A review of James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

To call James Suzman’s Work “sweeping” doesn’t really do it justice. Covering around 20,000 years of human history and reaching back further through evolution, its timescale dwarfs even David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. Blending anthropology, archaeology, the natural sciences and history to build a sort of grand unified theory of work across human history, it probably belongs in the same category as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Perhaps, given its concerns and content, rather than call it a history of work, it would make more sense to call Work a natural history.

The book’s definition of work is innovative and interesting. It begins with a universal definition of work as “purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end” (8), and marries it to a notion of work taken from physics as “the force that needed to be applied to move an object over a particular distance” (25). Work is thus conceptualised as the expenditure of energy; eating becomes ‘energy capture’, as does the burning of fossil fuels to power mechanical and digital production lines.

Using this model, Suzman’s thesis is this: Before agriculture, nomadic, hunter-gatherer cultures lived within their environmental means, which meant small populations, varied and resilient diets, and above all, short working days and long leisure hours. Energy was abundantly available from the natural environment, and energy needs were relatively low. This helped to foster a cultural sense that resources were abundant.

About 15,000 years ago, humans started to domesticate crops, meaning they abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and became wedded to the soil. The most important effects of this change were an explosion in population as a result of the significant increases in energy capture afforded by domesticated staple crops. At the same time, there was a massive reduction in leisure time as additional mouths to feed outpaced the ability of farmers to feed them. This ‘agricultural revolution’ left humankind with a pervasive sense of scarcity which drove farmers in particular to never-ending, back-breaking labour. Given how many of us were farmers prior to the industrial revolution, that attitude to labour and to resources has spread and survived. To Suzman, this is the rub: because we feel like everything is scarce, we can never stop working.

Suzman never loses sight of the ways human manipulation of the environment has impacted humans in turn. We have ignored the environment at our own peril. Farming has increased our dependency on a small number of high-energy staple crops that could be coaxed into growing in enormous volumes, narrowing our diets and exposing us to the risks of crop failure and resulting famine. The domestication of animals has brought about land use changes and the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans (accounting for some 60% of all human diseases at this point), most recently in the form of COVID-19.

All of these developments are entangled – the costs of large populations are large-scale environmental change and the concomitant possibility of collapse, a precarity which brings with it the very notions of scarcity which drive us to work. This is where the book is at its strongest – placing work as the ‘expenditure’ side of the energy capture/expenditure dyad, and examining the costs for people and the environment of assuming that energy is hard to come by and to capture (in the face of mounting evidence that this is simply not true). The theory is simple, robust, and compelling, even if the concept of ‘work’ itself can get a bit lost in the vastness as only one side of the capture/expenditure equation.

However, there is an anthropological essentialism lurking at the heart of its argument. It begins with the attempt at a universal definition of work as energy expenditure, and it carries over to people as well as concepts. In a passage drawing on evolutionary biology that compares humans across all times and places to animals he writes: “we play, we fiddle, we experiment, we talk (if only to ourselves), we daydream, we imagine and, eventually, we get up and find something to do” (109). To this list, he could have added, we farm, we eat, we work. This unproblematised and timeless category of ‘the human’ is essential to the framework at the core of Work’s argument; without it the comparisons between pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers and contemporary western office workers would be impossible.

It’s also an artefact of Suzman’s own disciplinary background. He draws extensively from his own body of work, which concerns the Ju/’hoansi people of what is now Namibia. As with fellow Anthropologist Graeber’s book Debt, Suzman makes use of the Ju/’hoansi as a sort of eternal or continuous past to compare to the actually-existing future. This is one disciplinary difference that I will always struggle with as a historian – I am not convinced that a study of Kalahari bushmen in the present to can be used to uncover much at all about how anyone lived 20,000 years ago, but then, I am not even passingly familiar with anthropological theory.

The assumption that all humans across time share the same drives brings with it a few huge unasked questions. Although he praises the communal lifestyle and large volume of free time exhibited by the Ju/’hoansi, Suzman stops short of arguing that we would all be better off if we were still hunter-gatherers. This is perhaps because the chain of questions this argument throws up quickly leads to a dark place. What might a society re-built around ‘living within our means’ to recapture a sense of material abundance look like? What would the transition to such a world look like, especially given the Malthusian proposition that we’d need to lose a few billion people to make it work? Who gets to make this transition, which lives are lost, and who gets to choose? These are not simple questions, and I have grave doubts about whether they can be answered satisfactorily. I can see why Suzman avoids asking them, given the obvious pitfalls.

Despite the book’s tendency towards essentialism, the contingency of work occasionally shines through. In a brilliantly concise formulation, Suzman points out that “often the only thing that differentiates work from leisure is context and whether we are being paid to do something or are paying to do it.” (7) He gives the revealing example of hunting, which was once a necessary tool of survival but is now a hobby first world people pay to do.

The book’s overarching argument also makes a case against a scarcity mindset, arguing that abundance and scarcity are as much about the ways people view the world as they are about the world itself. Suzman challenges us to change: we could, he suggests, broadly reconceptualise the world and our place in it as a garden of plenty, as long as we reformulate our own expectations about what that world can provide. If we could do so, we might be able to escape the trap of endless work.

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