The Cost of Displacement

To speak of the need for affection and loyalty and social stability is not at all to slight the need for life-supporting work. Of course people need to work.

Everybody does. And in a money-using economy, people need to earn money by their work. Even so, to speak of “a job” as if it were the only economic need a person has, as if it doesn’t matter what the job is or where a person must go in order to have it, is brutally reductive. To speak so is to leave out virtually everything that is humanly important: family and community ties, connection to a home place, the questions of vocation and good work. If you have “a job,” presumably, you won’t mind being a stranger among strangers in a strange place, doing work that is demeaning or unethical or work for which you are unsuited by talent or calling.

When people accept mobility as a condition of work, it means that they have accepted a kind of homelessness. It used to be a part of good manners to ask a person you had just met, “Where are you from?” That question has now become a social embarrassment, for it is too likely to be answered, “I’m not from anywhere.” But to be not from anywhere is part of the definition of helplessness. Mobility is a condition in which you can do little or nothing to help yourself, and in which you live apart from family and old neighbors who would be the people most likely to help you.

Usury, for example, is “a job.” But it happens to be a job that nobody ought to do. It is a violence against fellow humans who happen to be in need, a violence against work, or against good work, a violence against nature, and therefore (for those to whom it matters) a violence against God. It is a job also that estranges and isolates one from other people, who are perceived by the usurer not as neighbors, but as potential victims.

To be mobile is not only to be in a new sense homeless. It is also to be in an old sense landless.

Wendell Berry's whole story appears in the December/January 2010 issue. Subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97 by clicking here for immediate access.