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No Kidding


new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986

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Illustrations: Steve Weston
The changing face of work
Work has not always been what it is today - a measure of our
personal worth and a goad to our guilt if we don't do it. In a world in
which formal work is becoming ever more scarce, we need to
understand that every age has had a different idea about work.

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The barest minimum

In early hunter-gatherer societies work was something people only indulged in when they had to - when food was running low or shelter needed repair. They had no desire to work more than was necessary to survive. There are still a few tribal societies which live in this way - deep in the Amazon rain forest, for instance, where food is available in plenty. The fact that they still live as they did thousands of years ago indicates that the desire to work hard to create surpluses and 'progress' is not innate to all humankind, which might have been quite happy to remain as it was had not environments more hostile than the Amazon made better technology a necessity.

The province of slaves

[image, unknown] Most ancient 'civilizations' regarded work as something lowly to be treated with disdain. The classical Greek 'civilization' that produced Artistotle and Plato, Sophocles and Homer, had two basic ideas about work - that it was mere physical effort aimed at survival; and that work had no value in itself and should be done by one class of people so as to leave others free to pursue higher goals. Aristotle said that just as the ultimate goal of war is peace, the object of work is leisure. In practice this meant all the work was done by slaves and women so as to leave a male elite free to dream up its lofty ideals and organize wars.

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Feeding the lord

Feudal societies were a variation on this Greek theme - the mass of people worked harder on the land than would have been necessary just to feed and clothe themselves. This was because they had to produce a surplus that would keep the lord of the manor in the style to which he was accustomed. And the Greek notions persisted into 20th-century Britain in the shape of an aristocracy convinced of its right to do nothing while being provided for by other people's work.

In subsistence farming, which occupies most people in the Third World today, work is often very hard but is at least done in your own time and according to the rhythm of the seasons. There is a direct link between how hard you work and how much you produce - even if in so many other ways you are prey to forces beyond your control, from market prices to locusts, IMF policies to corrupt officials. Work has its own meaning and can be bent to the needs of the local culture - it does not need to be defined and organized by the outside world.

Dark satanic mills

[image, unknown] The Industrial Revolution which began in the Britain of the early 19th century transformed the whole experience of work. Work now came to mean being employed to produce goods in factories or mines, most often by manual labour. People now lost their knowledge of how things were produced - the old pride and confidence of the craftsperson disappeared, and work became less creative and less enjoyable. Work became something grim which people would never have chosen to do for its own sake. So a system of rigid work discipline and the threat of poverty and hunger were needed to keep workers at their tasks. This modern idea of work as something which we are paid for and which falls within a fixed number of hours is thus a very recent one - little more than 150 years old.

Between Eden and heaven

[image, unknown] Early Christian attitudes to work were very different from the present day. There was no work in the Garden of Eden - instead work was part of Adam and Eve's punishment when they were banished. Until the Middle Ages work was not as important as 'preparing for heaven'. It was associated with physical labour and seen as rather lowly - the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is derived from the same root as eyed, meaning 'slave'. During the renaissance the religious view changed: work became good, the will of God, and leisure became idleness Rising production meant there was new need for reliable labour, and thus the idea that idle hands were the devil's playground became very useful and took deep hold.

Choosing our future

Our view of work now is inherited from the time of the Industrial Revolution - we think of a job as an essential part of life. The jobs we do from 9 to 5 give us our status in the world. But there are fewer and fewer full-time jobs to go around.

Two possible futures lie in front of us. Either we carry on down the same road and wind up in a world where only an elite can work while the mass of people scrabble around trying to survive (as in the story on Jarrow). Or we can transform our attitude to work - divide what jobs there are properly and fairly, and aim to create a new society built on the constructive use of leisure rather than worship of work.

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New Internationalist issue 166 magazine cover This article is from the December 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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