Origins of the Work Ethic

The term 'work ethic' implies some degree of choice, and that people with a work ethic are people who actively and willingly choose to work.

In many ways, the notion of a 'work ethic' is one that is closely tied to a rosy view of human life as being essentially free to choose how to conduct itself. Once human life came to be regarded as free, then the corollary was that there was a choice about whether to work or not, and the work ethic was the choice of anyone who desired a busy, industrious, and innovative human civilisation. According to this account of human nature, humans had always had a choice about whether to just sit on their backsides and do nothing, or to getting moving and make things happen, building civilisation by sheer determination. This might be termed the 'rosy hypothesis' of the origin of the work ethic.

Idle Theory entirely rejects this rosy vision of an essentially free human nature. We are at best part-time free agents. For most of humanity and for most of history, work has been a daily imperative. People had to work to survive, and if they did not work, they did not survive. There was no choice about the matter. It was a simple fact of life. It was a work imperative. Nobody in antiquity had a work ethic. Quite the opposite: the ancients prized leisure. Work was for slaves. Leisure was for a slave-owning aristocracy. No aristocrat wanted to become a slave; but every slave dreamed of becoming a leisured aristocrat. To the ancients of Greece and Rome, our modern work ethic would have seemed utterly perverse. "Have you gone crazy?" they would have asked. It's therefore necessary to try to explain, within Idle Theory, the rise of an apparently perverse work ethic.

Re-inventing Traditional Society

The modern work ethic is of comparatively recent origin, and often called the Protestant work ethic. And its appearance roughly corresponds to a prolonged period of growing European prosperity. And prosperity is another word for underlying idleness. It would seem that as trade and technological innovation increased social idleness, and thereby freed people to choose what to do with their idle time, a work ethic appeared which decreed that idle people should set themselves to work. Why did that happen?

One explanation might be that the all-too-real imperative of work, or the sense of it, never went away. Work remained an imperative, but something less of an imperative than it once had been. In a 10% idle society, work is 90% imperative: people must work 90% of the time. But in a 90% idle society, work is 10% imperative: people must work for 10% of their time. In both societies, whatever work needs doing remains imperative work. It was perhaps in recognition of this, and sensing that workers were slacking on the job, that the work ethic appeared as an exhortation to keep working. This might be termed the "ancient imperative hypothesis".

Indeed, if social idleness was rising, it did not follow that it would always keep rising. It might drop back to its former low levels. And so, just because the sails of the ship of society spread before a steady wind, it did not follow that the oarsmen should rest at their oars.

But another explanation could be that, after centuries and millennia of uninterrupted toil, people simply didn't know what to do with their new leisure. And so instead of embracing that freedom, they retreated from it, and simply invented new work for themselves to do. Human societies have traditionally been working societies, and the growth of leisure acted to subvert traditional society. By inventing new work, a work ethic restored traditional society. If human life had always been a hive of activity, making and selling the necessities of life, the work ethic recreated the active buzz of traditional society. This explanation of the work ethic might be termed the "old lags' hypothesis", after the sort of institutionalised prisoner who, unable to cope with freedom, returns to a familiar prison life.

In this hypothesis, a life of leisure is a terrifying prospect. While in traditional working society, everybody was kept busy, and out of trouble, a leisured society would be one in which people roamed free and unfettered, and capable of absolutely anything. It was not just that the old lags did not want to leave their prison, but that the community outside did not want to see the prison gates opened, and a flood of miscreants and misfits pouring out onto the streets. Leisured society was anarchy. Who knew what people might do?

In traditional working society, work was the pole around which all life revolved. The year was divided into sowing and reaping crops, in a cycle of work and leisure. And it was sprinkled with holiday festivals that marked this cycle. The whole fabric of society was woven and meshed in an intricate web around the fixed pole of work. And exactly as farmers seeded the land with wheat to be harvested, and bred sheep to be slaughtered, and oxen to haul their ploughs, so in marriage men and women consorted in the necessary business of begetting children who would in their turn be bonded to plough the fields, milk the goats, and bake the bread. Humans and cattle and wheat were bound together in an organic matrix of shared toil and sacrifice. Children were taught a trade, and grew up into an adult life of work, until in old age they retired useless before they died. And at church of a sabbath, they would gaze forward at an inconceivable end to their world, at a looming - perhaps even impending - divine kingdom, which prospect made sense of their toil, much like the prospect of land served to urge on the oarsmen of an ocean-crossing ship.

In a time of growing idleness, this tight-knit fabric of traditional society began to unravel. Labourers and traders began to idle as they worked. Working animals became cherished household pets. Men and women began to fall in love, rather than busily make babies. With land in sight, the oarsmen began to grow jovial and insubordinate. Their discipline began to dwindle. But any captain knows that it is in docking a ship that the greatest danger presents itself, and the greatest need of vigilance and discipline is demanded, all hands on deck.

And yet another explanation might be that growing leisure opened up the opportunity to make and sell luxuries and amusements. People might be baffled by leisure, but they instantly liked bright shiny toys and trinkets. Indeed, since the rich aristocracy had historically not only possessed invisible leisure, but also a great many highly visible luxuries and amusements, one 'got rich', or was seen to get rich, by acquiring a heap of visible luxuries, even if one had to work very hard to get them. And this might be called the "consumer society hypothesis". Where once people had worked of necessity to produce and consume the necessities of life, people now worked out of choice to produce and consume the luxuries of life.

And another explanation might be that whenever the 'work ethic' is invoked, it is always directed at other people. The proprietor of a factory might seek to instil a work ethic in his employees, but allow himself to play golf. This might be called the "hypocritical hypothesis": work is something other people should do.

In this manner, one may offer hypotheses for what underlies, legitimately or illegitimately, the origins of a wholly novel work ethic, previously unknown in human history.

Whatever way, does the appearance of a work ethic explain why modern societies remain working societies? Not really. Even if it has been re-invented, traditional society always required that idle children be set to work in adult life, and retired to pasture in old age. It may be that what was once a brief education in milking cattle has now been extended to become a very long education in higher mathematics, and the produce is not wheat and barley, but video games and designer jeans, but it remains at least a working semblance of traditional working society.

Yet the paradoxical result of recreating traditional working society is that it inevitably also recreates the ancient wish to escape from toil to a life of leisure. For to the extent that traditional society is faithfully reconstructed, to that extent the values of traditional working society are also reconstructed.

There can be little doubt that the transition of human society from one of unremitting toil to near complete leisure would be the most significant event in the entire history of humanity, and one for which we are not prepared. But the attempt to turn the clock back, and recreate traditional society, is ultimately doomed to failure. And it rests upon a failure of nerve and of imagination. It is of course possible that, given a life of complete leisure, people might quite literally do nothing, and lapse into a vegetative existence. But a life of leisure actually holds out an infinite number of possibilities, of which complete inactivity is only one.

The Changing Value of Work and Leisure

In busy societies, leisure was precious. The sabbath day, that holy day on which nobody worked, but instead gave prayerful thanks, was in itself a profound celebration of leisure. It may be supposed that if, in even busier societies, this sabbath shrank from one day a week to one hour a week, the sabbath hour would have been an interlude of sheer delight and profound relief.

But as, from whatever cause, a society grew more idle, and the sabbath day became a weekend, and then a long weekend, so leisure became less precious. What once had been celebrated with prayer and music on the sabbath day gradually became less delightful, less a cause for celebration. What once had been the spontaneous expression of delight gradually became a tiresome liturgical ritual, and something to be avoided. Church attendance dropped.

The value of his own life to a man is his idleness. But the value of his life to others is his busyness. The baker looks forward to the weekend when, at leisure, he will be able to do as he pleases - but everyone else looks forward to his bread, which is the product of his work. And the more productive the baker, the more everyone else values him.

And the more idle that any society becomes, and the less precious idleness seems, the more important work becomes. The less work needs to be done, the more significant it becomes. When one single working individual can meet the needs of first ten, and then one hundred individuals, such a worker rises in status. It becomes possible to imagine an extremely idle society in which the work of a single individual supports the whole of society, and this one individual is treated like royalty, showered with praise and honours, as he sacrifices his life for others.

And this is perhaps why, as social idleness rose in Western society as a consequence of technological innovation, work and workers became more highly valued, and a cult of the worker arose. One could win social approval through one's industry, as never before. Everyone admires workaholics, although nobody wants to be one themselves.

There are two ways in which people value themselves. They either find their value in the approval of others, or they find their value in their own self-approval. The first find value in their work, and the second find value in their leisure. The first seek social approval, high status in society, medals and awards, and regard themselves as successful or unsuccessful to the degree that they win the applause of others. The second are indifferent to social approval, and judge themselves successful or unsuccessful to the degree that they have the leisure in which to do as they themselves please, and they are themselves the judges of what pleases them most. The first are concerned with their outer appearances, and the second with their inner reality. The first have a work ethic, and the second a leisure ethic. The first are the recipients of social esteem, and the latter are the donors of social esteem. The first are judged, and the second are judges. The first are conformists, and the second non-conformists. The first accept the authority of others, while the second think for themselves. The first are primarily members of society, and the second are autonomous individuals.

In busy societies, people must generally be of the first sort. In busy societies, most people are unsuccessful in attaining leisure, and can approve little of their own lives. But they may find personal value in the approval of others for their work, which is what they spend most of their time doing. But in idle societies, with less and less work, there is less and less social esteem to be gained from work, and this esteem is increasingly directed at a dwindling number of people. In this circumstance, people shift to valuing themselves for their own leisure, and become indifferent to social esteem. And, indeed, the less work that needs to be done, the less the need for the ties of social esteem. And the less work that needs to be done, the more people experience their own inner reality, their own thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams. And to this extent they become inwardly oriented. In busy societies, where there is little leisure time in which to experience inner reality, an outer reality of concrete work within society is necessarily the principal reality.

Rising idleness brings rising non-conformity, and the disaggregation of traditional working society into a set of increasingly private, autonomous individuals. Non-conformist beatniks and hippies, unwashed and indifferent to social approval, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, represent the emergence of the second sort of individual. As social idleness rises, these are likely to become the predominant type of individual. And such individuals are then likely to begin to form new kinds of cultures, leisure cultures rather than work cultures.

The creation of a convivial leisure culture is probably one of the most important tasks facing contemporary humanity.

The Motor of Economic Necessity

In many ways, any discussion of a work ethic (or even a leisure ethic) involves the presupposition that what people do or don't do is determined by their value system, or by their psychology. Such psychologism rests upon the assumption that human beings are completely free agents, and are always doing whatever they want to do, and that if we want to understand human behaviour, we must understand human psychology.

Idle Theory rejects such psychologism on the grounds that humans are not actually free agents, much as they might wish to be, and much as they may have convinced themselves that they are. If, as social idleness has risen, a work ethic emerged that enjoined people to keep on working, even if it was no longer necessary, we may look around for non-psychological explanations for modern busyness.

And one non-psychological explanation of modern busyness might be that it has purely economic roots. In an egalitarian society, rising social idleness would simply result in everyone working less and less. But modern Western economies are not egalitarian, despite all attempts to make them more egalitarian. And such an inegalitarianism is most likely caused by some primary goods - useful tools - having artificially high prices, and quite possibly other goods having artificially low prices. High prices may be maintained through monopolies or oligopolies or trusts. And in this circumstance, money will tend to flow into the pockets of high price monopolists, and out of the pockets of pretty much everybody else. And this creates a circumstance where monopolists have excess money to spend over the basic necessities of life, and everyone else is in need of extra work to make up their monetary shortfall. The problem of a surfeit of money on the one hand, and a deficit on the other hand, is resolved by the money-surfeited monopolists buying the labour of the money-deficient, usually to make luxuries or provide personal services. It becomes a matter of necessity for the poor to work for the rich, and psychology doesn't come into it at all.

Seen in this way, modern Western societies are not busy because Western society has a strong work ethic, but because Western societies are inegalitarian, and it is this that generates both the demand and the supply of luxuries (e.g. Rolex watches) and luxury services (e.g. prostitution). And if anything needs fixing, it is not human psychology, but an economic malady. And the kinds of solution that are typically considered are firstly to ensure that monopolies and trusts are broken up so that benign competition is allowed to drive down prices, and secondly that redistributive taxation transfers money from the rich to the poor. There may well also be other remedies, at present unknown in a Western society which currently lacks any realistic economic science.

In which case what is really needed is economic science - real understanding of the logic of economic processes.

And, from this perspective, a work ethic is simply a post-hoc rationalisation of economic reality, by which individuals manage to convince themselves that they want to do what they must do, and thereby retain or restore their own sense of their moral freedom - a freedom they don't actually have, but which they believe they have. Hence those sorts of computer programmers, bartenders, architects, professors, who all insist that they would still program, bartend, design, and teach even if they weren't paid to do so.

Rather than human psychology being the principal causal agency, it might be better to regard it as consequence. Human beings are always finding themselves in an incomprehensible world that they are trying to comprehend, which means that they are always several steps behind the real world, rather than several steps ahead. Human psychology is playing catch up with reality. It is dream that adapts to reality, rather than reality to dream.

Yet it is not very surprising that human thought regularly starts with human experience, with dreams and hopes and fears. It is the starting point. But this is likely an anthropocentrism that reflects a lost geocentrism. The world is not the centre of the universe, and neither is the human mind.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Aug 2006