The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society


John Bellamy Foster in Monthly Review:

The narrative found today in every neoclassical economics textbook portrays work in purely negative terms, as a disutility or sacrifice. Sociologists and economists often present this as a transhistorical phenomenon, extending from the classical Greeks to the present. Thus Italian cultural theorist Adriano Tilgher famously declared in 1929: “To the Greeks work was a curse and nothing else,” supporting his claim with quotations from Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, and other figures, together representing the aristocratic perspective in antiquity.

With the rise of capitalism, work was seen as a necessary evil requiring coercion. Thus in 1776, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations defined labor as a sacrifice, which required the expenditure of “toil and trouble…of our own body.” The worker must “always lay down…his ease, his liberty, and his happiness.” A few years earlier, in 1770, an anonymous treatise entitled an Essay on Trade and Commerce appeared, written by a figure (later thought to be J. Cunningham) whom Marx described as “the most fanatical representative of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie.” It advanced the proposition that to break the spirit of independence and idleness of English laborers, ideal “work-houses” should be established imprisoning the poor, turning these into “houses of terror, where they should work fourteen hours a day in such fashion that when meal time was deducted there should remain twelve hours of work full and complete.” Similar views were promoted in subsequent decades by Thomas Robert Malthus, leading to the New Poor Law of 1834.

Neoclassical economic ideology today treats the question of work as a trade-off between leisure and labor, downplaying its own more general designation of work as a disutility in order to present it as a personal financial choice, and not the result of coercion. Yet it remains true, as German economist Steffen Rätzel observed in 2009, that at bottom “work,” in neoclassical theory, “is seen as a bad necessary to create income for consumption” (italics added).

This conception of work, which derives much of its power from the alienation that characterizes capitalist society, has of course been challenged again and again by radical thinkers. Such outlooks are neither universal nor eternal, nor is work to be regarded simply as a disutility—though the conditions of contemporary society tend to make it one, and thus necessitate coercion.

More here.