The Ways of Work

E. F. Schumacher was one of the first environmentalists to write about production and work, and he is the only one I know of who discusses work in a spiritual and religious context. In Small is Beautiful (1974) he had a chapter on “Buddhist economics,” which considered a number of spiritual aspects of industrial society. Also, in the posthumous collection Good Work (1979, Schumacher explicitly relates work and other aspects of industrial society to the Christian Gospels.

Why do People Work?

Schumacher lists three good reasons, from his spiritual and ethical perspective, to work:

  1. to give a person a chance to utilize and develop their faculties
  2. to overcome ego centredness by joining with other people in a common task
  3. to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence

Most of us spend some of our time, both on the job and elsewhere, doing spiritually meaningful work of this sort. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to get paid for this kind of work; at other times we do do relatively mindless and soulless activities for money. Most of us still do meaningful work for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, as volunteers, or as hobbies.

Economists tell us that work is a “disutility” — something to be avoided — and they only count work that is done for money. Schumacher is telling us that work is a normal human activity and closely related to the ultimate purpose of life, whether or not we are paid for it. It seems pretty clear to me that, given the opportunity, almost everyone wants to work in Schumacher’s sense, whether we are paid or not. So if we’re going to reduce economic production and consumption, the question we need to ask is:

Why do People Work for Money?

Most of us prefer to do meaningful work (as described above) for money rather than for free and, as Schumacher laments, we are often required to do meaningless and soul-destroying work for money.  Why?

  • Basic needs. Schumacher describes “goods and services needed for a becoming existence.” Some of these can be created ourselves or bartered, but in the 21st Century many of them require money.
  • Fear. Most of us are concerned about not being able to obtain basic goods and services because of poverty, illness, disability, or disaster. We earn money and acquire property as insurance against old age, homelessness, and unemployment.
  • Respect. In North American society, people are employed, self-employed, students, retired, or unemployed. The first four categories are respectable, the fifth is not. Being a homemaker or caregiver is perhaps a marginally respectable condition.
  • Status. “Keeping up with the Joneses” has become a cliche, but it is nonetheless true, and it is continually reinforced by advertising. We value many qualities in our society, but we value money for its own sake and we value other qualities more if they are well-paid.
  • Debt. Borrowing enables consumption to exceed production over the short term, but it commits the person to long term production. Debt bondage has a history, as in the lyrics of the song Sixteen Tons, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
  • Freedom. More money means more choice of consumer goods and services but it also means a loss of the time and energy spent working.
  • Power. Money brings authority over our own lives and over others, poverty and powerlessness are almost synonymous.
  • Generosity. We want to be able to help our children and grandchildren, give gifts to friends, and support worthy causes. We need money to do this.
  • Achievement. Like a gold medal at the Olympics, a high income can be a measure of our success in “utilizing and developing our faculties” to paraphrase Schumacher.

I’m clearly getting bogged down in detail – The psychology of work is very complex. Any program to reduce production and consumption will need to be many-faceted.

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