Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beautiful work

Photo Isabelle Groc

Gardening, as any fellow gardener will confirm, is pretty hard work. It is also one of the most joyful activities of my week.

People ask me why I like gardening so much. My preferred cynical response is that gardening is the only type of activism where my work actually makes a difference. For the better and for the worse, my labor – or lack thereof – usually shows in my garden.

Gardening redefines my relation to work. For a few hours per week, I escape the complex servitudes of wage labor and I become the owner of my means of production. It's not just that I own my gardening tools and seeds, which are really too cheap to meter. But I control the whole process of production of my vegetables, from planning to weeding to planting to watering to harvest. And of course, during those few hours I am also the owner of my time.

The rest of the week, I am employed to write someone else's software from a cubicle and a computer which I don't own. I share with millions of other workers the uncomfortable knowledge that I must sell my labor power on the market every day, or starve. Famine is a somewhat remote and theoretical threat living in an affluent society such as ours and holding a good job such as mine. I am definitely at the top of the workers' food chain. But I am a worker nonetheless, and as such liable to starvation by joblessness, because I do not own my means of production nor my labor time. Except for those few hours per week when I am in my garden.

The labor that I expend in my garden undoubtedly produces value, in the form of something useful to my family and myself, vegetables. It produces use-value. The vegetables that I harvest over the summer would not have existed without my work. Left to its own device, my garden would have merely produced weeds. No doubt, those weeds are quite essential to a rich ecosystem which I mindlessly destroy through my constant weeding. But they have no place in the simpler, edible ecosystem that I am trying to establish in my garden through all my hard labor. The use-values – the veggies – coming out of my garden are literally a crystallization of my own labor. As Marx once wrote, value is indeed congealed human labor.

The labor that I expend in my cubicle produces something that is hopefully useful to someone else. But it certainly has no use-value to me. I have absolutely no use for the software applications that I am writing in there. I am getting something out of it of course, but of a different nature. I am exchanging my labor power for a paycheck. That labor power which I am giving away in exchange for money is a commodity which can be bought and sold on the labor market – an exchange-value. The resulting software is also a congelation of my human labor.

On a typical month, the money that I earn from my employer is used to live on until the next paycheck. I'll pay my rent, bills and credit cards, buy some food and other stuff, download a movie or two on my iPod, and if I'm lucky lay some of it aside for retirement, but probably not this month. That money will essentially allow me to stay in shape as a functional software programmer through the next pay period, hopefully preventing me from getting fired, and giving me the right to earn another pay check.

Those two forms of labor don't have much in common, yet they are both work. Or are they? Maybe I'm deluding myself entirely with my garden. Indeed I am only there when I am off work, on my “leisure time”. They say that gardening is a form of therapy, and perhaps indeed this therapy is part of my personal process of getting back into shape for the next pay period and earning that next paycheck without getting myself fired. Perhaps the hard work that I expend in my garden is merely hard play. Damn. And I thought I was doing something meaningful there, such as turning my life around and gradually breaking free from the complex servitudes of wage labor. That wouldn't be the first time I have deluded myself. I'll think about it next time I am in my garden.

The other problem is this: what about all the labor that I am not the one producing in my garden? I am the one doing the weeding and the watering, but I certainly am not the one doing the growing. It's true that I expend labor in my garden for a few hours per week. But it's also true that nature works totally for free the rest of the week, and somehow seamlessly combines its forces to mine to produce my vegetables. When I sleep or idle around aimlessly in my apartment, my veggies still grow. Conversely, I could labor day and night in my garden, if nature did not provide such simple things as the process of photosynthesis which is tantamount to black magic to me, there would be no vegetables in my garden, nor any weeds either for that matter. Tomorrow, the forecast for Vancouver is rain. Good, this means I don't have to water. The following day, the forecast is sun. This means that my veggies will do their black magic thing and grow, whether I show up in the garden or not. How does one account for the free work that nature performs for me? How is all of nature's own free labor congealed into the use-values of my garden?

The big guy Marx says that you don't need to worry about the congealing of nature's work because it all comes down to human productivity. If nature is helping out in my garden for free, then my garden will produce a greater amount of veggie use-values in the same amount of my labor time. So labor time, not the forces of nature, is the important factor here. Nature can thus be safely discounted in the labor theory of value because all the free work it provides is recaptured once I put my slumbering powers to work in my garden for those few hours per week. And that, according to the big guy, is all there is to it. Do I sound convinced? Hardly. One more thing I will have to think about next time I am in my garden.

Meanwhile, I will chew on this beautiful quote by a Cuban urban farmer who, when asked if he liked working in his garden, replied: “Este es trabajo bonito”. This is beautiful work. And at the end of the week, that is all there is to it.

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