The winners of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XIX ‘Life’ are: Winner: Australian academic and last quarter’s runner-up Phiona Stanley for…
The family is worried. Suggestions are passed between siblings, and aunts and uncles are eager to set things right. What about doing this job? Has he applied here? What about a bit of unpaid work to get some experience?
Sacha surfs twice a day by taking a small dingy out to unsettled waters. While the world’s workers are busy serving coffee, driving forklifts, emailing clients and conducting seminars on workplace practices, Sacha is watching the tail of a dolphin glide effortlessly through the skin of the sea.
Work is our vehicle for self-realisation. Work is our clock, compass and itinerary, informing us where to be and what to do when we get there. It’s a social classification system, employed by others to gauge our intelligence, creativity, wealth and likely political leanings.
When someone doesn’t have a job, it’s disquieting. We can’t place them on the radar of industrial society. Work is equally disquieting for philosophers because the topic of work unleashes a host of unspoken issues around slavery, class inequality, and the mass-production economy.
Why do we work? And what’s the difference between meaningful work and useless toil?
Philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that the modern age had glorified labour to such a degree that we have become a “labouring society”. No higher or more meaningful activities are actively pursued because work is it; we’re either labouring, or we are consuming the fruits of other people’s labour, otherwise known as leisure. This is life on Factory Earth.
Since Factory Earth spins on the axis of work on one side and consumption on the other, Sacha – who neither works nor consumes – is what’s commonly referred to as a dropout. Sacha does not contribute to Factory Earth; he does not grease the wheel of the machine, and is therefore regarded as useless.
Anthropologists believe that work can be fulfilling for its own sake. They point to the fact that we’ve always worked at something. In feudal times we worked on the land to survive. As artisans and craftspeople we produced all sorts of wares that we utilised in our homes or sold to others at bazaars. Mother Earth does not just hand life over to us on a platter. We’ve got to work for the takings.
But something happened to ‘work’ when Mother Earth became Factory Earth in the 1800s; when work transformed from ‘working for yourself ’ to ‘working for someone else’. Indeed, once everyday folk could no longer toil on common land to grow food to survive, and when mass production in factories wiped out home and domestic businesses almost overnight, the great bulk of people had to work for someone else (that is, for the factory- and the land-owning classes). The result is that most individuals today are born into serfdom to Factory Earth.
In From Alienation to Addiction, history professor Peter Stearns writes: “With factory industry, most people, for the first time in human history outside of some forms of slavery, could never aspire to work without direct supervision.”
There is a quiet undercurrent in modern life, a yearning for a time when we worked with Mother Earth to survive, to build, and to create. It rises to the surface during such activities as gardening, home renovations, cooking, and hammering things together in the shed – small moments of creation, a peaceful retreat from the cacophony of Factory Earth in operation.
Immanuel Kant said, “the hand is the window on to the mind.” Modern science concurs; the hand, and its varied ways of moving, gripping and functioning, affects how we think. Darwin linked greater dexterity of the hand to greater brain capacity in humans. Working with our hands, touching, moulding material between our fingers, thumb and palm, is what sets homo faber (man the maker) apart from other animals.
In The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett discusses architects who, like craftspeople, used to employ their hands in the creation of spaces for people to reside.
Today there’s a software program called computer-aided design (CAD), which is in near universal use in offices around the globe. Before CAD software was invented, architects would draw, make a model, and draw again, a fine circularity that was often repeated many times over. Today, a computer program, the CAD software, undertakes this activity for the architect. “Once points are plotted on-screen, the algorithms do the drawing,” writes Sennett. The architects hands are removed from the project.
Sennett also mentions physicist Victor Weisskopt, who worked with students exclusively with computers. “When you show me that result,” said Weisskopt to a student, “the computer understands the answer, but I don’t think you understand the answer.” Indeed, while machines can learn from their experience because algorithms are rewritten through data feedback, the human physically punching in the data may not. “When the head and the hand are separate, it is the head that suffers,” writes Sennett. Machinery can deprive people of gaining skills through concrete hands-on learning and repetition, and when this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer, he writes.
The modern workplace rarely offers workers a sense of the whole. Marketers do the marketing; accounts people do the accounts; sales people do the selling. Workers are performing parts of the mechanised whole, rather than, as in the craftsman’s time, being the sole creators. An accounts person cannot wander down to the marketing department, just as most sales people have little knowledge about the real workings of the products they sell. Broadly-skilled workers require too much training, and therefore become far too valuable. The modern age, just like the products it produces, demands the cheap, throwaway worker.
And it takes its toll on us. The father of modern economics Adam Smith thought it would lead to “mental mutilation” in workers. This soft process of deskilling would make workers ignorant and dull. No other animal repeats specialised and narrow tasks over and over again. Social thinker William Morris, a figure in the English Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 1800s, concurred: “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.”
The craft movement, in contrast, valued processes that enhanced the life of the worker. Crafts retained the individual stamp and creativity of the maker – decades of training, a build-up of specialised knowledge. Every handcraft item was imbued with what social thinker John Ruskin called “the hand and eye of the worker”. The purpose of artisan work was not to maximise profits, but to enrich experience.
Interestingly, the division of labour, which is the operating system of Factory Earth, is a recent experiment in the human laboratory. According to economist Friedrich Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society, it was put in place simply because it was convenient at the time. “Man has been able to develop that division of labour on which our civilisation is based because he happened to stumble upon a method which made it possible. Had he not done so, he might still have developed some other, altogether different, type of civilisation, something like the ‘state’ of the termite ants, or some other altogether unimaginable type.”
Work in antiquity, in comparison, was very much integrated into life. There was no sharp distinction between work and non-work hours. People often ate, slept and raised their children in the places where they worked. Work was often performed in groups, mixing labour with socialising. Work, especially for artisans, was wrapped up in their identity and skills were passed between generations – a source of great pride.
“French peasants,” writes Stearns, “often conducted veillées, or evening gatherings, where by lamplight a group would work together, exchanging conversation, perhaps even songs, and sometimes dining together as well. These occasions drove home the extent to which traditional rural work often – by more modern standards – mixed experiences, combining sheer labour with family and social enjoyment.” Since creative work was time- and energy-consuming for the worker, people only produced what was needed.
Today, in contrast, Factory Earth celebrates an embarrassment of riches – we have slushy makers, egg white separators, electronic jewellery cleaners, T. rex table lamps and giant hand stubbie holders. We bathe in the glory of shower caddies, fridge magnets and snow globes.
Morris compared the condition of Factory Earth to the house of a rich man. “If such a man were to allow the cinders to be raked all over his drawing-room, and a privy to be established in each corner of his dining-room, if he habitually made a dust and refuse heap of his once beautiful garden, never washed his sheets or changed his tablecloth, and made his family sleep five in a bed, he would surely find himself in the claws of a commission de lunatico. But such acts of miserly folly are just what our present society is doing daily under the compulsion of a supposed necessity, which is nothing short of madness.”
Indeed, it could be argued that this elaborate system of work under which we all labour under is largely unnecessary. Just look back 300 years, and continue looking back another 50,000 years and you’ll find humans surviving and flourishing under very different work conditions. But of course, back then we didn’t have the luxury of owning slushy makers or snow globes.