A Reflection

A number of years ago a chance encounter at a local gas station radically altered my way of thinking. As I left the store I noticed a man standing and talking to one of his peers. I recognized this man as the father of one of my classmates, and also knew his reputation as a drug and alcohol abuser.

From what I knew having spoken to my classmate as well as his older brother, he was not apt to work and the conditions in which the family lived were squalid at best. His children appeared as he did- filthy and unkempt. His wife stayed home in their run-down trailer, tending not to any employment but rather to her own gluttonous devices. When in need of a safe dose of debauchery, or to live the vicarious excitement of someone else’s torment, one need only wait for the first weekend after the first of the month and turn on a police scanner and there a story of abuses, both physical and substance based, would play out for the hungry ears of any audience willing to listen.

I recalled as I watched him how his own family talked about these fetid fits of violence; how my classmates mother ran shrieking from their home, blood splashed across the white flesh of her gaunt face as she pounded on the window of a passing car on the one lane road where they lived and begged for asylum. I remember the tale of how he stood atop the steps, bottle in hand, too drunk to pursue, and how the family forgave him as they always did when the money for drugs and booze ran out and they got their father and husband back.

As I listened I noticed a certain sparkle in his eye and caught a sense of sincerity in his words. He told a tale of redemption, how he’d cleaned up his life and kicked his old habits. He said in a loud clear tone that he was working full time and had a good job. I cocked my head to the side and looked at him. The proud smile exposed his abused and rotting teeth, but appearances aside, there was a look of satisfaction in that smile. As my eyes fell upon him he looked at me and gave a nod. I noticed that he was wearing a uniform emblazoned with the logo of a quick service restaurant.

As I walked away I pondered what kind of person would classify a job making biscuits as a “good job” and cruelly stated to myself, “This won’t last.” I hung my head a few months later, regretting my cruel judgment of my fellow man, when I heard over my father’s police scanner one weekend the news that shots had been fired at a residence that I knew all too well as that of my classmate’s. His father, in a deep and drunken depression, leaned over a shotgun and took his own life. Police gathered outside, calling for the residents to come out, and after a long delay went in after he was already dead. I glanced to the empty seat where his son sat on the school bus the following Monday, and wondered what it must be like to lose someone in that way. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with the pain of losing loved ones; no, it was rather an unfamiliarity with losing someone to their own devices that puzzled me.

Years later I would learn a hard lesson as my own uncle’s life ended after he accidentally overdosed the day before his son’s wedding. I took the call in my old college apartment and wept openly in front of my best friend as I gently laid the handset of my phone on the receiver and wondered what mode of desperation would lead someone down this path. The stories were very different, between these two dead men, but there was a common link that went past the normal bounds of addiction and drug abuse. These men lived in desperation. They were desperate for the next high, desperate for the next fix, desperate for a change that would make their life better in some way or another.

These changes never took place, no answers came, and my world was marred by the cold reality that some people are not helped. It is not that they cannot be helped it is simply that they are not helped. As I closed my eyes I pondered the last things I heard these two very different men say. It was kind words from my uncle, but the other man’s words of hope rang in my ears. He had a good job.

I went over this in my mind time and time again. A good job. A good job that doesn’t pay the bills. A good job that doesn’t carry a quality of respect or dignity in the eyes of society. A good job that heralds no benefits and therefore cannot force an end to dependence on the state’s social benefit programs. What kind of person considers this job a good job? The answer is that a desperate person considers this a good job.

One of the inherent traits of capitalism is compulsory competition. Whether a person wishes to compete or not they are forced to do so by the stringent confines of the capitalist paradigm. The job supply is finite. Some people will inevitably remain unemployed and the foundation of capitalism is built upon this precept. The idea that unemployment can be reduced to zero is made possibly only by semantics and wishful thinking. There will always be a certain number of people who are unemployed simply because they cannot work.

In a capitalist society some individuals may choose not to work for various reasons. Still, others will seek jobs but find none with pay or benefits high enough to merit them as a career choice and therefore give up the search. By defining unemployment in such a way that excludes these classes of potential participants we create an erroneous term. Counted or not, these people are unemployed.
For those who are unskilled, a true level of competition is created by unemployment as an institution.

I pondered relentlessly the notion that a job in fast food is a good job and when my thought process came full circle it led back to one fundamental assumption: it’s better than being unemployed. There is, however, a point in which a willing participant in the workforce will begin to feel as though they are not being valued highly enough for their services and rebel against the institution itself. The fast food employee may attempt to better their individual plight by moving on to a better job. This better job will be grasped only through triumph over other applicants who wish to have the same job.

Capitalism lends itself to this competition and to the notion that we ought to make ourselves “marketable” to employers. The low-wage, no benefit employee of a fast food company may view a one or two dollar an hour raise as a serious step up in the world and begin competing anew for a slightly better place in the world. In essence, this process leads to the assumption that a moderately large base of unemployed persons is needed in order to ensure competition between individuals that otherwise would not find themselves in competition with one another if their basic needs were met.

Each company’s drive to make money in a competitive market-place stresses the need for companies to recruit the best and brightest applicants for the position in question. Where little skill is needed little discretion is paid to the quality of the applicant. In low socio-economic areas such as West Virginia there are few jobs that need be filled by highly skilled applicants just as there are few applicants that warrant the label of “highly skilled.” Those fields tend to be intensely competitive, and also lend to the creation of bitter competition for so-called “good” jobs at institutions like Wal-Mart or in truly good paying, good benefit jobs in the coal mines (which West Virginians regard as a holy Mecca). This contributes to the export of our bright and skilled workforce. College graduates leave the state along with skilled blue-collar workers in order to find opportunity. States such as North Carolina are seen as safe havens for a migrating work force. More jobs are needed and competition, theoretically, could be less fierce.

Where does this leave the truly unskilled worker?
Unable to compete we oft find these workers bouncing back and forth between McDonalds (while maintaining some social welfare benefits) and complete dependence on the state. The strain is enormous; crushing poverty, a booming drug culture, and the self-realization that society simply values you less than other members of society can take their toll, pushing the individual to the brink. Need or self-motivation will eventually bring these individuals back into the work force, as unskilled as before, before the cycle repeats itself.

Somewhere in this cycle a desperate man’s resolve broke and he bowed-out over the barrel of a shotgun in his own home, while another, unable to work the only jobs he was qualified for due to life-long back injuries, took one too many pills on accident in the dark early hours before his son’s wedding.

Society need not be this way. Any system that builds its foundation on the misery of the unemployed is fundamentally flawed. The argument can be made that capitalism works, and to a degree it does. The government remains funded and society continues to exist, but to exist is not to thrive.

The man with a self-inflicted shotgun wound does not thrive, nor does his family. The drug addict, desperate and dying does not thrive. No longer can we cling to the bitter-lie that in America you can be whatever you want to be. The most basic truth that we can mutter is that all men are not created equal, despite our country’s unyielding patriots will have you believe, even as they struggle themselves to be free of the mires of poverty.

The lie, however, is convenient. It keeps us hard working and complacent, and willing to compete with our fellow man rather than help our fellow man. We can each achieve, they say, but only if you’re willing to trample down others who would achieve as you do. This philosophy is fundamentally flawed.

The American ideal of rugged individualism leads us to believe that the individual must be responsible for him or her own self. There is a large amount of truth in this, as we must all take responsibility for our own moral actions, but the idea of a body of people that cling to individualism is absurd. Government exists to placate the needs of the individual in a way that the individual cannot; we gather together as social animals because we cannot thrive independently. We can exist, true, but again, to exist is not to thrive. As Hobbes stated so long ago, “life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Why then would we, as an organized entity, emblazon ourselves with a mantra that cries for the same attitudes toward one another that we find in this state of nature?

Through an economic overhaul we could socialize and destigmatize institutions such as healthcare. We could ensure that all needs are met for every human resident of our great nation, whether it be clothing, food, or shelter. We can only do this, however, if we divert our attention away from competition. This means abandoning the idea that some employees, less skilled or not, are less valuable. While the idea that all men are created equal is inherently and logically flawed, the idea that all men should be treated as equals is a most noble philosophy. After all, what person could consider fast food a good job? A person whose needs are met by a society that view him or her as a person, not a sum of their abilities, of course. The ideal society that we should strive for.

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