Updated: Oct 4, 2018
Reading and talking about work - what it feels like, how - and why - we do it, its role in making value in business, its constitution as a cost in capitalism, etc. - is a central part of my teaching about capitalism. In a semester we talk a lot about work; I think it's very important to separate (as well as connect) "work" and "pay"- especially because students often don't distinguish them.
For years, early in the semester, I've read Twain's description of work from the fence-painting passage in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer out loud to my students. The concluding epiphany, that "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do" leads to interesting reflections (plus, the list of items in Tom's new hoard is fun to read!).
Driving north from Belleville I had a peaceful weekend camping in Hannibal, the town on the Mississippi River where Mark Twain grew up.
The old part of Hannibal, on the river (there's a much larger, newer part of town further west), is a combination of bustling Twain-dedicated tourism (including a boy and girl who walk around dressed up as Tom and Becky) and (a few blocks away) a fair number of vacant storefronts and empty lots.
The signs of changing populations and cultures and increasing diversity show up everywhere I go on this trip: business signs, neighborhoods, faces and voices. Hannibal is no exception and this sign, in a vacant lot just a block from where the mock Tom and Becky were talking to tourists, was a welcome indication of new energy and new people looking to work.
The Talking Capitalism Lemonade Stand seems to be more like performance art than a way to actually talk to people - but I think that's ok. I set up on a neutral corner near a parking lot, opposite the Twain home and the replica of the famous fence. People - mainly couples and a few families on Sunday excursions - walked by and mainly didn't make eye contact. I had a book and didn't accost.
At one point, a pleasant couple in their 70s stopped. He asked me if I'd had any takers for the lemonade and she chimed in that "We LIKE capitalism". He quoted Ben Franklin who (when asked whether the new government would be monarchy or a republic) said, "A republic . . . if you can keep it”. Capitalism needed to be done right. I wish I'd been able to keep the conversation going but they weren't inclined to stop more and I wasn't quick enough to engage them.
It is always very interesting to me that naming "capitalism" is often understood as criticism of it. And therefore leads people to either reject the topic or defend the concept. There is a lot more to be said about this.
Finally, visiting the waterfront of Hannibal I was struck by the levee and flood wall that runs the length of the downtown, with gates that can be put in place to protect the town. Built in the early 1990s these were finished right before the disastrous floods of 1993. It is often difficult for my students to see how government projects and actions support capitalist profit-making - not just community well-being and social programs or education. This massive construction was a dramatic example.