excess) and perhaps the man worked as a banker, a merchant, or an agent of some sort. Just as there are many lifestyles now, there were many lifestyles during the industrial revolution, too.

I wish I could find the reference, but I read a few years ago that advertising was invented during the Industrial Revolution to entice more men (and women) off of their farms and into the factories by telling them that they needed more. People were told they needed to work in factories for money, so they could buy more stuff (products from those factories) with the money they earned working in the factories. Advertising was invented to convince people that there was no such thing as enough.

Faster, Better, Cheaper was the slogan of choice of mechanized labor. Mechanized labor could do the work of ten men, with only one man to watch and care for the machine. Coal, and then oil, were cheap and plentiful.

Sharon Astyk explains what happened next in a wonderful way:

… cheap energy has had the function devaluing human labor. This is fairly
obvious - if a gallon of gas can do the equivalent of four men's work digging
outhouses in one day, and the gallon of gas (plus the machine to use it, the man
to operate it and the (almost certainly subsidized) infrastructure to support
it) is cheaper, the value of the men's labor as outhouse diggers drops Because no one in their right mind will hire them, instead of the
machine and its dude.

Or maybe not quite zero - perhaps some people with
money to spare will see the value of hand-dug outhouses, and tell their friends,
and a small niche market will arise - but most people won't. And most of the
outhouse diggers will have to go do something else to make money. The best
money, obviously, will be in doing things machines don't do well (yet), like
helping Grandma to the potty, writing blogs about the injustices of society and
breastfeeding (oh, wait, the money for all of those things sucks... damn, the
fact that I'm not an economist kicks me in the ass again.)

You'd think that doing stuff machines and oil can't do would pay pretty well, but in fact, the fossil fuels essentially devalue all human labor - the highest paid jobs become not the ones that machines can't do that benefit society, but the ones that
enable more fossil fuel usage, because functionally, cheap energy is (this seems
obvious, but I make it explicit because its amazing what people miss) a way of
printing money - getting a lot of work done for virtually nothing is a great way
to make a profit - that's why people used to like slavery, and then they liked
fossil fuels.

In fact, they devalue human work so much you can't do the work
even if you want to - you can't breastfeed your baby because you have to go back
to work at Walmart 3 weeks after the birth (because you are needed to help the
growth economy), and you can't manufacture things things, because the things are
too expensive if they pay you a living wage - the only way they can use human
labor is to find labor that is literally cheaper than oil - by creating economic
structures that ensure that the wealth doesn't get spread around and that there
always are people who are cheaper than oil. So it isn't so much work that
machines don't do well that is valued but work that enables the expansion of
energy use, and thus, more exchange of cash - for example, being a real estate
developer paid (until the energy prices started to rise) really, really well -
because they make new markets, and make new uses for fossil fuels - all those
houses need faucets and insulation, all those suburbanites need grocery stores
and gas stations, all those new toilets need toilet paper.

(from Casaubaun’s Book, by Sharon Astyk,

And your handknitted socks just went out the window.

I see it on Ravelry all the time: discussions about why knitting pays so little. For the same reason that nurses and teachers and vital workers are paid so little while football players and CEOs get paid such enormous amounts for work that, really, does nothing.

Labor is worthless. It’s why kids have trouble getting a job, even ones that didn’t used to require a highschool diploma, without a college degree. Has anyone else noticed “qualification inflation”? While at the same time, we’re outsourcing thousands of jobs to developing countries because they are willing to work for less pay then Americans.

There’s mindset among Americans, that manual labor or any sort is considered to be pointless and worthless. We as a society tend to look down on the guy who fixes our cars, who digs ditches, who fixes our stopped up toilet. We argue over the price to do work that we can’t even do ourselves if we wanted to while simultaneously regarding that person as an inferior and trying to cheat us. (Have you looked under the hood a car lately? It’s not “dumb manual labor” to fix one anymore, if it ever was.) But then the guy fixing the car turns around and looks down on the migrant worker who travels around picking vegetables and fruit from the fields, not because he can’t pick his own veggies, but because he won’t.

Labor is so devalued that picking the food we need to survive is considered to be below our dignity. As is wiping the shit from our own aging grandmothers who can’t get to the potty. Or breastfeeding our children (Don’t you dare do it in public! You might be arrested for showing less skin than the teen walking by!)

We view affluence as no longer having to do physical labor: when you’re rich you don’t have to clean your own house, cook your own meals, do your own laundry, nurse your own kids, even raising them can be farmed out to nannies and daycares! Growing your own food is not something an upstanding middle-class person would do - It’s something those poor folks on the other side of the river/tracks/city line do because they can’t afford it.

So why would you knit your own socks? Why would you waste your valuable time and effort doing something instead of thinking something? Why aren’t you figuring out more ways to consume fossil fuels? That’s where the money is, you know. Only by using up our resources can you get ahead, get beyond the need to do any kind of physical labor.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the bidet makes a roaring comeback. Then you wouldn’t even have to wipe your own ass.


Sarah said...

All in the name of PROGRESS...and it's killing us! Lets all step back to basic, a life on a farm...Great post.

Julie the LakeHouse Lady said...

Absolutely fabulous post!! Thanks for sharing needs to be onthe front page of Yahoo news for everyone in the world to read!

Cindy said...

We've become so unbalanced, it's so sad.