New Internationalist

Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR

Issue 334

Long, hard work gives little social benefit and only meagre financial reward to the majority of the world’s workers. Yet we struggle to find alternative ways of structuring our lives or challenging these dictated values.

Science and technology specialist Sharon Beder outlines both the origin and practice of the ‘culture of work’ in which the wealthy are respected and inequality is justified. She shows that those who benefit most from them have promoted these values through social and corporate propaganda.

This is a well-researched and challenging book that deserves close attention. Compelling and insightful in most of the areas it deals with, it could, however, be stronger on the so-called Protestant Work Ethic – a concept first coined by Max Weber, who argued that early Protestants wanted work to absorb all available time. They taught that work wasn’t for self-benefit but for the whole community and those in need. Material success was never taught to be the reward for godly living.

But early secularizers such as Benjamin Franklin corrupted the ‘work for the community’ view into ‘work for self-accumulation’. Industrialism was delighted to harvest this embryonic shift towards consumerism. Not surprisingly the distorted ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ arose among the upwardly mobile but outwardly religious middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Beder could have produced a more thorough critique had she explained more fully how work is both perceived and pursued differently in cultures with non-European histories. Overall, however, the book issues a strong challenge to the entrenched and corrupted views of work which damage the way we fill our lives.

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