Andrea Komlosy


On her book Work: The Last 1,000 Years

Cover Interview of March 18, 2018

The wide angle

Work takes on different meanings depending on the historical and regional context. During Greek and Roman antiquity, any kind of work was disdained, while the ideal human condition was praxis—social and political activity that was freed from labor. In the Christian Middle Ages, hard and toilsome labor was transformed into a virtue that honored God; but the development of crafts and towns contributed to a vocational identity that relied on the creativity of work. In the capitalist rationality, the tension between painful labor and creative work was replaced by a utilitarian interpretation, i.e. any labor was considered useful and benefiting wealth and happiness of employers and the state. In fact, hard work in factories and mines did not at all allow satisfaction. Therefore, the tension between the painful side of labor and the creative side of labor was reactivated - both by philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or by political economists like Karl Marx. For them, toil and creativity were translated into the antagonism between alienation and exploitation, as well as between self-actualization and fulfilment. This tension took on central concern in the rising labor movement that asked for labor legislation, regulation, and protection.

At that moment in history, the industrial revolution had introduced big machinery into production. Wage work in factories contributed to the commodification of labor in the industrializing world. The rise and spread of free wage labor was such a convincing concept that slave labor, housework, and precarious makeshift jobs that were also on the rise were being interpreted as residual types of pre-capitalist work relations—as anomalies—while in fact they were as modern and capitalist as wage work and inseparably attached to it. Labor movements in the industrial cores of the world economy were not able and not willing to realize that labor protection and social benefits for workers that developed between the 1880s and the 1980s were only granted to the working class of the industrial cores, not to the colonies.

Today, the old division of labor between industrial and agrarian countries has given way to a new, international division of labor. In order to lower costs, labor-intensive industrial operations have been outsourced to low-wage and low-tax countries. Since the 1970s, newly industrializing countries (NIC) have become leading industrial locations, while the old industrial workforce is facing pressure to accept flexible, precarious labor contracts. We are facing a polarization between new intellectual workers, who manage to adapt to the new requirements of the knowledge-based economy, and others who are pushed into the job instability of the working poor. Stable, socially secured workers’ careers are no longer the dominant mode of employment. Workers are pressed to perform several jobs at a time, combine self-employment with contract labor, live on private or public welfare, or add makeshift or subsistence activities to compensate for falling income. In order to analyze these developments, we need to broaden the notion of work and labor beyond wage labor and gainful employment.