Home > Uncategorized > Human work

Human work

from Ken Zimmerman

Human work/employment/work relations are complex. In terms of muscular or nervous effort there is no distinction between agreeable and irksome activities, or between those undertaken for pleasure and those undertaken for pay. In many instances severe physical labor, combined with hardship and exposure are undertaken for pleasure by tourists, who even hire and pay guides, for example mountain climbing. Similarly, athletic sports, though often arduous are both professions and undertaken for recreation. A multitude of occupations ordinarily pursued for gain (compensation)–woodworking, gardening, painting, acting—are also pursued by many persons for the satisfaction involved with performing them. However, the greater part of the activity which humans pursue in attaining a living does not give pleasure. The chief reason seems to be that activity, in order to be effective toward attaining a living, must be steady, unvaried, and long-continued; and it must be, in an important sense, not free. The characteristic of most activities that are sources of pleasure in themselves is the element of freshness or novelty, and the absence of compulsion.

A portion of humans may find pleasurable the work they are obliged to perform. But research indicates that most work today is performed for the compensation it brings, and for no other reason. The economists tell us the compensation given is proportionate to the work performed. That work is dubbed irksome by most humans is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that a central problem of work, as defined since the industrial revolution is the conflict over “irksome work” and remuneration for such work.

But there is another view of work in western history. That view interprets work as a blessing and a source of cheerfulness and pride. Work is not a curse or a punishment. The ideal society is a land of Cockaigne, where all things come by nature and the need to work has vanished. A society in which there is satisfying work available for everybody. Work is the only sure route to human happiness, bringing health, contentment, and personal fulfilment. Work fulfills human life and provides inspiration.

Classical, then neoclassical, then neoliberal economists adopted the work is a curse view. That if possible, all humans who could would avoid it. Over 300 years they’ve spread this view as far as they could in the western world. Forced it on that world. This view has proven beneficial to western elites, including large capitalists and the wealthy; very detrimental for everyone else. In this view, the laboring classes worked only out of necessity. To avoid starvation, or to acquire additional goods that they coveted for their practical utility or as a means of keeping ahead of their neighbors. Without either stick or carrot, the inertial force of human indolence would surely reassert itself. In these terms, could time not working ever be a positive thing? But this view is now so ingrained, taken-for-granted in western societies that even so-called “liberals” can’t escape seeing work in its terms. For that reason (and others) proposals like those made in New York always provoke strong opposition. As the Republicans in Congresses express it, only those who work deserve social services, access to education, or citizenship. Even if those so described are disabled or caring for disabled persons or small children. Truthfulness of Republicans is always an uncertainty, for me. Whether these are honest sentiment, or simply a cover for serving the interests of their wealthy patrons and political comrades is a question we must continually ask.


  1. June 16, 2019 at 7:19 pm

    Concerning the two prior categories of anti-work arguments: “intrinsic badness arguments (which claimed that there was something intrinsically bad about work) and opportunity cost arguments (which claimed that even if work was okay, non-work was better)”

    Substitute “transaction” for “work” and I would agree with both arguments. My philosophical bent is utilitarian (specifically negative utilitarian) and both the above arguments are basically statements of rank-ordering of preferences. That which is better is preferable to that which is okay, for the exact same reasons that that which is not intrinsically bad is better than that which is. With me, it all boils down to rank ordering of preferences. Employment is what exists at the intersection of acts of work and acts of transaction. Employment is what transforms work from an end in itself to a means to an end. I like how S. Zoutewelle puts it:

    Sure we need to survive, but let’s acknowledge the desperation under this drive to take everything we do, are or think and try to get cash for it. It reminds me of a young child who shows her father a drawing. He playfully offers her a dollar for it and 15 minutes later she comes back with 5 more. What got lost there in between the first spontaneous artwork and the 5 subsequent calculated ones?

    The bottom line is this: In America today work is both a requirement and a privilege. It is a requirement because the world doesn’t owe you a living, and it is a privilege because the world doesn’t owe you a job.

    • Calgacus
      June 17, 2019 at 12:22 am

      No, the world certainly does owe you a job, in today’s societies and their economies. This has been repeatedly understood and then forgotten for centuries. A job is work for money, money is driven by state taxation. So a society and state that levies taxes, makes money is a necessity of life, but does not guarantee ajob to everyone able to work is sadistic and completely insane. It is making a demand of its people (taxation) and then preventing them from satisfying that demand.

      • June 17, 2019 at 5:50 pm

        The point you neglect to mention, Calgacus, is that interest is pprivatised taxation.

      • Calgacus
        June 17, 2019 at 9:23 pm

        It isn’t relevant. And not entirely true. Interest is a secondary, derived, purely financial, monetary phenomenon. Jobs and taxation and purchasing the necessities of life are fiscal, primary phenomena relating the real world and the financial world, that drive the system that finance and interest piggybacks on. The egalitarian power of sanity, of guaranteeing jobs is far greater than the private power of high private interest rates distorting wealth distribution.

      • Craig
        June 18, 2019 at 12:45 am

        Obsession over interest is the hallmark of the monetary crank. However, Dave’s observation about interest being a tax is quite right. The problem is not interest, but the monetary paradigm/pattern.

        Cultural hidebound-ness and failure to question orthodoxies are the primary hurdles to identifying a current paradigm and lack of willingness and/or failure to integrate truths, workabilities, applicabilities and the highest ethical considerations in opposing perspectives are the blocks to perceiving new ones.

  2. Craig
    June 16, 2019 at 8:56 pm

    The real question we need to be asking ourselves is: Do we owe parasitic private finance and their monopolistic paradigm of Debt Only guaranteed dominating control over everyone and every other actually legitimate economic business model? You have to be paradighmatically hypnotized to get that question wrong, and paradighmatically unconscious to not even ask it.

    The current monetary paradigm IS the economic problem. Think about it.

  3. Ikonoclast
    June 17, 2019 at 12:21 am

    Beyond satisfying basic necessities like the need for food, people are most highly motivated to work hard when they want to belong to a group and be esteemed by that group. I have worked hardest for my family and for social groups when the work was voluntary and/or the nature of my duty or obligation was willingly accepted in the first place.

    Where people work hard in workplaces it is mostly where they care about peer opinions and they care about genuinely helping people (if it is a human services job in health, welfare, education) or are doing something they find highly interesting or worthwhile.

    Where people slack off in workplaces it is mostly where they do not respect the hierarchical authority figures running the workplace and/or they do not respect the “mission” of the workplace and/or they consider that those in charge have the wrong strategy to meet the “mission” and finally treat the workers with disrespect. This sort of passive resistance from workers is understandable and it’s the kind of phenomenon that Marxian Autonomism identifies.

    Lazy free-riding people and criminal people do exist of course, but even many of these are made, not born. They are made by a system they cannot respect. They see the hypocrisy and inequity of the system.

    It’s worth noting that very clever, amoral free-riders become rentiers and capitalists if they can work to that outcome. They get the most “sit-down” money of anyone. “Sit-down” money is the term sometimes given to welfare for the poor but actually it is the rich and the corporates who get the most welfare (government assistance) and thus the most “sit-down” money.

  4. Robert Locke
    June 17, 2019 at 9:25 am

    I became a professor of history, because I called the shots mostly in what I taught. The history department told me I had to teach World Civilizations, but left it up to me to define what it meant, World Civilization, and what would be the content of the course/ That’s co-determination, an essential element — to have a voice in the shaping of a person’s work. Ray Marshlall, Carter’s Secretary of Labor, said that employee have no voice, especially since the advent of managerialism, in shaping the work process. Without this voice, humanization of he work process is impossible.

    • Craig
      June 17, 2019 at 5:53 pm

      Correct. Although valid individual voice and systemic choice are two different things. Until we change the monetary and financial paradigm there will be no choice but systemic economic instability. That’s what Minsky said. It’s also what Keen says. The problem is they apparently do not have a clue about new paradigms, their signatures or the process of wisdom-paradigm perception itself.

      Iconoclasm only brings one to identification of the paradigmatic problem. Integrating modes of thinking-abstraction and direct observation, analysis of past historical paradigm changes for their signatures and the resulting paradigm perception-wisdom is what is required.

    • July 6, 2019 at 12:43 am

      There was antimanagerialism in the Carter administration? I actually find that encouraging (depending on the details). While I’m no fan of managerialism, I always assumed antimanagerialism was a paleoconservative project.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.