Total Work Newsletter #19: The Birth of Modern Industrial Society

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.

Announcements: Starting next week, I’m going to be in Denmark (teaching), Hungary (giving some talks), and Sweden (teaching) until mid-June. During this period, then, I’ll be sending out some issues rather willy nilly. Also, I imagine that each issue will be more of a travelogue detailing some of my experiences about work and working in Scandinavia and Budapest.


The Sabbath

Abraham Joshua Herschel, The Sabbath (1951):

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

#1: UBI | Interview: UBI and 'Job Culture' (Part One) | 15 min. | Basic Income News | Interview

Basic Income Sum: “The following is part one of a two part series in which former Basic Income News editor Kate McFarland interviews D. JoAnne Swanson of The Anticareerist on Basic Income.” McFarland is a reader of this newsletter.

Nice Quote: “Fundamentally,” Swanson states, “my goal is to break the coercive link between paid employment and survival.”

#2: TIME FAMINE | Why You Never Have Enough Time, a History | 5 min. | Quartz at Work | Essay

QZ Sum: “The way we evaluate our purpose has changed, and it’s making us miserable.”

My Sum: This is my latest QZ at Work piece. In it, I first describe what our time famine is. Then I argue that if we’re going to understand what’s causing our time famine, then we’ll need to look back to the emergence of the Agent Theory and the waning of the Image of God doctrine.

My Take: I think this is one of the most interesting QZ at Work pieces I’ve written so far.

#3: HOBOS | The Hobo Ethical Code of 1889: 15 Rules for Living a Self-Reliant, Honest & Compassionate Life | 5 min. | Open Culture | List HT Michael Coren

Sum: Wikipedia helpfully distinguishes between hobos, tramps, and bums. “A hobo,” we read there, “is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a ‘tramp,’ who works only when forced to, and a 'bum,’ who does not work at all, a 'hobo’ is a traveling worker.

Some Hobo Rules: ”1. Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.

“2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

"3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

"4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.”

On Not Being Defined by a Salary

Nassim Taleb on wage slavery:

If nobody’s paying my salary, I don’t have to define myself [by the salary I have or the position I hold]. I find it arrogant to call yourself a philosopher or an intellectual, so I call myself a flaneur and I refuse all honors. As Cato once said, it’s better to be asked why there is no statue in your name than why there is one.

It’s illuminating to compare Taleb’s case for “f*ck you money,” hobos’ belief in only doing piecework or hourly work as needed, and mendicant monks, who beg in order to survive. All, of course in very different ways, show “gaps” in the hegemony of gainful employment.

#4: RELIGIOUS OVERWORK | Japanese Monk Sues Temple Saying Workload Gave him Depression | 2 min. | The Guardian | News HT Christopher Brewster

Guardian Sum: “Buddhist monk has backing of local labour bureau after he said he had to work sometimes for two months without a break.”

My Brief Take: As you know, I’m trying to illumine cases of total work wherever I find them. The danger with religious non-profits is that, if the leadership isn’t wise, they can run the risk of justifying what are actually inhumane activities on some shaky religious grounds.

LinkedIn Post

Mark Ross writes approvingly (HT Paul Millerd),

Ironic.

I work as hard as possible now. Side jobs on weekends. Sleep 4-5 hours a night. Why? So that I can retire young and enjoy life with my family.

I bet a million bucks that five days into my retirement I’ll be so bored I’ll go right back to this insane schedule.

Life’s a roller coaster. I love it.

These are the terms that strangle our imagination: either work super-hard or succumb to unbearable laziness. How sad this way of framing things is. And how shallow this man has become.

The Birth of Modern Industrial Society

What follows is a very short book review of Andrea Komlosy’s Work: The Last 1,000 Years (2018). I think the book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the birth of modern industrial (and post-industrial) society, but I can’t recommend your reading it. The prose is lumbering, the lede is buried (so to speak; i.e., it took some super-sleuthing to discern what the central thesis was), and much of it is tedious-going. That said, the basic ideas she presents, provided you can unearth them, are eye-opening. Here goes:

Komlosy is trying to tell the story of the birth and subsequent hegemony of the modern industrial (and post-industrial) society. Moving in historical cross-sections (1250, 1500, 1800, 1900, the present), she shows how industrialization radically transformed the world. How?

Simplifying to an extreme, I’d say that before 1750,

  • the central unit of social and economic life was the household;

  • the aim of the household was subsistence; and

  • household members embraced a melange of work and non-work activities. For example, in the early days of industrialization, cottage industries (or “putting-out systems”) arose. Some members of the household, working in the household, may get paid in piecework terms to do a certain amount of weaving work, which work merchants would periodically stop by, pick up, and sell in foreign markets. Yet what must be underscored is that weaving was not separable from the overall “economic circulation” (to coin a metaphor) of the household.

Also simplifying to an extreme, I’d say that after 1750 and especially after 1800,

  • the household slowly gets hollowed out (“modern households can be seen as agents of commodification” [p. 209]);

  • there emerges for the first time in Western history a massive split between work, which would now be construed as gainful employment, and so-called (and erroneously so) non-work, such as what housewives did in the household (this is what Komlosy calls, at one point, “the invention of work” [p. 177]; i.e., work as gainful employment);

  • henceforth there would a be a “value transfer” as the household would need to support the gainfully employed member while also doing a good deal of “shadow work”–all in order to maintain the gainfully employed member whose income would, in turn, support that hollowed-out household;

  • in the 1880s and following, social safety nets provided by the state and one’s employer would be put in place for full-time employees and for certain unemployed members (here, relatedly, see my critique of “the job”: the job is now hegemonic);

  • often tragically, certain members of the family would become migrants–initially seasonal migrants pursuing paid labor elsewhere and, later on in history, migrants seeking to relocate due to the better work opportunities available in the Global North; and

  • the kind of workers created (say, from 1750 to the present) would be highly mobile, very flexible, increasingly used to post-Fordism (say, 1979-present), and above all those for whom wage slavery would come to seem self-evident. (Here see the Mark Ross LinkedIn post above to confirm this for yourself.)

The world that is lost wasn’t all good, mind you, but was at least humanely centered on the subsistence of the household. The developed world that is gained is uneven to the say the least: the winners are knowledge workers paid handsomely to be flexible, cosmopolitan free agents while the biggest losers are those born in the Global South.

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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <totalwork.us@gmail.com>.

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For Newcomers

I write one piece each month on the history of, value of, and conflicting attitudes toward work for Quartz at Work. You can read essays I’ve written, going back to December 2017, here. And to learn more about total work, you can visit my website, totalwork.us, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.