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(Two origin stories)

Posted by: on Jun 16, 2015 | No Comments
Origin stories are interesting to me. When people tell origin stories, it's typically because they want to draw a moral.

For instance, Greek myth explained echoes through the myth of Echo, who tried to protect Zeus from Hera; from then on, she could only speak the last few words spoken to her. Moral: Don't cross Hera. In more recent mythology, Spider-Man's moral origin comes when the newly powered Peter Parker ignores a petty crime, then later discovers that the criminal has killed his beloved uncle. Moral: With great power comes great responsibility.

So let's examine two different origin stories, both about where human beings come from. You will probably be familiar with both. Both have fantastical elements, but the point is not to evaluate those elements but to see what morals arise from them.

Origin story 1: "In the beginning"
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). In this origin story, God labors for six days to create the different components of the Earth, ending on the sixth day with land animals and a pair of human beings. (Genesis 1:1-2:2). On the seventh day, God rested (Genesis 2:2). (Notice that Genesis 2:4-25 gives a distinct account that doesn't easily mesh with this one.)

According to later Christian doctrine, that rest has continued—God didn't get up the next morning and start working again (Hebrews 4:3-4). At first, the pair of humans also enjoyed this rest from labor. But when they sinned, they were cursed with labor: woman with childbirth (Genesis 3:16), man with toiling:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
God's labor was a blessing; humanity's labor was a curse.

But, as Max Weber argues, labor was reinterpreted under Protestantism, specifically Calvinism. Calvinism argues that human beings cannot do anything to earn their salvation; they must be called (and predestined as part of the elect) by God. This belief, carried to its conclusion, is nerve-wracking: how does one know one is part of the elect?

To borrow from my previous review of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: people wanted to be assured of whether they were the elect. They did not believe that their works would save them, but they did believe that works were the result and evidence of a saving faith. "Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one's credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned" (p.115). So Calvinism demanded, "not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system" (p.117). Labor was a sign of eventual salvation in the afterlife—and in the Kingdom of Heaven that God would eventually set up at the end of history.

In the Protestant ethic, one saw one's occupation as a calling. One strove to pursue one's calling as to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31). That meant maximizing profits—not for one's own enjoyment but for God's glory. And that in turn meant asceticism. The individual was torn away from his closed ties; everything, even social activity, was pursued solely for God's glory—and that included labor, conceived as "a calling which serves the mundane life of the community" (p.108).

Weber concludes that this ethic, once established, became independent of Protestantism. The Calvinists may have chosen it, but now it constitutes our "iron cage" (p.181).

In short, in this origin story:

  • God created humankind through labor
  • Labor proves our closeness to God
Origin story 2: "the decisive step in the transition from ape to man"
In Dialectics of Nature, published posthumously, Engels provides a different origin of humanity. It is also intricately tied to labor.

The first operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man could have been only very simple ones. The lowest savages, even those in whom regression to a more animal-like condition with a simultaneous physical degeneration can be assumed, are nevertheless far superior to these transitional beings. Before the first flint could be fashioned into a knife by human hands, a period of time probably elapsed in comparison with which the historical period known to us appears insignificant. But the decisive step had been taken, the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity; the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.  
Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations, through the inheritance of muscles, ligaments, and, over longer periods of time, bones that had undergone special development and the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini. (p.281)
According to Engels, the evolution of the hand set off other developments as well, both physical and social: "the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual" (p.283). Entities had something to say to each other, so they developed the larynx and other organs of speech (p.283). The combination of labor and speech eventually yielded society (p.285) and then tools, beginning with hunting and fishing implements (p.286). Hands plus organs of speech plus the organ of the brain, Engels says, yielded the division of labor: "men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set themselves, and achieve, higher and higher aims. The work of each generation itself became different, more perfect and more diversified" (pp.288-289).

Labor was a good in one's own service. But eventually, under capitalism, human beings had to sell their labor to others and thus became alienated from their labor. Marxists looked forward to a time, after the worldwide socialist revolution, when everyone would share the same ideology, the division of labor would disappear, and the State would eventually wither away.

Solzhenitsyn notes the practical effects of this story:
Engels discovered that the human being had arisen not through the perception of a moral idea and not through the process of thought, but out of happenstance and meaningless work (an ape picked up a stone—and with this everything began. Marx, concerning himself with a less remote time ('Critique of the Gotha Program'), declared with equal conviction that the one and only means of correcting offenders ... was not solitary contemplation, not moral soul-searching, nor repentance, and not languishing (for all that was superstructure!)—but productive labor. (p.215) 
Solzhenitsyn cites this claim as the rationale for the Gulag's work camps—and he also says that Marx never had to work!

In short, in this origin story:

  • Humankind created itself through labor
  • Labor improves us, individually and collectively
Commonalities—and convergence
Both origin stories are creation stories, but the agent is different: we are created either by God or by ourselves. Both stories imply that we should labor, both to improve ourselves and to draw closer to an ideal that is larger than ourselves. For the Calvinist, labor is the sign of individual salvation and points to the eventual end of history: the Kingdom of God. For the Soviet, labor is the sign of individual and collective improvement and points to the eventual end of history: the withering away of the state.

One origin story gave us the Protestant ethic, which rooted and spread beyond the Protestant world. The other gave us a Soviet ethic—one that was arguably less successful as a global ethic, but still shifted the course of Soviet thinking on a range of issues. One was activity theory: Leont'ev chose to make labor, not signs, the root of its investigation

The stories converge in one other way related to labor. Echoing II Thessalonians 10:3, Lenin lays down a "socialist principle": "He who does not work shall not eat."