How to write a history of work

Both ‘work’ and ‘job’ are key words today. Neither had its prominence three hundred years ago. Both are still untranslatable from European languages into many others. Most languages never have one single word to designate all activities that are considered useful. Some languages happen to have a word for activities demanding pay. This word usually connotes graft, bribery, tax or extortion of interest payments. None of these words would comprehend what we call ‘work’.

– Ivan Illich, Shadow Work

The idea of ‘work’ or ‘a job’ is a relatively new concept. Unlike pre-modern labour, which was carried out as diverse and unrelated tasks in support of both monetary remuneration and subsistence, a modern job is a coherent package of day-to-day tasks for a wage that is central to our daily lives. In a way, where labour used to support our lives, literally ‘making a living’, now our lives support us to work. Amidst political slogans like ‘jobs and growth’, assertions of the ‘dignity of work’ and the notion that ‘the best form of welfare is a job’, contemporary work is characterised as an individual engagement with the economy. To be a modern worker is to live inside the economy and work for its betterment, hopefully alongside your own.

Existing histories of work almost invariably shift focus from individuals implicated in a system to the system itself within a few pages. It seems to be very hard to talk about work while keeping the focus on the day to day lives of workers, or without slipping into clinical or categorical language that strips work of its emotional and psychic qualities. The challenge with a history of work is to chart the historical development of abstract terminology while still engaging with the effects these concepts have on the day-to-day lives of people.

The history of work is entangled with the history of the economy, and the idea of ‘the Economy’ itself emerged over the last three centuries alongside ‘Society’ and ‘the Nation’. Foucault calls these abstract concepts “levels of reality”. It’s important to acknowledge that these terms refer to something very abstract and very large that encompass millions of people, and despite this, have very real impacts on the stories we tell about ourselves and the choices we make. It’s only through using these words to talk about people and their actions in the aggregate that they acquire a life — and reality — of their own.

Benedict Anderson very famously called the nation an “imagined community” and dated its emergence in common usage from the 18th century. It is “…imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (IC, 6). The economy is similarly imagined, and like the nation, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Both Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault point out that in the seventeenth century, the word ‘economy’ applied only to the household. Foucault notes that Rousseau wrote of ‘economy’ as “the wise government of the house for the common good of the whole family”. Both scholars point out that before the 18th century, this definition had remained fairly stable since Aristotle, for whom it “designated the typical management of the family, of its goods and wealth, the management or direction of slaves, of the wife, and of children”.

Similar to Anderson, Arendt places the birth of the idea of the nation firmly in modernity, alongside the advent of our current concept of the economy:

The scientific thought that corresponds to this development is no longer political science but ‘national economy’ or ‘social economy’ or Volkswirtschaft, all of which indicate a kind of ‘collective housekeeping’; the collective of families economically organized into the facsimile of one super-human family is what we call ‘society,’ and its political form of organization is called ‘nation’.

Similar to Foucault, she argues that the modern use of the word economy would confound pre-modern people, for whom the small acts of family budgeting that comprised economy stood in stark contrast to the enormity of the political sovereign and their realm.

That enormity is part of the point. We are now surrounded by things that are too large to grasp. Nations that live only in our imagination, populated by millions of people we will never meet. Economies of trillions of dollars, only some of which will ever pass through our hands. Markets of billions of transactions, only some of which will involve us.

When we think in these distinctly modern terms, individual lives tend to disappear under the pressure to understand them as a population. People become statistics. The qualitative becomes quantitative. But just as casting a single vote is how we engage with ‘the nation’, or a single transaction how we engage with ‘the market’, we can think of a job as a way we engage with ‘the economy’. Voting and transacting and working are individual acts so infinitesimal as to be nearly meaningless when compared to the aggregate, but they are invested with significance beyond the everyday by the abstract concepts that we relate them to.

To put it another way, work is one way we conduct ourselves to make the economy “livable” and comprehensible. In the process, we make ourselves amenable to the economy, by which I mean that we make it possible for the economy to function close to the way economists and other expect. Foucault puts it like this: “The economy produces political signs that enable the structures, mechanisms, and justifications of power to function. The free market, the economically free market, binds and manifests political bonds”. One of those political bonds is work.

“Conduct” is an important word here. It’s the word that Foucault uses to denote the object of governing. Miller and Rose frame Governmentality as the use of any combination of “persons, techniques, institutions, [and] instruments for the conducting of conduct”. What they mean is not that we are brainwashed automata, doing the bidding of the government. Instead, webs of power and influence, originating from many sources and weaving themselves together through our actions and the actions of those around us, help to shape our lives in a very granular and real sense. The abstract stories we tell within these webs are invested with weight by virtue of their felt granularity and realness. We invent sufficiently weighty names for these abstract stories, words like economy, society, politics, and work.

The aim of a history of work must be to uncover how the web of ideas and institutions that give it weight came to be. That web is contingent, in that it depends on the ebb and flow of centuries of historical change to make sense. There’s no historical destiny at work here — just millennia of change and chance that mean we think and act the way we do. Millions of people making tiny choices every day, in relation to what they see and feel and think around them, that in aggregate add up to historical change. Iterative and citational change, rather than directed, progressive change.

The most important thing we need to realise is that work was not always this way. How could it have been, when the word itself did not mean what it now means only a few short centuries ago? Before the economy was an abstract noun that covered the nation, it just meant ‘household management’. Before work meant ‘a job’, it was meant a discrete object that took great skill or passion to produce, or the effort expended in its creation. This idea survives in the loaned word ‘opus’ to denote a work of artistic merit, like a painting, sculpture, book, play or symphony, but this is just a vestige of its history. Before machines made most of our everyday items, ‘work’ as a noun could also denote simple, everyday objects made by craftsmen. Work as a verb was contrasted to ‘labour’ as an always-painful activity best left to slaves or women.

Once we realise that work is not a historical constant but a fleeting historical assemblage and figure out how each of the institutions, ideas and practices that make up work came to be, we might be able to undo its power.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.