mployees leaving the Rolls-Royce works in Derby during the Second World War

This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In discussion with New Humanist are Federico Campagna, author of The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure (Zero Books); James Meadway, senior economist at the New Economics Foundation; and Dawn Foster, a journalist who writes on social inequality.

NH: Federico, what are you trying to say in your book by comparing work to religion?

Federico: When I first moved to Britain from southern Italy, I noticed this strange attachment to work, which contradicted the image I had of Anglo-Saxon rationalism. Instead of the activity of work being efficiently aimed at something, it was going round in a circle. People kept working overtime and I kept wondering, “Why do they do that? They are not going to get any praise, they are not going to get any money, they’re actually damaging their lives, so why do it?”

I noticed there was a religious element, in the sense that work gives you something that nothing else does, which is that you became part of something bigger than yourself. You sacrifice your life, but what you get is somehow immortality, you become part of capital, part of the nation, part of the everlasting glorious community, and so on.

The idea of the “Protestant work ethic” has been around for a long time, so how much is this a new development?

James: What’s very striking – this is from a pure economics point of view – is that since 2008, productivity, in Britain, has declined, so for every hour that people are working, they are less and less productive as time goes on, certainly relative to similar countries. A typical hour worked in Germany now produces 30 per cent more monetary value than a typical hour worked here. And in the last 30 years or so, the progressive end of society seems to have wandered away from questions about the working day, how long it should be and what you do with it, and how much time you get after it. The demand for shorter working hours was at the heart of the labour movement from the early 19th century onwards.

Dawn: We seem to have given up on the idea of quality of work and instead moved to gratitude for there being any work at all. Especially for young people: salaries are a pittance, and you have to be on call constantly.

F: I think there is another element attached to it, which is its relationship with citizenship. Because of globalisation, the very concept of citizenship is under a lot of strain. So what seems to be developing is an idea of citizenship being related to work. In that, for example, when you talk about migrants, there are the scummy migrants and there are the hard-working migrants. So, becoming a worker in a sense is repaid by society, with the fact that you are in. If you are not a worker, you are out. That’s why you have to be grateful to be a worker, because then you are in.

James, you suggested there had been a shift in the last 30 years. As you’re all from a generation that grew up during this period, how were you brought up to think about work?

F: I come from a different place, so it is different.

D: Coming from post-industrial South Wales, the thought that I was able to get a job at all was slightly fantastic. If you are working class, and grow up in an area with high unemployment, you are taught not to question any aspects of your job you are unhappy with. Because you are getting a wage, full stop.

That’s quite a departure from the idea of industrial jobs giving whole communities a sense of identity.

D: My area was particularly odd, because I lived in Newport and we had a steelworks. Towards the end of my time in primary school, the steelworks shut down. So it was relatively prosperous and then suddenly that was cut off. There was a sense of déjà vu because a lot of people who worked there had worked in the mines until they had been closed down a decade earlier. So two generations of people who had very strong working-class identities – men, in particular – felt the same thing happen to them. You can see it now there, a lot of men feel their masculinity has been completely undermined by that.

F: There is this idea that as a human being you can’t develop in any way without work. And unfortunately, the Left has a difficult relationship with the idea of work. Instead of it being a problem that you are a worker, it became a source of pride: if you are a worker you need to remain a worker if you want to fight.

Is that so wrong?

F: I’m not entirely sure about that. You have to take pride, why? What does that mean? Is that fundamental to you in any way? Why does it have to involve what you do? You do many things, you sleep more than you work. I don’t think it’s logically necessary.

D: Well, you can define yourself by what you do or who you sleep with, or, you know, how you sleep. But I think that most people define themselves by what they spend most of their time doing and who they associate with. So it’s a big part of people’s identity, their profession. People have been very proud to work and be workers. And to associate themselves with the community that produces things.

J: If you take workplaces, it’s hard to think of more depoliticised environments. Look at the last 10-15 years, in any number of protest movements, marches, demonstrations, all that sort of stuff has happened on the outside. None of it is really happening in workplaces, not to the same extent as 50 to 60 years ago. So this idea that work is in any way something that might have an oppositional content, that there actually is something at work that you can oppose, that your boss is someone you can oppose, rather than just a feature in existence, is what I think has been evacuated, leaving just this kind of vague cultural identity. Like pride in being from a working-class background.

F: Also, we’ve forgotten the fact that even for Christian religion work is one of the first punishments that God inflicts on people. Mortality and work. And childbirth. All three fit together. And clothes!

Some might say the question “why work?” is hopelessly utopian. So why ask it?

F: Because work takes up so much of our time. That’s your core activity, so, like any good company, that’s what you should probably talk about first.

D: Because it defines us. Doesn’t it? A big problem at the moment is income inequality. And if we want to think about spreading wealth more equally, then we have to think about how to spread the work more equally.

J: Technology has made our working lives easier in some ways, but the direction of technology matters too. There are loads of devices that are very good at monitoring what we do. A smartphone, for example, can report where you are, what websites you’ve been visiting, who you’ve been talking to.

We find these things useful, but in the workplace this kind of technology is put to use in monitoring every second of what someone’s doing all day long. All this inventiveness and creativity has not gone towards, say, “How do we make people’s lives better?” Instead it’s been “How do we make it so that we don’t have to keep checking if they’re moving the right books around the warehouse?”

F: Dawn, I wanted to ask you about feminism and the fact that feminist demands were met to a large extent because women entered the workplace. Could that have happened any other way?

D: I can’t see how it would have. But I don’t think the pace of women’s liberation is as fast as people have made out. The number of women in low-paid work in Britain has actually increased since 2008; and women have been hit hardest by austerity policies.

There’s also the argument put forward by feminist theorists like Selma James that women should receive wages for housework.

D: One thing that troubles me is the sheer volume of unpaid work that women still do, especially considering how expensive childcare is getting. I don’t know how working-class women are expected to fund it.

J: I don’t think extending the zone of paid work would solve the problem, though. What you want is for the work to be socialised, so that it doesn’t have to be done by particular individuals. One really obvious way is for the state to provide childcare – and you don’t have to look to utopias to find better examples of this than Britain. Most of the world’s developed countries do it, with the exception of America. But in the current political climate, you don’t have to go very far to sound utopian.

What other areas could do with more of this kind of questioning?

F: Education. In Italy, one thing that is still excellent is the state-run high-school system. There’s a type of school called liceo classico where we study humanities: it’s kind of like grammar school but everyone goes there, you can be a factory worker or a lawyer, it’s free and you study philosophy from the age of 15. There’s no vocational element, it was derived from a 19th-century school system for aristocrats. So you are not taught to become a worker, you are taught to become a person. Here in Britain, from a very young age, you are told that whatever you are doing, it is aimed at you becoming a worker. Even the university system is now understood and valued only in terms of what job it gets you afterwards.

J: The more we can strip out the idea that the buyers of education are only doing it to get a job the better, frankly.

D: I’d say the welfare system. The national debate has been completely poisoned by decades of stereotyping of who is on benefits and why they get them. The biggest problem is in-work poverty and the fact that people can’t make ends meet on the wages they get. We need to look at why we subsidise big companies to pay their employees.

F: We could also think more about our attitude to society. Why we live together. JFK said: don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. But the question should be about what the association can do for you: so asking for less work and more services is not a wild political request. Society only justifies its own existence when it provides everything we need and as much as it can possibly provide you. That’s why we live together – it’s not because we like each other.