Weeping in a Rolls-Royce

Blood, Sweat and Tears: the evolution of work

Richard Donkin<em> Texere, 400pp, £18.99</em>


It is difficult not to feel a sense of betrayal about technological progress. We have invented machines to do work for us, but the more ingenious our inventions, the harder we find ourselves working. We have exchanged 40 hours of slavery in a soot-covered factory for a 70-hour week chained within the granite-faced confines of the giants of the new global service economy. The average American now works one month a year longer than he or she did in the 1960s. Britons, similarly, seem to be increasingly choosing work over leisure.

As Richard Donkin makes clear in his broad history of work, Blood, Sweat and Tears, we have only ourselves to blame for so readily giving up our lives to our employers. It is a combination of our desires always staying one step ahead of our ability to afford them, our psychological need to define ourselves by our work, and an immutable work ethic, that continues to drive us long after the religion that spawned it ceased to be relevant.

The history of work has a disturbing aspect: unlike political history, there seems to be no liberating force behind it. It gets better, then it gets worse, with no overall trend towards greater freedom. The industrial revolution created inhuman working practices, particularly for children, which took a hundred years to eliminate. Then came the introduction of scientific management and Fordist production techniques, which treated workers as dehumanised automatons, creating an alienated, and politically threatening, mass working class.

The expansion of education and mobility offered more choice and created a class of knowledge-workers whom employers need to value. However, the hope of preferment in a hierarchical organisation, together with the fear of redundancy, has tied us to our employers, ensuring our continuing serfdom.

Too many of us are giving away too much of our lives to indifferent employers. "It is as if the world has become split into two societies - one with the means to enjoy leisure but not the time, and one that has the time but not the means," Donkin writes.

Although his primary message is about ensuring that work is worthwhile, his study is of much broader relevance: it is the flip-side of our current concern about the impact of the globalisation of the world economy by large corporations. Both issues are related to the increasing power of institutions that are only accountable in financial terms. Both issues have arisen as a result of the choices we make - whether for better pay or cheaper goods. The anti-globalisation protesters are mainly concerned with the external impact of these institutions. The internal impact on the people who make them up is equally important.

Important recent studies have highlighted the pathological side of our relationship with work, particularly Robert Lane's The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. "Amidst the satisfaction people feel with the material progress," he writes, "there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximise well-being."

Whether it is ever increasing instances of clinical depression, suicide, divorce rates or the results of surveys of well-being, every measure of happiness shows a negative correlation with GDP per head in the postwar years. The problem would seem to be that, although we know how to earn money, we don't know how to be happy. As a result, we tend to take the money, which can offer security and a source of respect that extends beyond happiness. As Patrizia Gucci famously said: "I would rather be weeping in a Rolls-Royce than happy on a bicycle."

This attitude is deeply entrenched in our politics, with tax cuts now speaking much louder to the electorate than the services they support. Blood Sweat & Tears and The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies hint at the start of a new intellectual opposition to a world in which the only accountability is financial. One doubts, though, that it will ever amount to much of a political protest movement: if we are wasting our lives at work, the only people we can throw a brick at is ourselves.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men