George Walford: The End of Work (9)

IC15 contained an article entitled “The End of Work,” and since then each issue has included a follow-up piece. Most of these have reported technological advances reducing the amount of human labour needed to produce a given quantity of goods, and this is perhaps tending to give the impression that the point of the series is no more than that. It may be well to recap.

In the physical sciences “work” means any expenditure of energy, but in social affairs the term carries a more restricted meaning; many energetic activities – amateur sports for example – do not rank as work, the word is used for activities, whether calling for much physical effort or not, which contribute to, the establishment, maintenance and functioning of society. In the orthodox view work is more than just a way of getting food, clothing, shelter and the rest; it is valuable in itself, it is something we all need if we are to lead satisfying lives. One author has defined this view as “the myth of vocation,” saying it “suggests that work is the primary source of self-definition, psychic integration, and happy fulfilment available to a person.” (Ruth Danon, Work in the English Novel, the Myth of Vocation Croom Helm, 1985, p. 1).

Ideological study suggests a different view. There is, undoubtedly, a large group for which active participation in the operation of society is a necessary part of the good life, but there is also another group, of comparable size, which has its interest focused upon personal and family affairs to the exclusion of concern with the larger society, and to this group work appears as a burden they would be better and happier without. This is the group identified exclusively with the primal ideology (in technical jargon, the protostatic).

All of us enter adult society with this ideology. Some move on to the next ideology in the range and some of those to the next, and so on; it is with that first step (to the epistatic) that the identification with work appears. From then on it is indeed a necessity, but not for those who have not effected this transition.

Wherever the primal ideology dominates work is an unwanted intrusion. Hunter-gatherers lead lives which are often strenuous, but their energies are expended for the benefit of themselves, their family or immediate group; there is not that acceptance of purposes other than one’s own that turns effort into work. Children do not work except under compulsion, and even among the adherents of sophisticated ideologies, whenever relaxation permits the deeper inclinations to appear work is notable only by its absence; it plays little part in dreams or folk-tales. The indications are clear: work is not a natural requirement but one that appears in the course of ideological development; the large numbers (of all classes and all status-groups) who remain identified with the primal ideology do not require work; they engage in it only under pressure and would lead happier, more satisfying lives without it.

To accept this is to change one’s view of our present social condition. The development of technology, particularly of computerisation and automation, is reducing the demand for human labour; advanced societies now are able to maintain their people at a standard of living which, by historical standards, is very high indeed, even though a large proportion of them do not work. The demand for human muscle began to weaken with the introduction of the steam engine and now much of the work formerly done by highly-trained professionals – doctors, lawyers, physical scientists, teachers, mathematicians – is being taken over by electronics. It is doubtless true that some of the unemployment now affecting industrialised society is a result of the “normal” trade cycle; as slump turns into boom some of the unemployed will be taken up. But the indications are that underlying this cyclic movement is a steady trend toward “structural” unemployment; many of those now unemployed will never work again and their number seems likely to increase. On the orthodox view this opens gloomy prospects; if large numbers of people are deprived of something for which they have a deep inherent need they are likely to make their displeasure felt.

But this expectation rests on the assumption that more or less everybody needs work for a satisfying life. When it is recognised that a very large group – it may even be a majority of the population – is ideologically inclined away from work (or at least not towards it) the aspect of the future changes. The continuing presence of large numbers without work ceases to be an indication of trouble ahead and begins to look, instead, like the first gleam of a coming dawn. We have the prospect of a social condition better than has yet been known.

At present, to be unemployed is to suffer both deprivation and stigma, but this is a convention and conventions can be altered. The few who now own enough to be able to live without working are envied rather than despised, showing that it is not necessary to work in order to be respected, and technology is rapidly making it easy for those inclined towards work to produce plenty for everybody. At present the distinction between the two groups, those inclined towards work and those inclined away from it, is not recognised, with the result that there are many working who would rather not do so and others without work who feel themselves deprived of it. Society is becoming able to offer each of its members the choice, to work or not to work according to inclination. As that happens so work becomes a pleasure and the absence of work a freedom.

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ASKED how he had managed to turn out so many books the successful author replied that he had done it by working half-days. “And,” he added, “it doesn’t matter which twelve hours you work.”

from Ideological Commentary 23, July 1986.