The History of Work

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne B. Ciulla

The Arnhem Land aborigines forage for food for about five hours a day. The rest of the day is spent in various amusements, with resting and sleeping tied for first place. Marshall Sahlins, the anthropologist who studied the Arnhem, suggested that there are other things in life besides resting and sleeping – agriculture, for instance. But one of the bushman set him straight: “Why should we plant when there are so many mongomongo nuts in the world?”

Hegel himself couldn’t have phrased the great question of civilization more succinctly.

According to Joanne Ciulla, a philosophy professor at the University of Richmond, work was never considered an especially hot idea until the coming of modernity. Neither the ancients nor the medievals valued sloth – but they certainly thought that work was best done by others, like slaves or serfs. The good life of the happy few could be spent in civic pursuits, philosophical contemplation, or pillaging the infidels, depending upon the era. Anything but a nine to five job. That concept was, in fact, unintelligible in a clockless society. “Clock discipline,” as Ciulla calls it, was instilled into the general populace in the 18th century, and was a pre-requisite for the industrial age.

Ciulla’s analysis of work, and how we feel about it, rests upon two social facts: alienation and inequality. Ciulla has the kind of mind that can juggle Aristotle and Tom Peters, and she is particularly good at tracing the career of alienation as a sociological theme from Karl Marx to the various faddish management theories which have risen and subsided in the eighties and nineties. She draws attention to the contradiction between the ideology of corporate spokesmen, who inexhaustibly advocate free market solutions for all public policy problems, and the inter-mural, therapeutic culture that is visited by management upon their employees.

Ciulla quotes a study in which managers discuss the most efficient incentives for building employee commitment. “The researchers found that most senior managers believed that celebrations and ceremonies and non-cash recognition were the best incentives for non-managers …. But for senior managers, they responded that the best incentive was cash rewards tied to quality performance.”

Big surprise? This brings us to the second force shaping work for the majority of Americans right now: the increasingly skewed distribution of mongomongo nuts. Bill Gates has, by some estimates, maybe 70 billion nuts. To pile up a comparable stash, the average temp custodian who cleans Microsoft’s offices would have to work some 70,000 years.

“The second force shaping work for the majority of Americans right now: the increasingly skewed distribution of mongomongo nuts.”

This gives us a rather interstellar distance between high and low in our society not so very different between slave and master in the Roman Empire. It is no wonder that, scratching the surface of Total Quality Management, one so often meets a corrosive cynicism among the plebes, even if they are more than willing, when the boss is around, to mouth the requisite platitudes. Even in an age when the work sphere is fast replacing the home sphere, the television screen rarely shows labor, unless it involves an emergency room, a courtroom, or an arrest.

Ciulla’s virtues, which are her eclecticism and stock of references, are also her flaws. It sometimes feels that no discussion is complete until she has used all her index cards, which can make for a creaky, PBS-y feel. But that is a minor complaint. Ciulla’s willingness to take broad views and her interdisciplinary reach make this not only a righteous book, but an interesting one – a rare combination.

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work by Joanne B. Ciulla

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