"Here they work, here they cook, they eat, they sleep, they pray...." So wrote the cleric Reverend Ezra Styles Ely in 1853 of the rude garrets of struggling shoemakers in antebellum New York that also doubled as workshops in which families--men, women, and children-- churned out footwear under the "sweating system" for the developing mass market. That transition from the days in which skilled journeyman had turned out custom-made boots and shoes to mass production called forth a dialogue in which shoeworkers figured prominently, a dialogue that stretched from the meaning of democracy to the value of productive labor. In my talk, we will examine the significance of the dialogue then and its relevance in modern America.
Labor historian and professor Bruce Laurie chose the building of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York as the meeting point for the dialog. This was intended as a symbolic reference to the legacy of American artisans. Apart from their working conditions, these artisans were concerned that their work production work would consume their minds and that the life of the mind would suffer. With the motto: By hammer and hand all arts do stand, the history of the place was loaded with the idea that thinking and making must be connected.
Bruce Laurie's detailed account of the radical history of shoe shops located in the periphery of NYC, where public property and the street co-existed amongst "shop talks," book readings, one political meeting to the next, and the birth of home grown Americanradicalism (ie. William Heighton, shoemaker and founder of the American Labor Movement), provided context to the working transition of skilled craftsmen. This dialogue provided a glimpse into the history of custom-made boots to mass production and the value of productive labor in modern America. These workers were creating a labor movement that questioned not only work, but intellectual uplift. They wanted Libraries, reading rooms, debating societies to counter ignorance.
During the late 19th century, when rapid industrialization was at blinding speed, these American tradesmen, were the "Simon" in the Socratic story, and their eloquence and feisty legacy to an artisan past combined the "Thinking and doing" which strongly represented concrete knowledge and admirable personal independence.
Neil Smith, social theorist/geography and urban anthropologist speaks strongly about the idea of how social thought has been caught up in the entanglement and current separation between the social and the natural. He discussed the environmental prejudice embedded in social labor and critically considered discussions on the reclamation of nature and society. "Almost all of the environmental movement and its latest incarnations since from the 60's and 70's was all about putting nature and society back together again... How can we have been so stupid to assume it's separation?"
- Neil Smith
The Gowanus Canal is a U.S. "Superfund" site, meaning, it is part of a federal government program to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. The group walked around the entire area and along the canal's edge to discuss the history of the location, remnants and other indication of the co-existence of the natural environment and social labor. "Our eyes don't tell us the truth sometimes - For instance, the park, conservation and the development of a Wholefoods site is an idea and visually present to buffer the rubble of the post-industrial marks or other investments that went into the area, and the other social production in the place that our eyes don't see by seeing the bare land. In this condition, nature is used as an alternative to industrial society and separate of society, to heal the bad stuff.. and it doesn't work that way unfortunately.
Human labor is simultaneously social and natural at the same time."
- Neil Smith
The point to the Gowanus Canal is not the argument about the necessity of cleaning up old facilities that are to a greater extent, toxic. The point to Neil Smith is that it does not make sense to look at this area and still make a distinction between nature and society. As a human society, we are intrinsically part of the production in the natural world (and distinction only causes separation). The question is: How do we produce a natural world, and under what conditions? There must be social democracy emphasized over the production of the natural world, much as the production the social world. Neil Smith puts this in the forefront, he asks us to think about this fact - that the democracy of the natural world vs. the democracy of the production of the social world is actually part of the same question.