If one happens to be in the market for a cultural shock, he oftentimes needs only rent a movie from the 1940′s. In my particular case, I had the pleasure of watching a Jimmy Stewart movie titled “The Shop Around the Corner,” a film excellent in every way, and unusually witty for a romantic comedy. But what struck me most powerfully about the film was not so much the clever script, the perfectly selected cast, nor the believable romance, but rather a statement made by several characters about their employment. They stated, in terms which make the modern man’s head spin, that they “wanted to be somebody,” when what they meant was, they wanted to be either clerks or store managers.
Though merchants have gone in and out of fashion (the Romans, as Sir William Blackstone notes, believed it a dishonorable employment), the function merchants play in our society, though not themselves producing, permit what is produced to be adequately distributed. In a sense, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, merchants are responsible for a large part of the producer’s success, and because the productive person’s livelihood depends upon the merchant for the dispensation of merchandise (or else he, without access to buyers, would have to reduce production), the merchant may himself be considered an instrument of production.
This does not mean that a society which trends toward merchant services, and away from physical production, is equally stable as an agricultural/manufacturing society, though. A society geared toward consumption cannot maintain its luxury long. And perhaps men may recognize, though not entirely, that the recent years have brought an excess of service and retail jobs at the expense of productive labor, and perhaps that may lead citizens, almost instinctively, to think less highly of the retail clerk. It is not uncommon for men to take for granted those things which exist in abundance, regarding even the most useful and enjoyable things as expendable when they exist in every man’s possession or reach. And when a particular talent manifests itself in an unusually large portion of a population, it is not surprising that men believe the virtues it requires to be less valuable.
But the excess of such employment does not subtract even the slightest bit of virtue from the office of a clerk, or the employment of the manager. Though he may work at a fast food restaurant, an employment oftentimes derided by snobbish and fortunate peoples, his position indicates his worth to another man, a trust deposited in his character. The manager, thought to be common amongst the working class, is a person upon whom is bestowed a certain executive authority, a transfer of power from owner to servant, a statement that should the owner not be present, the hired man will qualify just as though the owner was. Though men are well aware that the success of what belongs to one is most precious to him alone, an appointment to a managerial position acknowledges a great statement about humanity: that one need not rely only upon himself for his success, and that others can be trusted to act for the mutual good. And the clerk, though perhaps endowed with different duties and a lesser level of independence, is likewise honorable, being entrusted with the merchant’s very capital. In this sense, though capitalism is oftentimes noted for its fiscal value, this trust and camaraderie through self-interest represents its even superior social value.
It is not difficult to see how clerks have subtracted their value in virtue, even amongst themselves. In days past, the clerk, being confined to a small shop in which his every effort produced a visible effect upon a business, felt himself an asset. But with the arrival of large corporations, the effects of his contributions became proportionally minimal, and almost altogether lost in a gargantuan machine, a drop dissipated in the ocean. His task, instead of producing observable advancement, became Sisyphean, the boulder of duties rolling back upon him each and every morning, his gains lost in a tide of unlimited chores without victory. Yet in every way, in times past and modern, the virtues required are the same.
But when men speak lowly of the clerk or of the manager, their speech betrays not the unambitious character which they so unfairly project upon the working class, but rather reveals the speaker’s thoughtless vanity, and a childish perspective on labor itself. If one wants prestige in American society, and he wants to “be somebody,” he imagines himself walking through metropolitan streets in a designer suit, gaining with little effort the entire salaries of hard working men in but a few short months, perhaps even in weeks. It does not take long, when watching the television, to see that what Americans value is glamor and wealth without virtue, risk without failure, and prestige without labor. Our brightest minds flock toward usurious corporations and financial manipulation, valuing men whose talents place them into prominent positions, whose endeavors require little to no assistance, and which glorify not a collective organism, but an isolated individual. Americans are, in essence, dissociated from the very values of capitalism, and are therefore incapable of seeing it to its proper conclusion, or truly reaping its benefits.
If this is what Americans believe, then their present wealth cannot be relied upon as a bulwark against an inevitable impoverishment. But let all noble men be sure of one thing, as they were in times past: there is honor in honest labor, there is glory in trust, and there is joy in camaraderie. And while the commonality of any position oftentimes detracts from perceptions of its actual value, Americans must learn to look beyond the title, and at the virtues themselves upon which title is based. It is time we give the honest working man the respect he deserves, and hail the honorable clerk.