Issue 137: We're Made For More Than Disturbing Dirt
The pandemic has altered how we work, but our fundamental relationship with work has not changed.
As I consider the variety of work I do on a daily and weekly basis–work for which I receive payment and not, work I do for pure enjoyment, and work I’d rather not do–it strikes me that most of what feels off about it all, comes from having to do it. It is the sensation that someone or something is looking over my shoulder with a critical eye waiting impatiently for me to fulfil some prior commitment or other. And as this sensation of external pressure weighs on my consciousness, I wonder was it always this way. It seems to me, and I’ve written on this many times before, that with the advent of industrialisation came the widespread imperative to work under command. Although, I will accept that work may have always involved a relatively flush party and another willing to work for some of that gold. With that in mind, perhaps regular joe soap workers have never been free to direct their own work.
Being somewhat obsessed with the nature and value of daily work as I am, and why we seem to have such a dichotomous relationship with it, I bought a few books on the history of work. One is The Oxford Book of Work1, an anthology that draws upon a range of views and experiences of work across the centuries from writers, poets, scientists, clergy, journalists, and laypeople. It’s an account of work over the entire spectrum of life from youth through to retirement contrasting, as the author says, the delights of occupation and the harshness of compulsory labour. Some accounts suggest the glory and honour of work. Others, such as Oscar Wilde, suggest work is mentally and morally injurious. He said of manual labour;
“And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.”
“Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.” What a great line. And he’s right, to an extent. I would like to believe that no matter what work we do, there is the opportunity to do it well and with enthusiasm and enjoy it. Manual labour under the force of our own mental steam is not arduous and undignified. On the contrary, I have found it to be some of the most satisfying work there is. However, when under the command of another then it takes on an entirely different colour. The challenge then is to do the work for its own sake without the promise of reward or applause. This represents the epitome of human achievement, and apparently, in agreement, Rudyard Kipling put it as follows in his 1892 title, The Seven Seas2;
And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are.
Nevertheless, many people are bored and untested in their work. The fun in work is in being pressed to the limits of our ability, but if we’d rather not be there in the first place, then it’s hard to become engrossed to the extent that D.H. Lawrence implied when he wrote of Work in 1929;
There is no point in work unless it absorbs you like an absorbing game.
If it doesn’t absorb you, if it’s never any fun, don’t do it.
Easier said than done, perhaps. Many of us fall into jobs without much conscious decision making on our part. We need a few quid to live and to buy nice things–that’s the primary motivation–so we take whatever work there is. An apprenticeship, a sales job in a shoe shop, a few hours behind the counter in the local newsagent; whatever is going. It’s what I did. I took a job I was told to take, and although I wanted to do other things, I happened to enjoy the work and did it to the best of my ability. I was happy on one level to be out of school and to be treated as an adult, although I was little more than a skivvy for the first few years. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to get out. Work didn’t feel like an imposition until much later.
Working alone brings me the most enjoyment. Even when I’m in the company of others at work, I mostly keep to myself. Nobody is looking over my shoulder these days; there’s no pressure to perform. So I go about my business at my own pace. Sometimes I go fast, sometimes slow, but always under my own mental steam. There’s great freedom and peace in that. Lillian B. Rubin, a 28-year-old trucker, seemed to be on the same page when in 1972 he said;
There’s a good feeling when I’m out there on the road. There ain’t nobody looking over your shoulder and watching what you’re doing. When I worked in a warehouse, you’d be punching in and punching out, and bells ringing all the time. On those jobs, you’re not thinking, you’re just doing what they tell you. Sure, now I’m expected to bring her in on time, but a couple of hours one way or the other don’t make no difference. And there ain’t nobody but me to worry about how I get her there.
Lillian Rubin spoke about freedom and autonomy, being largely in command of his own work and being at one with his sense of self in his daily activity. It is to be treated like a human being and not like a machine. This is the freedom we are all looking for in our daily work. It’s just so fulfilling to be in charge of our own daily activities, but very few of us can say that we have that personal autonomy crucial for happiness at work. The need to survive often takes over and dictates our lot. So we leave our children, join the lines of traffic and go to work at jobs we’d rather not.
The structure of daily work is changing for many people, with technology taking a further foothold and more of our time spent working remotely. But I wonder if these changes will be for the better. I am hopeful, if not a bit cynical, about it all. Employers are reaching further into our personal space in many ways, and there seems little to halt their advance. After all, the pandemic has made it necessary. The roads are busy with commuter traffic again too, and taking into account the upheaval of the working lives of so many, it seems that not much has really changed. Our attitudes to work are still largely comprised of the idea that we work for them, so we must do what we’re told.
As we contemplate a workplace utopia where machines do the work and devote our time to personal advancement, we imagine that we will gain the freedom to do what we really want in the future. Maybe, but I honestly can’t see while Capitalist ideologies dictate economics and social structure. While we remain consumers of things rather than producers, things only get worse. The utopic workplace future is not a new idea either. Over the last few centuries, people have imagined an idyllic existence where we wouldn’t be concerned for work but rather leisure.
“The desirable medium is one which mankind have often known how to hit: when they labour, they do it with all their might, and especially with all their mind; but to devote to labour, for mere pecuniary gain, fewer hours in the day, fewer days in the year, and fewer years of life.”
- John Stewart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848
“The chief model by which labour is likely to be made less irksome is not by a change in its character or its intrinsic attractiveness, but by a diminution in its severity. It will probably be lightened by the increasing perfection of tools, and the increasing use of machinery; though on the other hand, it may be that from this cause its monotony will become no less, perhaps greater.”
F.W. Taussig, Principles of Economics, 1911
Quite insightful from Mr Taussig. Compulsory working hours may, on the whole, have reduced, and conditions for workers may have improved. But wages have, in effect, been on a decline since the ‘70s, and in countries such as the US, the number of working hours are greater now than in the 1960s. As technology has advanced, offering the fulfilment of John Meynard Keynes’ promise, work appears to have become more demanding. Keynes wrote in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren3 in 1930;
Thus for the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem–how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely, agreeably and well. The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance […] For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We will do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines.
However, Mr Keynes utopia consisting of a 15-hour workweek didn’t consider our propensity to snatch captivity from the jaws of freedom. Nor did he take weight of the ever-expanding greed of the few and their desire to control and profit at the disadvantage of millions of others. The operators of the corporate machine give up only the minimum they are required under legislation and where they offer more, you must give them your soul.
I don’t believe the future of work will give us workplaces that reflect the needs of human beings, I mean, really. While we have hierarchical systems where the vast majority of profits go to the smallest number of people human beings will remain merely cogs–disposable and replaceable. In this, the capitalist system is flawed. It makes machines of men and women, and nothing has changed in this regard over the centuries. We’re still writing about the assault on the masses that is working life. There are, of course, exceptions, but they do not refute the rule–human beings are blagarded by work, and all efforts to change things are merely a sticking plaster on an open wound.
Work can be pleasurable, fulfiling, and rewarding, but we can’t sit around and wait for employers to make it so. We must do it for ourselves. I’ll leave you with these words from French Philosopher Simone Weil from Oppression and Liberty4, 1955;
“To the conflict set up by money between buyers and sellers of labour has been added another conflict, set up by the very means of production, between those who have the machine at their disposal, and those who are at the disposal of the machine.”
An Investigation of Daily Work
This summer, I’m commencing a little experiment, an ad-hoc investigation, you might say, into feelings about work. I’m taking the vicinity where I live, Dublin 7, and I’m going out to capture the thoughts and feelings of work from ordinary people in an area of Dublin called Stoneybatter. I’ll be selecting a variety of professions and having a conversation about their work. Hopefully, I’ll have some good audio to share with you. More on that very soon.
Hey, thanks for being here. This was Sunday Letters, the free weekly newsletter on life, work, & the pursuit of happiness. The weekly issue is free and has been since its inception in 2015. I enjoy writing it, and if you enjoy it too, please consider becoming a supporter. You’ll continue to get Sunday Letters along with these additions.
Thomas, K., & Keith, T. (Eds.). (1999). The Oxford book of work. Oxford University Press, USA
Kipling, R. (1907). The seven seas. Methuen.
Keynes, J. M. (2010). Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. In Essays in persuasion (pp. 321-332). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Weil, S. (2013). Oppression and liberty. Routledge.