There was a comment (Thanks, Libby!) on my topic announcement post reacting to the short-hand way that I conveyed Bergmann’s experience with a native Canadian tribe that I thought would be best responded to simply by providing in full Bergmann’s anecdote about this from the book. So this is an account of one experience he had visiting and initiating a New Work project with a specific tribe; I don’t think there’s any intention here of this being anything like an “analysis” in the sense of enumerating the historical circumstances, and see no reason that he would disagree with Libby’s characterization of the tragic history involved.
Central in this episode is a contrast: is the juxtaposition of the normal, standard government supported approaches to the whole range of these situations set into opposition to the very different approach developed by New Work. The next project became for me the most vivid demonstration of why the traditional – old culture – approaches are bound to fail. Indirectly, it thereby affirmed to us that we were perhaps on the right track. In that way it turned out to be crucially important for the further development of New Work.
I received the compelling demonstration of this lesson from two Native American tribes, from the Gitskans and the Wettsuetsens in the high north of Canada. I will start with a single condensed story of my first encounters with them.
Early in an October I arrived in a very small plane at the very small airport of Hazelton, B.C. The snow was already deep and for several hours we drove with a pickup truck through unbelievably gorgeous mountains. When we arrived, what looked to me like a large part of one of the tribes sat in a circle in a very low-ceilinged room, which lay behind a restaurant that was itself located in a trailer. When I entered, a shuffling went around the circle but no one spoke a single word. I sat down in the silence and waited. After several minutes the elder of the tribe, a woman of legendary power and intelligence, at last spoke. Enunciating every word quite slowly and distinctly, she said: “Everything that we have done in the last twenty years has been a mistake!”
Nothing followed that first statement. All the same, after another silence, conversation slowly started to seep up between the seated people and not long afterwards we all went to sleep, without anyone having said a word about the opening remark which Val Napoleon, that was her name, had made.
On the next ice-cold morning, Val waited for me in her truck, and we drove again for hours while passing hardly any houses and certainly no villages. At last she abruptly pulled up a steep hillside and quite unexpectedly stopped the truck on the edge of a sizeable village square. There was a school and several houses.
Not together, but at distances from each other stood the men of the tribe. In silence. Immobile. Wrapped in blankets. She again said nothing, but after a while I found the courage to ask what these men were doing. She answered, “They are waiting for the mail.” After another pause I asked, “About what time does the mailman usually arrive?” She replied, “Around noon.” “Around noon?” I asked, with puzzlement in my voice, “what time is it now?” Valerie said, “Ten past eight.” I ventured to follow this up and said, “And how often do most of these men get a letter?” “Mostly, it is once a month, and not a letter but the check they get from the government,” was her answer.
Two days later she finally broke her silence, and explained: The great mistake, which spanned twenty years, came to a head in the men who stood waiting in the snow. They stood there because there was nothing else for them to do. The work in the forest and the work in the sawmill has stopped long ago, and even the fishing and the hunting had come to a complete end. So, the Canadian government, which treats the Indians very differently from the American, provided for the totality of their needs. Not just food and clothing and housing, but also counselors and social workers and nurses and trained therapists for every imaginable and conceivable requirement. For alcoholism. For domestic violence. For child abuse. For the old and dying. For chronic depression. For rehab when one returned from prison, and so on. There seemed to be as many social workers as members of the tribe. She said there was nothing whatever for the men to do, so they no longer moved. They became so utterly dependent on being provided for that it was an effort to still feed themselves. Sometimes they no longer managed that!
The image of the men of the tribe standing wrapped into their blankets in the cold stayed with me through the years since then. They were waiting because there was nothing for them to do. All of their work, down to the last shreds had been taken from them. They could only wait. But also the other way around: They also stood and waited, they no longer moved, they stood stockstill in the cold and winter silence because the government provided for every last one of their needs! That double aspect was Val’s point: the fact that the dependency did as much harm as the lack of work.
In the days after that I learnt about their culture and also the details of their condition. They showed me the giant saw mill which had become so fully automated that I literally only saw one single person working. He sat in front of a console in a hermetically small cabin made entirely of glass. The buttons he pressed controlled inordinately large machines that picked up a big bundle of virgin trees all with one grip, as we would pick up wooden matches with one hand. The tribe’s people explained that this had been one of the last stages; the last remaining jobs were automated out from under them.
Naturally, I asked them what ventures they had tried. One of their last had been making coffins out of wood, but the cost of the transportation from so far up north was much too high, and also they no longer had access to real boardfeet of wood. Weyerhaeusser, the international lumber corporation, told them that they were allowed to take only the waste wood, i.e. remnants and trees too small for making useful lumber.
Much time during my next several visits was spent on generating an idea for another business that they would be able to build up inside the narrow confines of their situation. After a very large number had been explored and discarded one idea seemed to withstand every one of the objections that anyone could think of raising. It was again a point where I felt that it was utterly impossible to come up with still one more “possibility” when I suggested that they could mount a small manufacturing operation. I had encountered a building system which functioned very like the world famous Lego game, with the difference that the building pieces were about two feet by ten inches and were made entirely out of treated chipboard. The brand name was Ability Blocks. (About two year ago, a group of homeless people in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. put up two duplexes up for themselves. They built their own housing and for that undertaking used these very blocks.)
There were rounds and rounds of discussions. Not only a business plan had to be developed, but finally the members collectively decided that this proposal also passed a different test: they liked it, the idea at the heart of it thrilled them, they believed in it. This at last was something that they really really wanted to undertake.
The two tribes obtained a grant and for a time a few of them made money manufacturing those blocks. That was a very mixed result, and the picture was the same also in the other tribes with which I worked, in North and South Dakota. None of the enterprises we initiated came close to giving employment to the entire tribe. This was therefore another lesson I absorbed: it was quite out of the question to create enough jobs for these tribes, isolated as they were up in those mountains.
Oddly, the situation was in some ways similar to that of the homeless people in the city of New York. There we had decided, even in the densely populated city, that some modern form of self-providing was the only way out of a permanently marginal existence. Here the inescapable conclusion was the same. Clearly they could earn some money, just like farmers in agrarian times had earned cash with a cash crop, but it fell far short of being enough money to purchase everything they needed.
The pattern that emerged had much in common with the development in Flint. It need not be said that “selfreliance” and “self-providing” were terms to which Native Americans responded. They organized Pow Wows and danced in celebration of starting on this path. And they were determined and inventive and much was undertaken. Still, just as in Flint, large chunks of technology that have been developed in the meantime at that point did not yet exist, and the idea of High-Tech Self-Providing therefore remained a mere beginning, a hopeful but unfinished start.
For me, in my own personal development, far and away most powerful was the image of the men of the tribe, wrapped in blankets, standing still in the cold wind and the snow. That image bore some resemblance to what I had seen in the East, to how I had experienced the stage of Socialism when it was less than ten years away from it’s death, and indirectly it also became for me a metaphor, an emblem for the demise of what in the U.S. is called Liberalism. (Roughly: the left wing of the Democratic Party)
This anecdote is meant to demonstrate that providing for material needs, and even providing support though social work and such, is not enough to cure ennui. So, for example, one proposal often associated with New Work-like proposals is to have a guaranteed minimum income so that people can pursue their passions. Now, there are of course huge barriers in arguing for such a proposal, much less funding it; Bergmann is not interested in throwing energy into politically impossible tasks (I realize this might surprise some of you), and thinks that passing anything like that so long as corporations have an essential veto on all legislation, and that they will continue to have such a veto as long as society is 100% reliant on the resource–jobs–that corporations provide. A better outlet for such energy, he thinks, is to come up with creative solutions. Note that he regards this particular experiment (I asked him when this occurred and he couldn’t tell me off-hand; some time in the 90s) as only partially successful: starting this building-block business did energize some of the men of the tribe, but clearly was not by itself to address the problem.
It’s worth noting also that is solution to escaping the job system is NOT that we all become entrepreneurs. He cites statistics that something like 80% of new businesses will fold in the first year, and sees all rhetoric in favor of entrepreneurship as making the young people that then pour all their energy into starting businesses as so much cannon fodder; that the claim that you and I with hard work and determination can strike out on our own as not just overly optimistic but as the propaganda of the Job System (or more properly capitalism, but he rarely even uses that word). Starting your own business CAN be a calling, but it can also make you the slave of every client instead of the slave of a single boss; tending to one’s business can be as antithetical to human nature as a job.
Note that that recurrent phrase “against human nature” is mine, not Bergmann’s; I just mean by it that it runs counter to the natural rhythms of human rest and activity: our need for a variety of activities… there’s a lot of complexity packed into it, and even characteristics particular to the individual; I’m taking this conception largely from Nietzsche, as Bergmann does.
Another brief word about the critique of the Left: he takes up the refrain that I often hear that movements like Occupy Wall Street (note that this book was written in 2003; he did not have that in particular in mind, but it works anyway) don’t have a clear goal. He was very active in 60s politics but thought that the violence that came out in the ’68 Democratic Convention and such showed that something was wrong, just as (according to Hegel) the French Revolution showed that something was wrong with the Enlightenment conception of freedom and the political goals that it inspired. The Left has always been good about denouncing oppression, but when overt oppression is conquered, then it immediately fragments into 100 different causes to push further in many different ways. New Work is not intended to be a protest movement, but an approach to solving seemingly insoluble problems; it is an attempt to reorient all of our political thinking into arranging social structures to cultivate authentic individuals and not into making individuals fit into predetermined social roles.
So even though challenging the economic status quo looks like a leftist maneuver, Bergmann explicitly wants to cut across those battle lines. I quote from a bit later in the book (I’m not going to give page #’s here, because they’re not going to match the published version when it comes out):
…The basic puzzle: how does one “arouse” the poor, how does one pull them out of the craterhole of the Poverty of their Desires? What is the ladder on which they will climb out of their apathy, their disillusionment and their despair? Understanding these trends is one small but significant handhold for this upwards climb. They must, however slowly, come to the conviction that they are part of something powerful, and impressive; part of a determined effort to make a vastly superior world, that is not just a whistling in the dark, but that lo and behold, surprisingly, could indeed succeed!
But there is one further mountainous fact: from the first beginning we made it difficult for people to put us neatly either into the box of the left or that of the right. Clearly, we have all along been on the side of the low and the poor. Far more so than many who think of themselves as left, for we did not want to only calm the poor with small gifts or with band aids – especially, not across their mouths. We have been trying to rouse them to become self-reliant; not to plead, not to remonstrate, but instead to struggle upwards, and by no means only to the level of subsistence, but much higher; to raise themselves up to an exuberant and a cheerful life! We have cajoled and hectored and again and again put the tools and the technology at their disposal so they could rise and become vigorous, strong, creative, independent and yes, yes even competitive. But, obviously, those are the very words, the very values, the very incantations that have been monopolized by the “conservatives” and the “right.”
So we are 50:50. On the one hand fiercely for the low and the poor, but on the other hand we put into actual practice what those on the right merely preach for a small, select elite. We try to put their rhetoric into practice for the great mass of the poor.
So, how can the conservatives oppose us? We take the words right out of their mouths – we only address a different audience, one which they could never reach. But this split, this division – half left and half right is not only a tactic, or a trick. If it disorients and confuses those who oppose us, all the better. Wonderful as a byproduct. But that is not our goal. Both halves together, is quite simply what we “really, really” believe. We believe that those who are now low and poor should become the kind of human beings that Whitman, and Blake, and Thoreau and Emerson dreamt about. They should not be only fed and clothed and housed, though that too, but they should have the chance to become splendid, effervescent fully human individuals! Yes, nothing less will do!