Work – Blessing or Curse
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 12 2014.
Work is the curse of the drinking classes. ― Oscar Wilde
I have a t-shirt, which bears the legend on the front: “Work has ruined my life”. The label that would normally give washing and ironing instructions says: “When this garment is dirty give it to your Mum to wash”.
In his poem “Toads” Philip Larkin asked
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on.
What Does “Work” Mean?
It is quite difficult to define the word “work”, which has come down from the Old English noun weorc and the verb wyrċan. The large Oxford English Dictionary has 34 meanings for the noun and 39 for the verb. The modern word is a general term for doing something, or the product of that action. Contemporary usage has tended to modify the idea of activity, effort or achievement to a narrower concept of doing something for money.
Sometimes the concept is narrower still and confined to physical labour for a wage. Basil Bunting has The Chairman telling Tom that writing poetry is not work:
It’s not work
You don’t sweat
Nobody pays for it…
What you write is rot.
Bunting neatly combines the idea that real work has to be unpleasant as well as remunerative.
Travail, Labour, Pain
The word “labour” has connotations of pain, as in the pain of giving birth. “Toil” came from a Latin word meaning crushing, and first came into English as a synonym for trouble, before it acquired the meaning of arduous labour in the 14th Century. Similarly, the French for work is travail, which has come to mean trials, tribulations and torment.
The specialisation of the word work to mean mainly paid employment is a consequence of capitalist productive relations. To be in work came to mean being in a relationship with an entity that controlled the means and financing of productive work and paid the worker’s wages. The meaning of the word then shifted again to mean not the physical or mental activity itself but the relationship between employee and employer. So the “Mum” who is expected to wash t-shirts is not considered to be in work until she leaves the home to work for an employer for a wage.
Religion and Capitalism
Work has long been thought a curse- humankind’s punishment for Adam and Eve’s crime in the Garden of Eden. Work is a sacred duty and a remedy for vice. During the Reformation, Protestants denounced monks as idle parasites because the elect did not consider contemplative life as proper work.
In his book, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904), German sociologist Max Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant work ethic persuaded many to engage in work in the secular world, and accumulate wealth for investment. RH Tawney (whose ideas contributed to the welfare state in Britain) explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.
In Victorian times, commentators as different as Ruskin and Samuel Smiles extolled the virtue of work and saw it as man’s highest earthly calling. “One more day’s work for Jesus!” A popular book of Victorian sermons was called Blessed be Drudgery.
Leisure and Idleness
The other dimension is what happens when one is not working. The positive word is “leisure”; the negative word is “idleness”. However, even the word “leisure” is morally tainted as it comes from the Latin word licere, which means “permit”. The root is the same as it is for “licence”. Leisure is freedom to put aside rules and obligations. The devil finds work for idle hands.
Rabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda (c780-856), wrote: “The idle man grows dull in carnal desires, is cheerless in spiritual works, has no joy in the salvation of his soul, and does not become cheerful in helping his brother, but only craves and desires and performs everything in an idle fashion. Acedia corrupts the miserable mind which it inhabits with many misfortunes, which teach it many evil things…May the servant of god never be found idle! For the devil has greater difficulty in finding a spot or temptations in the man whom he finds employed in some good work, than in him whom he encounters idler and practising no good”.
The development of capitalism makes possible a clear distinction between work and “free time”. Working for an employer enables or even compels one to have a structure to one’s life, the rhythm of weekends off and an annual holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the old word for a religious festival.
Others have seen something positive in idleness. Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.” “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what
Busyness can even be pernicious. Bertrand Russell:”I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached”.
sEven in the 19th Century, the most usual contract in Britain was terminable at a week’s notice or less. In the 1870s, hiring fairs gave way to employment bureaux but the commonest way to find work was through family or personal connections. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers was blurred and came to rest upon lack of organisation rather than lack of skill. Wharfingers and stevedores who were organised into unions were seen as skilled while unaffiliated dock labourers whose work was irregular were seen as unskilled casual labour.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the 20th Century, technology would have advanced sufficiently to cut the working week to 15 hours. What has happened is that many are living in poverty because of unemployment; others are complaining about being stressed out by overwork. Huge armies of people in Europe and North America, spend their lives performing pointless tasks for unseen and unknown employers.
David Weil explains in his book, The Fissured Workplace that corporations have used “subcontracting, franchising, third-party management, outsourcing” to fragment employment. They have maintained the quality of their brands and products (and their enormous profits) at the same time as shedding the cost of maintaining an expensive workforce. Workers have seen their remuneration stagnate and have lost benefits.
Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.
Whereas in the past, one might have hoped for (often vainly) some reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee, that is no longer the case. There is little chance these days of working for the same employer for forty years and getting a gold clock at the end of it. Today, there is no single, easily identifiable employer but a web of intermediaries. The outside contractor demands high performance, at the same time as driving down wages, job security, and benefits.
In these circumstances, there is scant opportunity to organize or join a union. These are the conditions that the EU deems helpful to “ease of doing business”. The entire structure of worker protections and benefits legislated beginning in the New Deal in the US , and the social contract of the post-war UK, is predicated on the assumption that the employee is on the payroll of the company that makes the product. “The modern employment relationship,” Weil writes, “bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations.”
As the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution no longer provided employment, investors and traders gained power over managers in the era of financial deregulation that began around 1980. New technologies made it easier to outsource work while retaining control over worker performance. Fissuring became the new employment norm, because capital markets, the new masters, demanded it.
Alice Goffman was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighbourhoods. She wrote a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City based on her first-hand experience of spending years associating with black families in Philadelphia. She started off tutoring some black children while she was at Penn State, became friends of the families and then lived in the 6th Street area for another four years. She took notes on everything she saw while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. The book has been hailed as a potential ethnographic classic.
Goffman describes the world of young jobless blacks who had almost all served time in prison. The police constantly harass these black young men. Older residents want violent crime and drug use to be reduced but do not believe standard police methods can achieve this. While Goffman accepts that the police are doing what they were hired to do she also recognises that the young men are doing what they have to do in order to eat. They are usually short of money Their womenfolk support them up to a point.
Economic dependency humiliates them, fuelling anger and resentment that easily turns to violence. Crime, in particular drug dealing, is their job. Even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find even part-time or short-term work. A prison record does not help them to find work.
When I lived in Bandarawela, I sometimes felt uncomfortable to see groups of Sinhalese youths hanging around looking menacing and seemingly without gainful occupation. One remembers that youth unemployment was one of the factors leading to the JVP uprisings. Where I live now, I have similar anxieties about Tamil youths. I have given many of them employment with generous pay when I could and they are friendly and respectful to me, in general. However, one of the most respectful and skilled of them robbed me and seems to have gone off the rails with drink and drugs. I do feel insecure sometimes in this remote spot and one does hear tales of burglary and violence.
In Mayhew’s time, purefinders hunted dogturds
For the Thames tanneries. In London’s interstices
Today, lurk practitioners of queer trades.
Some sell flesh to serve obscure perversions.
Others lease their souls to corporate perversities.
Grimy-nailed commuter, feet a foot above the floor.
Seething under his warty dome, recondite arcana,
Incunabula of redundant costings-lore,
Depreciation value of cabinets, the best deal on staplers.
Good and faithful servant homeward,
To supper alone on a cold pork pie.
In Whitehall, mandarins pander to ministers
In the morning, dissipate afternoons
Restructuring, rightsizing, diminishing.
Producing no good, only paper and ‘policy’.
In Sofia’s streets, old men with scales,
Wait for citizens willing to pay to be measured.
Be-suited men in Lima with open-air typewriters,
On park benches, type legalities for the illiterate.
Raped Congo women succumb to heavy sacks of cassava
Or squat to sell single tomatoes. Vicious commodity wars,
Fragmenting nations, flotsam of refugees.
Globalisation drowns Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.
Kipling’s “Lesser breeds” shrewdly subsist
Under imperial global mammon’s awful hand.
In the city of dreadful night, deformities displayed for cash.
At ancient Vijaynagara, the guide’s right-hand man
Demonstrates the pillars’ musical properties.
Con brio, he smites the columns to achieve a melody.
Confident to smugness, he has status.
His hand is bent, swollen and covered in calluses.
In concert with worms, I prepare soil for sowing.
The ponies tame the meadow and give manure for hoeing.
The wounded earth affirms the atavistic cycle still.
In the indigo sky, a double rainbow joins hill to hill.
Under every rock toils a society of ants.
Oregano quivers Gregorian with bees’ monkish chants.