Selling the work ethic
By Sharon Beder
Scribe Publications, 2001
292 pages, $30pb
REVIEWED BY ALISON DELLIT
Labour productivity in the First World has increased so dramatically since 1948 that North America could now reproduce the same standard of living in less than half the production time. If averaged out, that would mean a 20-hour work week.
But this is not the direction that capitalism has taken. Instead, as Sharon Beder's new book mercilessly dissects, First World workers are working longer hours, for a lesser share than they received then.
In 1945, 44% of workers worked a 40-hour week — in 1998 only 24% did, and 30% worked more than 49 hours a week. And while average "living standards" have risen, real wages have declined and the gap between rich and poor has sharply widened.
In Selling the work ethic, Beder sets out to unpick the culture of capitalist work — and the mixture of ideology and economic coercion that is used to maintain ridiculously high levels of production and push productivity up at the expense of workers' health and wages.
Work, Beder points out, has not always held the intrinsic value that capitalism accords it. In early slave-owning societies, for example, work was considered harmful to the development of mental clarity.
In feudal Europe, the population was divided into three categories — those who fought (the ruling class), those who prayed and, lowest of all, those who worked.
Medieval Catholicism emphasised the stability of the social order, and the importance of everyone sticking to the role assigned to them at birth. Salvation in the afterlife depended on religious devotion — that could be shown through religious penances or purchased as holy "indulgences".
But with the rise of capitalist relations of production, Protestant ideology challenged many of the central tenets of Catholicism. Early Protestants — in particular John Calvin — argued that God had predestined who would be saved and who would not.
Salvation could not purchased, but God's "elect" could be recognised through their material success — success which would be achieved by hard work and Godly assistance.
Calvinism, which was adopted by the new merchant and banking classes, began the identification of money-making with holiness that is still a central part of US ideology. (Ever wondered why the Yanks print "In God we trust" on their bank-notes?)
This identification, however, brought with it a new obsession with productive economic activity — and a new glorification of work. And as commodity-production became the main focus of the workday, work became increasingly separated from day-to-day material needs.
Arguments that work is, in itself, a beneficial activity were used to justify a newer, rigid work pattern being forced onto workers.
Beder traces the development and adaptation of work-is-good ideology throughout the history of capitalism. She exposes the continuing relationship between the needs of a non-working ruling class, and the ideologies used to sustain them.
She argues forcefully that values which modern societies take for granted — that a hard worker is a better human being and that a person's occupation is central to their identity — are creations of the last 500 years.
Although Beder argues that it is not important to take a position on whether pro-capitalist ideology preceded capitalist relations (Max Weber's position) or was a result of the development of those relations (Karl Marx's position), in a modern context she explicitly draws out the involvement of major corporations in promoting values which help them to exploit.
It is not just the work-is-good ethic that Beder savages. She also traces the development of capitalist ideologies justifying wealth inequality and the existence of mass poverty.
She argues that the myth of the "self-made man" was developed in early capitalism to convince workers that the only thing preventing them from eventually owning capital was laziness. The development of "social Darwinism" buttressed this myth, by explaining mass poverty in terms of inferior survival skills.
Beder connects these ideas directly to contemporary neo-liberal ideology which presents the unemployed as lazy and cheaters. Drawing on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, she exposes the lie that unemployment is caused by anything other than a lack of jobs, and then contrasts this reality to the rhetoric of the mainstream media, the Coalition government and the Labor opposition.
Beder also dissects ideologies promoting mass consumerism. She argues that, as capitalism provided less and less opportunities for class mobility, social status is increasingly transferred to possession ownership — the dream of owning your own workplace is replaced by the dream of owning your own Porsche.
This fosters a culture of over-the-top consumption, encouraging workers to buy products that they don't need. She also examines the role of the credit industry in fostering this, and profiting from it.
In specific sections of the book, Beder picks apart how these ideas are transmitted through the education system and the welfare state. She also exposes the increasingly direct control that corporations exert over educational institutions.
Although posited in a historical context, much of Beder's book is concerned with the here and now. She marshals an array of statistics to prove that the drive to maintain high growth rates has come at the expense of the health and desires of the working class.
The academic presentation or the historical structure should not deter progressive activists. The contemporary statistics and analysis alone make this book a valuable resource. But it is Beder's attempt to present a holistic analysis of the structure and functioning of the workforce which makes this book a truly fascinating read.
There are important, and frustrating, omissions. The most important of these is the Third World — in her drive to argue that production is far too excessive for human need, Beder neglects to explain how the needs of the Third World could be met, or even to analyse why they are not.
Nevertheless, Beder succeeds in her key aim — to challenge modern assumptions that work has value separate to meeting needs — and carries off a stunning and detailed analysis of the devious manipulations of modern capitalism.