On jobs

In an advanced industrial society it becomes almost impossible to seek, even to imagine, unemployment as a condition for autonomous, useful work. The infrastructure of society is arranged so that only the job gives access to the tools of production.

Ivan Illich

Once upon a time, nobody in the world had a job. Of course, that’s not to deny that people expended energy on the tasks required for survival; manifestly they did, or you and I would not be here. My point is that there was originally no distinction between work and leisure. People did what was necessary, which would vary across the seasons. Work, if we want to call it that, was done where people already were; people would move around their territory depending on the availability of food and water, but there was nothing we would recognise as a commute.

I start my account of jobs here because we tend to focus on what replaced it, namely the division of labour. Adam Smith himself did it: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 1, is entitled “Of the division of labour,” and we go almost immediately into his famous account of the pin-factory. It is easy to forget how radically different working in a pin-factory is from the way people have got their living for the bulk of the time humans have been on earth.

It has to be admitted that Smith does not exactly sell the pin-factory as a great place to work. “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.” The work is repetitive and monotonous, and no single person involved in it will even get the satisfaction of having made an entire pin.

Smith is more interested in the large quantity of pins that can be made in this way, but here I want to consider the quality of life that it implies. He goes on to contrast the pin technician with his less specialised brethren: “A country weaver, who cultivates a small farm, must lose a good deal of time passing from his loom to the field, and from the field to his loom. … The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or even necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.”

We are reminded here that Smith was not an economist – there was no such thing in 1776 – but a theologian and a Professor of Moral Philosophy. His problem with the country workman is not really that he is inefficient. Clearly the things that needed to be done were still getting done. No, he is more worried about a lack of moral fibre. The Devil finds work for idle hands, and all this sauntering and indolence can lead to no good. There is no opportunity to saunter when all you do, all day and every day, is whiten pins or put them into paper.

His choice of a country weaver is suggestive. These were exactly the people who were shafted by the Industrial Revolution, as E. P. Thompson showed in The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican, 2013). They went from making a comfortable living and working the hours they chose to sixteen-hour days in the pitiless roar of a cotton-mill for starvation wages. In his classic essay “The Original Affluent Society,” the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins estimated that hunter-gatherers typically spend 3-5 hours per day obtaining food. (The essay is collected in his book Stone Age Economics, first published in 1972.) The rest of their time, presumably, is spent sauntering.

These represent extremes, of course. As Sahlins points out, the reason hunter-gatherers can work so little is that their material needs are kept to a minimum. (If you have to carry all of your belongings around with you, then you are naturally incentivised to do this.) Few of us would be prepared to accept a material standard of living at this level. But you will have noticed the word material in the previous sentence.

To obtain material goods, most of us need a job. It is the nipple which connects us to the milk of industrially-produced goodies which is what we rely on for survival. Without it, we are ill-equipped to fend for ourselves. In exchange, we accept a hefty set of constraints (and our education system is designed to prepare the way for this acceptance):

  • Timekeeping. You need to show up at the agreed time, and keep working until the agreed time. We are so used to this that we forget how unnatural it is. Smith’s account of the pin-factory makes it clear that no pins can be made unless everyone involved is present and correct; the system doesn’t work if people only turn up as and when they feel like it.
  • Obedience. The guy whose job is to draw out the wire has to draw out the wire, whether he fancies doing so or not. I’ve never had to do this for a living myself, but I should imagine it gets old pretty quickly.
  • Measurement. Smith goes into raptures about the number of pins produced per day (he estimates 4,800 per person) and of course this is an invitation to quantitative assessment of your performance, just like all those tests and exams you did at school. There isn’t so much scope for Taylorism amongst the hunter-gatherers, on the other hand.

Time and again, colonial administrators have bemoaned how terrible indigenous people are when put into factories and expected to comply with this stuff. The same thing happened in England in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Unless people are trained up to it from an early age, they are unlikely to find these compromises appealing. It is no coincidence that compulsory education came in during the nineteenth century.

Because most of us are so dependent on having a job, unemployment becomes a problem. Governments like to talk about job creation as if this were self-evidently a good thing, regardless of the nature of the jobs themselves. (Technically, the construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau created jobs, after all.) Here in the UK we have the economic miracle of the zero-hours contract, by which one can have a job without any of the benefits. I expect this exciting innovation to sweep through the industrialised world in short order.

The solution to this trap is clear, but not necessarily easy. It is a question of re-education: and not merely in the myriad skills we need to support ourselves outside of the world of conventional employment – and while there are many useful courses and other resources out there, that in itself is still the task of a lifetime. We need also to reappraise some of our most deeply held beliefs about, for example time. I’ll be dedicating a future post to the subject of time, but let’s just say there are worse sins than turning up half an hour late.

After all, how many pins does the world really need?

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

4 thoughts on “On jobs

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