As she pondered and internalized the meanings of slavery, affliction, and humility, Weil stumbled upon a central Christian idea: when he was incarnated, Jesus Christ took “the form of a slave” (morphē doulou), as we learn from St. Paul in Philippians 2:7. Weil went into the factory to find out more about the social conditions of the modern worker in capitalism. Instead, she found Jesus Christ.
Weil may have been raised in a secular Jewish home, but her whole education was shaped by France’s Catholic mindset. In the factory she started to use Christian notions, symbols, and images liberally to make sense of what she was going through. First among them was affliction itself, which defines both the slave condition and the Christian experience. In her “spiritual autobiography,” she describes how the “affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul.” Because of her profound empathy for the oppressed, she felt the suffering around her as her own. That’s how she received la marque de l’esclavage, which she likens to “the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” That’s also how she was transformed: “Since then,” she wrote, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.”
An intense religious experience, which occurred soon after her factory stint, sealed the transformation. Finding herself in a small fishing village in Portugal, she witnessed a procession of fishermen’s wives. Touring the anchored ships, they sang “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Weil froze in place. There, a conviction was “suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” Nietzsche, too, had said that Christianity was the religion of slaves. He was right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Thanks to [Lillian] Gilbreth, workers would be treated not as cogs in a machine, but as people. So great was her compassion for workers that she devoted much of her career to improving the work and home life of persons with disabilities, a population that had exploded as a result of World War I injuries. This required, for example, studying special challenges faced by the blind in performing routine tasks, developing curriculum for teachers of the blind, teaching the blind themselves, and finding opportunities for the employment of the blind in industry. Taylor might have branded such workers inherently inferior, but Gilbreth concentrated on enhancing their capabilities to contribute.
This concern for the worker as a human being instead of an economic tool expressed itself in many practical forms. With Frank, she improved lighting conditions for workers, thus reducing eye strain, and introduced regular breaks throughout the workday. She installed suggestion boxes in the workplace, so the voices of workers would be heard. She required employment contracts to be signed by representatives of both management and organized labor. And when she became the first woman engineering professor (1935) and later the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Purdue University (1940), she focused her considerable energy on opening up careers for women.
This is a fascinating essay — until reading it I knew nothing about Gilbreth, whereas I know a good bit about her demonic opposite, Frederick Winslow Taylor. That may say something about me, but it also says something about the culture of labor in this country over the past century.
Among the many takes I’ve read on yesterday’s ESPN layoffs, the most incisive, I think, is this one from Tom Ley:
And so today’s layoffs seem to follow a kind of logic: If ESPN is bleeding money from subscriber losses, they need to offset the damage by making cuts elsewhere in the company. That doesn’t, though, really follow, mathematically. Look at the people who have been laid off today. Sure, it’s possible that veterans like McManus and Stark and Ed Werder were carrying hefty salaries, but no amount of fired reporters and columnists is going to put even the tiniest dent in ESPN’s rights fees. Add up all the salaries of the people who lost their jobs today, and how much of a single Monday Night Football broadcast does it buy? Ten minutes? Fifteen?
So, then, what was the point? The memo released this morning by ESPN president John Skipper is instructive. It was hollow and buzzword-laden in the precise way that is meant to speak to Disney investors who want to be assured that ESPN is still capable of “navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content.” That’s what today appears to have been really about—assuring Disney stakeholders that ESPN is taking things very seriously and is prepared to keep itself lean and competitive. Don’t think too much about how we’re going to continue to pay rights fees with sustained subscriber loss! We’re making cuts! We have a handle on things!
I was still thinking about that post when, this morning, I read Annalee Newitz’s report on the people employed by Google and Leapforce to rate Google’s algorithms. I say “employed by Google and Leapforce,” but the situation is actually more complicated than that: all of the work the raters do is for Google, but they are officially employees only of Leapforce — which has just cut all of the raters working full-time back to 26 hours per week max, in order to avoid having to meet certain expensive conditions laid down by Federal law. Though it’s Google who benefits — and openly admits to benefitting — from these people’s work, Google won’t take them on as employees, even though paying them directly for their work, even at full-time salaries with full benefits, would be less than a drop taken from Google’s fiscal bucket.
Thus we see ESPN/Disney and Leapforce/Google operating on what has become one of the most fundamental rules of our current economic system: When things go badly, hurt the people first.
How many wealthy young Americans have ever held a minimum-wage job, or had an internship that placed them amongst America’s poorer classes? Would such involvement change their attitudes toward lower-class families? Would their discrepant cultural tastes rub off on each other, perhaps: the upper class obtaining a greater appreciation for pro sports, the blue-collar worker deciding to give classic literature a try?
L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie’s internship model, if instituted in the United States, would present interesting opportunities for bridging class divides. The Yale student could work at Chik-fil-A, the Harvard student in a local Wal-Mart. One wonders what application their education might have in daily interactions with customers, fellow employees, and supervisors. One wonders what they might learn of a class people that they’ve rarely encountered—at least not for a long time.
Education is not meant to isolate: rather, knowledge is meant to help us bridge divides of every kind. How should we put our educations to use? Do we use them to distance ourselves from the “unwashed masses,” or do we use them to connect with people unable or unwilling to obtain higher education?
About 150 years ago, American workers began a profound shift from farms to factories. After suffering through poor work conditions, low pay, and no workplace protections, the workers organized and successfully helped build the framework of laws that became known as FDR’s New Deal. This landmark legislation from the 1930s protected workers and supported labor unions by limiting the number of hours that could be worked and setting a baseline minimum pay. But from a larger perspective, the New Deal demonstrated that government had acknowledged the shift in the U.S. workforce, heard their voice, and created a new system in which they could thrive.
Now we find ourselves in the middle of an equally large transition: just as workers left the plow for the assembly line, they are now leaving the cubicle for the coffee shop. Welcome to the Gig Economy, where over 42 million Americans are working independently – as freelancers, part-timers, consultants, contractors, and the self-employed. They are simultaneously holding multiple jobs, working for different employers, and mastering diverse skills. They are accountants and fashion designers and website architects. And, they are completely left out of the New Deal, which protects the rest of the workforce.
Read more at The Atlantic