Andrea Komlosy


On her book Work: The Last 1,000 Years

Cover Interview of March 18, 2018

A close-up

For a first encounter with the book that would hopefully encourage further reading I recommend the chapter on work discourses (chapter 2). In this chapter, I contrast voices that seek to overcome work with others that praise work. Throughout history, we can find manifestations of this antagonism.

The desire to overcome work is rooted in a concept of work that relates it to toil, stress, hierarchy, and exploitation by a landlord or capitalist employer. In order to escape the hardness of labor, philosophers, novelists, and social movements have suggested that workers will need to overcome their status as workers and leave the working class. From the age of mechanization onwards, social movements have been counting on machines to accelerate work or take over human tasks. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, propagated a three-hour working day in his Manifesto “The Right to Be Lazy”—without considering care work and household work as work, however.

Conversely, praising work is rooted in a concept of work that is related to human actualization. In this perspective, work is not a burden, but allows the worker to reach fulfillment, self-actualization. The worker is able to identify with the product as well as the process of work, which allows the worker to make use of knowledge, experience, skills, and creativity. Interestingly this positive image of work is encountered not only in intellectual, art, and artisan circles, but also among labor movements. All over nineteenth and twentieth century Europe labor movements developed songs in praise of labor—not the labor faced in the factories, but the labor they hoped to perform after their liberation from exploitation. “Sing the song of the high bride, Who was already married to man, Before he was even human. What is his on this earth, Sprang from this faithful covenant. Up with labor!” These lines were written for a Workers’ Educational Association in Vienna, Austria in 1863.

Such attitudes towards work may seem totally contradictory. Lazy hedonists versus industrious working bees! In fact, they demonstrate the double meaning of work between toil and fulfillment. They also help us understand the ambiguous position of social movements, who fight hard working conditions, but also dream of labor relations that will allow them to develop their full human potential. Karl Marx’s writings reveal that he was sympathetic to both attitudes during his life. “The whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor,” he wrote in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in 1844. In Capital, vol. 3, he appears to write the exact opposite: “The realm of freedom really begins only where labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper.”

From here, readers can approach chapter 3, and discover that different languages provide different terms for the toilsome side of work­-labor-that goes back to the Greek pónos and the Latin labor, and the creative side of labor—work—that goes back to the Greek érgon and the Latin opus; we refer to it when we speak of workshop, artwork, or workmanship.