George Walford: The End of Work

Useful work is becoming scarce. In Britain alone some three million are unemployed and not even the government dares to claim that this will soon be ended. Powered machinery reduced the need for human muscle and now computers and automation are displacing people with other abilities. Useful work can no longer be provided for all who have been taught to expect it and responsible people are worried.

The idea that people generally need work if they are to enjoy a full life is not confined to employers. Len Murray, when General Secretary of the TUC, said of some marchers against unemployment that they had been robbed of their dignity by not being given jobs, and Karl Marx did not believe work to be a burden imposed by capitalism; in the Critique of the Gotha Programme he asserted that in a communist society it would be “the first of vital needs.” Governments, reformers and revolutionaries are agreed that if people are to lead contented lives they need useful work; the presence of large numbers without it is seen as a social failure.

There is something wrong here; work isn’t as popular as all that. It is true that most of the unemployed would lead pleasanter lives if they had more money, but the idea that they are suffering from lack of work is another matter. Those who agitate for “the right to work” are a minority, and folklore, anthropology, history and psycho-analysis all provide evidence suggesting that there is no universal feeling of a need for work but, on the contrary, a deep, wide-spread and enduring inclination away from it. If this can be established then our society may be in better condition than many of us think; the appearance of structural unemployment may be not a sign of collapse but an indication that society is about to take a great step forward, moving on to better times than have yet been known.

Let us look at the folklore evidence first. Traditional tales may not at first appear to have anything to do with current attitudes toward work, but their long popularity shows that they appeal to a deep strain in humanity, and the world they present is one from which work is almost excluded. The main characters of folktales are usually fairies, witches, talking animals, giants, kings, queens, princes and princesses, old women, children or young people starting out in life. None of these are workers. Beggars are more common than industrious people, and when work does appear it comes as something to be avoided; it is better not to dig your field yourself but to convince a greedy fool that it contains buried treasure. Tailors, peasants, woodcutters and apprentices enter folk-tales when they stop working and begin to adventure, and the goblin who did ten days work in one night is presented not as a hero but as a drudge. Hercules is famous for his twelve “labours,” but the point of the story is that he accomplished them by ingenuity, not by effort; Hercules was a trickster, not a worker.

While Adam remained in the Garden of Eden what he did was pottering rather than working. “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread” was a punishment, not a reward, and the view of work as a bad thing appears again in another familiar account of human beginnings: in the Golden Age even the shepherds took life easily. Rather than tackle the sweaty business of shearing their sheep, or treating them for foot-rot, they danced with nymphs, or lay in the shade playing on their oaten pipes. The Land of Cockaigne, the Happy Hunting Grounds, the Big Rock Candy Mountains, and all the other dreamlands where life is perfect, present similar pictures. Not one of them finds any place for work, and neither do any of the heavens offered by the various religions. The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey are warriors, wanderers and adventurers,not farmers, herdsmen or armourers.

The introduction of radio, cinema, television and video has not changed this; they rarely present work as more than the faint background of a story. Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China have tried to secure for work the prominence in fiction it possesses in civilised life but without lasting success, and it is not only from popular entertainment that work is largely excluded; in high culture also it plays a minimal part. When work does appear in novels, poems, paintings or plays its function is commonly to point a contrast; it is largely the fact that the spectator does not have to sweat in the sun and dust that makes harvest scenes attractive.

Psycho-analysis has shown how verbal associations can reveal hidden feelings, and the associations of “work” imply hostility toward it. First comes “hard,” followed by “heavy,” “tiring” and “strenuous;” “many hands make light work” means the less for each one the better. And the rarity with which work appears in either the manifest or latent content of the dreams studied by analysts goes to confirm that its absence, unlike the absence of sex, is not felt as a deprivation.

Folk-tales, legends and modern fiction are recognised as sources from which knowledge of widespread but suppressed desires may be obtained, and they all suggest a tendency away from work, or at least the absence of any tendency toward it. And if we turn away from these subtleties to consider the more direct evidence from history, anthropology and contemporary everyday life we find the same thing.

Down through history those who could afford to live without working have been envied, and there have always been many who disliked work enough to accept the penalties of avoiding it. The Elizabethans had their “sturdy beggars,” and in the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx spoke of “the dangerous classes,” people without capital and therefore (on his theory) bound to undertake wage labour, who managed to live without doing so. Each generation has its vagabonds, tramps, layabouts, idlers, spongers, spivs, beats, dropouts and hippies. When the Roman rulers needed to placate their populace what they offered was not work but bread and circuses. Theft seems to be ineradicable, and thieves are people who prefer the risk of prison to trying to obtain what they want by work, while robbers and gangsters risk even violent death in avoiding it.

The Golden Age was the legendary childhood of the race, and the happy ignorance of work enjoyed by its people is found among children today. Children eat and sleep, love and hate, talk and fight, walk and run and sing and dance and form groups, and while they may not do all these things entirely of their own initiative they show an inclination toward them. They show no inclination toward work. Children have to be trained to work and few of them accept the training eagerly.

So far I have spoken only of a tendency away from work; there are also many with a strong inclination toward it. But while the tendency away from work gives every indication of being inherent, the inclination toward it seems to be an acquisition, something that is learnt rather than an upwelling from the deep springs of human motivation. This impression is strengthened when we turn to consider the history of the race.

Work is a recent innovation. Our early forebears lived exposed to the roughness of nature, without the securities provided by the simplest civilisation, and they were forced into infanticide to prevent their numbers outrunning the food supply, but one imposition they were spared: work was unknown to them. The social activity of production (and with it distribution, transportation, administration and all that goes with these) began with the introduction of herding and agriculture; it was with this that work entered the world. This happened some ten thousand years ago; before that, back to the beginning of the quarter-million years since homo sapiens first appeared, human beings lived by hunting and gathering what was naturally provided, a way of life which still survives among the Eskimo, the Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen and other less well-known peoples.

Hunter-gatherers devote as little time and effort as possible to the mechanics of life; their interests lie in socialising, singing, dancing, decorating themselves and the walls of caves, playing with their children, performing rituals, sometimes fighting, and just sitting. They make, personally, what they want for their personal use but they have no system of production and consequently no social obligation to produce. (If they did have such systems and obligations they would not be hunter-gatherers). For well over nine-tenths of its existence the whole of the human race lived in this way, and this shows pretty conclusively that there is no inborn, instinctive or natural inclination toward work.

In physical science “work” refers to the operation of a force, any operation of any force, but in social affairs the term carries a more restricted meaning; it does not apply equally to all human efforts but particularly to those intended, directly or indirectly, to further the social supply of material goods. Acceptance of the need to work has now become standard over most of the world, but an inclination toward it is still far from universal. Those who enjoy work are in the minority; there are not many who go moon-lighting after the daily stint has been completed, in spite of the extra income it brings. For the great majority it is the end of the working day rather than its beginning that is eagerly anticipated, and the pressure is to shorten working hours, not to extend them. The activities that occupy the spare time of the great masses – the masses of all classes, all civilized nations and all levels of education – are sports, hobbies and pastimes, socialising and entertainment, things done not for production but for pleasure. They all entail the operation of forces, thus meeting the physicist’s definition of work, but in the social use of the term they are what people do when not working.

To dislike work is not to be lazy. Study, gardening, decorating the house, cleaning and driving the family car are all popular activities and they all require effort and application, while sports tend to be more energetic than jobs. But although these activities can be strenuous, and even though we may sometimes think of ourselves as working at them, yet they are not work in the full sense of the term; we speak of taking a day off work to do these things.

The enthusiasts for work argue that people generally are naturally inclined toward it, that one of the faults of modern society is the way it takes the pleasure out of work. But the inclination away from work was with us long before capitalism appeared, or feudalism either, or even chattel slavery. It is the inclination toward work that is acquired;the original, instinctive, natural, inborn tendency is away from it (or at least not toward it) and in spite of all education, training and indoctrination that inclination is still widespread.

This means that a society in which all save a fortunate few have to work is one that can only be maintained by suppressing spontaneity and forcing people into an alien mould. Until now there was no point in raising this issue; once population had grown beyond what unaided nature could support, if we were to survive nearly all of us had to work, and consequently work came to appear as the main purpose of life. This began to change when powered machinery first made possible the existence of a class with no function but consumption, and now automated and computerised systems are coming to permit the maintenance of large numbers of non-workers, some known as the wealthy, some as the unemployed. Technology is beginning to offer relief from the ancient burden of labour and the coming social condition is already taking shape. It is not “work for all” but freedom from work.

The prospect of a future with even more unemployed is not attractive, but unemployment and worklessness are not the same thing. Young children, old people, and what used to be called the leisured classes have no work, but they do not carry the stigma of unemployment. The existence of the idle rich shows that worklessness and poverty do not have to go together, and although people doing nothing but consume may in the past have been useless parasites this is so no longer.

The new methods do more than make possible the presence of a large number of consumers who do not produce; they require it. Mechanisation, automation and computerisation are all labour-saving devices, but they save labour only when used for the production of massive quantities; if only a few motor-cars were required the labour-saving way to produce them would be on the bench with hand-tools. Automated systems produce goods in quantities far above the demands of those who construct and operate them, and they can only function upon the condition that those quantities be consumed. Mass consumption stands as the necessary complement to mass production, and as production becomes ever more economical of labour the number of people required to produce becomes increasingly insufficient to consume the product. Those who do nothing but consume enable high technology to function.

I began by noting the appearance of structural unemployment, and enquiry has shown it to be a sign not of failure but of impending success; the difficulty now is to recognise and accept this. Ever since work began there have been people aspiring to life without it,and it seems that society will soon be able to meet that aspiration for more than a fortunate few. Indeed, it is already going far toward doing so, but in a fumbling way; many now unemployed would prefer to have work (even apart from increased income) while others who now work would prefer not to do so. The distinction between those who tend away from work and those who tend toward it lies not in any difference of class position, status or education, but in their respective mental attitudes; one group continues with the primordial inclination while the other suppresses this in favour of a system of principles and obligations acquired from society.

Except for the minority who possess wealth, those without work are now kept at a lower standard of living than the employed. This has been deliberately arranged and it can be altered; a society in which those who prefer to live without working are free to do so does not have to be one in which most of the non-workers are poor or of low status. Being without work is now made unpleasant (for the majority) largely out of fear that otherwise the necessary work would not get done, but the capacities of modern productive systems, together with the recognition that our society comprises two groups, one displaying a natural inclination away from work and the other governed by an acquired inclination toward it, largely do away with this danger. Those who agree with Len Murray and Karl Marx, finding work to be a vital need or necessary for their dignity, will demand it whether they are paid more or less than those who do not want it.

I have spoken of hunter-gatherer society, but I do not present this as an ideal from which we have declined; it is best seen as the first, unsuccessful, attempt at a way of life only automated production could render fully accessible. Large numbers of people in the advanced countries are now being returned to the condition of hunter-gatherers, consumers who do not produce, but that condition is being reproduced with a richness the original hunter-gatherers could never have imagined. The indications are that as this development moves on those inclined away from work will become able to hunt and gather a plenitude in security, using the supermarkets in place of the woods and prairies. The tendency to take what one wants without working for it is the primordial tendency, simple and direct. It governed the behaviour of the whole of humanity for most of the time the race has existed, it governs the behaviour of young children today, it appears as the supreme fulfillment of all wishes in dreams and folklore, and it motivates every one of us, although some have imposed another tendency upon it. It is so deeply rooted that all the efforts of law, education, religion and morality since the beginning of history have failed to eliminate it; another approach would be to legitimise it by making the wanted goods freely available and this, it seems, may soon become practicable.

It is not everybody who seeks the easy life, and those inclined toward work now have that option also opening to them, a choice not available in the original hunting and gathering society or, as an option which all were free to accept or reject, through the intervening ages. The need for nearly all to work made work a burden, but the ability to choose or reject it converts work into an added dimension of freedom.

Many social changes in the past have come about against resistance, with widespread wastage, disorder and suffering. Now we have to decide whether to undergo this change in the same painful way or to understand it in advance and carry it through smoothly.

Note The insight on which “The End of Work” is based we owe to Ike Benjamin; it constitutes an advance in understanding beyond Ideologies and their Functions, where the primordial ideology was associated with production and defence. The article is presented as an example of the sort of results systematic ideology is capable of producing. It applies the theory to something of general interest and does so in everyday English, using no technical jargon; it is intended to be accessible to people with no knowledge of systematic ideology and no interest in it (but not, of course, to elicit the same response from all ideological groups).

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EPITAPH FOR A JOGGER: He was very healthy when he died.

 from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.