In 1937, the British leftist organization the Left Book Club published George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which they had commissioned as an investigation into the bleak living and working conditions of the working class in the industrial north of England. Orwell documented everything from the day-to-day struggles of the unemployed, underpaid, and underfed, to the finest details of boarding-house life and working-class domiciles. Orwell—whose descriptive passages range in temper from scrutiny to awe—is moved, and perhaps most memorably so by the work of the coal miners, whose “lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.” Poetic asides aside, Orwell the journalist knew what was at stake:
Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. … [W]e “must have coal,” but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves.
Just “what coal-getting involves” is well worth reflecting upon—certainly more frequently than we’re presently encouraged to. The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse is herein, and elsewhere, cited as a survivor of sorts—one of the last remaining labor reporters. But there is something too for which the dearth of reports on the plight of the worker serves as point of departure; the worker who, even in the face of all too familiar conditions—high unemployment, a depressed economy, and the unapologetic operational ineptitudes of large firms—has the great good manners to remain deferential and largely invisible with respect to more pressing matters termed Business.
But shouldn’t the section heading “Business” pertain too to those doing the “hacking and shovelling” in the coalmines of manufacture, transport, nursing, data-collection and administration, customer care, and beyond? Business-as-such relies as much on labor as on management, and if it is true, as Calvin Coolidge so famously said, that “the chief business of the American people is business,” then perhaps we ought to expand the notion of business to include…more? As Orwell reminds us, “revolution as much as reaction needs coal;” the business of laboring is not circumscribed by wages, but is the requisite input for which wages, profit, knowledge, and societies are the outputs. Business, thus conceived, is the business of us all—and yet too often we forget to remember its workers, whose numbers comprise ourselves, without whose work nothing is gotten.
Considering this work, reporting on it, reporting on how it is considered, and laboring to find new ways to consider how to report on it—and how it ought to be considered…
This is all essential labor—a business worthy of its own section in our minds’ daily work.