hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

« | »

the ruminant economy 5 – labour and rest

There is labour, which is productive and which takes care of the material well-being of the community. In a healthy society, one where extreme scarcity (hunger, poverty) is not the paramount reality, productive labour produces a surplus which can cater for children and the elderly, those who are not productive at the moment, and all other luxury and frivolity that people fancy. Productive labour is a truism: we just do it, and we pray that it will pay off – “give us today our daily bread” also means, I think, let us today enjoy the fruits of our labour – because we know that “he who does not work shall not eat”. We basically do not need an incentive for productive work. What we can do is discourage people from labour, with the poverty trap and demanding little services in order to justify what we give them in the form of e.g. welfare.

There is a general idea that we have a duty to work, and that correspondingly a welfare income without compensation through labour would lead to laziness. For example Rutger Bregman is fighting this idea constantly in his Free Money for All. He is right. And, this duty to work, maybe connected with Max Weber’s Calvinism, is odd from the perspective of Genesis. The Name is busy six days with His labour, the creation. On the sixth day He creates people – only to go straight on to the Sabbath, the day of rest. As ds. Abeltje Hoogenkamp pointed out on the Christian Social Congress 2011: we started out with a day of rest, of hanging around, rather ‘fooling around’, because this is the more correct translation of the Dutch ‘rondlummelen’ she uses. (See the proceedings Schepping en samenleving, p. 3 – in Dutch.) The day of rest is the crown on creation, the ultimate meaning. The joy of labour and the joy of rest stand at the beginning of our existence. Nicholas Wolterstorff in Until Justice and Peace Embrace (1981) also characterizes the rest The Name takes on the Sabbath as delight in His work. He adds to this what in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy (6:15) is said about the Sabbath: it is the day of the feast of liberation from enforced toil. Labour is not the destiny of man; that is where the Biblical message parts with that of socialism/communism and liberalism. The human being does not find ultimate fulfilment in ‘labour’, but in rest after labour — a rest which we do not deserve with labour, but which is given to us from the beginning.

The story of Genesis then reports how the fall has turned the joy of labour into the chore and sweat of labour. Labour has changed from a necessary and positive, creative expression to a still necessary but now troublesome activity. But necessary in the sense that we want to do work — that has not changed!

Solidarity means that we contribute with our labour to the community, that we freely give to others from our abundance, and do not let others do what we also can do ourselves. The existence of poverty urges us to this. Poverty is a situation of great need and this to such an extent that this morning offers no perspective on anything better in the afternoon, let alone tomorrow. It is maybe sobering that even in a religious document such as the Bible it is said that poor people always will be around. Twice, first in Deuteronomy (15:11), in a section about the regular acquittal of debts. Here, Moses instructs the people to be always generous towards the poor because they will always be around. Jesus cites exactly this line (Marcus 14:7) when people get angry when a woman embalms his feet with expensive oil — it should have been sold and the money given to the poor, so goes the complaint. Again, as with the joy of rest after labour, in this story the feast of labour trumps the chores of labour: the message is that one should take care of the poor all the time and not just use them as scapegoat when you think someone wastes money. (“There would not have been communists if you had behaved better” as the ticker tape in the cafe of the Kröller Müller Museum reads.)

So next to our inherent urge or necessity to labour, there is a derived duty to labour, derived from our duty to care for the poor. The meaning of labour is derived from the care for other people. Labour is not intended to enrich us privately or to realize our identity and maybe our self-esteem is rather related to our caring for those who are close to us; the meaning of labour is that we can give freely what we do not need ourselves. Poverty, not being able to care for oneself and one’s family, is sickening because it prevents us from doing exactly this: giving to other people. And therefore it is violating the dignity of the person.

Labour is service to the community – that is still found in John Locke’s theory of possession, John Locke, ‘father’ of liberalism. As the earth with its produce is given to mankind in common, my picking of an apple to eat it might be considered to be stealing from common property. Unless the labour I do when picking the apple entitles me to call this apple my property and eat it. The labour I do entitles me to consider something as my possession, so private possession is possible even though the earth is given to us in common. Locke’s theory of possession is a conclusion of a discussion that started with St. Francis of Assisi who claimed that the whole earth was God’s and people could not count anything as their possession on earth.

For John Locke, there are two fundamental laws ruling possessions: we should not take more than we can use or consume ourselves, because what is left over will spill, and thus we steal from the community. The other commandment is to work the earth, because cultivation will lead to a 10 fold, 100 fold crop, and so if we do not cultivate the earth, we withhold produce from the community. In other words, the liberal John Locke speaks of the universal destination of the goods of the earth in the same way as the papal Encyclicals have spoken of it. Now the big question for the economy is, as John Locke puts it, how one can possess more than one needs. That is the point where money is introduced, and Locke leaves the complexity of money for what it is and goes on with his treatise about the principles of government.

What I would like to conclude from what John Locke is writing, is that money is connected with what goes beyond our bare necessities, it is about surplus, luxury – money, and daringly I would add: the economy is not about our daily bread, it is about what we can provide for the needs of others. It is a simple instruction that has been part of our common understanding of society and economy, wealth and poverty. Maybe putting that simple instruction central again might lead the selfish cash-cows of the ruminant economy into the stable of productivity for our common good and welfare.

Posted in Column
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,