We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Worshipping Work


new internationalist
issue 166 - December 1986

In traditional societies people work only to meet their immediate needs.
Photo: Alastair Matheson / Camera Press
Worshipping work
Our society is dedicated to a religion of work for its own sake.
Walter Johnson traces back the origins of the work ethic to those
who have benefited most from our labour.

The novelist William Faulkner wrote that 'you can't eat for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day - all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy'.

Faulkner's feelings about work are in no way unique. Throughout history work has usually been viewed either as a curse or, at best, as a necessary evil. Most people in the pre-industrial era showed no strong inclination to work more than was necessary to maintain a fairly low standard of living. Even today, in the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies, there is no such thing as a 'work ethic', which relentlessly drives people to their tasks. Some tribes will not hunt for food unless compelled by agonizing hunger. When this point is reached they will do whatever is necessary, for however long it takes, to satisfy their hunger, after which they will return to their hammocks until such hunger arises again.

It was just such an intermittent commitment to work that frustrated the early colonizers of Africa - they resorted to the imposition of cash taxes to force reluctant tribes, who had no need for money, to accept the discipline of the labour market. Many of these tribes had previously consumed only what was available and not tried to produce surpluses. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, they were still able to support themselves, including a large proportion of the tribe that did no work at all. This belies our present belief that only an affluent, industrialized society can afford a large, 'non-productive' population.

Modern notions have it that people should be willing to work day after day, well beyond the point at which their basic needs are satisfied. Work is seen as the measure of a person's moral worth and character.

Today it is not work but the lack of it which stigmatizes the individual and relegates him or her to the margins of 'the good life'. Sociological studies from the 1930s to the present show that individuals who need or want work and are unable to find it experience higher levels of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce and other forms of unhappiness.

All this would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. So why is the loss of work or the inability to find it so traumatic for those affected? What accounts for our strange addiction to work?

According to the renowned German sociologist Max Weber, the roots of this 'work ethic' can be traced ago. One of the more prominent of the reformers, John Calvin, believed that our salvation or eternal damnation was predestined from the beginning of time. No-one could know whether they were one of the few predestined to life eternal or one of the many damned to everlasting death. According to Calvin, salvation could never be certain but there might be clues that indicated who was elected by God. People who succeeded in work and lived exemplary lives were seen as the most likely candidates for salvation.

It wasn't long before the predestinarian views of salvation were supplanted by a simple belief that one could actually earn one's way into heaven through diligent effort. What became firmly implanted was a general cultural belief that hard work, of any kind, was good and idleness was wicked. This 'Protestant Work Ethic' was ideally suited to the then-emerging system of industrial capitalism, which required both a disciplined work force and entrepreneurs who would limit their consumption and re-invest savings to produce even greater wealth.

It is highly unlikely, however, that most people ever believed that all work was moral and meaningful. This was essentially an ideology for self-satisfied entrepreneurs who were soon to be the dominant class within industrial societies. For the factory hands who laboured in the 'dark satanic mills' the reality of daily life was a constant rebuke to the fanciful notions of ideologues.

The necessity of earning a living in the new capitalist cash economy uprooted people from their traditional communal patterns and threw them into a dog-eat-dog competition for available jobs. Many who were unaccustomed to factory work at first resisted the changes. Manufacturers often resorted to using children as labourers since they had known no other form of work and were therefore less resistant to entering the factory. Increasingly there were few alternatives to wage employment. It was work in the factories or starve. Under these circumstances it is easy to see how the value of a job, any job, became so important. To be without work in the cash economy was to be without value as a human being. Hence the special misery of the unemployed right to the present day.

Work became the central function for atomized individuals cut off from their communal roots. It determined what time they got up, what they did all day, whom they did it with and how much time they had left at the end of the day for 'leisure'. This form of work became an enforced activity, rather than a creative and satisfying one. The factory system limited the extent to which workers could exercise their capacities as human beings. The workers did not own their tools, did not own the product of their labour and did not have the right to make any decisions as to the nature of their labour. Rather than finding fulfilment and happiness at their jobs, workers instead exhausted their mental and physical energies, experiencing what Karl Marx called 'alienation'.

The source of the work ethic, then, was the insecurity and material scarcity which people experienced as a consequence of the nature of early capitalism. However, the unprecedented productivity of this new system soon made it possible to produce a large surplus with relatively little labour input, bringing about an increase in wages and a decrease in the hours of work. Union organization and the growth of the welfare state also helped mitigate the insecurity of the earlier period.

How did the work ethic persist in the face of such changes? The resilience and longevity of capitalism stems from its ability to create new forms of psychological insecurity and material scarcity at the same time as it eliminates the old forms. Thus it engineered consumerism, and the continued maldistribution of income and wealth served to create a host of artificial needs and wants that could only be satisfied through a renewed commitment to work.

We see everywhere the absurdity of this distorted work-consumption-debt ethic. An unholy alliance of workaholism and chronic unemployment has emerged. Within a mile of each other in any urban centre there exists a family with three cars, three televisions, two houses, and a countless array of other commodities bought on credit, and another family that must rely on a food bank to meet its weekly calorific requirements. We see a lopsidedly affluent society throw the occasional crumb to famine victims and then wallow in an orgy of self-congratulation.

This maldistribution of psychological and material rewards perpetuates the work ethic in two ways. First, it acts as a goad or a warning to those unfortunates on the margins who must continually 'shape up' or risk falling even further through the holes in the 'safety net'. For the 'successful' it provides a ready-made explanation which rationalizes the existing inequalities of status, power, income and wealth.

So deep is the resulting indoctrination that the existence of poverty is often explained as the result of poor people being too lazy to work. The same mentality operates among development theorists who argue that what the Third World needs is a healthy dose of the capitalist work ethic. The connection is thus made. The hungry have only themselves to blame.

There must be a better way to satisfy human needs than this. If we accepted the notion of work as something meaningful rather than simply the source of money, there would be no need to engage in the production of waste, as is the case today. We need to redefine work. Our best teachers are people who now enjoy their work. In general they do work that allows them to express their personalities. It offers them a sense of fulfilment and balance which transcends the usual quest for money and status. Work is an integral part of their lives, not simply a chore to be endured for eight hours a day and forgotten.

We have to develop a co-operative ethic which attaches value to a broader range of human activities. There would be no problem finding jobs if learning, or caring for children, or community action were considered to be work. The work ethic doesn't work any more because the type of jobs that sustained it are rapidly disappearing. The challenge is to find new ways for people to keep occupied while remaining securely attached to the larger human community. If we are successful we may finally discover the cure for what De Tocqueville called 'the disease of work'.

Walter Johnson is a former car worker and the author of two books on work. He lives in Quebec.

[image, unknown]

The weekend worker
Bill Woodly likes the way his employer has redesigned his job.

Few people would like working on weekends, particularly if they had to work 12 hours a day like Bob Woodly. But Bob doesn't mind at all; in fact he likes it. The main reason that Bob has no objections to his weekend shift is that for his two 12-hour shifts, he is paid the same amount of money as a worker who puts in a regular 40-hour week. On top of that, Bob gets five days off in a row - every week. The strangest part of this story is, not only is Bob happy with the deal he's getting, but so is his union, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), as well as his London, Ontario, employer, 3M Canada.

How did such a state of affairs come about? According to Robert Whelan, spokesperson for the plant, the weekend worker position was created so the company could fully utilise its tape manufacturing equipment. With a 35-year company tradition of the plant operating five days a week and closing for the weekend, the only way the company could operate the machinery all weekend was by relying on 'voluntary overtime' - which didn't always work. Without a guarantee that the machinery would be operating all the time, not only were they not fully using their investment, but also losing out on contracts.

Dick Ingles, 3M's plant chairmen for Local 27 of CAW says that when the union was originally given the proposal for the weekend workers, 'we were concerned about it, in fact we were suspicious'. But after too long bargaining over a new contract, the union and company reached an agreement an the weekend worker was born. The union was happy not because the agreement reduced voluntary overtime - a longstanding grievance for the CAW - but also because it created new jobs at the same time. Ingles likes the idea for another reason: 'it gives some people the opportunity to go back to school. (and) some people the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time'.

For Bob Woodly and the three other weekend workers it certainly is a good opportunity to do other things. 'It's great. I still have far more free time throughout the week with my wife, and far more time to do things I want to do. I think you would be hard pressed to get any one of us to go back to a five-day week,' he said.

Whelan says that the company hopes to add another 30 weekend workers within a year, and that other companies have expressed an interest. While other unionized companies with five-day weeks and expensive equipment lying idle over the weekend may think the idea is worth copying, it seems doubtful that the weekend worker will become a fixture in the rest of the smaller unionized and non-unionized companies across Canada.

Nevertheless for those who have their own projects in mind - and are fortunate enough to land one of these 'weekend jobs' - weekend work could provide the opportunity to do more with life than labour.

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page

New Internationalist issue 166 magazine cover This article is from the December 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop