I first came across the concept of “bread labor” in Helen & Scott Nearing. It was part of a time management strategy. They divided their time by self labor, community labor, and bread labor. A person should budget time to read and reflect, to think and work on themselves, to interact with others and maintain social bonds, and to work satisfying the more mundane needs of life– bread labor.
Changing social conditions during the twenty years that began in 1910 cost us our professional status and deprived us of all our means of livelihood. Whether we liked it or not we were compelled to adjust to the new situation which war, revolution and depression had forced upon the western world. (12)
The Nearings were in their 50s when they purchased several farmed-out Vermont farms in the Green Mountains for small sums in an attempt to find self-sufficiency outside the money economy. Their first thought was collective living, but no viable communal options were available. Land was about $3 per acre at that time, and they reasoned that they might sell timber for a small living, but they ended up turning to maple sugaring instead. They survived, not because they were lucky enough to find a productive enterprise but because they so totally altered their expectations of what “livelihood” really was.
The Nearings confess that they had a problem with the “social” part of the equation. They ate primarily raw nuts and fruits, excluded all domestic animals from their economy (no dependent dogs or cats, no dairy or meat products), no tea or coffee (for political reasons), and no alcohol. They also weren’t fond of dancing. Theirs was not a very lively hood. It’s little wonder that they had a problem bonding with the local social groups, preferring instead productive work and solitary reading and writing.
Living outside the circulation of money came at a price. Sugaring provided enough revenue to pay their taxes, and they mostly tried to use materials found on their farm to build with while trading the produce of their garden with neighbors to get the other necessaries. They called it “The Good Life” and it certainly was a considered life, though it’s hard to imagine it being attractive to most: crude bread or handfuls of grain, no milk, beer or cigarettes. Eventually, the beer and cigarettes crowd showed up when a ski resort opened up adjacent to their farm and they had to relocate to Maine.
Still, I am drawn to their leisure driven idea of the good life. They sought to have four hours to read and write each day with four hours dedicated to bread labor. Bread labor included the household routine of meals, washing and cleaning; organized homestead activities including capital improvements and gardening, wood cutting, and repairs, etc.; and work on the cash crop or crops. All these things constitute productive work, and curiously they also had strong feelings about labor saving machines: they were against them.
The Nearings felt that human labor alone was adequate to sustain things once all the politically questionable activities (stimulants, animal slavery, cooked foods, etc.) were removed from the domestic economy.The soup of ideas that the Nearings drew their program for the good life from is a complex one, filled with references to communist, anarchist, and capitalist sources.
Bread labor is lifted from Tolstoy, and it also factors heavily in the writings of Gandhi, although the asceticism seems distinctly New England. A few of their new neighbors in Maine, including Bill Copperthwaite and Eliot Coleman, share the same intellectual DNA. All of them, to varying degrees, thought that adjustments to our theory of value were necessary in order to attain “the good life.”
Though the Nearings would be loathe to admit it, in contrast to Marx, their value system is anti-social. The emphasis is on moving as far away as possible from exchange value by deepening the care taken to access use value in all aspects of human production, which largely places the emphasis on individuals doing the using. Tolstoy’s great political awakening in Tsarist Russia was that his comfort was built on the slavery of others. That’s why the Nearings swore off many products, like coffee and tea, because the foundation of their production and exchange was built on slavery.
The implication in these communal and individual movements “back to the land” at the turn of the 20th century was that only by staying in touch with the skills and technologies necessary to stay alive would we ever abolish slavery through better understanding the relations between production and consumption.
The Nearings sought, to their credit, to make it possible to support themselves through better labor management, matching their effort to local conditions and history, both in terms of their productive capabilities and reducing consumption whenever possible. Obviously, it’s not scalable as a solution and is reliant on an ableist view of the social contract, where all members of society can contribute equally to the production of food and shelter.
The argument that humans are not created with equal abilities— even if they may have equal rights, a separate issue— is easily mounted to answer this sort of Yankee idealism. Some division (and segregation) of labor has historically been necessary to increase efficiency. The capitalist mode, reliant as it is on surplus production, a thing studiously avoided by the Nearings, is central to the foundation of city-states. In the same time period as the Nearings, another movement for technological management emerged, and assumed surpluses would be bureaucratically distributed.
Genetically related to Edward Bellamy’s popular utopian vision, Technocracy was heavily reliant on “scientific management” to envision a future without money, a future where machines would satisfy our needs in an equitable fashion. Rather than money, the proposal was “an energy system of value” where the potential to do work was currency. Bellamy and the technocrats had a political bent more aligned with fascism with its egalitarian authoritarianism.
Obviously, there are problems with integrating humans into these proposals, perhaps making Technocracy the most anti-social idea of all. It persisted in thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller. The societal emphasis on alternative (and conventional) energy sources continues, as well as the multiplication of automation, which never seems to consider where humans fit into all these utopian plans. Machines have no need for bread.