Work, dammit!

12/08/2013 § 5 Comments

Over the weekend, I ended up at a review of The Invention of Capitalism. The book’s author is Michael Perelmen, an economist in California who has stirred up controversy over the years. Apparently, he doesn’t disappoint in this book.

Disclaimer: I have no idea whether Perelmen is right in his history, or should I say ‘right’, as history is a matter of interpretation (written by the winners and all that). Having said that, I had two reactions:

1) Aren’t we still living with the attitudes described?

This quote from a pamphlet of the day caught my attention:

The  possession of a cow or two, with a  hog, and a few geese, naturally  exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering  after his cattle, he acquires a  habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and  occasionally whole days, are  imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes  disgusting; the aversion increases by indulgence. And at length the  sale of a half-fed calf, or  hog, furnishes the means of adding  intemperance to idleness.

Here we have a peasant making a decision about work and leisure. He has a few animals and the wherewithal to maintain them, and that suffices. ‘Day labour becomes disgusting’ — well, or not worthwhile. Not worth the effort. And what does our peasant do to while away the time not spent working? He drinks! He is intemperant! Oh my stars and garters!

What is the problem with this? Well, he isn’t working. He isn’t being industrious. He isn’t being productive.

The review (and thus the book) suggests that the problem to the thinkers of the time was that these were potential labourers who could produce profits for the rich. They needed to be forced out of their traditional lifestyles, and hunger was the weapon.

What I noticed, though, was the command to be productive. It wasn’t up to the individual to make such decisions. They were clearly wrong. And alcohol was clearly part of the problem.

It is the same today. When the ‘social costs of alcohol’ are computed, lost productivity and lost worklife are often included. These are largely private costs, locally affecting the drinker and perhaps a few people around the drinker who are able to make local decisions about the problem (and thus force the drinker to internalise the externalities). Nevertheless, there is horror that these people aren’t working to their full potential. So, as much as this is a history book, that same command to work and produce is still apparent today.

2) What does the forced labour of those people mean for today?

We (the industrialised West) are rich. Fabulously wealthy by historical standards. Yes, there is poverty and want, but most people have enough. We have more food than we can eat. Most individuals have their own bed (or share by choice). Our farm animals don’t live in our houses in the winter. We have one room for sleeping, one for eating, one for sitting, etc.

We rarely convert this personal wealth into anything productive. It goes on consumer goods, so many that they don’t fit in our houses and we pay people to store them for us. My daughter was marvelling this weekend at the size of the Wellington Storage King.

Many of us could take all this wealth and buy back the lifestyle of the peasant or the ‘native Highlanders’ of Scotland. And yet we don’t.

So, even though as a matter of historical record the shift to factory work may have been achieved through a deliberate campaign of dispossession, and even though this is an excellent demonstration that property rights are socially constructed and enforced by rough men standing ready to do violence, how does that help us make sense of the consumer economy? Is it about understanding that we have options — that we choose to live like this? Is it about understanding the violence inherent in the system (Help! I’m being repressed!)? Or, is it nostalgia for a simulacrum?

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§ 5 Responses to Work, dammit!

  • This goes back at least as far as the Carlyle-Mill debates. Most people now know that Carlyle called Economics the Dismal Science because economists like Mill would deny blacks the benefits of the lash, without which their indolence would prevent their ever becoming fully human. Read Carlyle here: he talks specifically about the Creator having had greater designs for the West Indes than pumpkins for Quashee (his term) – that the production of cinnamon was more important (why, who knows).

    And it’s great that Econ was on the side of the angels in the anti-slavery movement. But this really should be seen also as part of the anti-paternalist movement as well. Carlyle wanted to whip blacks for their own good, to make them human through labour. The choice of leisure over labour indicated that they weren’t quite human yet and needed paternalistic intervention. Mill instead insisted on individual agency and that while public education might help instill an appreciation of higher-order pleasures, there exists a realm of personal choice.

    I have a hard time seeing appeals to lost productivity resultant from individual choice as resting on anything other than a Carlylean view of leisure-choosers being subhuman and in need of paternalistic intervention, or of that we’re effectively all serfs cheating our Lords when we take a holiday.

    • I found it interesting that the same debate was going on in the 18th century. Well, no, that’s not it. We studied the whole White Man’s Burden idea in school, which was always explained as a perspective of imperial powers towards the colonies. So, the attitude itself wasn’t surprising. I was intrigued, though, at how it applied to highland Scots and the Irish.

  • SB says:

    Noel Ignatieff on How the Irish Became White, or Nicholas Canny on the intellectual links between English colonisation in Ireland and the early Chesapeake speaks to the issue of colonial attitudes to the Irish at an earlier period.

    • Thanks for the suggestions. The Irish in the Anglo-American world really are a fascinating case of the social construction of in-groups and out-groups.

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