Jeannie Rea on peasant utopias and the forty-hour week

Arena Magazine, April-May 2002 p54(2)

Sharon Beder, Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR, Scribe/Zed, 2000.

In the first part of Selling the Work Ethic, Sharon Beder chronicles the rise of modern capitalism and with it the development of the protestant work ethic. In this respect, Beder walks a well-trodden path. However, her characteristically lively, well-researched account is welcome and whets the appetite for a critique of the way we measure the value of our lives around paid work. In many ways this is exactly what Selling the Work Ethic does do. Beder explores the way work has changed under capitalism from a necessity for what we need for survival to a status that defines people and consequently condemns those without work.

As is also common in such accounts, there is level of romanticising about the glory days of old western European peasant life. This attitude seems to persist amongst those who hale the backbreaking struggle from season to season of contemporary peasant-type existence as somehow an alternative economic and social model. And it is on the issue of offering alternatives that Selling the Work Ethic most acutely disappoints.

Beder's strength and contribution is rather in her keen contemporary reading of the public relations (PR) job that has been done to reify work. The major part of the book concentrates on coercion and persuasion and the fact that the work most people do is not in itself very fulfilling. At the very least, most people with paid work would prefer a bit less of it and a bit more money and control.

Beder notes the irony of having made work the centre of life when it was capitalism that destroyed it as a meaningful activity by fragmenting jobs into meaningless parts in the first place. She describes the rise of pseudo-scientific management of work processes and the fostering of company loyalty and identity to increase productivity while undermining worker collectivity and trade unions. The work ethic reaches a crisis, according to Beder, with the unceremonious junking of the `nose to the grindstone and a gold watch at retirement' ethos in favour of the modern (postmodern?) work ethic. Today we are all meant to aspire to be atomised individuals, selling our intellectual capital to a series of willing buyers. This new myth of the empowered contractor negotiating with the highest bidder is, of course, just as much bunk as the `company man' of old. The reality is insecure work and deteriorating wages and conditions in the wealthy countries, and the transference of much traditional manufacturing and service work, at ever worse rates and conditions, to the poorer ones. The contemporary scenario is that some people have more work than they want and others have less than they need. The privileged bemoan the `lack of leisure time' while the rest have difficulties in satisfactorily filling in time.

A particularly strong section of this book deals with the demonising of the unemployed as cheats and liars and responsible for their own plight. Beder also examines the attacks on so-called 'welfare' and the rise of `work for the dole' ideologies and schemes. Beder's focus is on the United States with reference to Australia. However, rather than exploring the reasons for similarities and differences between the work histories of these two countries, this reads more like simply an attempt to appeal to the two book buying markets.

The final section of Selling the Work Ethic focuses on the increasing involvement of business and industry in education, where sponsorship deals can determine the curriculum at primary school level. Beder, as an academic, has much to say about the corporatising of the universities, including her own. Given that the function of mass schooling has been to mould young people to be acquiescent workers, while leaving the joys of deeper level learning to the elite, it is not at all surprising that wider university access has led to a similar approach to higher education for the masses.

Interestingly, Beder leaves her discussion of the rise of consumerism, and the cost to the growing poor and the environment, until the end. She argues that, for many, consumer values have come to replace the work ethic as the motivator for work and as the primary source of identity.

I was keenly awaiting Beder's perspective on what is to be done to challenge this work ethic and the consumer ethos that holds us captive. Selling the Work Ethic does effectively describe how the `spin masters' have manipulated the work ethic to suit the changing fads of economic ideology -- but why is no attention given to those who refuse to play along? Beder fails to adequately deal with the conscious attacks on the work ethic. Despite her account of the disillusionment of the cross-generational unemployed, Beder's position does not go beyond the conventional view that more employment is the answer. There also needs to be a contribution to the debate about the disappearance of jobs that can be done by machines or not done at all. If they were jobs which destroyed body and soul, could this be a positive move or is any work now considered to be good enough?

I wanted more on the theme of work -- why bother? There are pockets of resistance to paid work amongst social activists in Australia and also those dismissively referred to as feral hippies. Other alternatives can also be seen in the somewhat menacing `travellers' in England. Then there are all those ordinary people who do go to work, but do not aspire to be powerful or to be rich, but want a comfortable, easy or different kind of life. The assumption that everyone is endlessly ambitious and acquisitive simply does not stand. People do seek meaning in their lives, outside of their jobs. Whilst the sociologists and psychologists may tell us this is to escape the drudgery and lack of control over their working time, this is not an adequate explanation.

The book lacks discussion of contemporary Western attempts to seek less socially and environmentally damaging lifestyles. To what extent are such attempts still romanticising past eras, or are they really viable? And what will be left of the planet if alternatives to rampant consumerism are not taken more seriously?

It seemed to me, that in the end Beder's book was itself stuck in the work-ethic paradigm, bemoaning the end of the hey-day of mid-twentieth century capitalism, where at least work was not as precarious as today -- for those who were prepared to go and get it! This of course was never the case. The precariousness of work is what has always kept our noses to the grindstone. No one wants to end up in the postmodern equivalent of the poor house.

Jeannie Rea teaches Gender Studies and Public Relations at Victoria University in Melbourne.

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