Throughout North America, a celebration of work marks summer’s unofficial end, turning our minds from holidays to harvests. This year, however, Labour Day comes amid increasing interest in the notion of Universal Basic Income, a scheme whereby funding for social programs would be diverted directly to individual citizens. Those able to live on modest means, in other words, would be entirely freed from the need to work. Thus does our annual festival in honour of labour coincide with intense public debate about the possibility of its cessation. This Labour Day, then, offers us occasion to step back from our present paradox and ask: what is work? Why do we need it? And how did we arrive at this strange crossroad of countervailing attitudes?
The terms of our contemporary debates were shaped by the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. The massive migration from towns to cities and from farms to factories across the developing world in the 19th century brought the role of work in society into sharp focus. The unprecedented social transformations that flowed from labour – the need for new working conditions, living arrangements, and legal protections – demonstrated its incredible power. But this demonstration also fueled the imaginations of those who wanted to carry the transformations of the Industrial Revolution into other realms. Communism, a system concocted from conspiracy theories about economics and science fictions about the soul, turned the worker into a Prometheus bound in chains, his surplus value extracted from him every day by malignant, unseen forces. Virulent, violent, and utterly atheistic, communism crystalized a false and dangerous image of a perfectible human person who is held captive by class structures which steal and exploit the divine fire of his work. This attitude towards work still haunts our current debates: the communists’ contradictory vision of infinite progress premised on resentment and jealousy helps to explain the simultaneous valorization and avoidance of labour that we see in our world today.
The communist system eventually crushes the very citizen it seeks to elevate because it falsifies the nature of both man and work. In Genesis, toil is imposed upon newly fallen man as a curse for his disobedience. But God – man’s infinitely loving Creator – actually takes the first reparative step towards man with the apparent punishment of work. Labour is really a remedy, a new necessity of man’s self-imposed concupiscence. Work, in fact, is the way that man returns to the harmony from which he was exiled. When we became the broken link in creation’s cosmic chain, work was given to us as the very means to mend it. Indeed, there is a kind of mysticism in work, a state of flow wherein, despite the weakened wills and darkened minds of our fissured selves, we become reincorporated into the deep, diurnal rhythms of creation. Through labour, fallen man embeds himself within the wheeling cycles of the seasons which are themselves the earthly echo of the music of the celestial spheres. Through labour, we turn in time with the world in space once again. And, through labour, we make the very curse of work the means by which earth again becomes a paradise because God is with us when we toil, waiting for us to rest with Him in the Sabbath of the week and, thereafter, in the Sabbath eternal.
Thus, there is no alternative to work – if it were not so, we would have been told (cf. John 14:2) – and every policy which takes labour from its rightful place disfigures something essential about the human person. The proponents of Universal Basic Income, therefore, fail to realize that man without work can never be at rest; their misbegotten experiment would impose the aimless lives of lottery winners on those most in need of a purpose for which to strive. For even when it offers no intrinsic pleasure – in the field or in the office – work can be immensely satisfying. Although progress towards our goals inevitably manifests itself as pain, the effort which leads us to achieve them makes us who we are: actions become patterns, patterns become habits, and these virtues braid themselves together into the rich tapestry of a life worth living.
“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” (Deut. 30:15) Every ideology which attempts to eradicate work, and every social program which aims to alleviate its necessity, promises the easy life of a lotus-eater: idle, forgetful, and inhuman. We should, instead, seek our happiness through another, narrow gate: that of dignified daily work. After all, we live in a flicker, and there is no time to chase after false dreams that would, in fact, make us miserable if we were unlucky enough to make them real. We ought, rather, to live as we should in the time that we have, for soon enough “the night cometh, when no man can work.” (John 9:4)