On her book Work: The Last 1,000 Years

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In a nutshell

In contrast to earlier, more inclusive ideas about work, the Western conception of work was, by the end of the nineteenth century, reduced to gainful employment. Labor studies from liberal, conservative, reformist or radical-socialist perspectives all promoted the idea of an ongoing transition towards paid, socially secured work relations. Labor movements fought capitalist exploitation, but stuck to a very narrow concept of work. Housework and subsistence work were not included in their definition of work or their conception of exploitation and appropriation. This optical illusion was due to a Western-centric perspective that equated the colonized world with backwardness, as well as to a family ideology that equated (not only female) unpaid work with nature; natural duties associated with biologically defined roles (motherhood, care for husband, children, elderly), denied non-paid, household and care activities the character of work.

This limited perspective contrasted sharply with the personal experience of most people in the world—whether in colonies, developing countries, or in the industrializing world. Reducing work and the production of value to remunerated employment is hardly convincing, not only from a feminist perspective. During the last 1,000 years, work has always consisted of paid and unpaid, free and unfree, voluntary and forced labor relations that people combined during their life-course within households and in the framework of local, regional, or global divisions of labor.

Based on historical and cross-cultural experience, this book therefore pleads for a broader understanding of work. It offers an analytical framework that categorizes work according to the beneficiaries of the product: Commodified labor produces for the market and it includes the labor power that is sold on the labor market. Reciprocal or subsistence labor is performed within family households or local neighborhoods without money as an intermediate; it delivers goods and services for immediate use. Tributary labor consists of those duties and taxes, in kind or in money, which are contributed to a landlord or to a tax-collecting polity. This framework allows us to include all types of work and labor, and compare them across history; such an approach does not reveal a linear development from reciprocal to commodified labor, but different combinations, varying across time and space.

The book consists of two parts: Part I depicts the changing perceptions of work and labor within Western discourse that resulted in the reductionist understanding of work and labor in the nineteenth century. It contains a historiographic re-evaluation of Western narratives of work and labor history, both Marxist, liberal and conservative. Instead, it develops a methodological model to assess appropriation and transfer of value, combining surplus value from paid labor with values appropriated from non-paid work. Part I also provides the analytical framework and proposes a terminology that allows assessing the different manifestations of work. Part II offers six historical cross-cuts from the thirteenth century to the twenty-first century, showing the different combinations of labor relations on a local, the European, and the global level. It offers a very short history of the interregional and international division of labor that includes the contributions of non-paid work to the making of global capitalism. Readers are encouraged to read Part I and then to proceed to Part II, if they are interested in historical examples.

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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 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.

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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.

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This book follows a historical approach. It challenges the reader by offering theoretical concepts for interpreting the changing meaning and interpretation of work throughout history. At the same time, I hope to contribute to contemporary debates.

The current debate about work—and its eventual substitution by robots, whether enthusiastically applauded or rejected—is still shaped by a Euro-centric, male, big-industry notion of work, that reduces work to gainful employment that opens access to wages (income) and social security. Viewed from a global perspective that includes all types of workers, gainful employment appears to be but one form of work alongside others. The history of work is a history of combining paid and unpaid, formal and informal, free and unfree work by individuals and within families, households, companies, and commodity chains. Women’s studies and feminist historians have been challenging the division between production and reproduction, public and private for a long time. When their findings are intertwined with global perspectives, work can be conceived in its greater complexity, and we begin to see interconnections that change with economic conjunctures, business cycles, and technologies.

The historical perspective and a broader understanding of work—including gainful employment, care and housework, voluntary work for the community, as well as personal training and education—may help us to overcome fears, or hopes, expressed in current discussions, that work might disappear altogether. We can address the deep and ongoing transformation of labor relations both in the former industrialized countries in the West and the newly industrializing countries in the Global South on the basis of a broad and flexible understanding of work in its toilsome and fulfilling expressions.

March 19, 2018
Andrea Komlosy Work: The Last 1,000 Years Translated by Jacob Watson with Loren Balhorn Verso 272 pages, 5.5 x 8.3 inches ISBN 978 1786634108

Andrea Komlosy is professor at the Institute for Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Austria, where she is coordinating the Global History and Global Studies programs. She has published on labor, migration, borders, and uneven development on the regional, European, and global scale. Recently, she published a chapter, “Work and Labor Relations,” in Capitalism: The Re-Emergence of a Historical Concept (Bloomsbury, 2016) and the book Work: The Last 1,000 Years (Verso, 2018), which is featured in her Rorotoko interview.

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March 19, 2018