George Walford: Work! Who Needs It?

While other things change work persists, grinning at us every Monday morning. Those who have it grumble; those without it want it. We even hear of a right to it. Unlimited education and medical care for everybody, a big detached house, a Rolls and a luxury yacht for every family; these demands might be a bit impractical, but one can see the sense of them. But the right to work? Angels don’t work. God did, once, but he turned it in after six days. Do we know better than him? When responsible people worry about a shortage of work something has gone wrong; it isn’t as popular as all that. The unemployed would lead pleasanter lives if they had more money, but are they all suffering from lack of work? A weight of evidence from folklore, anthropology, history and psycho-analysis suggests that a great many people would rather not work. We may be in better condition than we think, incurable unemployment not a warning of trouble ahead but a sign of better times to come, better times than we have yet known.

They used to teach at school… from nine o’clock to eleven, that labour was a curse, and from eleven to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness and a dignity… (Uriah Heep, David Copperfield)

Work stands at the centre of social life, but it receives less critical attention than one might have expected. Books have been written which include the word in their titles but they speak mainly about particular types of work, or of the conditions in which it has been, is, or ought to be performed. Each trade, craft, service, occupation, profession, career, means of livelihood, job, vocation, industry, business, duty and function provides matter for study, but the feature they all have in common, entitling us to class them all together as work, tends to be accepted as simply a fact of life, thoughtful discussion of it seldom felt to have much more point than talk about the weather: ‘No adequate history of the meanings of work has been written’. [1]

When the thinkers and authorities do turn their attention towards work they display uncommon unanimity, practically all of them finding it to be not just necessary but valuable; usually without having thought about work very deeply, they advocate it wholeheartedly. The Pope has called for a more equal distribution because he believes it helps to keep people happy, [2] Arthur C. Clarke maintains that most people need it as an antidote to boredom [3] and Len Murray, when General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said of some marchers against unemployment that they had been robbed of their dignity by not being given jobs. Thorstein Veblen, an academic who had thought about the subject more sharply than most, presented the obverse of the medal, a theory of the leisure class amounting to condemnation. [4]

Belief in the virtues of work goes a long way back and it also stretches a long way forward. In the early 6th Century St. Benedict termed idleness the enemy of the soul and before that St. Paul, himself trained as a tentmaker, had urged his converts to work. [5] In the other direction, few attempts to envisage future society, and none that have attracted much support, have failed to place work at its centre.

We have to expect those who support present society to urge the value of work, for others if not for themselves; the surprise comes when their critics and opponents not only fall into line but step ahead, seeing it as originally a pleasure and capable of becoming so again, given the right conditions. Karl Marx was obsessed by work. His masterpiece was not Communism but Capital, and it concentrated upon the purpose, conditions and results of work under this system, upon exploitation at the point of production and the alienation said to result when the workers receive less than the full fruits of their labour. On one of the rare occasions when he and Engels did try to envisage life in a communist society they valued it for the work it would provide. One job each did not satisfy them; workaholics before the word had been invented, they looked forward to working at hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, cattle-raising in the evening and criticism after dinner. [6] In 1864 Marx spoke of the associated labour of a communist society ‘plying its toil with a willing hand a ready mind and a joyous heart,’ [7] and towards the end of his life he assured his readers that the society he advocated would recognise labour as ‘not only a means of life but life’s prime want.’ [8] Lenin redefined socialism: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his contribution,’ but this was to be only a halfway stage; under full communism the need to balance reward received against work performed would vanish, for with classes and exploitation ended all would work for the joy of it. The greens proclaim a need for restraint, but only in the consumption of non-renewable resources; muscle-power counts among the renewable ones and they would have us use more of it.

In 1983 Freedom Press, the anarchist publishing house, issued an anthology entitled Why Work? People inclined towards anarchism oppose many features of present society, including the conditions under which work is now performed, but this book shows some of them favouring the activity itself. William Morris assures us that ‘it is in the nature of man, when he is not diseased to take pleasure in his work under certain conditions.’ [9] Camillo Berneri, condemning work today as drudgery, expects it to become ‘the supreme human dignity’; he quotes Kropotkin: “In collective work, carried out with gay spirit to reach the desired goal… each one will find the stimulus, the uplift necessary to make life pleasant.” [10] Tony Gibson holds that people need, compelling to work only when they are not free to set their conditions for themselves; left to do it their own way social coercion would not be needed: ‘We tend to forget that it is as natural for men to produce as to consume’. [11]

Even these, who repudiate the way we live now, draw in their claws before touching work, attacking only the conditions now imposed upon it. Condemning exploitation, they look forward to a time when all will work joyfully for their own satisfaction.

Approval of work, of one sort or another, comes from both sides. The traditionalists tend to agree with the ancient civilisations that engagement in physical labour indicates inferiority; they place the greater value on management, government, administration. The radicals value the great body of working people above any self-styled elite and the industrial workers above all; the communist icon wears overalls and the road to communism is held to go by way of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

With hardly an exception serious thinkers of all periods, all classes and all political persuasions agree that work of some sort is a Good Thing. Locked in bitter disputation over most of the subjects they take up, on work they fall into harmony, chorusing that we need it for health and happiness, that it forms an essential part of the good life and will do so in any reasonably conceivable future society. Ruth Danon speaks of ‘the myth of vocation,’ saying it ‘suggests that work is the primary source of self-definition, psychic integration, and happy fulfilment available to a person.’ [12]

As a way of running society the adulation of work has, on the whole, justified itself. Horrors have been committed and some alarming threats hang over us, but society now supports more human life than ever before; it is not any shortage of social abilities but the limitations of a small planet that begin to make restrictions necessary. The gospel of work has served us well, but it carries a condition, and one which becomes increasingly hard to meet. If you tell five thousand million people that something is necessary both for survival and for a satisfying life, then you had better be sure you can provide enough of it, and work as we know it has started to become scarce.

The spectre of communism no longer haunts Europe, but others have taken its place, with mass unemployment among the most threatening. Some current unemployment results from the trade cycle, and as slump turns once more into boom many of the people without work will be taken up. But in recent decades not all of those wanting work have found it even in the boom periods. A steady trend towards ‘structural’ unemployment has appeared, suggesting that many of those now without work will never have it again. What used to be a marginal problem, occasionally serious, has become a permanent feature; some areas are now into their third generation of unemployed. [13] In the past growing industry has required, eventually, greater numbers of workers than before, but now advances go rather by way of developing technology; in the 15 years between 1945 and 1959 the industrial labour force in the United States came to produce 40% more in each man-hour. [14] And, increasingly, the risk of damaging the environment imposes restraints upon expansion. The number of people without work seems firmly set to grow, and although nobody knows what effects this will produce few expect them to be pleasant. One of the bigger changes of history has come upon us, not altogether unexpectedly, but without our having prepared to meet it.

From the beginning of history until quite recent times work has formed the main business of life for both men and women, rich and poor alike. From the end of childhood (by modern standards, from well before childhood had ended) until age brought failing powers, pretty well everybody had to work in one way or another. Some did the producing, distributing and maintaining, while others attended to the management, the ruling and administration. During the 19th Century that began to change. Mechanised industry brought the ability to produce wealth beyond the imagination of earlier times, and with it a substantial leisure class. This proved to be only the beginning; with developing technology the labourer’s muscles become redundant, and computer programmes displace human skills in professions and service industries. Hardly a month goes by without announcements of more jobs, and sometimes whole industries, being wiped out. In 1985 the Computers in Manufacturing Exhibition presented a demonstration model, occupying 200 square metres, of a wholly automatic factory. [15] The writing of musical scores, a task that used to occupy armies of copyists, has been
computerised. [16] Automation of bus-tickets and tube-entrances has displaced some 10,000 conductors and ticket-collectors, and it is expected that in the USA some 90 percent of the workers engaged in inspecting manufactures will be replaced by computerised systems. [17] The typesetting industry has been virtually eliminated, and similar changes affect also the less advanced countries. India’s oldest steel plant employs 37,000 people; an up-to-date replacement would need only 2,000. [18] The new technologies themselves create new jobs, but mostly ones requiring special abilities, and not in quantities to equal those they eliminate. The President of the 1983 Trade Union Congress said of the delegates: ‘They realised that full employment as they once knew it was a goner, probably for good… three to four millions out of work may well be with us for the rest of the century and beyond.’ [19] Lou Burnard, reviewing another book, extends the prospect: ‘It is not just manufacturing industry which is presented with the simple choice of “automate or liquidate”; non-manufacturing industry is now undergoing even greater turmoil, as word-processors drain typing pools, databases relocate filing-clerks and expert systems render consultants redundant.’ [20]

When comparing present conditions with those of the past the extent of the change can easily be underestimated, for many who would once have been counted as unemployed have been taken out of the statistics. In 1879 the introduction of compulsory education took all children in Britain off what used to be known as the labour market, and since 1938 the school-leaving age has gone up from fourteen to sixteen. Increased numbers spend three years or more at university, and while people used to work as long as they were physically able to do so, early retirement grows increasingly common. Youth training schemes and similar arrangements provide occupation (sometimes hardly more than nominal) for many, and those wishing to register for unemployment benefit have to satisfy more stringent conditions. The definition of unemployment has changed in ways that substantially reduce the numbers falling into this category, making the reduction in society’s need of the labour of its members seem smaller than it really is.

Fluctuations from year to year and month to month tend to obscure the larger movement, but we have no good reason for expecting the number of jobs to cease diminishing in the longer term, let alone to start increasing. A return to the practice of earlier times, with nearly everybody working while they had the strength to do so, no longer ranks among the available options. Great numbers find their occupation gone, and although the changes doubtless have limits, these have not yet come into sight.

In the advanced world today unemployment seldom brings starvation, but it still means suffering for many and, for most of those affected, lower standards, disappointed expectations, and a less enjoyable life. The ancient curse has been lifted, millions now get their bread without having to sweat for it. Leisure for all who want it is coming into view but instead of triumph, and dancing in the streets, it brings despairing queues at the Social Security counters. People without work are made to feel inferior; the tendency for their numbers to increase as advanced industry spreads over the world appears as present failure and a warning of disaster to come.

It is the conventional belief, that we all need work for the good life, that causes the prospect of growing mass unemployment to produce gloomy expectations; seen in a different way, this development begins to look more like the cold light of a coming dawn. But can we sensibly advocate a more optimistic approach?

Until quite recently there has been little point in thinking about this since nothing could be done about it anyway. When one does begin to think about work, and attitudes towards it, complications appear. On the one hand, the conviction that it ranks as a universal need. This has become so orthodox that those who claim to speak for the unemployed seldom call for more or better food, clothing, housing or entertainment; they demand ‘the right to work,’ as if the lack of these other things would not matter if only the unemployed could find some useful activity. Opposed to this stands the fear, seldom directly expressed, that many people do not want to work and must be induced to do so if they are not to live at the speaker’s expense. These conflicting attitudes produce two main consequences: First, pressure on people to protest that they want to work, whether they do or not. Second, penalties for those who, by failing to find work, have raised doubts about the sincerity of their desire for it.

One line of argument links oppressive, unsatisfying work with developments of the last few centuries, such as capitalism, industry, or mechanical time-keepers; the craftsmen of the Middle Ages are said to have found fulfilment in their daily task. William Morris is one exponent of this view, C. Wright Mills another; he speaks of work having lost its intrinsic meaning and of the individual having lost power over the technical operations of his own work life: ‘The entire shift from the rural world of the small entrepreneur to the urban society of the dependent employee has instituted the property conditions of alienation from product and processes of work… ‘ [21] This attitude that sees work as a natural activity recently perverted is. widespread, but there is good ground for questioning it.

Keith Thomas’ remarks how much has been written about the security and self-esteem which the early craftsman is thought to have derived from membership of his craft organization, but doubts its validity. He agrees that the guild was, potentially, a satisfying arrangement, producing an attitude to work very different from that found today in large factories, but he asks how large a part the guilds in fact played, and how long they lasted before employers became divorced from journeymen. Most of the medieval working people were not guild members and ploughmen, for example, felt their lot to be hard. The tendency of agricultural labourers to neglect work obliged the manorial overseer to carry a stick, and it was largely the intense dislike of labour services, and consequent resistance to them, that led to their commutation. In the 13th Century industrial relations were generally bad, with strikes in France, and the later medieval preachers give the impression that alcoholism, often taken as an indicator of dissatisfaction at work, was no less common then than now. Thomas concludes that we do not have enough evidence to settle the question, but makes it clear that there are no good grounds for asserting medieval men to have been more contented at work than the modems. The tendency to postpone the start of the working week indicated by the widespread institution of ‘Saint Monday’ (and occasionally Saint Tuesday too) goes back to a time long before capitalism or mechanised industry. [22]

Thorstein Veblen stresses the distinction maintained, in feudal times and earlier, between the noble employments – mainly government, warfare, sports and priestly service – and the menial occupation of manual labour. [23] The archaic civilisations offloaded much of their heavy work onto slaves, and Harold Barclay finds slavery even in societies so simple in structure as to have no government, a feature suggesting that a need for compulsion appeared as soon as there was any work to be done. The idea of a manual worker as a valuable member of society, rather than a beast of burden gifted with speech, appeared only within recent centuries. Hannah Arendt suggests that, work first came to be prized when Locke recognised labour as the source of all property, Adam Smith developing the idea and Marx going on to present work as the expression of the very humanity of man. [24]

For the traditionalists, whatever their own social position, ‘working-class,’ even today, means those doing the rough, dull, dirty, ill-paid jobs, it points to a way of life indicating the limited abilities of those engaged in it. With better education, greater industry, enterprise and intelligence they would lift themselves above such conditions. Reformers take a view almost the contrary of this, and revolutionaries still more so. For them working-class people are the valuable ones. The milder socialists proudly link themselves with the Labour Party, while revolutionary Engels defined the working class to include all who live by the sale of their labour power, bringing within it most of the scientists, managers, teachers, professionals and administrators; entrepreneurs apart, practically everybody who performs any productive function. [25]

The influence of those who support this view has combined with the advance of democracy, placing political power in the hands of the great numbers, to establish a high valuation of work among the modern conventions; employers not uncommonly claim to work harder, and for longer hours, than their employees. Yet while doing so they speak of going to business rather than to work; while accepting work they still keep it at a distance, and this points to some of the complications surrounding the activity and attitudes towards it.

Work comes surrounded by an aura of ambivalence. A work of art ranks among the highest of human achievements, but the working class stands near the foot of the social pyramid. The Bible condemns us to sweat for our bread but also invites us to observe the lilies of the field, that they neither toil nor spin, while the work ethic gets propagated in the name of a god who laboured for six days and then settled down to rest for all eternity. We take time off work to do more strenuous jobs at home. Not enough paid employment can be found for all who seek it, yet those offering to leave this scarce good for others get condemned for idleness rather than praised for generosity. A new machine to displace fifty workers gets acclaimed and the closing down of an obsolete factory, with the ‘loss’ of fifty jobs, deplored. People defined by their worklessness stand at the top of the social scale but also at the bottom of it, one group leisured, the other unemployed. A good job offers high pay and rewarding work – together with short hours and long holidays. The strong man prided himself on his capacity for labour and the final resort for the old and feeble was the workhouse. Ambitious professionals commonly put in longer hours than labourers but seldom describe themselves as workers, and the demand of the unemployed for work, decoded, reads something like this: ‘Wanting higher incomes and respect we are prepared to undertake work in order to get them; some of us may take pleasure in the work for its own sake, but that is a separate issue.’ This appears from responses to the ‘poverty trap,’ whereby some of those accepting low-paid work can find themselves worse off than on unemployment benefit. People commonly prefer not to work on these terms, and those not prepared to sacrifice income to get work can hardly be said to want it badly. (This comment carries no reproach; here we question, among other things, the belief that only people inclined towards work deserve respect).

Since work first made its appearance the greater part of it has been done either for pay or by people under command – serfs, slaves, villeins and the like. The upper classes are the leisured ones, holidays rather than workdays the time of enjoyment, and the happiest days of one’s life the time before work begins. As synonyms for ‘work’ the thesaurus throws up ‘accomplishment,’ ‘achievement,’ ‘feat,’ but also ‘labour,’ ‘toil,’ and ‘strive’; we can add ‘drudgery.’ The spectacle of the idle rich at their pleasures provokes no feeling that in being without work they miss one of the good things of life. Their behaviour rather gets accepted by the many as the natural thing for those who can afford it, and disapproval of sinecures commonly carries more than a touch of envy of those lucky enough to get them. The tendency to take what one wants without working for it has to be discouraged.

Acceptance of the need to work has long been standard, but there are clear indications that it has been imposed against resistance. For the majority it is the end of the working day rather than its beginning that is eagerly anticipated and the popular pressure is for shorter working hours; few engage in moon-lighting after the regular daily stint has been completed. The activities that occupy the spare time of the great masses – the masses of all classes, all civilised nations and all levels of education – are sports, hobbies and pastimes, family life, socialising and entertainment.

These complications indicate that feelings towards work may be less uniformly favourable than the serious people would have us think; they suggest a widespread but largely hidden dislike of it. But before taking this up we need to look at the concept more closely; examination of it reveals complexities that do not appear at first sight and we need to get these sorted out, or at least partly so, before going on.

In physical science ‘work’ means any expenditure of energy, and work in that sense – movement, activity, exercise physical and mental – stands as a continuing need for everybody. Indeed, it counts rather as a feature than a need, for only with death does it cease. It is not always welcome; people have to be encouraged to take exercise rather than to restrain their enthusiasm for it and G. K. Zipf has shown, with massive evidence, how much of our behaviour can be ascribed to a tendency to economise effort. [26] But although we may resist it, work in the sense of using our bodily and mental powers is inescapable. Every living creature engages in it, any absence or even shortage of it damages both health and enjoyment of life, and we can no more avoid it than we can avoid breathing. In this sense of the word breathing is work.

The term also has another meaning, a narrower one, which begins to appear when we think about play. Play commonly entails the expenditure of a lot of energy, but the difference between it and work is sometimes the most important thing about it: ‘Stop playing about, there! Get on with your work.’ Some Australian natives have been reported without separate words for work and play, suggesting that they may be unaware of any difference, [27] but this attracts notice just because of its rarity; over most of the world play is to a large extent set apart from the general concerns of the community while work stands boldly among them. Play is mainly a private affair, work inherently a public matter.

Contrasted with work stands leisure, but this does not have to mean slippered ease. The word comes from licere, to be permitted, and it indicates a condition in which we decide for ourselves what we shall do. Leisure activities include not only socialising, watching television and listening to music but also running, cycling, climbing and even weightlifting, pursuits absorbing far more energy than do most jobs. These things are often done for the purpose of expending energy, the daily occupation not taking up enough for health.

In social affairs ‘work’ loses the inclusiveness of its scientific meaning, some expenditures of energy ranking while others do not. John Lennon, announcing his decision not to work any more since he had paid his debt to society, [28] did not mean that he would never move again. Young children expend great amounts of energy in running about, but we hardly call this work, and although we may claim to be working hard at something done for private benefit or pleasure – painting the house, digging the garden, washing the car – in doing so we use the term rather in its physical-science sense, as appears from the common remark that we took time off work to do these things. A receptionist, seated through the day, is undoubtedly at work, but walking to the office does not count. Chess-players, fox-hunters and mountaineers make vigorous use of mind, body or both, but we do not speak of them as working. A couple out for an evening’s pleasure may expend more calories than when engaged in administration, yet this counts as work while dancing does not. Swimming uses more energy than clerking, yet clerks work while swimmers, usually, do not.

It cannot be the nature of activities that decides whether they shall rank as work or not, for some can fall into either category. Sport professionals are usually working when they use their skills, but not when performing the same actions for their own pleasure. Churchill laid bricks and Gladstone felled trees; many people spend their working lives in these activities, but for the Prime Ministers they were hobbies.

It looks as though work in the social sense can be identified with things done for a wage or salary, and for a great many people in industrial society this is so, but not for all; in every city there appear many instances of work not coinciding with employment. The term ‘self-employed’ serves administrative convenience rather than clarity of understanding; doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, and the others falling under this rubric undoubtedly work, but they are more likely to think of themselves as outside the employment system than as uniting the two sides of it. The feminists insist on having housewives included among the workers, and the great numbers of unpaid volunteers who operate charities and political movements cannot sensibly be ignored. Neither can we responsibly say, of the millions of peasants who labour from daylight to dusk cultivating their own or rented land, without reference to any employer, that they do not

Like many other important words ‘work’ carries a range of meanings. In the Shorter Oxford their definitions fill a large page of small print, the primary sense of activity in general being followed by use of the word to mean a contribution to the social enterprise: ‘occupation, business, task, function.’

It is in this latter sense that we shall use the term, discarding a wide range of activities but accepting as workers many people excluded from even the broadest definition of ‘working class.’ Rulers for example may have no function in the ideal world, but the societies we know could not operate without them; the old term ‘kingcraft’ recognises an identity between ruling and other skilled occupations. Close examination will doubtless reveal fuzzy edges to this use of ‘work,’ but it corresponds with standard practice and it provides sensible solutions for some puzzling marginal cases. Surrogate parents become workers, but producing children simply because one wants to do so gets excluded. (Although socialising them stays in). Housewives who put effort into enabling their families to play full social role (as virtually all of them do) stand on equal ground with those who used to be their lords and masters.

The influence of society, turning some activities into work, extends farther than may at first appear. From his shipwreck until the arrival of Man Friday Robinson Crusoe lives in complete isolation; when he makes himself a table, does this count as work in our specific sense? On the face of it no, it cannot, since there is no society present to make demands; Crusoe acts entirely for his own pleasure and benefit. But whole races have lived their lives without feeling any desire for tables. Unlike food, and a place to lie down for sleep, a table is not a universal requirement. So why does Crusoe expend the considerable amount of effort required to make one?

The answer has to be that he is not simply an example of the universal individual, but one with particular features, one who has grown to maturity in a particular society, responding to its requirements and being shaped by them. He is, to a large extent, a microcosm of his society, and in making a table he responds to the social requirements integrated over the years into his own mental structure.

Whenever an activity is performed in response to a social requirement, one coming from outside that small group of family and friends to whom we relate as persons, it ranks as work in our sense of the word; other expenditures of energy do not.

If everybody does need work (in the specific social sense), for the good life, then the prospect of increasing numbers without it is indeed one to be dreaded. But have the thinkers and authorities got it right? The belief that continuing mass unemployment will inevitably mean widespread suffering, and perhaps social upheaval, has become the conventional wisdom and conventional wisdom, remaining static while circumstances change, always needs challenging. We have seen indications that great numbers work in response to social pressures
rather than from any spontaneous tendency, and confirming evidence comes readily to hand. Paid employment may be scarce, but there are plenty of useful things waiting to be done; invalids, old people and children needing care, roads to repair, streets to sweep, damage to the environment to make good, natural disasters to combat. No eager crowds press forward to tackle these jobs for pleasure. On the contrary; complex, burdensome, expensive and unpopular institutions and arrangements, Income Tax, VAT, Poll Tax and rates, have to be maintained to get them done at all.

Almost without exception, the serious thinkers believe that we have an inborn need of work comparable to our need of affection, but this seems doubtful. We like and love each other without asking more than reciprocation and often not even that, while most work is done for material reward. Labour-saving devices win credit for their inventors, but labour-creating ones carry so little kudos that it is hard to think of anybody who has claimed to invent one. Of those wealthy enough to have a choice, some come down in favour of work but others against it.

Down through history there have been many who disliked work enough to accept the penalties incurred by avoiding it. The Elizabethans had their ‘sturdy beggars,’ and 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. Theft seems to be ineradicable, and thieves are people who prefer the chance of embarrassment, disgrace or punishment to trying to obtain what they want by work, while robbers and gangsters risk even violent death. Psychoanalysis has shown how verbal associations can reveal hidden feelings, and the associations of ‘work’ imply hostility. First comes ‘hard,’ followed by ‘heavy,’ ‘tiring,’ and ‘strenuous’; ‘many hands make light work’ points to a feeling that the less each one has, the better. The rarity with which work appears in either the latent or manifest content of the dreams studied by analysts goes to confirm that its absence, unlike the absence of sexual activity, offends no deep drive.

In 1495 a statute regulating hours of work was passed in England; it complained about late arrivals for work, long breaks for sleep and early departure from the job, and Bishop Pilkington repeated these protests in the 16th Century. [29] In the 18th Century Bernard Mandeville again commented on the absence of universal enthusiasm for work:

Everybody knows that there is a vast number of journeymen weavers, tailors, clothworkers, and twenty other handicrafts who, if by four days labour in a week they can maintain themselves, will hardly be persuaded to work the fifth; and that there are thousands of labouring men of all sorts, who will, though they can hardly subsist, put themselves to fifty inconveniences, disoblige their masters, pinch their bellies, and run in debt, to make holidays. When men show such an extraordinary proclivity to idleness and pleasure, what reason have we to think that they would ever work unless they were obliged to it by immediate necessity? [30]

Mandeville’s book ‘profoundly shocked contemporaries, provoked a frenzy of attacks, and resulted in a presentment handed down by the grand jury of Middlesex condemning it as a public nuisance. [31] Anybody seriously suggesting that very large numbers might prefer to avoid work risks meeting a similar reaction today.

Activity is unquestionably a universal need; this was so among the animals before humanity evolved, and we have no grounds for thinking it will not continue. But the particular activities falling under the head of work (from now on we use this term only in its specific social sense) do not meet with a universal welcome. Trade unions seldom demand longer hours without an increase in pay, and the songs that make their way on to the charts take little account of work; judging by these indicators of popular taste one might well think that life consisted wholly of evenings and weekends. Novels and plays present mainly people who work for a living, but this large part of their lives, taking up more of their waking time than any one other activity, gets mostly left out of account: ‘… relatively little of prose and poetry seems to be mainly concerned with man’s relationship to his work.’ [32] Most of us devote our freely disposable time to private affairs, to games, hobbies, socialising, making love, family life, satisfying our biological or cultural needs or expressing our personalities. And for most, perhaps all of us: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.’

Work carries us beyond ourselves and our personal contacts to join in general social life. At the workplace, whether it be factory, office, judges’ bench, boardroom or House of Commons, we largely cease to act as unique creative individuals, taking on instead a role and responding to the roles acted by others. (We noted earlier that work is inherently a public affair). If work enjoyed the popularity ascribed to it then the media, concerned to attract the largest audience, would stress this feature, but in fact they minimise it, straining to report always in personal terms. Politicians have to comply with instructions laid down by their parties, but the newspapers present an election as a duel between leaders. Rulers can seldom afford to let their personal preferences predominate, they have to calculate the sources of their support and maintain sensitive contacts with a wide range of opinion, but the more popular media do their best to ignore such complications; for them the First World War was caused by the Kaiser, the Second by Hitler, and international relations are governed by feelings of friendship or hostility. They believe this treatment will attract more readers, and the size of their audience validates the judgment. Personal life has vibrancy and directness, it makes an immediate appeal, while social affairs, work among them, are widely seen as cold, abstract, remote.

Folklore, fairy-tale and legend evade the moral censor to express some of the deeper inclinations, and they present a world in which work plays a minimal part. The main characters tend to be fairies, witches, talking animals, giants and royalty, and the minor figures also are usually non-workers: old women, children, or young folk starting out in life. Here kings rarely take up their task of ruling; Old King Cole calls for his pipe and his bowl, not the last fifty-seven volumes of statute law, and the love-affairs of junior royalty carry much of the action. Peasants and woodcutters seem to be ever on their way to or from work rather than engaged in it, while only despicable misers gather wealth by laborious accumulation; the hero marries it or wins it with a sword-stroke. Little Boy Blue sleeps under the haystack, the clever man gets his field dug by tricking a dupe into searching it for buried treasure, and only when the tailor or the apprentice leaves his master’s shop to go adventuring does he become a hero. The goblin who did ten days’ work in one night is no hero but a drudge, and Hercules belongs among the jokers, his ‘labours’ accomplished more by trickery than by straightforward effort.

Hesiod posited a Golden Age at the beginning of things. Gold does not make good tools, and the Arcadian shepherds spent more time dancing with the nymphs than in the sweaty labour of shearing. The official heavens, Christian and Mahommedan, find little place for work and Valhalla, the Land of Cockaigne, the Happy Hunting Grounds and the Big Rock Candy Mountains follow suit, while Nirvana excludes activity of any sort. The Gods on Olympus did many things, some of them by modern conventions reprehensible, but we find little record of them working, and ‘In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread’ was more a curse than a blessing.

History supports folklore rather than current orthodoxy. From the slave-masters of antiquity down to our Ministers of Employment and Social Security those in power have had to fight the tendency to avoid work rather than control the crowds eagerly demanding it. Communist rulers Chinese and Russian tried to glamorise work but succeeded only in extending its unpopularity to themselves. The Golden Age pictured the legendary childhood of the race, and the happy ignorance of work enjoyed by its people appears among children today. Young children eat and sleep and play, love and hate, talk and fight, walk and run and sing and dance, and while they may not do all these things entirely of their own initiative they show an inclination towards them. They show none towards work. Animals in their natural state do not work and children have to be trained to it. Many adults enjoy work, and some of them show a passion for it, but this tendency seems to come as something learnt rather than an up- welling from the deep springs of human motivation, and the impression is strengthened when we turn to consider the history of the race.

Set against the whole period from the first appearance of humanity work shows up as a recent innovation. Our earliest forebears had their problems; they lived exposed to the roughness of nature, without the assurances provided by even the simplest civilisation, and inability to carry more than a very few children on their wanderings forced them into infanticide. But one imposition they were spared: work was hardly known to them.

An animal hunting or gathering food for itself, its mate and its young is not working (although if the ‘social’ insects are properly so described they are doing so) and neither were the human beings who maintained themselves in this way. Hunter-gatherers devote little time and energy to the mechanics of life; their interests lie in socialising, singing, dancing, ornamenting themselves, playing with their children, performing rituals, sitting in the sun and sometimes fighting. They make what they want for personal use but they have no system of production and consequently no social obligation to produce. Each family attends to its own material needs, taking what nature provides, and everything we learn from those who continued this way of life into modern times suggests that they lived full and enjoyable lives. Everybody lived virtually without work for something between forty thousand and four million years (it depends on your definition of humanity) and this by itself suggests that in modern society it is those inclined away from work who are behaving in the more natural manner. Certainly they are doing so if ‘natural’ be taken to mean direct and uncomplicated, for the simplest way of getting what one wants is to take it, offering no return. To grow your own food is an indirect, roundabout, sophisticated way of getting it.

The foragers made weapons, tools, clothes and dwellings, but only as needed; living as nomads, without either wheels or pack-animals, they found belongings a burden. Richard Lee sets the total weight of personal possessions owned by a !Kung San bushman of the Kalahari at not over twenty-five pounds, and ‘personal’ possessions here include, except for the land, such means of production as they can be said to have had. [33] Production appeared only as a minor and incidental activity and this makes it odd to speak, as Lee does, of foragers as producers. The strangeness increases when we find David H. Turner speaking in this connection of ‘production groups’ and ‘maintaining a mobile labour force.’ [34]

These two authors are attempting to force the foragers into a conception in which development of the means of production fundamentally determines other social changes. Their commitment to this theory prevents them from recognising the distinctive feature of the foraging economy (if ‘economy’ be the right word) as dependence upon supplies of food which have not been produced by human effort. The wonderful thing about these peoples, what gives their way of life its importance for our understanding of human beings and human society, is that they consumed without producing, and this has to be integrated into any comprehensive account of social development. For much the greater part of humanity’s existence everybody lived by consuming food they had not produced and without making anything not required by themselves or their families. They lived, that is to say, virtually without working. These peoples have demonstrated, as conclusively as anything can be demonstrated in social affairs, the absence of any inborn, instinctive or natural inclination towards work.

The social activity of production (and with it distribution, transportation, administration and all the rest) began only some ten thousand years ago, with the introduction of herding and agriculture. The change brought work into the world, and with’ it the coercive institutions needed to ensure that the work gets done. Those among us today who dislike work receive little support from the serious thinkers, but they have a claim on the sympathies of anybody favouring natural behaviour; work has become prominent only as society has developed beyond its origins in the natural world.

The need of arrangements to induce people to work indicates the presence of many inclined not to do so. This is often thought to need explanation, but in fact life without work is closer to the original human condition. Those leaning towards it are rather the deviants, their behaviour what needs explaining. When we started to produce our own food we departed from the natural way of life (significantly, agriculture appeared together with the beginnings of the state, something else that animals do not have) and although many take a corresponding step in their personal development, others do not. Many of us retain the original human preference, displayed by all children (but not therefore childish, any more than walking) for life without work. Society requires that all without private means should work or suffer the stigma of unemployment, with the result that great numbers work who would prefer not to do so, doing their jobs only for the sake of rewards in pay and status; they appear among the professionals and administrators as well as the industrial workers. Their attention fixed on their personal affairs (which include close family and personal contacts) they experience no need to feel themselves partners in the common social enterprise, and it is only the organisations within which they operate that, by directing their activity into channels of social value, turn it into work.

Noting the weight of evidence against the idea that work satisfies a universal requirement we observe, also, that some do choose to engage in it. Many work who do not need to do so for a living, and people doing their jobs do not all need supervision to keep them at it. Some put into their work more than is demanded, and others take on voluntary tasks. All sweeping statements to the effect that ‘we,’ or ‘people’ do (or do not) need work for the good life obscure the realities; in respect of work society comprises two groups, one inclined away from it, another (probably the larger but not overwhelmingly so) tending towards it.

More time could be spent on different attitudes towards work, but for our purposes enough has perhaps been said. With hardly an exception the serious thinkers, both those who support existing society and their opponents, see a future in which more or less everybody works, and they claim to be expressing the wishes of all but a few recalcitrants. We have found reason to differ. Human beings have no natural need of work, and the great numbers who retain their original preferences engage in it only under pressure; they would lead happier, more satisfying lives without it. In reply to the question: Do people like work? we have to say that ,some do, some don’t. With this recognised, growing unemployment changes from a threat into a promise.

The enthusiasts for work complain that modern society takes the pleasure out of it, but dislike of work was with us long before capitalism appeared, or feudalism either, or even chattel slavery, and in spite of all education, training and indoctrination it remains widespread. A society in which all save a fortunate few have to work can be maintained only by suppressing the spontaneity of the many who do not like work and forcing them into an alien mould. Until now there was little point in raising this issue; if society was to survive nearly all of us had to work. This began to change when powered machinery first made possible the existence of a class with no function other than 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: not ‘work for all’ but freedom from unwanted work.

This raises the prospect of a degraded underclass, but that spectre vanishes together with the belief in a universal need of work. The existence of the idle rich shows that worklessness and poverty do not have to go together, and although people doing nothing but consume have in the past been parasites this is so no longer; consumption without production has been turned into a useful function. Modern productive systems turn out far more than their operators can use, and since those who prefer to work need to know that they are taking part in a social enterprise, not merely wasting their time, this product has to be consumed. Mass consumption stands as the necessary complement to mass production. Those who do nothing but consume are enabling high technology to function, and in this way they earn their keep.

Except for the few who possess wealth, those without work are now kept at a lower standard of living than the employed. This has been deliberately arranged out of fear that otherwise the work would not get done, but such precautions are losing their purpose. Those who feel a need for work will demand it whether they are paid more or less than those who do not want it and they are, or soon will be, able to produce all that is required.

At present the distinction between those inclined towards work and those tending away from it gets suppressed, with the result that we have many working who would rather not do so, and others without work who feel themselves deprived of it. With the presence of these two groups recognised, and the work that has to be done going to those who want it, things fall more smoothly into place. At present ‘working class’ does not indicate those who work; many ‘workers’ are unemployed, while some never have worked and probably never will do so. And, on the other hand, some work who do not belong to this class. With ‘workers’ or ‘working class’ meaning those inclined towards work and getting it, usage and etymology come together. With work recognised as unnatural (useful and – in reduced amounts – necessary though it still is and probably always will be) ‘un- employed’ loses its unpleasant implications. Those not working become the norm and those who work require a special term to distinguish them.

The green movement struggles against the demand for employment, one example being the recent protests against destruction of the Canadian forests, which met counter-protests from people in the local logging villages, worried about losing their jobs. Work has been so idolised that people find themselves obliged to carry on with it even when the result is harmful. We used to work in order to eat; now we must eat in order to work. We must eat more, drink more, travel more, wear more clothes, use more fuel, cut down more trees, burn more coal, produce more radioactive waste, dump more rubbish and pollute more rivers. We must destroy the environment faster, faster and faster still. Why? So we can go on working.

If everybody was consumed with a furious passion for work this might make some sort of sense, but the whole of history goes to show that although some people do enjoy work, great numbers do not. Many of the people now without work are suffering, but not from lack of useful occupation; we get closer to reality if we call them not the unemployed but the undersupplied, and the remedy for that condition leaps to the eye. Those who like work are coming to be easily able to maintain those who prefer to be without it. Only accept this and we can all relax, give the planet a chance to recover, and begin to enjoy ourselves.

We 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 get this recognised, for the worklovers dominate (domination being one form of work) and they find it hard to believe that another preference can be as worthy as their own. But people enjoyed life before work appeared, and ever since work began there have been many aspiring to life without it; the way things are going society will soon be able to meet that aspiration.

The foraging communities offer an attractive model of the workless life, 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 can provide. Large numbers of people in the advanced countries are now being returned to the condition of hunter-gatherers; consumers who do not produce, and they already enjoy a security, and a length of life, the original foragers could hardly have imagined. The indications are that as this development moves on those not working will be able to enjoy a plenitude, using the supermarkets in place of the woods and deserts and currency in place of weapons. The tendency to take what one wants without working for it is the natural tendency, simple and direct. It guided 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 fulfilment of wishes in dreams and folklore, and it motivates every one of us, although some have repressed it, imposing 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 is becoming practicable.

Not everybody seeks the easy life, and those inclined towards work now have that option also open to them, a choice not available in the first human communities 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 it into an added dimension of freedom. Many social changes in the past have come about against resistance, with widespread wastage and suffering. Now we have to decide whether to undergo this transition in the same painful and dangerous way or to understand it in advance and carry it through more smoothly.

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[13] Boyes, Roger, Times Literary Supplement, 13 March 1992.
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[16] Sunday Times 2 June 85.
[17] Sunday Times 21 April, 9 June 85.
[18] Anthropology Today, Feb 1990 UK News-Insert.
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[25] ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party‘ (1848) in Feuer L. S. ed. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy London: Fontana, 48.
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[30] Mandeville B. The Fable of the Bees 1723, quoted in Himmelfarb G.
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[31] Himmelfarb (see 30. above) 29.
[32] Morgan, Kathleen. ‘The Ethos of Work in Nineteenth Century Literature’ English (v.33) p.47.
[33] Lee R., 1982, ‘Politics, Sexual and Non-Sexual, in Egalitarian Society,’ in Politics and History in Band Societies CUP 52
[34] Turner D.H., 1978 Dialectics in Tradition; Myth and Social Structure in Two Hunter-Gatherer Societies London: Royal Anthropological Society,
page 1.

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.