The Haunted House: The Work Ethic Was Bad Enough, but Its Ghost Is Even Worse

By Bauman, Zygmunt | New Internationalist, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Haunted House: The Work Ethic Was Bad Enough, but Its Ghost Is Even Worse


Bauman, Zygmunt, New Internationalist


The haunted house

WHENEVER you hear talk about 'ethics' you can be pretty sure that someone somewhere is dissatisfied with the way other people are behaving and would rather they behaved differently. This is especially true in the case of the notorious 'work ethic'.

Since its emergence in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the work ethic has served politicians, philosophers and preachers by removing the obstacles to the brave new world they envisaged.

The main obstacle was the basic human inclination to do no more than satisfy one's needs. Why work more than necessary? the individual might ask. For more money? There are so many other worthwhile things to do of which you might lose sight if you spent all your time running after money.

The early entrepreneurs had different plans, though. Shiftless and laggard factory hands were to be taught - or forced if need be - to wish for a better life, to desire more, and to improve themselves by desiring more.

The moral crusade for the work ethic was presented as trying to recapture - within the factory - the commitment and pride that came naturally to the craftsperson. The trouble was that it was the factory system itself which had destroyed these in the first place.

So under the guise of a work ethic a discipline ethic had to be promoted. As Werner Sombart commented, the factory system needed part - humans; soulless little wheels of a complex mechanism - and war was waged against the other, now useless, emotional 'human parts'. No wonder critics of that time such as Ferdinand Lasselle spoke in support of 'the right to laziness'.

Finally, for the first time in history, the work ethic prioritized 'what can be done' over 'what needs to be done'. The satisfaction of human needs became irrelevant to the logic of production - and cleared the way for the modern paradox of 'growth for growth's sake'.

Give me your poor

Since then, however, something has happened which neither the industrialists nor the critics of capitalism imagined. A century ago Rosa Luxemburg predicted that capitalist modernization could not survive without devouring the ever - shrinking enclaves of non - industrialized life. The tendency of capital to move from already 'modernized' areas and into the 'under - developed' territories of the Third World seems to have proved her right.

But what she did not predict was that Modernism (or industrialism) would create expanding enclaves of 'post - modern' existence in which people are consumers first - and workers only a very distant second. The work ethic has been replaced by a consumer ethic; the savings - book culture of delayed gratification has been replaced by the credit - card culture that 'takes the waiting out of wanting'. The inhabitants of these enclaves are kept in place not by coercion but by seduction, by the creation of new desires rather than by normative regulation.

Inside these post - modern enclaves the work ethic has lost its obvious and crucial usefulness. There is simply not enough paid employment any more to support the model of full - time jobs for life.

It is tempting to applaud the demise of the work ethic and to rejoice in the post - modern way's recognition of the multiplicity of human existence. The learned classes are always the first to wax lyrical about the blessings of new life. Now they praise liberation from the stultifying monotony of assembly lines with as much ardour as their predecessors a century ago brought to their songs about the glory of factory chimneys. What the songs of praise stifle, however, are the voices of the victims: the new poor, denied the opportunity to follow the rules of the work ethic in a world in which the only access to the resources needed to exercise one's freedom is still through the door marked 'work'.

The idea that the poor - and the rich - will always be with us is not new. But never before has the split been so unambiguous, so unequivocal. …

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