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    Irreplaceable

    Confronting Late-Modern Delusions about Work, Debt, and Human Value

    J. Daniel Sims

    February 3, 2021
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    • MICHAEL NACRELLI

      So anyone with a home mortgage is responsible for every unjust lending practice around the world? Sounds like what Joe Biden would call malarkey.

    • Chris Sontag

      Excellent analysis of our money-based system, without leaning to violent "solutions" as communism, which in itself is no better in treating individuals. Mankind is searching for solutions for human exploitation since some 200 years without success - regaining human dignity in work seems completely hopeless ! Only the Lord Jesus offers an alternative, that's the super-big challenge for each of His followers - not to gather riches for oneself but for God's Kingdom. To do that practical we need articles about experiences like this. The Lord bless ! Chris

    “Don’t forget. Everyone is replaceable.”

    I was seventeen the first time I heard those words. My teenage ego had swollen predictably as the weekend shift (scrubbing grease off floor-mats at the local deli) transitioned into something a bit more dignified.

    Promotions were rolling in at regular intervals – from grease-scraper to dish-washer, to cashier to line cook to shift manager. At $9.25, my hourly wages had surged at a rate of 38 percent a year over my first eighteen months of employment. My hours, too, reflected a rapidly rising status – from a once-a-week charity shift offered to the child of loyal customers to a dependable part-time worker’s thirty hours per week, just under the benefits threshold.

    This phrase about our imminent replaceability was repeated by my father in various conversations throughout the early years of my engagement with the market economy. It wasn’t a mean-spirited remark, but a mantra that had clearly served as a stabilizing reminder over the course of his own often unpredictable career. I heard it about me, about himself, and about others who might somehow have forgotten the contingent nature of their employment.

    a man cooking food in a wok

    As I left the safety net of a relatively wealthy home in which my teenage labor existed merely for character development and pocket money, these words stayed with me. I soon began to hear them from other voices as well. I found that one could be replaced for myriad reasons. Technology could render a role redundant. Political winds could leave a position out in the cold in a restructure. Budget cuts could reduce the number of available jobs, leading to a zero-sum competition to demonstrate value.

    Quantified by the insurmountable weight of his debt, this minuscule “value” was totally and completely divorced from his value as a human in the sight of God.

    And there, perhaps, was the core of the message: value. The unspoken instruction for successfully navigating the disorienting world of market-based human interchangeability was to identify opportunities for maximizing one’s value to the system.

    In theory, this means looking beyond the confines of one’s assigned work to help an employer achieve its ultimate goal, typically profit maximization.

    At the deli, I realized, I added value in three primary ways.

    First, I demonstrated the efficiency of my labor. I used my youthful energy to finish dishes better and faster; to carry more bags of trash; to assemble a platter of panini with greater aplomb. In future jobs, I would summon a maniacal will for generating efficiencies and economies of scale, which allowed me to achieve greater volumes of productivity than my peers as an individual contributor, and eventually a team leader. Perhaps more importantly, efficiency increased my value as an employee in direct proportion to how it reduced the value of other employees: often these nameless others could be replaced by streamlined processes or disruptive technology.

    Second, I demonstrated the dependability of my labor. I showed up early and stayed late. I could do this because I didn’t have kids at home, a second job, errands to run, or other responsibilities. I chose to continue this habit throughout the early stages of my career because I found working longer engendered the admiration of supervisors, who tend to notice such things, and doing so offered me a chance to “get ahead” while others rested.

    Third, I demonstrated my labor’s versatility. I again leveraged the privilege of my youth, my lack of other responsibilities, and my (comparatively speaking) elite education to learn new skills. With them, I sought further opportunities for innovation, process improvement, and the like. I found ways to put these innovations to use for the benefit of my employers and my personal brand.

    Through these various “value-adding” strategies, I attained success of a sort. If nothing else, I found ways to be viewed at the deli and beyond as valuable enough to keep around and occasionally to be promoted over “less valuable” colleagues.

    In practice, value creation is always comparative. In a world of expanding commodification and shrinking margins across all sectors, only those deemed to add the most value will thrive. It’s a system that privileges the already privileged and reinforces the pathological society-wide narrative of human interchangeability. Once we believe the primary thrust of our jobs is a zero-sum competition, we buy into an exploitative system and disregard the more authentic reality in which we are all equal before our Maker.

    When we confuse our jobs with our worth we end up calculating our innate value on spreadsheets and forgetting the true nature of our deep interconnections. We forget that others are more than their relative place in the pecking order. We forget that this pecking order, which now extends globally, is profoundly inhumane and unchristian in both its ideology and impact.

    Fifteen years after leaving the deli, I observe daily some of the most grievous costs of the global economic system and the means by which rampant injustice “creates value.” I work for an organization which partners with governments in an effort to end violent oppression against the world’s poor. Some forty million people today languish in a form of oppression we call “modern slavery.” Some are victims of class or gender-based exploitation, extortion, or coercion. The majority find themselves overpowered by the weight of that ultimate technique for value creation – debt.

    Debt has always served as a fixture of the global economy. Indeed, it is only through access to debt that we are able to so deliriously “add value” for ourselves – climbing the endless mountains of capital development, personal enrichment, and wealth-buffered security. But we see debt only as the winners of an unjust global contest. Those on the other side tell a very different story.

    It is not just the millions of bonded laborers victim to illegal loans, languishing at brick kilns and lumber yards and rice mills around the world. Legal indebtedness contributes to slavery in more insidious ways as well.

    In Cambodia, a young man named Ron used a microloan to purchase a plot of land for rubber production. When drought destroyed his crop, he was left with no viable alternative for employment and an unpayable debt to a public bank. And Ron is not alone. Cambodians today are now drowning under the highest microfinance burden per capita in the world.

    In his desperation, Ron was lured across the border into Thailand by the promise of decent work. Instead, he found himself trapped on a boat. His passport was taken from him. He was forced to work long hours under brutal conditions with no pay for months on end. Ron found himself enslaved by a combination of debt and unchecked oppressive actors.

    It wasn’t just the traffickers and the abusive ship captain who made this possible. A long supply chain of more powerful others “created value” via efficiencies and budget cuts and downward pressures that gradually provoked the inevitable conclusion. In the end, it proved more efficient to trade in slave labor than to recruit and pay fishermen fairly.

    The value of Ron’s life there at the bottom of the global fishing industry became precisely quantified by the insurmountable weight of his debt. This minuscule “value” was totally and completely divorced from his value as a human in the sight of God.

    And the ultimate beneficiaries of this systematic global dehumanization? Western consumers demanding cheap fish.

    The late David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, describes such tragedies this way: “If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it's the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

    If we didn’t have a system that permits or encourages violence, Graeber suggests, we would be forced to rely on more creative, imprecise, informal, and community-building forms of indebtedness, his “human economies.” Such economies are inherently messy and inefficient. As such, they play a diminished role in the modern march towards progress.

    Like so many other efficient techniques for material improvement, debt is effective only where the threat of violence (either that of the state or a violent non-state actor) also exists to enforce its repayment.

    It follows that any time I – as a wealthy Westerner – incur debt as a means to improve my security or enrich my life, I endorse and benefit from the global, debt-centric system. By doing so, I am, in Graeber’s sense, founding relations on violence. My mortgage and my credit card are thus directly complicit in helping debt in its various forms “seem moral” as its global tentacles trap and destroy the Rons of the world.

    For Christians who claim to rest their hope in the Prince of Peace, this complicity with a violent order is something to be deeply lamented even as a better path remains unclear. What can we do if we are tied inextricably to an oppressive, unchristian global system? How are we to engage in a world that expects us to compete, to add value for enormous corporate employers, and to borrow endlessly to feed our own selfish and fearful instincts? How should we respond to a system of violence-drenched debt that crushes the less fortunate and erodes the foundation of our characters?

    First, we must remember the authentic message behind Paul’s call in Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” To work “as for the Lord” is not about securing political capital or delivering the utmost economic value. It does not imply we should do everything within our power to keep our jobs or leverage ourselves into prosperity. It does not endorse Machiavellian maneuvering to ensure our own security. It does not underwrite our workaholism or our search for identity in our jobs or in debt-financed material acquisition. It does not condone complicity in a system where privilege begets more privilege and the vulnerable get left out in the cold.

    Instead, Paul commends a posture towards work that rejects our insecurities and self-interest outright in exchange for achieving a higher purpose. Moreover, it suggests that our view of work is too limited. Our work is “whatever we do.” It is our posture toward government and toward global systems that sustain violence. It is about how we value friends and family and strangers in a world that tells us everyone is replaceable.

    In thinking about a right posture toward work, we might learn important lessons from those Graeber refers to as the “non-industrious poor,” that is, from those our society implicitly (and often explicitly) views as valueless and unworthy of assistance from their communities because they are not formally employed. “Insofar as the time they are taking,” Graeber writes, “is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”

    In looking to the poor and vulnerable for our moral exemplars, we might resist the delusion that our reward lies in the security or material advantages offered by earthly success.

    Instead of lionizing the leaders of our violent, immoral governments or the wealthiest, most “successful” citizens, perhaps we can follow Christ’s example. Perhaps we might look instead to the poor and vulnerable for our moral exemplars. In so doing, we might resist the delusion that our reward lies in the security or material advantages offered by earthly success.

    As we seek to faithfully execute our obligations at work and beyond, we must also think about the spillover effects of our efforts. What we do at work matters. It matters who we work for and how those corporations treat the earth and the workers in their supply chains. As we personally gain earthly status on the backs of these giants, we will certainly be judged alongside them for the chaos and violence we’ve helped bring into the world.

    Yet following the Christian call to be set apart implies something even more radical than adjusting our posture to government, debt, corporate greed, and the violence inherent therein. “Working for the Lord” asks us to reject the claims a free-market economy accords our employers at our expense. It asks us to reject the illusion of ourselves as unfettered, unrooted, “free” individuals devoting our lives and souls to a grand competition for access to those things our society values.

    In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks us to consider a shift of perspective on the nature of value: “Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.”

    Such a stance on the infinite nature of human worthiness asks us to set righteous boundaries. It asks that we refuse to allow anxieties about our earthly occupations to marginalize our relationships, our time with family, our rest, or the totality of our talents, skills, and energy. It requires that we step into a new light. It offers us a glimpse of God’s reality in which we are the Imago Dei, where our value was proven before our birth, where who we are in the eyes of our Creator has nothing to do with our illusions of success or security.

    As we begin to envision and embody some of these radical shifts, we will start to view others – even ourselves – as irreplaceable in the eyes of God.

    Contributed By

    J. Daniel Sims serves as International Justice Mission’s (IJM) National Director in Cambodia where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, programmatic, and operational staff in the fight against labor exploitation. He previously directed international development policy research and taught courses at the College of William & Mary, led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar, and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda.

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