Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dickens and Marx, by Steven Garber

"With Labor Day almost here, I have been thinking about Charles Dickens and Karl Marx—and the meaning of our work. 

Did you know that Dickens and Marx were contemporaries, both writing about the same issue at the same time in the same city? Most of us know more about Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Tiny Tim than we do about Das Kapital, but it is worth more than a moment to reflect on the nature of work, and what it means for each one of us and for the world.If Dickens the artist had his finger-to-the-wind of industrializing England, seeing the cracks in the capitalist society of mid-century London— allowing us to feel the pains of a world where the Ebenezer Scrooges did not have eyes to see the reality of the Tiny Tims --then Marx pressed the point, calling for an address of that alienation by a reordering of social and economic life, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Marx’s vision was tragically flawed, and over the next century-and-a-half millions of people died, crushed by the cruelty of his critique-- especially as it was worked out by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

What he did get right was that the work of our hands matters. The iconic banners of his vision, yellow flags ablaze with red sickles and hammers, were a call reminding everyone that ordinary work had transcendent meaning, viz. the world will be different because of your work! Sadly, those who rightly criticize Marx mostly miss this meaning of his vision. We don’t find transcendence in baking bread or building buildings, in teaching children to read or in making public policy, in raising cattle or growing wheat. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the way the world is or ought to be. Rather we offer people “jobs,” and promise that it’s what happens after work and on weekends where “real life” happens. With our headlines this morning about jobs, who has them and who creates them, this is not a small thing for the health of who we are and how we live as Americans in 2011.

The vision of the Washington Institute is focused on the integral relation of vocation to the common good. Who are we? What do we do with our lives? And what does it mean for history? Our answers to the deepest questions of life form the way that we live life, and that has consequence for life—for everyone everywhere. Hindus, Buddhists, Maoists, animists, evolutionary materialists, Muslims, Jews, Christians. We all ask and answer these questions-- yes, even Marxists do.

The harder question is this: what are the conditions—socially, politically, economically, artistically, educationally, religiously --where human beings flourish? What habits of heart are required for us to flourish?

Labor Day is a good day to reflect on what our work means: to God, to us, and to the wider world. Dickens saw something amiss, and so did Marx. Most of us feel in our bones a longing for something more. What is that we want and need? What is it that the world wants and needs?"

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