Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part Six


In the last four parts of this series, I gave many examples of the alienating and degrading nature
of work in capitalist societies. Even “good” jobs, such as college teaching and nursing, have lost whatever luster they once had. Part-time teachers teach an increasing
fraction of all course while struggling to make ends meet. Nurses quit their chosen field in droves, burned out and fearful for
their own and their patients’ safety. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children ruin their lives at hard labor, while their parents do the same. Try an
experiment. Go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Find a table with a list of occupations. Pick one out at
random. Learn as much as you can about the work that a person in this occupation does. Now imagine that your are twenty years old. Can you further imagine that you
would be happy doing this work for the rest of your life?

Why do our jobs so often leave us unfulfilled? Why do we say, “Thank God it’s Friday”? Why
would we rather engage in our hobbies than do our jobs? Why do we call ourselves “wage slaves?” Why do mainstream economists analyze labor markets in terms of the
choice that people make to spend their time working or taking leisure? For them, work is the opposite of
leisure — the former generates pain, the latter pleasure. Why in the Christian creation myth is
toiling by the sweat of one’s brow the antithesis of paradise, where “man’s worldly goods” (the
title of Monthly Review founder Leo Huberman‘s fine book) simply appeared as manna from heaven?

The answer to this question is deceptively simple. For some 90 percent of our time on earth, we
lived in gathering and hunter bands. In these societies all work is skilled work, with each person
a master of many complex tasks. There is a gender division of task labor, with men being more
likely to do some things, such as long-distance hunting, and women specializing in others, such
as gathering food. The skilled labor of men and women is part of the natural order of daily life,
and there is no separation between work and “free time.” From what the anthropologists tell us,
gatherers and hunters did not have to work long hours to produce what they needed to live. What
was produced was shared out on a more or less equal basis, a direct consequence of the
egalitarian relations of productions implicit in societies without classes.

Between the beginning of class society and the ascendance of capitalism,
nearly all work was still skilled, in the sense that human beings were responsible for both the
planning and execution of the work. There were exceptions — for example, when large armies of
slaves were forced to build the Egyptian pyramids. Of course, in all class societies, part of the
output produced by workers goes to the ruling class, so labor is done under conditions of
coercion. A serf family in feudal Europe had to give up a share of its crops to the landlord and work a
number of days on the lord’s fields. But the farm labor itself was skilled, and the farm
household made most of its consumer goods. Even into the period of early capitalism, the first
factories were little more than buildings in which skilled workers carried on labor previously done in their
homes. And the skill of capitalism’s early craftsmen is legendary. They were responsible for
many early inventions and eager to learn new things. E. P. Thompson tells us in his masterpiece,
The Making of the English Working Class, that there were weavers who taught themselves the
differential calculus and skilled mechanics who could not be kept out of the scientific lecture

What allows work to be skilled is an immediate connection between the
workers and the nonhuman means of production. Gatherers and hunters are inseparable from
the land on which they hunt and gather. In fact, they appear to have thought of themselves as
not really separate from the natural world. Feudal serfs had direct access to their plots of
land and a right to at least a part of its produce. Early craftsmen in capitalism still owned their own
tools and often worked in their homes, in the infamous outworking or putting-out system. Like the
gatherers and hunters, they made no rigid separation between work and leisure. As Herbert Gutman put it, apprentices learned to drink while they learned a trade.

Early class society took some of the joy from labor but not all of it. As
long as people have control over their work — the materials and tools used, the pace of the work,
the timing of the work — they can still feel human about their labor, even if part of the
product is taken from them, or even if they are paid a wage. But as capitalism developed, capitalists
came to understand that, for them to insure a steady and rising flow of profits, it was essential
that they control the process of production as much as possible. To grasp this, it is necessary to see
that profits arise inside the workplace, in the process of converting the potential labor our employers
purchase in the marketplace into actual labor.

Mainstream economists argue that profits are a cost of production — the
equivalent of the wages paid to workers for their labor. Profits are what have to be paid for the
efforts of the entrepreneur. Marx disputed this notion by pointing out that profits will
go to an owner irrespective of whether or not that owner puts forth any effort at all. If
Bill Gates went into a coma, he would still reap the profits of Microsoft. Furthermore, while
labor is necessary in any system of production, capitalist ownership is not. The workers could own
the workplaces themselves, and then the profits would go to them.

If it cannot be plausibly maintained that profits are a cost, then what are
they? In pre-capitalist societies, the material wellbeing of, say, slave owner or feudal lord, was
the result of the direct appropriation of part of the output produced by slave or serf. The transfer
of this surplus from laborer to ruler was obvious, visible to the naked eye. In capitalism,
things are different, though a transfer occurs just the same. What complicates things is the fact that
our ability to work is purchased and sold in a market, and this market gives the appearance of an
arms-length and neutral transaction. It is anything but.

To be continued. . . .

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.