Selling the Work Ethic

Molly Scott Cato

The Ecologist, May 2001

Sharon Beder, Selling The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR, 2000, Scribe Publications, Australia; Zed Books, London and New York, ISBN 185649 8845 9; ISBN 090801148200 (in Australia)

'Why do we all work so hard?' is one of the resonating questions at the start of the 21st century. How refreshing it is to have found a book that has a convincing and radical answer to this question.

According to Sharon Beder, an Australian academic who has already dissected multinational manipulation of scientific reality in her book Global Spin, our excessive work habits are the result of ideological pressure by a range of elites who profit from our labours -- from selling the work ethic. More importantly for readers of The Ecologist, her objective is to explain how the cultural imperatives for production and consumption at the core of capitalism, reinforce lifestyles and behaviours that are damaging to people and the environment.

Her story of the work ethic begins with its invention in 17th-century Puritanism and the enthusiastic publicity it received from the early capitalists because of its role in creating a diligent and self-disciplined workforce. From being a Christian duty, work became associated with God's blessing, particularly if accompanied by the accumulation of wealth; a development which reached its apotheosis in the American Dream and a society where status and wealth, especially wealth accrued through personal toil, are inextricably linked.

Behind the veil of the work ethic, the robber barons of capitalism's heyday justified the accumulation of their vast wealth, JD Rockefeller even claiming that 'God gave me my money'. The ideology provided a parallel justification for the gross inequalities this economic system generated: the poor became, by definition, lazy, work-shy and undeserving. Maintaining this myth is the only possible explanation for the continuing political commitment to full employment, a concept which technology has long since rendered obsolete.

FW Taylor, whose scientific management techniques further dehumanised the workplace, turns out to have been another product of a Quaker-Puritan background strongly imbued with the work ethic. His methods reinforced the failing work ethic, which had, ironically, been undermined by the severe alienation caused by capitalist production methods, and were backed up by the manipulation of social scientists such as Elton Mayo, and his notorious Hawthorne studies, characterised as 'cow sociology' because it aims to make the workers content and satisfied so they will produce more.

Beder's history of the work ethic explores how an increasingly complex and technological economy threatens its own ideological underpinnings. In the era of downsizing and portfolio careers, work no longer provides a secure economic or social identity. Here, her thesis would have benefited from greater emphasis on the postmodern analysis that identity is now a function of consumption rather than production, lessening the need for a work ethic and with the consequent burgeoning of identity-based advertising. Beder emphasises instead the stigmatising of the unemployed and ideological assault on welfare that has emanated from the States and been eagerly grasped by Anglophone politicians elsewhere. The interplay of this apparently secular thinking and the supposedly defunct Puritan ideology that preceded it -- particularly in the UK where so many Labour (sic) politicians share a Calvinist family culture -- deserves further thought.

Despite Beder's acknowledgement that 'The compulsion to work has clearly become pathological in modern societies', the individual damage it causes merited further discussion.

While we are told that work is good for us and our bodily survival depends on it, its damaging consequences for our psychological and physical health urgently requires further research. In support of this, the valuable contribution of Canadian physicians Eyer and Sterling, who in 1967 showed that many of the so-called diseases of age are in fact occupational diseases, should be replicated, perhaps especially in Japan, where the prevalence of work-related ill health has led to the creation of the word karoushi, meaning death from overwork.

It is rare for a book to so neatly resolve a paradox, while at the same time providing sufficient data for the reader to make the same case to others. If you have ever felt an affinity for the lilies of the field, or have already made the seemingly so difficult decision to step off the work-consumption treadmill, then this is the book for you.

COPYRIGHT 2001 MIT Press Journals

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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