George Walford: The End of Work (12)

Under this title IC conducts a campaign, not against work but against the belief that more or less everybody needs work if they are to lead a satisfactory life. Here we speak of the epoch before the beginning of work, a period, far longer than the time for which work has been among us, when the whole of the human race lived without it.

A few remnants of this way of life survived until recent decades, and anthropologists who lived among them have described their way of life. They moved around a great deal and did not, until recent times and following contact with farming societies, keep pack animals, so their possessions had to be portable. They made, nearly always for the use of the makers or their families, weapons, tools, clothes and dwellings. When these are listed singly the number of different articles comes to an impressive total, making it easy to forget they were nearly all one-offs. It takes an effort to avoid the error of thinking that these people, like so many among ourselves, spent most of their time making things. They made very little; Richard Lee says the total weight of personal possessions owned by a !Kung San bushman of the Kalahari does not exceed twenty-five pounds, and ‘personal’ possessions here include, except for the land, such means of production as they can be said to have possessed. [1]

The women, who, supplied most of the food, spent much time gathering, the men hunting, and observers remark the large amount of leisure they enjoyed. They spent little time making things; production was a minor and incidental activity; they were not industrious, and this makes it odd to speak constantly, as Lee does, of hunter-gatherers as producers. The oddity grows when we find David H.Turner speaking in this connection of ‘production groups’ and ‘maintaining a mobile labour force.’ [2]

These authors are attempting to force the hunter-gatherers into a scheme of social development in which the stage reached in the development of the means of production plays a fundamental part. Their commitment to this theory prevents them being able to admit, or perhaps to recognise, that the distinctive feature of the foraging mode of life is dependence upon supplies of food which have not been produced by human effort. The wonderful thing about the hunter-gatherers, the thing that gives their way of life its importance for our understanding of human beings and human society, is that they consumed without producing, and we have to integrate this into our account of social development. For much the greater part of humanity’s existence – on one respectable computation for 99.9 per cent of it – everybody lived by consuming food they had not produced and without making anything not required by themselves or their family. They lived without working, and reports on the surviving remnants show that they lived a satisfying life while doing so.

Agriculture and administration were the beginning of labour, and the foragers lived without them for something between forty thousand and four million years, depending on the chosen definition of humanity. They have demonstrated, as conclusively as it is possible to demonstrate anything, that human beings have no inherent need of work. Some people now acquire this need in the course of their ideological development, but a great many – it may even be a majority – would be happier without work.

To say that we can no longer provide useful work for everybody is a grotesque distortion. We are rapidly approaching, may even have reached, the point where the efforts of those who require work to feel they are living the complete life can provide enough for everybody. We do need to get ourselves sorted out, to ensure that work goes to those who want it. That done, those freed from the burden of work cease to be “the unemployed.” They become the undersupplied, and the remedy is self- evident.

[1] Richard Lee, “Politics, Sexual and Non- Sexual, in Egalitarian Society” in Politics and History in Band Societies (Cambridge University Press 1982) p. 52
[2] David H.Turner, Dialectics in Tradition; Myth and Social Structure in Two Hunter-Gatherer Societies, London, Royal Anthropological Institute, 1978, p.1

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ANY READER knowing a blacker joke than this one is asked to keep quiet about it. Trotsky’s last words: ‘I need a friend like Stalin. like I need a hole in the head.’

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.