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1 September 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 9:46am

How work makes us human

Collective benefit is what gives labour meaning, but the pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in the ways we make a living.

By Lyndsey Stonebridge

Before it became our family home, our house in the Aude was a factory for the recycling of wool into shoddy. Built next to the river around 1900, it once had just two large open floors. Bales would be winched in through the open top floor and pushed down the trapdoor to the second where they would be fed into the new-fangled tangle of machines powered by a small furnace. It was always noisy, hot even in winter, unbearably so in the summer. The acid from the chemicals was so strong it stung the eyes of passing children. At the end of the day, the ten or so men and women workers would descend down to the cool of the cellar and the wine barrels that waited for them there. The house was a place of labour, but it was also a place of human relationships; the collective tangle of tensions, resentments and friendships was as important for getting the work done as the bodies, the machines, the furnace and the river.

The relatively late industrialisation of France’s cities put an end to the building’s factory life in the 1950s, and its limed brickwork was left to crumble into the metal until my brother-in-law arrived in the 1980s. What remains are the bale tallies etched into the walls and the lanolin from the wool that seeped into the floors and beams, and which in the summer heats up again and begins to escape. A lot of housework has gone into cleaning up the dark, rich oil: floorboards have been repainted annually, carpets steamed, toddlers’ feet scrubbed twice daily. But still it comes every year, the by product of one generation’s hard labour creating regular domestic chores for another.

Jan Lucassen’s new history wants us to pay close attention to the quiet but insistent ways that the work of others leaks from the past into the present, connecting us to both our ancestors and to one another. The sociality of work, he suggests, is foundational. It is why work matters to us not just as individuals but collectively, as people – as humans.

This thesis justifies Lucassen’s rather grand subtitle – “A New History of Humankind”. Do not be misled by this ambitious claim. This history of work has no master-plot. Lucassen’s diligent empirical study quietly puts grand ideologies and theories of work in their place. Work in his story does not redeem us, and nor does the promise of liberation from work always drive us; work is neither just endless class struggle, nor the virtuous engine of the market. Lucassen’s claim to a working history of humankind is subtler and more modest. He simply demonstrates that it is through work that we have come to relate to one another.

To survive we need to work, that is a human fact: we need to eat, shelter, look after our young, not suffer too much if we can help it. But the different ways in which work has developed over time has given meaning to our individual and collective lives. Work is a story about human cooperation; it is how we come to understand what is fair and right. Work has evolved over time, and Lucassen gives a compelling and comprehensive account of that evolution. But it is also experienced existentially: we might work with our hands, but work is always also in our heads. Work, although Lucassen does not put it quite so strongly as this, is the most enduring moral index of our lives together that we have.

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It is no surprise, then, that both work itself and questions about the politics and ethics of work have been so conspicuous during the pandemic. Inequalities between different kinds of work and workers were already rising rapidly before Covid-19 struck. But within the space of a few weeks the usually quietly intimate labour of care for the dying and sick became brutally public. It was dramatically clear who was really doing the grafting: the health workers – many of them black and brown, many of them migrants – who cancelled their holidays and worked double-shifts; the women leaving their families to bed down in care homes; the transport workers driving shift workers through the dawn on ghost buses and trains. These people were working to their limits and doing so, in full view of everyone, for the collective benefit.

When in summer 2020 the UK government chivvied everyone else to throw open their doors to get the economy working again, the message was that we too could work for the collective benefit by getting “back to work” (in truth many had never worked so hard as they did at home) and consuming the products of other people’s work. As many intuited at the time, it transpired we were being asked to work for the benefit of a social and economic model that was indifferent not just to our best interests, but our basic needs. The wealthier stayed on Zoom and kept ordering gourmet takeaways. Others, having little choice, obliged and got moving, ate out, helped out. Tens of thousands more died. This was not how collective effort was supposed to end.

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One year later, the clucking about furloughed workers getting too fond of their vegetable patches, or spoilt university graduates being too precious to learn how to lay a brick, rings hollow from a government that too often appears to be facilitating easy grifting for insiders than doing grown-up grafting for the collective good.

[see also: Why work lost its worth]

Ministers and officials have not just broken lockdown rules: often they don’t seem to be working with the same anxious intensity as the rest of us. An office romance will sound implausibly quaint to those self-employed and former small business owners now toiling in the gig economy to keep the households they already have together.

The different ways in which people have worked during the pandemic are not fair, certainly not equal, and everyone knows it.

Usually, work is a less visible common thread. Work occupies so much of our lives that normally we cannot see its deeper moral stories and historical structures. But the strong ambivalences we feel about work are rarely far from the surface. “Frankly,” says an unemployed English miner from the 1960s quoted by Lucassen, “I hate work. Of course, I could also say with equal truth that I love work.” What he hated was having to labour under the terms of the more powerful; what he loved was working with others, the sense of community, purpose and status. The barrel in the cool cellar at the day’s end is not just the reward for labour, it symbolises an important part of work itself.

The balance between “vertical subordination” and “horizontal cooperation”, in Lucassen’s terms, has always been delicate. Nonetheless, he argues, when you add it all up, about 80 per cent of the history of work has been about reciprocity, about people doing things for one another for their mutual benefit. This might be why ruthless and insensitive managing-down outrages even those not directly affected by it: because it is against the grain of the deep history of work.

***

Lucassen has done a lot of adding up. This is a global and epic historical study that mines the huge body of labour history, and presents it within a strong conceptual framework. His book practises the reciprocity it commends. “Humanity appears to be able to organise the work at hand in infinite variations,” he writes; the moral beauty of this book lies in the careful homage it pays to those variations.

His story begins at the very beginning, with hunter-gatherer societies and the emergence of reciprocity. Yes, this was a story of competition and survival, but millennia before Boris Johnson’s fatuous analogies about naturally fit cornflakes rising to the top of the box by crushing the crumbs beneath them, people understood that there was an evolutionary advantage to working for mutual benefit. The “aggrandisers”, the “big men” and their “cult practices” arrived at the point at which all the collective work started to produce a surplus.

Before the ownership of the means of production, there was a grab for that bit extra, and one of the ways in which the self-proclaimed kings of the temples and dominions grabbed was by behaving as though wealth was theirs by right. The history of inequality begins at this point.

Between 5000 and 500 BCE, as many will remember from friezes around classroom walls, different kinds of work began to be divided up and redistributed – “Let’s call it reciprocity in disguise,” says Lucassen. But if “horizontal cooperation” always got work going, “vertical subordination” was never far behind to take advantage. War becomes key at the point at which it makes more sensible to keep prisoners of war as slaves than execute them. With a bitter irony that the world has yet either to recover from or fully reckon with, the burgeoning of what now seems “the most normal thing in the world” – wage labour and the autonomy it buys us – coincided with the global market in “unfree labour”.

Few chapters in the history of work have continued to leak into the present with more toxic consequences. Lucassen quotes Oluale Kossola from Benin, captured and forced into plantation slavery in the 1860s, who told his story to the Harlem Renaissance writer, anthropologist and film-maker Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s: “Den the white man lookee and lookee… Den he choose… he take one hunnard and thirty.”

Unfreedom, Lucassen reminds us, “was not at all self-evident or easily accepted as a fact of life”. There is very little, in truth, that is self-evident or easily determinable about the history of work. The global as well as historical range of Lucassen’s study means that many Eurocentric assumptions about the natural history of work are firmly checked. Monetised societies were crucial to the development of work as we have come to know it today, but as with India and Europe between 400 and 1000 CE, the economies of coins and exchange necessary to wage labour could disappear as swiftly as they came.

There was not so much a “great divergence” between the “West and the rest” with the coming of industrialisation, as a series of divergences and convergences among work economies. Slavery didn’t end at the close of the 19th century, it continued in the Eurasian Steppes, just as unfree labour carried on throughout the 20th century and continues to this day. Even progressive theories of work didn’t always produce what their authors hoped. With another horrid irony, “all massive reversals of free labour in the 20th century took place under the banner of a worker’s paradise”.

Sometimes it can seem like hard work itself reading about the all the variations and divergences of work in such detail. But I think Lucassen insists on both the range and the detail because he wants us to understand how long and how hard we have been struggling not simply for freedom from oppressive labour, but for the right to work in a way that makes sense for a common understanding of a shared humanity. That nothing in the history of work had to be this or that way means that things don’t have to be as they are now in the future.

***

Lucassen concludes by observing the new phenomenon of white Western men being deprived of the breadwinner status and the autonomy that once came with their right to meaningful work. There has been a disproportionate political fallout from this new shake of the cornflake box, and one has to wonder what might happen if similar complaints from women about status, work and entitlement were taken half as seriously. Lucassen opens his book by noting that women have always worked harder than men. But it doesn’t always feel like that in this history, despite his best efforts, and despite drawing on the work of notable historians of women’s labour (such as Emma Griffin on the 19th century).

Hard labour has always been disguised under the roofs of households. Generally, toddlers’ feet are scrubbed not with the genteel aim of saving the rugs, but to keep out death and disease. As we’ve all discovered lately, you can’t simply hoover up a virus or wipe it clean with disinfectant: the business of sustaining life against grim odds is long and laborious, boring and nightmarish. Women have most to gain from the agency and independence that comes with waged work. But there is something deeply weird about a culture that keeps inviting women “into” work as though they haven’t always been doing most of it – and under terms in which the “collective” benefits always seem to favour men.

[see also: The future of postliberalism]

Everything about Jan Lucassen’s book suggests that a political focus on the fairness of work will hit a deep nerve, as the Labour Party has recently recognised. But without women’s work being at the centre of that focus, we will still only be telling a partial working history of humankind.

After the Black Death, mobility restrictions were imposed across Europe to stop people from benefiting from labour shortages. Famously, the workers, understanding and appreciating the increased autonomy and agency that comes with wage labour, were having none of it. Women benefited too, which is perhaps part of the story we should now be telling our daughters. Whatever the short-term populist gain of nationalist migration policies made to appease disgruntled former breadwinners and their opportunistic “aggrandisers”, Lucassen reminds us that there is a far bigger, and possibly more powerful, human history here too. We will work, and we will not be prevented from finding collective meaning, agency, dignity and yes, to quote the English miner, love from work – wherever that might take us. 

Lyndsey Stonebridge is professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. Her book on Hannah Arendt is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape

The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind
Jan Lucassen
Yale University Press, 544pp, £25

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future