The Seeds of Labor

The Sower, by Van Gogh. 1888

Sometimes, poetry is like a mystery, like a detective story put to song. Sometimes similes and metaphors string bits of life (like notes) into a song, a symphony, or a collage of chords never heard together. The point. Yes, that’s often the point. The bridge works for visuals as well. And for tactiles. The bridges work between humans, between nature, between humans and nature and beyond. Inside, outside, vertically, horizontally, depth and foreground, finding all dimensions, incorporating disparate elements. Harmonizing. Even atonally. Even off key to form new strings of keys washing into larger lakes, rivers, oceans of meaning.

The poet Jill Magi works some metaphorical magic on a seemingly unlikely topic below: Labor. To borrow a phrase, it’s a labor of love going back in time and leading to the present. Metacritical irony, in a sense, as she works in the vineyard to find the heart of work.


It has always puzzled me that communism and capitalism are generally seen as opposites. This is the wrong place and time to go into a long disquisition on the topic, as we are, of course, an Arts Journal. But I will say that I see Labor lost in the battle between two sides which are essentially about power relationships, not philosophical opposites. In short, Labor is still owned in both systems, in reality. In reality, being the key. Masters and slaves still line up pretty much in the same way, and Labor loses out in both systems. We have yet to create a system where it wins. In order for that to be the case, neither the corporation nor the state could “enslave” the worker. The worker would be owner of his or her own wares, contractually obligated not to a hierarchy in the private or public sector, but to herself/himself and the person on the receiving end of the product or service. In short, a horizontal, open-ended exchange, not a vertical trap/loss.

Ironically, an almost ideal and pure form of this horizontal exchange can sometimes happen in the world this journal chooses to focus on. Sometimes. If, for instance, Van Gogh paints a painting and sells it to a collector, he is almost there, almost to the ideal form of work/labor/control of self and one’s own production. There are, of course, all kinds of extenuating circumstances, compromises that may come into play, anxieties unleashed, frustrations provoked. But if the artist can create what he or she wants to create, without compromise, and sells that work at a price that meets their expectations of maintaining their livelihood, then they come very close to achieving the perfect exchange.

Of course, in our complex modern world, this is a very rare occasion for the artist/worker. Most of the time, hierarchies of scale come into play and generally take over. The more people involved in that transaction, the less horizontal it becomes, and the further away from a healthy exchange of labor/autonomy we go. Much of this is inevitable, given the fact of 7 billion people surrounding us. But we have yet to create a system that even attempts to reduce the vertical. Most of our creations induce, expand and protect hierarchies. This seems to me to be contra-human and continues to be unhealthy. We are beginning to see more than obvious signs that our current systems don’t work very well.

Time for something completely different.

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Update, 4-24-13: I should not have used the word “Communism” above. The Soviet Union, for instance, never got close to that point, being stuck instead inside State Capitalism. It wasn’t even able to implement real socialism, which requires actual democracy and the people must own the means of production, literally, not through proxies, not through a political party or dictator. Socialism comes before communism, and true communism is the absence of the state (as we know it today).

In the years since I wrote the above piece, I’ve tried to go back and burn away as many of my biases as possible — political, philosophical, religious and cultural — and become more precise with applicable terms. I often fail. But it is a current mission . . . .


The Seeds of Labor
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