Bread Labor

Memphis, TN ©2006 Jeff Ward

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.


Graceful Simplicity

Graceful SimplicityJerome M. Segal’s book was published in interesting times. First publication was in 1999, with a second paperback edition prepared for publication in 2002, in the aftermath of September 11th.

The preface to the paperback raises interesting issues around the “why do they hate us” line of thinking that was prevalent, and highlights the relevance that Segal finds in thinking about what a philosophy and politics of simplicity might look like. In a world increasingly filled with haves and have-nots, questions about the concentration of wealth are certainly still relevant.

The first chapter attempts to bring a philosophical underpinning to things, traveling first to Aristotle’s Politics and on to the usual touchstones such as Thoreau, but with an odd dalliance on Jimmy Carter, which I will revisit later. Turning from here, Segal makes an interesting point that the literature on simple living tends to largely be of a “how-to” variety. I find an curious parallel there with most crafts, such as rhetoric, whose history is filled with more how-to manuals than philosophies; philosophy is hard to come by when it comes to the productive arts.

Segal spends some time dismantling several popular selling books on frugality in the second chapter, but by the time he reaches the third he starts to dig into a core question: What is wealth, actually? Or better, what does it mean to live in poverty? His foray into Aristotle solves the problem of equating wealth with money to a certain extent, so we get to the core of his project. Rather than define what wealth means, Segal isolates some potential forms of impoverishment:

  • Material impoverishment
  • Intellectual impoverishment
  • Spiritual impoverishment
  • Aesthetic impoverishment
  • Social impoverishment

Most of these are straightforward, and obviously the book spends much time discussing them. Material impoverishment occurs when the “needs required income” falls short of what we need to fit certain basic requirements such as food, housing, health care, transportation, etc. Segal argues that rather that Americans, contrary to popular conception, frequently have less than they require because although incomes are high, the basic cost of these areas has risen so much that they wipe out most of the gains, not because of inflation per se., but because of shifting social requirements. It is increasingly difficult for people to afford houses in good school districts, or live close to where they work (thereby increasing transportation expenses). In areas where spending has remained constant or declined (food and health care, for example) the social costs of maintaining the food system or health care system have increased so drastically so as to erode any improvements.

The access to education, again, hasn’t increased in cost nearly so much as our need to achieve much higher levels to be “secure” in our income earning potential, not to mention simply being good citizens. Spiritual and social impoverishment are real things that don’t get much discussion, but I find it interesting that the Nearing’s book on “simple living” enumerates among their failures their failure to adequately address the need for social involvement and enrichment. It’s not just about money; in fact, poverty is quite a variegated problem.

Most interesting to me, however, is the inclusion of aesthetic impoverishment as a crucial factor. The lack of beauty in our lives was also an overriding concern of William Morris, and is deserving of much discussion. But the first part of the book is largely devoted to the material and social needs of the population more so than the spiritual or aesthetic.

The summation of the first three chapters boils down to this:

A general picture emerges. Yes, Americans over the years have increased consumption expenditures quite considerably. Much of this increase in household expenditure has gone to meet fundamental needs, either because needs were previously unmet, or because in real terms the cost of meeting those needs increased dramatically.

This is a quite different picture than that commonly portrayed with respect to our affluent society. For most Americans their subjective experience—that they always need more money than they have—is not to be explained by inflations in their appetites or their standards of decency but rather by socioeconomic conditions that have resulted in unmet need or an increased cost of meeting long-existing needs. This is true of housing, transportation, education, and income security. Collectively these increases have kept us concerned about money despite income growth. (65-66)

While I really enjoyed the Nearing’s book, and am a bit bemused by Thoreau’s Walden, I have no rich acquaintance who would allow me to move into their backyard, as Thoreau did, and land in Vermont can no longer be purchased for $30 an acre or so. Most “back to the land” options are off the table for the majority of people. Segal suggests that the problem isn’t necessarily that our sense of “needs” is inflated (though I do have a great difficulty accepting that part of his thesis) but that our political structure makes attempts and simplicity nearly impossible, hence his turn to formulate a “politics of simplicity. I don’t disagree with that.

I dug back into the Aristotle, among other things, at Segal’s prodding, and these things are worth writing about at more length.

Looking Backward

Looking BackwardFinished Looking Backward as the year ended. It has a fun romantic twist ending, but for the most part, it’s one of those books that has me slapping my head at how much I disagree with its sentiments.

An upper class man is mesmerized (hypnotized) in order to get some sleep in 1887, because he is upset that the labor unrest will force him to cancel his wedding. He wakes up in the year 2000.

All strife is gone. The trusts have all been absorbed into one massive trust, which becomes the government.

All citizens are conscripted into the “great industrial army” and must work from the age of 21 until 45; then they are free to do what they want. The gross domestic product is divided up equally among all citizens, regardless of whether they are currently working or not. No more money, perfect equality, no social problems. People who refuse to work are imprisoned and fed bread and water till they agree to go along; this is not considered to be a problem. Housework and cooking have been done away with, though he never really explains how! Everyone is happy as an industrial soldier.

“Know, O child of another race and yet the same that the labor we have to render as our part in securing for the nation the means of a comfortable physical existence is by no means regarded as the most important, the most interesting, or the most dignified employment of our powers. We look upon it as a necessary duty to be discharged before we can fully devote ourselves to the higher exercise of our faculties, the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits which alone mean life. Everything possible is indeed done by the just distribution of burdens, and by all manner of special attractions and incentives to relieve our labor of the irksomeness, and, except in a comparative sense, is not usually irksome, and is often inspiring. But it is not our labor, but the higher and larger activities which the performance of our task will leave us free to enter upon, that are considered the main business of of existence.

“Of course not all, nor the majority, have those scientific, artistic, literary, or scholarly interests which make leisure the one thing valuable to their possessors. Many look upon the last half of life chiefly as a period for enjoyment of other sorts; for travel, for social relaxation in the company of their lifetime friends; a time for the cultivation of all maner of personal idiosyncrasies and special tastes, and the unperturbed appreciation of the good things of the world which they have helped create.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888) Penguin ed. 1986 p. 148-9

Morris disliked the book because it was an exposition about “state communism”; Bellamy calls it “nationalism”. I dislike it primarily because of his idea that things like cooking, cleaning and such are dismissed as being pretty much meaningless, and no thought whatsoever is given to the idea that work might be fun and an essential part of life.  The Nearings really got that part right, I think. Bread labor (as they called it) was part of the core of what it means to be alive. We have to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Why shouldn’t that be as rewarding as other more “valuable” pursuits? It seems as if Bellamy has anticipated the mystification of these things which we currently accept as “normal.”

To be fair, Bellamy anticipates things like credit cards (as a payment system instead of money), and places music as a central part of day to day life. It seems that each house as a device on the wall where you can turn screws and fill the house with music, chosen from a variety of programs performed live. No need to go the the concert hall, it is brought to you. He also anticipates radio preachers, because on Sunday you can tune into the services.

There were Bellamy societies  that sought to make this utopia real at the turn of the twentieth century. There are fascinating predictions the book, if you can get past its embrace of National Socialism. Many of Bellamy’s contemporaries didn’t see any problems with that; time has given most of us a different perception.

The Good Life

The Good Life

It’s been a busy few months, and in a “new years resolution” sort of mood I thought I’d try to use this space again. No promises regarding my ability to sustain it. I’m trying to work out better habits, and get more done than I usually manage to.

One of the things I miss most about the stresses of these past months is reading; another thing is writing. I’m trying some self-assignment type things to help improve the situation.

The first book I assigned myself was The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing.

The modern edition contains two books, the first published in 1952 and then its sequel from 1970. One of the tenets of the Nearing approach is budgeting your time to “bread labor” and also budgeting time for study and relaxation. I like that a lot.

In the first book, the division is firm between “bread labor” and the activities that make life worth living, like music and reading and such. The Nearings suggest limiting ourselves to four hours of each. In the later book, this is refined a bit to three four hour segments– bread labor, self labor, and then community labors. The sort of good life they’re aiming for is simply subsistence— aiming to avoid any sort of profit or surplus. This of course runs counter to a capitalist lifestyle.

Needless to say, the Nearings were political radicals, but there is relatively little of that in this book. It’s a bit like Walden, which the dust-jacket blurb compares it to, wherein they account their modes of living for a much longer span of time. I liked it better myself, because it was more pragmatic, longer term, and less dependent on borrowings from others. (living in Emerson’s back yard, using only borrowed tools, etc.).

Reading it reminded me a lot of the books I read as a teenager, including B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and the usual suspects of hippie culture. But this goes back further, deeper, and is in most ways richer than most of those books. Perhaps I’m working toward my fiftieth adolescence, or something thereabouts. Looking for something though I’m not sure what.