Dougald Hine

Workers & players

Most people assume that the job system we have today has existed since the Stone Age, and that it is therefore unthinkable that we could suddenly run out of jobs. But our job system is actually only 200 years old!
(Frithjof Bergmann, New Work, New Culture, 1994)

I'm interested in "work" - with the outsider's perspective of someone who has spent most of his life avoiding getting a "proper job"! I'm interested in how we get out of the habit of taking work for granted.

There are various senses to this.

First, as I touched on in the Other times & places section, a long historical and anthropological perspective can remind us of the peculiarity of our experience of work. (See particularly Marshall Sahlins' 'The Original Affluent Society' (1974) and EP Thompson's 'Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism' (1967).)

Hidden work

Then there's the way in which consumer societies - or, in Marxian terms, bourgeois culture - depend on work being hidden from view. With the age of the department store, a new distance is created between the circumstances of production and the circumstances of consumption. The visual language of the religious tableau is transferred to the presentation of goods in the new shop window. (Again, Richard Sennett's The Fall of Public Man offers some leads here.) This new distance is not least a consequence of mass production and the need to differentiate essentially identical and averagely-made goods. (Further to this, Umberto Eco argues that consumer goods are made beautiful and productive tools made ugly, to disguise the desirability of owning one's own means of production. See 'Two Families of Objects' (1970) in Faith In Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (1986) - or this blog post, for the relevant passage.)

At the same time, mass production has tended to involve new and more unpleasant conditions of work, which we do our best not to think about. As George Orwell put it in his essay on Rudyard Kipling: "We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue." Dan Olner's blog post 'Blood, sweat and containerisation' gives a sober contemporary account of how people "give up their humanity" in the work which makes our lifestyles possible - and the blindness of economics to the qualitative experience of work.

As Vinay Gupta argues in 'Black Elephants and Skull Jackets', the interview I did with him for Issue 1 of Dark Mountain, one consequence of globalisation may be to level out the colonial imbalances which made this international division of labour possible. (He describes a scenario in which the lifestyles of most countries converge on roughly the level of Mexico.)

Hard work

Even before such a convergence, the hardships of work for many in the rich world have been detailed by journalists and academics, including:

Jobs are awful, and there's never enough of them

Sennett's nostalgia reflects one side of a long-standing ambivalence on the Left towards the whole phenomenon of "work" - is the aim of radical politics to demand more and better work, or to demand liberation from the whole structure of work-as-we-know-it?

In the other camp, Pat Kane's The Play Ethic argues that society is (or could be) shifting from an orientation around work to an orientation around play. This is a big book full of fascinating ideas and examples.

If we are looking for an understanding of what is broken about work-as-we-know-it, another direction to explore might be psychological research on locus of motivation, starting with Edward Deci's Intrinsic Motivation (1975). Deci's famous study of the effects of "external rewards on intrinsic motivation" found that paying people to complete a task decreases their intrinsic motivation. (I suspect there are connections to be drawn between the alienating effect of monetary reward, as observed by Deci, and the qualitative distinctions Illich and others make between the phenomena of work in the vernacular domain as compared to the domain of the state and the market. I have begun to sketch out some related ideas in the Social Functions of Money presentation given in Dublin, September 2010.)

Remembering a future that works

Perhaps the most hopeful reading of how all this may play out comes from those who are working on the possibility of a world after mass production. This can sound utopian, but Kevin Carson's Industrial Policy: New Wine in Old Bottles makes a strong and well-footnoted case for the possibilities of a "neotechnic" economy of localised production.

In the spirit of "remembering the future", there is a lot in this "neotechnic" vision which looks back to older ways of working - particularly those of the craft workshop. This is acknowledged by Charles Leadbeater in his book We-Think: Mass innovation, not mass production (2008), which offers an upbeat account of the emerging collaborative culture, including a rather tamed version of Illich. (Also interesting is the pamphlet Leadbeater co-authored with Paul Miller, The Pro-Am Revolution (2008). Paul, incidentally, is another of the School of Everything co-founders.) A really substantial book on the craft ethic and its continuing lessons is Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (2008).

On the subject of craft, there is Walter Benjamin's essay The Storyteller (also a key text for Berger). This paints a picture of the medieval workshop as a social institution which drew together what Benjamin identifies as the two kinds of storyteller: the one who stays at home and holds the stories of the place, and the one who brings stories from afar. "If peasants and seamen were past masters of storytelling, the artisan class was its university." This vision of the sociable pre-modern workplace, like that of EP Thompson, might be contrasted with the anti-social drive to efficiency which spans the industrial era.

And it is in the light of the latter that we might consider Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989). I suggest we consider the "Third Place", the vital space and time for hanging out which Oldenburg identifies, as a kind of native reservation of sociability: an enclosed pocket within which the default human condition of being sociable is permitted to survive (though usually at a price and subject to legal licensing) in the peculiarly anti-social landscape of industrial societies.

The world, made and unmade

Finally, to return to the separation of production and consumption: another area in which we could trace this is within the novel. It strikes me that there are two types of novelist, those who can ignore the made-ness of things and those who cannot. The contrast is made by William Golding in his account of how he came to write The Spire:

I have often wondered how it was that Anthony Trollope should write so much about our city, or Barchester as he called it, without even considering that object for which the city is celebrated beyond all its other things. Trollope, of course, was interested in how things are. He could pass a very pleasant life without worrying how things were, what they had been and what they would become. He was not much interested in meaning, or so it seems to me. (A Moving Target, 1982)

A common characteristic of Golding, Garner and Berger is the inability to look at a thing without seeing in its pattern a process extended through time, through materials, labour, skill and the relationships implied in these - which is to say, its meaning.

However, there is an unresolved question here for me: alongside this emphasis on the made-ness of things, which seems good and proper, I am also conscious of a more problematic elevation of production, a tendency to over-value productive activity and underestimate the value of apparently unproductive modes of being. For example, the emphasis on "knowledge production" as the central activity of the university is radically at odds with earlier understandings of what is involved in knowing, conceived as an experience whose precondition is the absence of busy-ness. (The Greek schole, from which we get "school", means "leisure" or "vacation".)

I am still working out how to reconcile these two lines of thought. (Although perhaps there are clues in Robert M Pirsig's Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values...)