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Why Work? is a provocative collection of essays and illustrations dissecting “work,” its form under capitalism, and the possibilities for an alternative society. It poses the question: why do some of us still work until we drop in an age of automated production, while others starve for lack of work? This collection includes contributions from luminaries of the past like Bertrand Russell, contemporary theorists like Juliet Schor, and illustrated examinations of workplace potentials and pitfalls.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629635767
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Series: Freedom Series
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Freedom Press is the largest anarchist publishing house in the UK.  Nina Power is a lecturer at Roehampton University, a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of One Dimensional WomanClifford Harper is the author and illustrator of Anarchy: A Graphic Guide and many other books. David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, activist, and Nobel laureate. Juliet Schor is the author of Born to Buy, The Overworked American, and The Overspent American

Read an Excerpt




George Woodcock

Woodcock (1912–1995) was a well-known poet, essayist and critic from Canada, who founded the journal Canadian Literature. He was a member of the Freedom Press editorial group from 1941–1949 and published several books with the collective. This article was first published in War Commentary in March 1944.

In no characteristic is existing society in the West so sharply distinguished from the earlier societies, whether of Europe or the East, than in its conception of time. To the ancient Chinese or Greek, to the Arab herdsman or Mexican peon of today, time is represented in the cyclic processes of nature, the alternation of day and night, the passage from season to season. The nomads and farmers measured and still measure their day from sunrise to sunset, and their year in terms of seedtime and harvest, of the falling leaf and the ice thawing on the lakes and rivers. The farmer worked according to the elements, the craftsman for so long as he felt it necessary to perfect his product. Time was seen in a process of natural change, and men were not concerned in its exact measurement.

For this reason civilisations highly developed in other respects had the most primitive means of measuring time, the hour glass with its trickling sand or dripping water, the sundial, useless on a dull day, and the candle or lamp whose unburnt remnant of oil or wax indicated the hours. All these devices were approximate and inexact, and were often rendered unreliable by the weather or the personal laziness of the tender. Nowhere in the ancient or medieval world were more than a tiny minority of men concerned with time in the terms of mathematical exactitude.

Modern, Western man, however, lives in a world which runs according to the mechanical and mathematical symbols of clock time. The clock dictates his movements and inhibits his actions.

The clock turns time from a process of nature into a commodity that can be measured and bought and sold like soap or sultanas. And because, without some means of exact time keeping, industrial capitalism could never have developed and could not continue to exploit the workers, the clock represents an element of mechanical tyranny in the lives of modern men more potent than any individual exploiter or than any other machine. It is valuable to trace the historical process by which the clock influenced the social development of modern European civilisation.

It is a frequent circumstance of history that a culture or civilisation develops the device that will later be used for its destruction. The ancient Chinese, for example, invented gunpowder, which was developed by the military experts of the West and eventually led to the Chinese civilisation itself being destroyed by the high explosives of modern warfare. Similarly, the supreme achievement of the ingenuity of the craftsmen in the medieval cities of Europe was the invention of the mechanical clock, which, with its revolutionary alteration of the concept of time, materially assisted the growth of exploiting capitalism and the destruction of the medieval culture.

There is a tradition that the clock appeared in the eleventh century, as a device for ringing bells at regular intervals in the monasteries which, with the regimented life they imposed on their inmates, were the closest social approximation in the middle ages to the factory of today. The first authenticated clock, however, appeared in the thirteenth century, and it was not until the fourteenth century that clocks became common as ornaments of the public buildings in the German cities.

These early clocks, operated by weights, were not particularly accurate, and it was not until the sixteenth century that any great reliability was attained. In England, for instance, the clock at Hampton Court, made in 1540, is said to have been the first accurate clock in the country. And even the accuracy of the sixteenth century clocks are relative, for they were equipped only with hour hands. The idea of measuring time in minutes and seconds had been thought out by the early mathematicians as far back as the fourteenth century, but it was not until the invention of the pendulum in 1657 that sufficient accuracy was attained to permit the addition of a minute hand, and the second hand did not appear until the eighteenth century. These two centuries, it should be observed, were those in which capitalism grew to such an extent that it was able to take advantage of the industrial revolution in technique in order to establish its domination over society.

The clock, as Lewis Mumford has pointed out, represents the key machine of the machine age, both for its influence on technics and for its influence on the habits of men. Technically, the clock was the first really automatic machine that attained any importance in the life of men. Previous to its invention, the common machines were of such a nature that their operation depended on some external and unreliable force, such as human or animal muscles, water or wind. It is true that the Greeks had invented a number of primitive automatic machines, but these were used, like Hero's steam engine, either for obtaining "supernatural" effects in the temples or for amusing the tyrants of Levantine cities. But the clock was the first automatic machine that attained a public importance and a social function. Clock-making became the industry from which men learnt the elements of machine making and gained the technical skill that was to produce the complicated machinery of the industrial revolution.

Socially the clock had a more radical influence than any other machine, in that it was the means by which the regularisation and regimentation of life necessary for an exploiting system of industry could best be attained.

The clock provided a means by which time — a category so elusive that no philosophy has yet determined its nature — could be measured concretely in the more tangible terms of space provided by the circumference of a clock dial. Time as duration became disregarded, and men began to talk and think always of "lengths" of time, just as if they were talking of lengths of calico. And time, being now measurable in mathematical symbols, became regarded as a commodity that could be bought and sold in the same way as any other commodity.

The new capitalists, in particular, became rabidly time-conscious. Time, here symbolising the labour of the workers, was regarded by them almost as if it were the chief raw material of industry. "Time is money" became one of the key slogans of capitalist ideology, and the timekeeper was the most significant of the new types of official introduced by the capitalist dispensation.

In the early factories the employers went so far as to manipulate their clocks or sound their factory whistles at the wrong times in order to defraud the workers of a little of this valuable new commodity. Later such practices became less frequent, but the influence of the clock imposed a regularity on the lives of the majority of men which had previously been known only in the monastery. Men actually became like clocks, acting with a repetitive regularity which had no resemblance to the rhythmic life of a natural being. They became as the Victorian phrase put it, "as regular as clockwork." Only in the country districts where the natural lives of animals and plants and the elements still dominated life, did any large proportion of the population fail to succumb to the deadly tick of monotony.

At first this new attitude to time, this new regularity of life, was imposed by the clock-owning masters on the unwilling poor. The factory slave reacted in his spare time by living with a chaotic irregularity which characterised the gin-sodden slums of early nineteenth-century industrialism. Men fled to the timeless world of drink or Methodist inspiration. But gradually the idea of regularity spread downward among the workers. Nineteenth-century religion and morality played their part by proclaiming the sin of "wasting time." The introduction of mass-produced watches and clocks in the 1850's spread time-consciousness among those who had previously merely reacted to the stimulus of the knocker-up or the factory whistle. In the church and the school, in the office and the workshop, punctuality was held up as the greatest of the virtues.

Out of this slavish dependence on mechanical time which spread insidiously into every class in the nineteenth century there grew up the demoralising regimentation of life which characterises factory work today. The man who fails to conform faces social disapproval and economic ruin. If he is late at the factory the worker will lose his job or even, at the present day,* find himself in prison.

Hurried meals, the regular morning and evening scramble for trains or buses, the strain of having to work to time schedules, all contribute by digestive and nervous disturbance, to ruin health and shorten life.

Nor does the financial imposition of regularity tend, in the long run, to greater efficiency. Indeed, the quality of the product is usually much poorer, because the employer, regarding time as a commodity which he has to pay for, forces the operative to maintain such a speed that his work must necessarily be skimped. Quantity rather than quality becoming the criterion, the enjoyment is taken out of the work itself, and the worker in his turn becomes a "clock-watcher," concerned only with when he will be able to escape to the scanty and monotonous leisure of industrial society, in which he "kills time" by cramming in as much time-scheduled and mechanised enjoyment of cinema, radio and newspaper as his wage packet and his tiredness will allow. Only if he is willing to accept the hazards of living by his faith or his wits can the man without money avoid living as a slave to the clock.

The problem of the clock is, in general, similar to that of the machine. Mechanical time is valuable as a means of co-ordination of activities in a highly developed society, just as the machine is valuable as a means of reducing unnecessary labour to a minimum. Both are valuable for the contribution they make to the smooth running of society, and should be used insofar as they assist men to co-operate efficiently and to eliminate monotonous toil and social confusion. But neither should be allowed to dominate men's lives as they do today.

Now the movement of the clock sets the tempo of men's lives — they become the servant of the concept of time which they themselves have made, and are held in fear, like Frankenstein by his own monster. In a sane and free society such an arbitrary domination of man's functions by either clock or machine would obviously be out of the question. The domination of man by the creation of man is even more ridiculous than the domination of man by man. Mechanical time would be relegated to its true function of a means of reference and co-ordination, and men would return again to a balanced view of life no longer dominated by time-regulation and the worship of the clock. Complete liberty implies freedom from the tyranny of abstractions as well as from the rule of men.


Camillo Berneri

Berneri (1897–1937) was a philosopher, anarchist theorist and militant anti-fascist murdered in the Barcelona May Days. This essay was first published in Italian with the title II Lavoro Attraente (Geneva 1938). An English translation was serialised in Freedom newspaper in the late '40s. This is a 1983 translation by Vernon Richards, based on the Freedom version.

On this eve of social upheavals and in the midst of so much ranting about state socialism, authoritarian communism and simplistic economics it should be the anarchists' specific task to put the problem of the discipline of work in clear and concrete terms; a problem like any other social problem needs to be updated in accordance with new technical trends, with new economic, physiological and psychological knowledge, as well as with the various problems that are having to be faced as a result of the different tendencies emerging from the ranks of the industrial proletariat.

While keeping to its broad aims and final objective, anarchism must define the means and methods of its future as a new order. What activity is more universal than work? What problem is vaster and more intermingled with all other problems than that of work? Economic, physiological and psychological laws, as well as practically all society and nearly the whole of man's life are involved in this activity, which even today is drudgery, but which tomorrow will become the supreme human dignity.

The essay which follows is a kind of introduction to the theme of "Attractive Work," to which I should like to see the attention drawn of all those who could contribute ideas, personal experience and particular technical knowledge. An expert would have done more and better; but as the experts are usually disinclined to part with their acquired knowledge, it is up to the less inhibited to raise these questions and bring them to the attention of our comrades.

We shall have made a stride forward if, at our meetings and in the press, we are able to analyse the question of free and attractive work, the more so as this problem involves many others and is, by its very nature, likely to recall interesting experiences and to suggest constructive schemes.

Workers as Slaves

I have seen the blacksmith at work before the open flame of his forge. His hands were soiled and he was as dirty as a crocodile.

The various workers who handle the chisel — do they enjoy more leisure than the peasant? Their field is the wood they carve, and they work well after the day is ended and even at night if there is light in their houses.

The mason works the hardest stones. When he has finished carrying out the orders received and his hands are tired, does he perhaps, take a rest? He must be back at the yard at sunrise though his knees and back are at breaking point.

The barber works at his trade well into the night. For a mouthful of bread he must run from house to house in search of his customers.

Why such toil hardly to fill one's belly?

And the dyer of cloth? His hands stink; they smell of putrid fish.

His eyes droop with sleep, but his hands never rest from preparing finely-coloured robes.

He hates cloth, every kind of cloth.

The cobbler is very unhappy, and is always complaining he has nothing to chew but his leather.

They work, they all work — but it is as with honey, the gatherer alone eats it.

This poem, which dates from the fourteenth century before Christ and describes workers' conditions in the reign of Rameses II of Egypt, expresses a lament which continues throughout the centuries. In slave societies, work is a curse. But even apart from its servile state, it is pain and suffering. The repugnance which the shepherd, turned peasant and artisan, has for work, is reflected in the religious dogma which holds that work is a consequence of, and a penance for, an error committed by the first human couple.

The distaste of pastoral and warrior societies for work led to making woman "a domestic animal" and the slave the "typical worker." To the slave, work is nothing but suffering. The negro slave who once said to a traveller: "The monkey is a very intelligent animal, and could talk if it wanted to; if it does not, that is because it does not want to be forced to work" — was merely expressing the attitude of the worker to servile labour.

Ancient mythologies depict the tiller of the soil as a reprobate paying for his sins of rebellion: Adam, progenitor of the human race, is the angel fallen from the heaven of idleness to the hell of work.

According to Christian ethics, work is imposed by God on man as a penance consequent an original sin. Ancient and medieval Catholicism glorified work mostly as an expiation of sin. The Reformation, too, considered work as "remedium peccati" although Luther and Calvin went further than Saint Thomas by forecasting the modern conception of the dignity of work, an idea outlined by the major thinkers of the Renaissance.

Bourgeois moralism transferred the principle of work as a duty to the field of civil morals, and invented a mystique whereby the exploited serf was placed on a monument as "knight of labour," the "faithful servant," the "model worker," and so on.


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Table of Contents


Beyond Waged Labour Nina Power (written 2016) 1

In Praise of Idleness Bertrand Russell (1932) 8

Useful Work versus Useless Toil William Morris (1885) 16

The Problems of Work

The Tyranny of the Clock George Woodcock (1944) 31

The Problem of Work Camillo Bemeri (1938) 35

The Art of Shovelling Ifan Edwards (1947) 55

Measuring Misery John Hewetson (1954) 61

The Wage System Peter Kropotkin (1888) 63

'Who will do the Dirty Work?' Tony Gibson (1952) 75

The Dominant Idea Voltarine de Cleyre (1910) 81

Alternatives and Futures

Reflections on Utopia | SP (1962) 84

Collectives in the Spanish Revolution Gaston Leval (1975) 87

Significance of the "Self-Build" Movement (1952) 91

Leisure in America August Heckscher II (1961) 92

The Other Economy: The Possibilities of Work Beyond Employment Denis Pym (1981) 98

Visions: Six Drawings Cliff Harper (1975) 108

Production: Need vs Profit

Editorials from Freedom Newspaper (1958-1962) 114

Reflection on Full Employment

More Parasites Than Workers?

Workers, Wake Up!

Wasted Manpower

Financial Crisis

Redundancy and Revolution

Abundance May Compel Social Justice

Time is Life

Changing Times

Wrinklies and Crumblies Discuss Punks and Joblessness Colin Ward (1996) 131

Beyond an Economy of Work and Spend Juliet Schor (1997) 135

Dark Satanic Cubicles: It's Time to Smash the Job Culture! Claire Wolfe (2005) 152

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs David Graeber (2013) 159

Work (2005) 163

Index 193

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