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.


I get around

I’ve been told that I’m difficult to follow. I’ve often felt like I’m sitting next to a highway of ideas, and it’s hard to make sense of the small bits that you notice as they fly by. I spent my childhood in, on the west side of Highway 99 from Oildale– hometown of Merle Haggard and home base of Buck Owens, and a former Hooverville. By the time I went to high school, we relocated 30 miles away, just a few miles from the labor camp where Steinbeck did his interviews for what became the Grapes of Wrath. These facts put a certain spin on where I came from that don’t really determine where I ended up. It’s complicated.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was nearly 18. Mostly, I got around by bicycle. I would ride back to Milt’s Coffee Shop, which sat next to Highway 99 between Oildale and my old neighborhood. I’d read William Blake, and Jack Kerouac, and dream of getting on the road and getting the hell out of there. The possibilities were slim. My father dropped out of school when he was in the sixth grade, and most of his education came from the public library. He was the smartest man I knew. My mom had made it through high school, and we were pretty much middle class; my interest in literature, came from my dad who insisted that I read Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare, et al.. My only option, as far as I knew anyway, for furthering my education was Bakersfield Community College– which at the time offered free tuition.

But underneath it all, there was always science– I took all the science and math classes in my high school. I  had been interested in ecology since I was in the sixth grade, so when Buckminster Fuller came to lecture at BC, I was there. Twenty years before I returned to college to study English Literature and Rhetoric, I encountered the twisted prose of Fuller.

Just what was it about? Fuller’s opening statement is nearly Faulkneresque

What I am trying to do

Acutely aware of our beings’ limitations and acknowledging the infinite mystery of the a priori Universe in which we are born but nevertheless searching for a conscious means of hopefully competent participation by humanity in its own evolutionary trending while employing only the unique advantages inherently exclusive to those individuals who take and maintain the economic initiative in the face of the formidable physical capital and credit advantages of the major corporations and political states and deliberately avoiding political ties and tactics while endeavoring by experiments and explorations to excite individuals awareness and realization of humanities higher potentials I seek through comprehensive anticipatory design science and its reductions to physical practice to reform the environment instead of trying to reform humans, being intent thereby to accomplish prototyped capabilities of doing more with less whereby in turn the wealth augmenting prospects of such design science regenerations will induce their spontaneous and economically successful industrial proliferation by world around services’ managements all of which chain provoking events will both permit and induce all humanity to realize full lasting economic and physical success plus enjoyment of all the earth without one individual interfering with or being advantaged at the expense of another. R. Buckminster Fuller (1)

Now that’s a sentence. The basic idea of Fuller’s lecture was easy to grasp– he suggested that the world be tied together into a single power/resource grid thereby raising the standard of living of everyone to a level just below that of the US. His argument was that it wouldn’t harm the west that much to be more egalitarian in order to reduce suffering in the world, because technology would make it possible.

Now that I’m older, better trained, and able to parse complicated sentences such as this one it’s easier to see where this movement went wrong. Witold Rybczynski points out that the techno-utopians of the 60s and 70s built massive verbal monuments based on a few actual prototypes; in short, they became a cult of “true believers” where no one dare question the practicality of what they proposed. But it was intoxicating to me as a young man.

Revisiting this spot on the highway, what stands out to me is the way Fuller leans into comprehensive anticipatory design science. It’s easy to see the hubris these days, as if we could predict the behavior or adoption of a technology once it was loosed on the world. One need not be anti-technology to suggest that technologies do fail in unexpected ways. Currently, a great deal of California is on fire due to power lines sparking in unanticipated ways in the Santa Ana winds. Even knowing the causes, solutions will frequently elude us.

Most people recognize Fuller for his invention of the Geodesic Dome, which was a prototype solution to enclose space with lowest amount of material for a given volume. I drove past a residential dome in the North Country yesterday, partly prompting this post. Geodesic domes are a bad choice for residences, they leak– badly. This one was heavily modified, of course, no doubt to deal with those unanticipated problems. Sometimes these utopian ideas are best viewed from a distance, like Montreal’s Biosphere.