A Working Definition of Work

In my readings on the history of work thus far, I’ve come across a fairly stable trend in how thinkers about work think about work. At the beginning of the 21st century we have two broad and entangled ways of understanding what work is.

Firstly, to put none too fine a point on it, work is the thing you do so you can get stuff. ‘Stuff’ in this instance is things you need (food, shelter, clothes), but it’s also things you want (Nintendo Switches, beer, flatscreen TVs, overseas holidays, sports cars and other ‘luxury’ goods). One of the first problems most people encounter at this point in the definition is what gets to count as a ‘need’. When a tabloid press outlet runs an exposé on welfare cheats, it’s telling how often they focus on the fact that ‘dole bludgers’ spend money on things beyond the ‘bare necessities,’ as if the very poor are somehow not entitled to feel the idle happiness of entertainment.

I am put in mind of some news coverage I saw during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. I remember footage of trains leaving packed platforms, and commentary about waves of people heading for Europe. I also remember a photo of a power board with what must have been twenty mobile phones connected to it, attached to the argument that no “real” refugee would have a smartphone. As if your phone – which contains all your contacts, your bank details, your emails, and all the photos of your family – wouldn’t be the first thing you grabbed as you fled your home for good. One person’s luxury is another’s necessity.

The idea of refugees also conjures another key element of the history of work. Andrea Komlosy’s Work: The Last 1,000 Years offers six ‘cross-sections’ of labour relations in Europe and elsewhere: in 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900 and today. One of the trends that emerges from these slices is just how important free movement has been to workers for centuries. Komlosy’s history identifies several historical efforts to curtail the free movement of people whose labour could accelerate or impede other people’s getting of stuff: from enclosure, to the development of feudalism, to debtors’ prisons and vagrancy laws, to the infrastructure of both American slavery and the Jim Crow regime that succeeded it, the wealthy have always tried to restrict the movement of what Marx called ‘surplus population’ but for our purposes should perhaps be thought of as ‘people who needed to relocate to secure the stuff they needed to live’. The fact that migrants become easy targets in moments of perceived shortage – “they’re here to take our jobs” – should clue us in to the significance of this connection over time.

Conversely, historical progress as we like to understand it is often tied to moments where large groups of the marginalised are given freedom of movement — the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, or of the slaves in the USA. In medieval Europe, the establishment of towns outside the authority of feudal nobles, and the fact they gave respite to runaway serfs, conforms to this broad historical trend. People will tear themselves from their homes to find work if it is unavailable where they are, and at various moments in the past, the powerful have attempted to curtail the ability of workers to move to find better work — either by stopping ‘cheap’ workers from leaving, or preventing ‘surplus’ workers from arriving.

The point is that humans aren’t self-sufficient. We need external input to continue living – so at its heart, ‘work’ is what you do – through the medium of money – to get enough stuff to live, and then maybe a bit more. There is debate over the boundary between the ‘need’ and the ‘more’, and where and how you set that boundary is ultimately (one form of) politics. If you’re a Marxist, you call that ‘accumulation’. If you’re an economist, you call it ‘growth’.

The key point here is that the activity that Hannah Arendt called ‘Labour,’ which is a cyclical activity designed to stave off necessity, is only one part of why we toil away in paid employment. It’s important that in the 21st century we are remunerated for our effort in money, because money is a fungible resource that makes it hard to easily delineate between needs and wants. Only a part of our jobs is related to maintaining the Life Process, but because we pay for luxury items with the same resource, we can’t tell which part of our effort goes to which end. It’s not like you work Monday through Wednesday for food and board, and then Thursday and Friday for your Netflix subscription and a beer ration.


But it’s the second way we think about work that has such massive implications for the ways we relate to one another. Work – ‘earning a living’ – is also the sole legitimate means most of us have to secure the resources we need to keep breathing. Since those resources are reduced to monetary remuneration that make it impossible to tell what is a want and what is a need, it’s impossible to tell when somebody dips below subsistence, and the price of asking for help is drastic interference from others.

Without work, you’re left to charity, welfare, or death. Once you’re on welfare or subject to charity, your life is no longer fully your own. You’re dependent; subject to state scrutiny, forced work programs, or limitations on your ability to exercise free will and agency through mechanisms like food stamps or cashless welfare cards.

Work, then, under liberal capitalism, is what you do to demonstrate to other people that you can be trusted to live your own life free from their interference. Whatever else this means, it means that we as a culture have not actually agreed on the universal right of the living to their own continued lives. We’ve only agreed to it as a conditional right.

This means that above all a job is a moral undertaking. This is not a new idea. If there’s one character other than Marx who shows up in all the books I’ve read on this topic, it’s Max Weber. His incredibly influential The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism outlined the now-common notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic”, which holds up frugality and industry as godly qualities. According to Richard Donkin, it’s not just the Calvinists and Puritans but also the Quakers who helped to convert Protestant Nonconformism into Capitalism.

Connecting the Calvinist notion of the ‘saved’ to the entitlement of the worker to the “sweat of their brow” has invested ‘hard work’ with a moral character it’s never been able to shuck since. What it’s left us with, centuries later, is a collection of attitudes that lionise the wealthy for hard work done in the past, while demonising the poor for trying to find access to work in the present. Despite all of our miraculous technologies and the staggering productivity they’ve enabled, we can’t find a better way to think about the distribution of stuff, beyond crudely delineating who owns what.


I have many, many queries about my own analysis here. Work is more than just subsistence; what about the ‘psychic pay’ of a job well done? I’ve tried very hard to avoid the language of ‘rights’ because that language has some incredible baggage. For someone who has a stated aim of avoiding a Marxist framework, this is some pretty Marxist stuff.

Partly this is about my sources. Most histories of work impose a broadly Marxist frame on a very large swathe of the past, rather than attempting to understand that past on its own terms. It is extremely difficult to focus on the individual in this sort of analysis. People quickly become large, indistinct blobs with names that enforce identities and solidarities – peasants, slaves, workers.

It’s taken mainly from two books, and bears the traces of those books. Komlosy’s methodology is the longue duree, which uses a stable framework, developed in the present, to stably assess the past across a long period. One of its weaknesses is that it persuades its sources to fit it, rather than being made to fit its sources. Donkin’s history of work is very interesting, but not particularly robust. All it’s really done is make it clear to me that I don’t understand Weber well enough to talk about him with any authority.

But all of this self-critique doesn’t undo the basis of this first pass at a working definition: in the 21st century, work is a thing you do to show to other people you should be allowed to keep existing, based on the fact that you won’t take their stuff.

If we’re to survive the coming of climate breakdown, we’re going to need to do something other than building walls to hold out the ‘surplus population’. We’re going to have to collectively find a way to define and then meet people’s needs without reference to their ability to convince an employer to pay them for their labour in an increasingly competitive and unsustainable labour market, and in the face of rising wealth inequality.

The other option is a world where simply being born doesn’t entitle you to your own life.

Featured Image: ‘The Wealth of the Nation’, Seymour Fogel, 1938 (Source)

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