Work As Obedience: Historical Reflections for a Post-Work Future

by James Fisher

31 July 2016

Both the right and the left claim to represent ‘hard working people’; the ideal citizens in whose interests ‘tough decisions must be made’ and indolent ‘scroungers’ must be castigated. Your moral worthiness and legitimacy as a citizen seems bound up with and measured by your capacity and willingness to work hard. But the ‘work ethic’ as we know it today is the product of centuries of historical subordination. As politicians vindicate hard work, whilst some social theorists dream of a ‘post-work’ future, it’s useful to take a look back at the evolution of the work ethic. It can lend us insights about how our society organises work – and how it might be overcome.

The ‘Law of Subordination’.

In 1724, writer Daniel Defoe agonised about the threat to ‘the great Foundation, the Rule of Subordination, which I say is essential to all Family-Oeconomy’. Defoe and many of his contemporaries believed that the behaviour of insolent and rebellious servants posed a risk to the natural order things. If the servant did not remember his or her proper station and act with due obedience, then

“the Poor will be Rulers over the Rich, and the Servants be Governors of their Masters… Order is inverted, Subordination ceases, and the World seems to stand with the Bottom upward.”

This illustrates a neglected strand of the history of attitudes to work: the social and political belief in subordination, that assigned labour and obedience to some whilst assigning leisure and mastery to others. It’s notably absent from some critiques of our modern attitudes and practices around work.

It is usually agreed that there are stubborn cultural obstacles, as well as economic ones, to be overcome in order to achieve a reduction of work, or its abolition. These can be traced back through a history of the ‘work ethic’, largely centred upon Max Weber’s thesis regarding the influence of Protestant beliefs upon the value of hard work (advanced in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism). He claimed that the rise of the ‘work ethic’, a cultural norm that valued hard graft and thrift, allowed for the steady accumulation of capital into the hands of a merchant class. It was, in short, the cultural beginnings of the capitalist work ethic that is these days short hand for moral worth. Only “hard working” families, we hear, are deserving. In these accounts, the historical focus often narrows onto a personal work ethic, rather than the way in which values of work embody assumptions about the hierarchical social relations in which work is performed. The problem lies in how the individual responds to society, and not the society that demands a response. Occasionally this can lead to critiques of the work ethic (and proposals for resisting it) adopting a limited individualist form that disguises some of the fundamental issues for any post-work politics.

In order to unseat this limited analysis, it’s worth dwelling on the history of ideologies surrounding work before the emergence of industrial capitalism. It draws attention to the social aspects relevant to the development of the modern work ethic in Western societies. In short, the practice of work has historically involved an element of subordination and demanded a corresponding ethic of obedience. The problem of domination is often discussed in terms of contemporary politics, but it’s helpful to situate these concerns within a longer timeline.


The personal work ethic.

Let’s begin with a brief look at Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’ recent book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, which offers an excellent distillation of recent thinking around the end of work. In a discussion of their proposal for a ‘diminishment of the work ethic’, Srnicek and Williams note the historical origins of our contemporary work ethic in religious beliefs most explicitly Protestantism in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. These valued labour and painful toil as a route to a better afterlife. A secular version of the ethic gradually emerged that emphasised earthly rewards, leading to the contemporary idea of work as a primary means for self-fulfilment. But the central assumption remains that rewards must be gained through suffering. This is a narrative similar to Weber’s. However, in isolation it can encourage a focus on the individual’s relation to work disconnected from its social relations.

Curiously, it pushes us towards similar problems and anxieties that first gave rise to the religious work ethic. For early Puritans, work was valued as a means of keeping the godly busy and minimising the opportunity for sinful behaviour. Methodical labour was the best way to avoid temptation. Hence, the work ethic was driven by fear and suspicion about our own desires; about what we do when left alone to ourselves, unoccupied and unsupervised. We rehearse these anxieties in discussions about the ‘end of work’ by circling around the question: what will we do with our time? Or, what is to be done with time saved from gains in productivity? This is manifest in the work of André Gorz and his argument for a ‘politics of time’ in Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism (1980). It was perhaps most famously expressed by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s, when he suggested that a world of reduced work would expose the real ‘permanent problem’ of our species: ‘how to occupy the leisure [won]… to live wisely and agreeably well’. (As an aside, I think this problem of leisure is occasionally misconceived. “Work” and “leisure” form a binary pair, so if you get rid of one then you get rid of the other. In a strict sense a “post-work” society would also be a “post-leisure” society.)

A similar concern arises in a recent article by Mareile Pfannebecker and J.A. Smith. They rightly point out that post-work theory inevitably smuggles in prescriptive notions of how humans should live, since any general vision of self-determination often reduces to rather specific notions of what constitutes valuable, self-fulfilling activity. The problem is: whose criteria are we using? Since our desires are never entirely our own (as psychoanalysists would have it), they cannot serve as a stable and universal basis for organising activity in a post-work society. So at some point, post-work theorists must confront this problem of desire. Now, while this is radically different to the seventeenth-century Puritan problem of desire, it notably operates within a similar individualist framework. It indicates how our thinking about post-work futures can become limited. Just as the work-ethic is a problem lodged in the individual, so are the desires that hold the key to its transcendence. Once again, we loose sight of the social.

The tendency to focus on the history of work as an individual moral practice turns our attention away from the history of work as a collective ethical obligation. To help re-balance our approach, let’s re-visit the history of attitudes to work and identify the social dimensions of the work ethic.

Labour and subordination.

The ideal of Western aristocratic culture since the Greeks is usually characterised as one of abundant leisure, free from manual labour to pursue a virtuous or heroic life, made possible by the subordination of large classes of people (women, serfs, slaves). However, their emphasis on leisure is often overstated and ignores the many ways Greek and Roman citizens assigned positive value and virtue to certain forms of work. Similarly, in medieval Europe, the primary distinction between the nobility and the peasantry was not necessarily between leisure and labour, but between the dominant and the subordinate.

In the medieval vision of the social order, the population was divided between priests, warriors and peasants – those who prayed, those who fought, and those who laboured. It was believed that tasks were allocated based on position in the social order, and labour was the duty for the bulk at the bottom. In theory this remained the template into the sixteenth century, even if the economic reality had become far more complex. In 1509 Edmund Dudley stated that the common people should not begrudge the fact they were born “to live in labor and pain, and the most part of their time with the sweat of their face”. Labour was therefore explicitly embedded within a fixed system of hierarchy and inequality, shaped by relations of domination and subordination.

This social order was both natural and divinely ordained. Labourers were expected to toil in obedience to God. During the Reformation, labour as a ‘calling’ became increasingly central as a religious observance through the ideas of the theologians Martin Luther and John Calvin, but in many ways this was only an elaboration of the medieval Christian tradition that demanded everyone had a duty to work in stations assigned by God. Those who were not fixed in a routine of work (for whatever reason) were subject to harsh legal repression. The sixteenth-century anxiety about ‘masterless men’ captures how work was understood to be crucial to the maintenance of social hierarchy. Thousands of landless people were seeping out from the social structure, living under no master and surviving through a mix of ad hoc wages, begging and petty theft.

While the social order would become increasingly complicated and fractured from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the basic medieval tenets were relatively enduring. The seventeenth-century saw the development of more sophisticated rationalisations for inequality to subtend this social order. Notable among these was the economic doctrine of the ‘utility of poverty’, which held that poverty was a necessity to encourage industrious behaviour. The structural dependence of the rich upon this industrious behaviour of the poor was widely acknowledged. The novelist Henry Fielding put it most clearly in 1751:

“To be born for no other purpose but to consume the fruits of the earth is the privilege… of very few. The greater part of mankind must sweat hard to produce them….”

 The virtue of ‘industriousness’ that obsessed writers in the eighteenth century implied that the worker accepted their subordinate position: conversely, to be idle was to be disobedient. This is clearly exhibited by William Hogarth’s series of engravings Industry and Idleness (1747), which depicts the contrasting fortunes of two apprentices and traces the affinity between industry, order and duty.

Masters and servants.

One of the most profound social changes during this period was the overall increase in the number of people engaging in wage labour. According to the standard liberal narrative, this brought about a fundamental transition in the form of work from status to contract: from labour performed according to social status to labour performed according to a negotiated contract. Today, the employment contract is formally understood as a voluntary agreement between equals and supposedly free from the previous hierarchical relations that had structured work. Yet, as Karl Marx and many others since have repeatedly exposed, such formal equality was and remains a gross illusion.

Many historical narratives exaggerate the extent to which this move from status to contract represented genuine progress for the labourers themselves. Political commentators were clear in the seventeenth century that wage labourers were not free. The historian Christopher Tomlins, among others, has challenged the legal history associated with the status-to-contract narrative, arguing that the defining relationship in the development of English and American labour law was between master and servant, not employer and employee. The master-servant relation was part of a series that governed the patriarchal household, replicated between husband and wife, and parent and child. This master-servant relation was explicitly one of power and domination. Servants were under the authority of their masters and acted according to their will like mere extensions of the master’s body.

The law of master and servant was the framework for labour throughout the colonies in the British Empire for hundreds of years. Subordination obviously reached its logical and violent extreme in the slave plantations of Britain’s colonies, but it remained fundamental when ‘freed slaves’ were bound to compulsory labour as “apprentices”. Master and servant legislation was repeatedly used to enforce racial separation, and continued to operate in places such as Kenya into the twentieth century. The lessons Britain learned in sustaining their slave-owning society were later applied in industrial England.

The service relation became the model for the wage relation. The wage labourer may have formally entered a contract ‘voluntarily’, but in doing so they subjected themselves to the authority of the master-employer and occupied the position of a servant for the period of hire. The subordinate position of wage labourers was explicitly written into labour legislation, and penal sanctions were only removed in the late nineteenth century. Master-servant law and sanctions were used to regulate the labor market (with offences for absenteeism, desertion, etc.) and ensure there was a pool of available wage labourers. It functioned to restrict any freedom a market in labour might give to the labourer; to keep people in their place and maintain the social order.

 The traditional hierarchical relations that had governed domestic life were effectively projected onto the employment law governing the labour market. While political economists constructed the ideal of a liberated and self-sufficient worker, actual workers were both legally and materially locked into a subordinate position. This relation of dominance allowed the employer to exercise almost total authority over working conditions.
 The early exclusion of women from the world of wage labour and the de-valuing of women’s reproductive labour has been well documented. But perhaps less attention has been given in histories of work to the paid work that women did perform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often as domestic servants. Not only was the childcare and household work that women performed rendered largely invisible as work, when women did enter the market place it was most often through the service relation.

Hence the modern culture of work developed within a rigid hierarchical society, in which the assumption that one’s social position conferred a duty to labour was deeply woven into the work ethic. To work hard was at the same time to know your place. Hence the history of work overlaps with the history of obedience — a theme explored in more depth in Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure (2013).

Today, work retains this sense of obedience (if only implicitly), of toiling under abstract social obligations that are specified in practice by the wealthy and powerful. It manifests itself in the belief that we have a duty to work hard regardless of both the specific ends and the conditions of work itself. It finds expression in David Cameron’s speeches when he appeals to people “who work hard and do the right thing”.

A critique of domination and exclusion.

These historical reflections add weight to the contemporary political critique that work is not only a site of exploitation and alienation, but also domination. In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), Kathi Weeks describes how domination is exercised in multiple ways: through the conditions that force entry into contracts, the unequal terms of such contracts, and the lived experience of labour under the command of a employer. Weeks also draws attention to the contradiction within the work ethic, which simultaneously promises self-reliance while demanding that individuals ‘submit to command and control’. In other words, there is a conflict between the ideal of autonomy and the reality of submission.

Similarly, an attention to the power relations that have historically governed work supports a critique of how the work ethic acts as an instrument of exclusion and discrimination today, primarily through gendered and radicalised labour throughout a globalised capitalism. Post-work theory must confront how the work ethic is deeply entangled in structures of domination otherwise we risk, in Srnicek’s and William’s words, ‘a neocolonial and racist post-work world’ or ‘a misogynist post-work world’.

If history tells us anything…

The sheer diversity of attitudes to work in pre-industrial Europe makes any attempt at a simple history impossible. But if we can identify any continuity, perhaps the clearest is the obligation for the lowest social groups to work hard, which plays out again and again in different contexts. The work ethic has long been an ethic of obedience. Recognising that the history of the Western work ethic was not only about an individual’s relation to their work, but the relation between individuals, prompts us to analyse how this is manifested today. In challenging the work ethic, we must challenge the hidden premise of subordination as well as suffering.

Alongside the problem of leisure is the problem of authority. My own view is that the problem of what to do with our time can be exaggerated if framed as a problem for the individual. We (globally) are not short of needs to be met, but in desperate need of time and energy to care for others, our environment and ourselves. The greater problem seems to be how we relate to each other and each other’s activities if we ever break free from the coercive conditions of modern work. For what and whom will we engage in productive, caring and creative activity?

Image: ‘Farmers in the delivery of their taxes to the landlords’. Woodcut, 15th Century. Source: Wien, Bildarchiv der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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