Off to Work We Go-and Go-Never Sure Why We Bother

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work , by Joanne B. Ciulla. Times Books, 266 pages, $25.

For something that most of us do, or want to do, work is not easy to write sense about. Work is our chief connection to the world around us. Work tells us what to do each day, converts our thoughts into objects or acts and our energy into sustenance, gives us our social personality, company, respectability, distinction. Work is also a tyranny to which we submit out of witless conformity and which obscures reality as completely as it obscures its own purposes.

The question posed by Joanne Ciulla’s intriguing new book is this: In affluent societies, where most people work not for their needs but for their wants, why do we work so hard and so unhappily? Entering the third millennium, humanity should be loosening up, spending more time on the historical golf course. As Ms. Ciulla writes, with liberal wistfulness: “I am perplexed at the domination of life by paid employment at a time when life itself should be getting easier.”

Her book, which deals with paid work to the exclusion of house- and schoolwork, falls into three parts. The first is a canter through social attitudes to work from the time of the creation. For Adam and Eve, work was a curse, symbol of their expulsion from paradise. Aristotle thought work an obstacle to both a contemplative leisure and an active citizenship. As always, he distinguished between need and want. A human being can only consume so much food and so many pairs of shoes–necessities–but can never satisfy his wishes. Work, as he saw it, becomes a treadmill of self-reproducing desires.

In the Middle Ages, work was constrained within a timeless and hierarchical society, and subordinate to the health of the soul. It was with the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, notably Calvin, that work was detached from good works and became a sacrament in itself, a token of grace and symbol of salvation. It is this so-called work ethic, partly but not wholly stripped of its religious content, that gives texture to life in the United States and, because of the prestige of the U.S. economy, more and more societies abroad. Americans, even if they work on product placement in children’s television, tend to be convinced of the righteousness of their job–they’re curing cancer. Hard work is a symbol not of the soul’s salvation but of election to the only paradise on offer in this fallen world, the American Dream.

In her second section, which is devoted to the American corporation, Ms. Ciulla makes a point that often strikes visitors to the United States like an epiphany: There is something inexcusably un-American about the U.S. corporation! Time stamping, beer busts, random drug-testing, pink slips, walking the talk–what could be more unfree?

The downsizing movement of the 1990′s left a great impression on Ms. Ciulla. For her, the various corporate philosophies–Taylorism, scientific management, the organization man, the pursuit of excellence, continuous improvement, empowerment–are irredeemably sentimental and phony, for they ignore the imbalance of power between employer and employee. To give an example from my own country, for about 70 years the chain store Marks & Spencer was worshiped in Britain as the perfect union of profit and social virtue. Last year, its markets fell to bits, and it started beating up on its suppliers like the best of them. I suspect that U.S. and British corporations and the societies that depend on them are too unstable for any but the most temporary judgments.

The third, and most philosophical section of the book, deals with the rewards of work. To my taste, Ms. Ciulla is excessively cautious. She does not like to think about the old division of labor between the sexes. Yet when a man could return at sundown to be greeted by his lovely wife at the picket fence, and supper on the table, even working for Albert J. Dunlap (known as “Chainsaw Al” or “the Shredder” for his unsentimental approach to the payroll at Scott Paper Company) must have been tolerable. Now that Mr. 9-to-5 must come back to an overgrown garden and an empty house, bare cupboard and wife slaving away at the telemarketing center, he must think again about what they both gain from work. The old leftist idea that women, in emancipating themselves, would also emancipate men, is beginning to look sentimental, to put it mildly.

Ms. Ciulla does not go deeply enough into the rewards of work. She observes that Americans are “willing to trade freedom in the workplace for freedom in the marketplace.” She recognizes that liberty in America once meant something more than retail credit–did Patrick Henry shop?–and that shopping merely forces us back to work, while television helps us stomach it. Anyway, leisure in America, with its competitive passion, has the smell of work about it. I was delighted to note in The Working Life the faint influence of those old merchants of philosophic gloom, the Frankfurt School.

Like the Frankfurters, Ms. Ciulla seems to me insufficiently interested in the capital reward for work in the world today, which is money. It is as hard to write sense about money as about work–dear reader, I’ve tried–but two things can be quickly said. First, money provides a currency for work so that while we think we are working for ourselves we are actually working for others. Second, it interposes itself between the laboring act and its consequence, and so comprehensively obscures that consequence from view, that we crash about the office or factory or shop without having the faintest clue what we are up to. A person makes munitions to make money, not to kill a particular child; but the child is killed, and not by accident. When people talk about their work they generally talk rubbish.

Finally, Ms. Ciulla overlooks the extent to which industrialized work atomizes our view of the world. This is an important theme in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations , a theme economists tend to overlook. Anybody who has sat beside a trader in mortgage-backed securities at a charity dinner will know from that person’s conversation that he or she is incapable of forming a larger view of society and its purposes; cannot fulfill the duties of American citizenship or enjoy its rights even in the ultra-representative form of modern politics; in short, can do little except trade mortgage-backed securities.

The truth is that we work because others work, and the reward of work is sometimes merely the warmth of other bodies. Those who do not work for pay fall into loneliness and often lose any confidence in their own capacities. At the very least it can be said that work keeps people out of mischief.

I have a more optimistic view of human nature. My guess is that we all have something magnificent in us; and work has been devised to prevent us from achieving it.