September 21st, 2022 | 12 min read
We hunted for steel along flat-bottom train rails—glass
blanketing the gravel track bed like chicken feed,
jimson weed between creosote-steeped timbers—
picked over buckled trailers and garbage stacks:
cracked pump heads, mower blades, band saws rusted mid-cut.
The clang of spikes and bolt heads lobbed into a bucket
was a lesson he taught me in milking the wasted land.
—Mark Jay Brewin Jr., “Scrap Iron”
A man pushes a shopping cart full to overflowing with cracked hubcaps and rolls of chain link and empty tins just starting to rust. A pickup already loaded down with eyeless stoves and disgorged radiator coils patrols the slums in search of more castoff appliances. The basement of a new-built suburban house gleams with the stumps of copper pipes shorn off by hacksaw blades, the plumbing stripped out the week after it went in. This is the work of the scrap peddler. Peddlers are gleaners in the industrial economy, reaping on the unprofitable margins. I grew up around them, because my family bought their harvest.
Clark Iron & Metal is, as a family-owned scrapyard, something of an anachronism even in such an out-of-the-way industry as metal recycling. Most yards started out like ours but have since been bought up by corporate chains, many of them vertically integrated with the steel mills. Clark’s principal asset is five acres of concrete with a spur line off the CSX railroad. On this plot of wasted land, we operate a variety of heavy machinery for moving scrap around, cutting it up into pieces small enough to melt, and sorting it into grades that approximate the underlying chemistry of the metal. Then, we ship it off by truck or rail to some earthly hell, one of the huge furnaces dotting the Rust Belt that are kept burning night and day to make steel.
At the scrapyard, we did business with about a hundred peddlers a day. They get paid by the pound, different rates for different kinds of metal: short iron, long iron, torching iron, auto cast, shredder feed, stainless steel, painted aluminum siding, irony aluminum, electric motors, sealed units, no. 1 copper, no. 2 copper, yellow brass, red brass, hard brass. The scalemaster’s job is to grade the scrap, weigh it, then argue with the peddler about the grade and the weight. It’s customary for the peddler to accuse the scalemaster of miserliness, crookedness, or general moral turpitude. That was my job for an hour each day while the regular scalemaster was at lunch. It was the worst hour of my day.
The peddlers supply about half the scrap for our yard. The rest comes from factories: obsolete equipment, as well as the byproducts of the manufacturing process itself (a gleaming heap of a million defective seat belt buckles). Handling a factory’s scrap puts you in touch with the whole business in a surprising way. It gets you out on the production floor, where you can see at a glance how hot the engine is running: how close is production to capacity, how well-trained are the workers, what condition is the equipment in? One thing that’s striking about the production floor of a modern factory: how dark it is. Robots don’t need light to do their work. The floors are barely peopled. A modern assembly line can be tended by one or two human beings, a whole plant operated by a couple of dozen.
But just because a modern factory can be operated by a couple dozen workers, doesn’t mean that it is. The production floor is practically uninhabited, but the offices are packed. Handling the scrap gets you in here too: talk to Accounting, talk to Environmental, talk to Safety. These are not nice offices, not the Class A space that I occupied during my mercifully brief stint in corporate law. These offices are white-walled, gray-carpeted, drop-ceilinged, and fluorescent-lit. The image of today’s white-collar work environment might be the Googleplex, but in large swathes of the information economy, the aesthetic of Office Space is alive and well and seedier than ever.
These office workers mostly create reports — spreadsheets, slide decks, compliance checklists — for executives who work in nicer offices in better neighborhoods. In terms of actual job responsibilities, many seem to be dramatically underemployed and to spend most of their working hours on social media. If you ask me, of all the denizens of the modern economy, these avatars of Quiet Desperation are the most to be pitied. At least the scrap peddler — unless his approach to the trade involves theft and must therefore be conducted under cover of night — works in the sunshine and open air.
Except for my hour as scalemaster, I was the equivalent of all those managers and report-generators and salespeople haunting the offices of the plants we serviced. Me and my hyper-competent secretary: we were the central nervous system of the whole operation. We were Accounting, Environmental, and Safety. We were Purchasing and Sales. We were HR, QC, and IT. My office was still white-walled, fluorescent-lit, and drop-ceilinged — gray tile not carpet — but befitting my executive status I had a large window overlooking the scrap piles. I made compliance reports and sent them to the state. I made spreadsheets and sent them to myself. I didn’t make slide decks. I still spent a lot of time scrolling social media.
So here I was, on the one hand, a sort of peddler writ large (there’s a scalemaster at the mill, too, and they graded my scrap and weighed it, and then I argued with them about the grade and the weight), and on the other hand, one of these office creatures, pushing paper to little apparent effect, though at least not impeding the steady accumulation of profit that comes from buying cheap and selling dear. My only real job was to make decisions that no one else wanted to make, and I made the big bucks because my name was on the building. I was the middle man between the peddlers and the mills, between my employees and my equipment, and every time goods or services changed hands, a little bit of money stuck to mine.
It was during this time, sitting at my desk at the scrapyard, that I read this passage in Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound:
What would be a just wage for a life of carrying off other people’s cans and bottles? A million dollars a year would not be enough, because such a job can be performed only by the forfeiture of the effective life of the spirit in this world.
I put down the book and walked down the hall from my office to the window that overlooked the warehouse. I looked out over forty thousand pounds of crushed and baled aluminum cans, the mortal remains of some quarter million six packs. I reflected that my family was, for the year, roughly one million dollars in the black. Had I made a bad deal?
Our trade in UBC — “used beverage containers” — was the part of the business I was on the most intimate terms with. When I was in high school, my job was to work the can machine. A conveyor belt leads up to a basket on a scale. You and the peddler dump the cans in a hopper at the bottom, ripping and shaking out the trash bags, trying not to get too much of the hot soup of sour beer and sticky soda on your clothes, then you tare the scale, and run the cans up the belt. You pick out any trash off the moving conveyor. There’s an air gap at the top to drop any “heavy” cans, the ones that people fill with dirt or steel to try and sell at the aluminum price. You write the weight on a ticket and give it to the peddler for the scalemaster. You use a different color ink every day so they can’t change your 1s to 9s. When the basket is full, the cans go to the baler to be crushed and wrapped in wire.
The soda cans were, of course, a reminder of our national love affair with high fructose corn syrup. As an industry, Big Soda owes its existence to an agricultural policy that took millions of small farmers off the land, converted their farms into mechanized monocultures, and created an overproduction of corn so vast that we cannot afford not to waste this bounty by creating products with no nutritional value, lest the whole economic house of cards come tumbling down. Endless acres of super high-density, Roundup Ready, chemically fertilized corn, destined for canning as Coca Cola: wasted land comes in many colors.
The beer cans reflected just how much of our drinking we Americans do at home in front of the television. Of course, we put televisions in our bars too, but this packaging decision is still as good a signifier of our social atomization as any. As a homebrewer, I confess that I think canning (or bottling) is a minor crime against beer. Draft beer tastes better — cask ale better still — and kegging is faster, cheaper, and less wasteful. The only real advantage of canned or bottled beer is that it’s easier to stock in supermarkets and drink in private. The world would be better off without it: put pints back in the pub, fill a growler for the picnic.
In this moment of clarity, looking out over my “life of carrying off other people’s cans and bottles,” I saw my work as one link in a vast chain of unmitigated failure. At the bottom of the chain, the “permanently unemployable” peddler hauling junk for a few pennies a pound. At the top of the chain, a SoftBank analyst putting in a hundred Juul and DoorDash-fueled hours to make that WeWork deck. In between the two of them, me and the robot minders and the office drones and all the data wranglers conspiring to show the rest of us ads while we trade minion memes. In their own pockets of the spider’s web, the Uber drivers and doc reviewers and factory farmers and management consultants. I went looking for a way out.
What I found was centuries of reflection on the question of “good work” — almost all of it forgotten today — stretching from the ancients’ division of human life into business and leisure, the active life and the contemplative life, poiesis and praxis, to the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern era. This tradition made sense of all the dysfunction I saw before me and behind me, below me and above me, at my right and at my left. It was a tradition that ran through medieval theories of just price, the social economists of the nineteenth century, the agrarians and distributists of the twentieth, Ruskin and Morris, Chesterton and Belloc, Dorothy Sayers and Dorothy Day, Illich and Arendt, and of course, Mr. Berry of Port Royal, Kentucky. Taking them all together, I arrived at an understanding of why the system was failing all of us — me, the peddlers, the office drones, even the finance brahmins — so completely.
As a starting point, we do not work for the sake of work. Work deserving of the name is always work toward some end. We recognize that work that is done to no purpose is a waste of time and energy. We also know that we are done working when our purpose has been accomplished. In other words, work is a goal-oriented process that terminates when its goal is achieved. Work for work’s sake is a contradiction in terms.
Second, we do not work for the sole purpose of consumption — that is, in order to satisfy the needs of bodily life. Only part of our work is for the sake of meeting those needs. For all work to be done for the sake of consumption would render all work ultimately futile, because the needs of bodily life are never finally met and so there would be no end to the process. The pattern of working to eat and eating to work would be completely cyclical, and to reduce all work to this cycle would in turn reduce human life to its bare, animal basis.
Why then, do we work? We work (ascholia) in order to gain leisure (schole), by which we mean not recreation but the opportunity to exercise our human nature in ways that are not compelled by biological necessity. The two principal uses of leisure are contemplation (theoria) and action (praxis). Contemplation is the turning of the mind (nous) towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, which for the Christian is most fully realized in the act of attention to God that is the essence of prayer. Action encompasses all those interpersonal, relational acts — of which speech (logos) is the paradigm — by which we know other people as free individuals and make ourselves known in turn.
Unlike work, the activities that belong to leisure — speculative thinking, prayer, participation in public affairs, friendship, and so on — are undertaken for their own sake. In fact, to treat these activities as means rather than as ends is to abuse them: speculative thinking in the service of intellectual vanity ceases to be speculative, friendship turned to personal gain ceases to be friendship, and so on. These activities are undertaken freely, not subject to economic compulsion; they are the ones we choose when money is no object. They are good not for some other purpose but good in themselves.
It is true that in order to enjoy leisure, we must work — and this for two reasons. First, while we do not work solely in order to consume, we do have to eat. Fortunately (or providentially), nature is so arranged that most people produce more by their work than they need to survive. This surplus provides support for dependents and leisure for the worker. The second reason we must work — and the tradition is united on this point — is that the exercise of both body and mind is essential preparation for the enjoyment of leisure. As Arendt says, “There is no lasting happiness and contentment for human beings outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration.”
The activities of work and leisure are arranged in a natural order. The end, the destination, of the order is noble leisure: the enjoyment of activities that are good in themselves, that require no further justification, that employ what is highest and best in the human person, that are characterized by freedom rather than necessity. Good work provides the worker with sustenance, a surplus to support dependents, and maximum opportunity for noble leisure while preparing the worker to enjoy that leisure properly.
The diseases of work are departures from this natural order, and they are myriad. You can break the pattern at any point, resulting in a different kind of dysfunction each time. The remarkable thing about the modern economy is how it manages to manifest so many of them, all at once, and to such a profound degree. Allow me to illustrate just one such perversity as it played out at the scrapyard.
We previously observed that, under ordinary circumstances, a worker produces more than the worker needs to survive. That’s how subsistence farmers manage to have families and make homes and still have time to sing songs and say prayers — in other words, to enjoy a complete life. However, there is a perpetual temptation accompanying this surplus, which is to expropriate someone else’s surplus in order to free yourself from the burden of labor. To enslave another is to deprive them of the fruits of their labor beyond what they need to survive, to deny them the leisure that is the natural end of work. Throughout history, slavery has often been effected through violence. Debt, however, has proved just as effective, and wage slavery is achieved by restricting access to the natural abundance of the earth and confiscating the worker’s surplus as an entrance fee.
In the scrap business, my whole position hinged on giving back less to people than what they produced for me. Yes, I solved some coordination problems. Someone had to call the mill, call the railroad, make the packing list. But why was my compensation so hugely disproportionate to the amount and difficulty of that work? Because the true basis of my position was not my own work but my ownership of the land and equipment that made others’ work possible. In order to convert their own work into money — whether selling scrap or selling labor — they needed what I had, and supposedly, that entitled me to a portion of their surplus. I gained leisure at their expense.
Why go along with this? Why participate in a system where I am daily enriched by your work? For the peddlers, there simply wasn’t much choice. If your work is scrapping, you need someone like me to buy your haul. For a lot of them and for a variety of reasons, “get a job” wasn’t on the table. But my employees weren’t really better off. They had jobs, but I still paid them less than what they produced and pocketed the difference. That’s a basic fact of employment.
One of my biggest enablers was, for lack of a better word, overconsumption. Most of my employees could have lived much more independent lives if they had been willing to make less money and buy less stuff. In this sense, there were two parasites draining them of leisure. I was the big one, but the other one was their own habit of choosing to work more and spend their surplus consuming more rather than enjoying leisure. Of course, my relationship to the peddlers or my employees wasn’t uniquely exploitative. Everywhere I looked, I saw more of the same, and dozens more failure modes, spreading out in every direction.
Even as I realized the evils of my own position, I found it difficult to imagine an escape. In a letter to a pacifist, Niebuhr wrote, “Your problem is that you want to live in the world without sinning.” That captured my feelings about the modern world of work. Where was I going to go that would be any better, any purer than where I was? Everywhere I turned, I saw the same or worse. On the one hand, I remain sympathetic to Chesterton who vowed to “set fire to all modern civilization.” But I admit that I’m not hopeful for a dramatic revolution in our state of affairs.
A couple years ago, I found myself removed from the scrap business not entirely by choice. I believe the work I do now is good, though the money that pays for it is implicated in the same broken system as the business I’ve left behind. I try in small ways to conform my life to the natural order of work and leisure, alongside the other natural orders that lead to human flourishing. There’s no heroism in this, no asceticism; I’m no one’s moral exemplar.
Still, I do a lot more labor than I used to. I tend a garden. I cook. I brew beer. I mow my own grass and rake my own leaves and shovel my own snow. I chop my own firewood. My wife and I live in an old house, and we’re slowly uncovering its good bones, doing the work ourselves. Except for the cooking, I’m not very good at it. It’s inefficient. But in part because I do more labor myself, I don’t need to work longer hours. I don’t have to take whatever job pays best. As a consumer, I’m participating less in the employment-based economy. That means that some workers somewhere have some infinitesimal amount more surplus and more potential leisure than they otherwise would. It might be practically nothing, but that’s still something. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.