Work, work, work (OP)

15th August 2007

Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged (p14) writes…

>>new morality became triumphant among the capitalist class at the end of the seventeenth century. Christopher Hill contrasted it with the religious attitudes prevailing earlier: ‘Labour, the curse of fallen man, had become a religious duty, a means of glorifying God in our calling. Poverty had ceased to be a holy state and had become presumptive evidence of wickedness’.<<

 By the mid-19thC work had become both a moral and political imperative. In Carlyle it is elevated to the supreme virtue; man without work is nothing. In Trollope’s West Indies and the Spanish Main, Trollope is appalled by the fact that the ex-slaves in Jamaica do not have to work because they can survive easily on the fertile common land; the vision this opens up appals him (I apologise for the racist language but this is how Trollope wrote)…

>> ‘What would a farmer say in England if his ploughman declined to
work, and protested that he preferred going to his master’s granary
and feeding himself and his children on his master’s corn? ‘Maester,
noa; I beez a-tired thick day and dumna mind to do no wark!’ Then
the poorhouse, my friend, the poorhouse! And hardly that; starvation
first, and nakedness, and all manner of misery. In point of fact, our
friend the ploughman must go and work, even though his o’erlaboured
bones be tired, as no doubt they often are. He knows it, and does it,
and in his way is not discontented. And is this not God’s ordinance?’.
(Chapter 6)<<

 This kind of naked explanation of the way in which the capitalist system works is rare today. I commented on Trollope-l…

>>What a wonderfully lucid summary of how exploitation works! Today
we would of course exclude the reference to God (in Europe anyway)
and instead talk of incentives, motivation, dynamism and all
the other jargon of economics which cloak the basic rules of
exploitation and profit. Trollope lays these things bare. And can
we not discern that whiff of fear – what if men refused to work?
It is this nightmarish spectre which provides the ideological underpinning
of his hatred of what Trollope observes in Jamaica. Share and share
alike! After it was only about 10 years earlier (1848) that Marx had
composed one of the greatest of ringing declarations…

‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism'<<

 If people are not forced to work then the whole system is in danger of collapse.

 I have been reading Asa Briggs’ Victorian People, Chapter Five of which concerns Samuel Smiles. Smiles wrote..

>>’As steady application to work is the healthiest training for every individual, so it is the best discipline of a state. Honourable industry travels the same road with glory; and Providence has closely linked both with happiness'<<

Briggs himself, somewhat of an admirer of Smiles, comments…

>>’To those who criticised his economics, he could reply that he was merely relating the gospel of work – a necessary gospel at all times – to the particular circumstances of an expanding economy’ (my italics).<<

 It is, of course, not only those on the Right who have proclaimed the ‘gospel of work’. It runs deep within both the Marxist tradition, and that of the so-called social-democratic left – how often in Blawn’s Britain do we hear of ‘hard-working families’ as both the ideal to which all should aspire, and the constituency to which the Labour (or Conservative or Liberal for that matter) parties should appeal. While one can dismiss the latter (the ‘social-democratic’ left) as apologists for capitalism who’s basic tenets they do not contest this is clearly not true of the Marxist tradition. In its deformed Stalinist versions work becomes even more primary – who could be more of a model worker than the Stakhanovite? But for Marx himself the question was the worker gaining control of his own work; not merely the profits from it but the means of production as well. We can reduce the matter by saying that when confronted by the idle rich the instinct of the Marxist has nearly always been to say that the rich should work rather than that workers should be idle too.

 My rejection of this line of thought probably just shows that I am not merely not a ‘good’ Marxist, but not a Marxist at all. I question the entire notion that work is good – in any sense that one cares to name; the moral, political, sociological, medical and above-all psychological. The last is of particular interest because one of the fundamental tenets of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), or at least that strand which is commended by the British Government, is that on the one hand work is a ‘cure’ for depression, and on the other that the aim of treating depression should be to enable the sufferer to be ‘fit for work’. Which is, of course, precisely why it appeals so much to the Government. It is an approach which is profoundly dishonest because it is patent to anyone who has really talked to any group of depressives that, in the first place no cure is, at present, available, and in the second for some, if not many, depressives, work, far from being a cure, would be a guarantee of serious illness. All of which is not to deny that for some depressives it may well be that work offers their best way of coping with the illness. There are as many coping mechanisms as there are depressives. What we can be sure of though is that, if ‘working’ is held up as a model of psychological health (not to mention social and political acceptability), the lot of those unable to work becomes harder, and in the case of depressives adds to guilt, which is a major causal factor of their illness in the first place. Misapplied CBT thus becomes, far from a ‘cure’, a way of increasing and adding to the severity of depression.

 It might well be argued that it is in the psychological field that work is now most often presented as a good. But I believe that the roots of this belief lie much further back and arise from the establishment of work as a moral good. After all if the matter were in fact purely prudential (medical, psychological etc.) then one could run fairly simple tests to see if people were happier or unhappier, psychologically more or less healthy, at work or not at work. My guess (and of course such research will never be done) is that some would prefer to be at work, others not to be. Such research will of course never be done because the results would throw a whole world of political and economic thought into complete chaos. It would threaten capitalism itself in a fundamental way (and, yes, what is called ‘communism’ as well). Let us at least get rid of the lie that work is universally prudentially good. What has happened is that, as is often the case, the prudential has served to disguise the ideological; or to reverse the confusion the moral has been painted as prudential.

 So where do the roots of the belief that work is a moral good lie? This brings us back to the quotation from Hill at the beginning of the chapter. But my understanding was that the notion of work as a moral good lay a little earlier with the Protestant Reformation, or at least its Calvinist forms. Despite some absurd revisionist historians the idea of the Protestant work ethic is one which has surely proved its resonance in myriad historical forms. But clearly this is an area of huge historical and philosophical scope about which it is hard to be specific. One can clearly say that the Christian tradition for one is riven with problems – work is after all the ‘curse of fallen man’. There was no work in Paradise – Adam only started to delve and Eve to spin once they had been thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Jesus might have said render unto Caesar, but he got his disciples to give up their jobs and his preference for Mary over Martha can hardly be argued to portray work as an overwhelming moral duty. For the slave-based societies of classical civilisation not working was a mark of liberty. The Stoic tradition (from which the founder of CBT apparently took a lot of his ideas) might have argued against this but one wonders how many ‘free’ Romans really took much notice of the Stoics?!

 It is hard to resist the idea that somehow the rise of the idea of work as a moral good, the moral good, is tied up with the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Of course this is a very Eurocentric view but I have no idea whether work is regarded as a moral good in non-European cultures (except those which imported Stalinism). Capitalism certainly needed work to be seen in this way and one can find, as with the quotation from Trollope given above, clear and honest expositions of why that is so and the way in which it works. None of Adam Smith’s nonsense (Smith himself a product of that particularly Scottish Presbyterian work ethic, one of the more developed forms) about Invisible Hands – work or starve.

 The quotation from Smiles indicates just how confused the thinking on this matter becomes (although Smiles is a model of restraint in comparison with Carlyle!). Work is the ‘healthiest training for every individual’ – so the medical notion is brought in even in the mid-19thC. No evidence is adduced for this of course, and the question naturally arises ‘training for what’? Training in being an electrician is the best way of becoming an electrician no doubt, but this hardly proves very much! What is ‘healthy’ training anyway? It is an odd assessment of the efficacy of training. But I think what Smiles means is by ‘training’ is in fact ‘disciplining’ – training as you might ‘train’ fruit, repressing, ordering the character. I am also reading, or in fact failing to read, Mary Brunton’s Discipline, a novel of 1815. This is a textbook example of the new morality which took over at the start of the 19thC – I wrote about this book…

  >>I was given a wonderful insight into all this, which
has immensely helped my understanding of what is
going on here, by an essay in The Cambridge Companion
to Byron (CUP 2004) which I happened to read, by serendipity,
yesterday. The essay is entitled ‘Byron; Gender and
Sexuality’ and is by Andrew Elfenbein. Elfenbein is discussing
changing views of masculinity and the emergence of
a new model in the early 19thC…

‘Its weapons were moral earnestness, sincerity, patriotic
love of England as the haven of Protestant Christianity,
and dedication to hard work and family'<<

 (here is the origin of our ‘hard-working families – the model established has persisted to this day; Byron lost!  – of course he would probably have been pleased to have lost – both his loss and his pleasure in it are part of his limitless attraction).

 But we can see here the emergence of the idea of work as a moral good. It is related to other moral values – sincerity, earnestness, patriotism (‘work’ became something which separated the English and Scots from other nations – particularly Europeans, the Irish and black people – it gave ‘us’ a moral superiority). How honest is all this? That is, to what extent where the propagandists for this viewpoint sincere in their belief that work was a moral good, rather than just apologists for capitalism (providing cover for the fact that capitalism depends on the ‘work’ of the proletariat and that the ‘gospel of work’ must therefore be enforced)? Well I think Brunton, Carlyle, Smiles were all in their various ways sincere. They believed that work, of itself, was a moral good, even in the case of Carlyle and Smiles an imperative. I am certainly sure of this as far as Carlyle is concerned who was, after all, very insistent on the nature of the work. Not all work was morally good by any means. The work for instance of the advertiser was a moral evil.

 But with Smiles, whatever Briggs may argue, we see prudentialism slipping back in….

  >>Honourable industry travels the same road with glory; and Providence has closely linked both with happiness<<

 ‘Glory’, ‘happiness’. Of ‘glory’ we may first say that this is a highly questionable commodity given that it is so often associated with military success and the slaughter of thousands. But leaving this on one side it is perfectly clear that whatever may have been true in the mid-19thC the connection of ‘honourable industry’ and ‘glory’ no longer exists in the 21stC – Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise, whatever their other faults, can hardly be associated with ‘honourable industry’.

 However this is perhaps trivial. It is with the connection of work to happiness that we reach the crux of my argument. First, there is the issue of the fact that this connection does make Smiles very, very different from Carlyle. In Carlyle happiness does not really enter the equation. I rather think that he would have held happiness in suspicion; he would certainly not have treated it as a moral good. Indeed on the whole the elevation of work to a moral good tends to also see happiness as morally suspect. ‘Fallen man’ has no right to happiness. Perhaps this aspect of the ethics of the question has decreased in the last 150 years. For Smiles ‘work’ and glory’ lead to happiness. This is prudential not moral. If you want to be happy, work. So, secondly, I now want to retract, or restate, my argument. Because I am all for the maximum possible happiness of every individual. So, if work makes anyone happy, then I am all for them working as much as they want, or as much as tends to their happiness. This is a wholly prudential consideration and has nothing whatever to do with morality. I would say the same for any activity, or more pertinently lack of activity. Work if it makes you happy, be idle of it makes you happy. The test is in the outcome, in the prudentiality for any individual of a particular course of action, or inaction. This can then be easily applied to psychological health – work if it makes you better, be idle if that makes you better. My own belief is that happiness is generally too much to expect, and coping is enough – but the same test applies. I certainly do not want to condemn work although I may have been appearing to do so.

 What I have attempted to do is to separate out the argument that work is a moral (religious, ethical) good, which I find utterly lacking in any convincing proof, from the argument that work is a prudential (psychological, personal happiness) good. The latter can be proved or disproved in any particular individual case, just as we can judge the efficacy of Prozac in any particular individual case. The former is at best a result of distorted religious thinking, left over Protestantism or a desire for social reform, and at worst (and very often) a mere cover for capitalist exploitation. Once it becomes a moral good then there is no proof, no evidence needed. It is good because it is good. Well that is, in a word, rubbish.

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