1.1. The Ideology of Work
Work for economic ends has not always been the dominant activity of mankind. It has only been dominant across the whole of society since the advent of industrial capitalism, about two hundred years ago. Before capitalism, people in pre-modern societies, in the Middle Ages and the Ancient World, worked far less than they do nowadays, as they do in the precapitalist societies that still exist today. In fact, the difference was such that the first industrialists, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had great difficulty getting their workforce to do a full day’s work, week in week out. The first factory bosses went bankrupt precisely for this reason.
That is to say that what the British and the Germans call `the work ethic’ and the `work-based society’ are recent phenomena.
It is a feature of `work-based societies’ that they consider work as at one and the same time a moral duty, a social obligation and the route to personal success. The ideology of work assumes that,
– the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be;
– those who work little or not at all are acting against the interests of the community as a whole and do not deserve to be members of it;
– those who work hard achieve social success and those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.
This ideology is still deeply ingrained and hardly a day passes without some politician, be he Right – or left-wing, urging us to work and insisting that work is the only way to solve the present crisis. If we are to `beat unemployment’, they add, we must work more, not less.
1.2. The Crisis of the Work Ethic
In actual fact the work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life.
The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.
Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. The present crisis has stimulated technological change of an unprecedented scale and speed: `the micro-chip revolution’. The object and indeed the effect of this revolution has been to make rapidly increasing savings in labour, in the industrial, administrative and service sectors. Increasing production is secured in these sectors by decreasing amounts of labour. As a result, the social process of production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time basis. The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation and workbased society is thrown into crisis.