The Beauty and Dignity of the Productive Class

dignityAt one time I lived very close to the Field Museum of Chicago; I had a membership and spent a good deal of time there. One evening, about ten minutes before closing, I noticed that workmen had begun preparing the first floor for an evening event. I had a panoramic view from where I stood at the second floor balcony, and what I saw has stuck with me ever since.

What I saw was a lone man setting up tables and chairs – simple work, the kind that any teenager could do. But what I watched this man do was every bit as beautiful as dance. He moved with integrity, with precision, and with intent. He carefully spaced the tables in a precise geometry, he moved every chair with efficiency. This was more than just work; it was also art. This man knew that he was doing his job well, and, perhaps most importantly, he enjoyed doing it well.

I was transfixed by it all, and I stood there until the guards asked me to leave. And even then, I moved very slowly until I lost sight of him.

There is real beauty in doing a job well, even a simple job. It is our great loss that this form of beauty is never mentioned in public these days – double-sad, because at one time, such beauty was acknowledged.

This brings us to an obvious question: What happened? How did we lose the beauty and dignity of work? I’ll answer that in a moment, but first I want to explain what I mean by “the productive class.”

What Is the Productive Class?

The productive class includes all those people who are engaged in improving life upon Earth: The people who build and repair our cars, our houses, and our computers. The people who provide us with air conditioning, electricity, plumbing, and food. The people who make, clean, and repair our clothing. The people who treat our sicknesses and wounds.

If you can drive around town and point out places where you repaired things, or delivered things, or fed people, or made human life better in any of a thousand ways, you are a producer.

If you survive and persist at the expense of others, on the other hand, you are not a producer.

But if you are a producer, there is an inherent dignity in what you do. You are actively making the world better. You are directly creating benefit for yourself and for other human beings. What you do every day is morally virtuous and worthy of respect. And you should never let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, it’s worth pointing out: Money is not a measure of your worth. In a perfect world, that might be true, but this isn’t a perfect world. In our time, morality and money don’t always travel together.

Money is certainly useful, and getting it should matter to you, but merely having money is no measure of your dignity or your value as a producer. Actively improving the world, however – producing – is a proper measure of dignity.

What Happened?

So, how were the beauty and dignity of work ruined?

The short answer: They were killed by hierarchy and status. I’ll explain briefly:

Humans have been carefully taught to accept, respect, and respond to hierarchy for thousands of years. As a result, we respond emotionally to images of kings, ‘great leaders,’ and so on. But it was the industrial era that finally did in the respect for work. After all, this was a time when millions of people accepted deathly boring jobs simply for better pay. The meaning of their work became a paycheck and nothing more.

And in the industrial setting, there was one clear marker of status: the position of ordering other people around.

The bosses got status and the workers got checks, and both lost meaning and satisfaction from their work. The assumption that was planted in us over the industrial era was this:

Only people who order others around matter. Everyone else should feel shame in their presence.

This, of course, played perfectly into the hands of politicians. This can be seen in the plague of “great leaders” and world wars that erupted at the height of the industrial era, in the first half of the 20th century.

In any event, status is gorilla-level garbage; what matters is what you are, not which position you hold within some kind of hierarchy. By believing in hierarchy and status, we lost the satisfaction of work.

What, Really, Is Work?

It’s important to look at things directly; to focus and see them for what they really are, not just by what other people say about them.

This is what I see when I focus on work itself:

Productive work is the insertion of creativity into the world. It is the birthing of benefit into the world. People who do this should be deeply satisfied by what they do.

Compared to productive work, status is merely ornamental puffery, a shiny coat with the word “Important” emblazoned upon it, and worn by a sad little man.

If you are a member of the productive class, you should re-arrange your mind and stop responding to the demands of hierarchy and status. Instead, pay attention to things that really improve human life in the world.

Creating things, improving things, or making it possible for other people to create… these are noble, beautiful, and important things. We should gain a deep and enduring satisfaction from doing them.

And, indeed, when we put our minds and efforts to it, that’s exactly what we will gain.

Paul Rosenberg

8 thoughts on “The Beauty and Dignity of the Productive Class”

  1. This is great, Paul. Thanks for writing it.

    Mike Rowe, the host of the show ‘Dirty Jobs’, uses a helpful term for many forms of productive work. Instead of calling them ‘blue collar’ jobs he calls them ‘essential’ jobs. To my ear, that elevates the status of the work in the same way you you are doing.

    I’ve often wondered what percent of us perform work every day that in no way relies upon taxpayer funding to exist. And how much smaller that percent is when only considering those same workers who do not accept any form of State largess in the form of payments or subsidies of some kind in their private lives.

    Those are the folks who really pull the train of civilization. They make a positive contribution without coercively usurping the property of others. What percent of all workers is that? Those are the heroes of our society.

  2. At some of the jobs I’ve had, there was hierarchy without a distinct separation of workers and bosses. You can’t get a large number of people to move in some direction withou hierarchy. I agree about the comments on status though. Good leaders can eliminate that. This post sounds a bit marxist to me though. Frankly I think many people publicly complain about the boss but, push come to shove, would rather be lead than have to lead.

  3. Thanks for your article, Mr. Rosenberg. However, when you mean industrial era, do you mean the Industrial Revolution, or do you mean the times we live in, the time of cronyism and faux “capitalism?”

    1. I took it to mean the whole industrial era, from the IR to the present. He seemed to be describing a very gradual process, not limited to any one part of the era.

      I happen to think the increased focus on status has accompanied the increase in the number and size of our largest organizations during a time when communications speed was relatively stagnant, so a robust hierarchy seemed more attractive for managing such large groups of individuals.

      Today, one person with a good idea can reach the entire world practically on their own, via the internet. Such organizational and management structures as we had grown accustomed to now seem far less necessary, at least to the non-cronyists.

  4. Well said. I’ve also noticed that our children are constantly being rewarded with trophies and certificates when they participate in organizations. This troubles me greatly because the focus is on the shiny reward rather than the joy of doing something. With many of these groups, the activity itself has no purpose or substance so there isn’t even the possibility of getting a good feeling from doing. Everyone gets a reward for showing up, however. I realize now this was going on when I was a child, some 50 years ago but it’s gotten worse. We’re all being conditioned to respond to outside approval rather than our inner voice.

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