The celebration of work is a sign of our times. Unemployment is regarded as a social ill, while avowed workaholics are revered as role models that should inspire the rest of us, simple souls who sometimes need a break, to get off our couches and become more productive. So, when Elon Musk mentioned in a recent interview with The New York Times that he has been working 120 hours a week, no one was really surprised. Isn’t that the road to success, “no friends, nothing,” as Musk succinctly put it? We all know, at least since Benjamin Franklin, that time is money, and who does not need some extra cash in the pocket?
In case you are speculating that the glorification of labor should be dismissed as one of the worst side effects of an unbridled capitalist ethics, think again. Marx believed that work is what makes us truly human and the product of our labor is merely an objective reflection of this process. Capitalism alienates workers from the product of their toil but this condition can be overcome by the proletarians’ control of the means of production and of the goods they produce. For Marxism, then, the source of evil is the way we organize labor, not work as such. It suffices to think of the Soviet Union’s efforts to deify workers in literature and in art to realize that workaholism is preached as a panacea for all kinds of social ills across the political spectrum.
But labor was not always regarded as a good thing. In literary depictions of humanity’s Golden Age, as in theological representations of Eden, humans roamed freely in nature, reaping the bountiful produce of the land and enjoying an easy, leisurely life devoted to pleasurable pursuits. In Ancient Greece, Hesiod described in his Works and Days a race of men who lived like gods off the abundant fruit of the earth, free from toil. Already in the Roman period, Ovid’s Metamorphoses offered another glimpse into the imagined primordial Golden Age of humanity, an era of milk and honey when food grew without cultivation.
Similar to Greco-Roman thought, the Jewish tradition also posited a time without toil in the Book of Genesis, when Eve and Adam dwelled happily in the Garden of Eden. In all of these instances, the current state of humanity was perceived as a fallen condition that demands hard work. Hesiod, for instance, was sorry to live in the Iron Age, when men never rest from labor. And in Genesis, humans are evicted from Paradise after the original sin and condemned to work for a living, eking their meager existence out of a cursed earth.
As in the literary depictions of a Golden Age and in the Old Testament, Ancient philosophy also viewed labor as demeaning. For Aristotle, for instance, being absorbed in guaranteeing the material conditions of existence was deemed an inferior enterprise that would prevent men—Aristotle was primarily concerned with male freedom—from pursuing a life of virtue beyond the so-called realm of necessity. He regarded work as an unavoidable evil that should ideally be performed by servants, slaves and women, leisure being reserved for citizens as a condition of possibility for freedom within the polis.
In the New Testament, Jesus preached the superiority of the lilies of the field in his Sermon on the Mount, because they “toil not, neither do they spin” and nevertheless—or perhaps because of it—display a beauty that humans can never hope to achieve. A contemplative life without labor and dedicated to worshipping God was considered to be the highest form of human existence throughout the Christian Middle Ages and the ultimate goal of monasticism. Even though work was not necessarily condemned, leisure was viewed by theologians like Thomas Aquinas as a way for us to transcend our merely human condition and come closer to divinity.
The Western stance toward work began to change rapidly with the advent of the Reformation and, later, of the Industrial Revolution. Contrary to the prevalent view of a cloistered life of prayer and contemplation as the supreme human calling, Luther rejected monasticism as being too cut off from the world and regarded most occupations—with the notable exceptions of trade, banking and other activities related to the nascent capitalism of his time—as dignified forms of divine worship in their own right. Calvin went even further and considered the profits resulting from trade and finance as signs of God’s favor, as long as they were the outcome of diligence and hard work.
The Industrial Revolution that transformed European manufacturing from the eighteenth century onwards also contributed to a valorization of labor as a key component of people’s lives. Former farmers and craftsmen that often followed irregular, task-oriented schedules had to be turned into a disciplined workforce ready to toil regularly for many hours a day performing monotonous and often strenuous jobs. They were inculcated the importance of industriousness, the need to abide by the time of the clock, and time-thrift, an ideological shift achieved through legislation, religious sermons, schooling, pamphlets, and so on.
It was this concerted onslaught on the values of leisure and idleness that prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to write his “Apology for Idlers” in 1877. There, he criticized diligence as a symptom of deficient vitality and praised the life of the idle as a form of resistance against the ethos of the day and the surest path not only to wisdom but also to mastering the “Art of Living.”
Even some Marxist thinkers began to find the praise of work as a suspicious ruse to make us toil incessantly. Marx’s own son-in-law Paul Lafargue did no buy into the “work-makes-you-human” ideology. In a pamphlet titled “The Right to be Lazy” from 1883 he decried the labor creed preached by his father-in-law. He saw work as a vice that leads to pain, misery and corruption and ended his text with an exhortation to laziness that, in contrast to work, he regarded as the true human essence: “O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!”
Many later thinkers have condemned the work ideology that dominates our societies and praised leisure, idleness and play as the hallmarks of humanity. In the 1960s and 70s, the leisure society thesis, according to which we would be in the process of transitioning away from a society of work, gained ground in sociological circles, as the mechanization of production and the reduction of the work week contributed to an increase in free time for most employees in industrialized nations.
But the dream of a society of leisure did not come to pass. The restructuring of world economy from the 1980s onwards, the deregulation of job markets, and the out-sourcing of work thanks to a rapid process of economic globalization resulted in growing labor instability in the West, an increase in part-time and fixed-term labor contracts and a general erosion of workers’ rights such as occupational welfare and paid vacations. As Juliet Schor points out in her book The Overworked American, the average American worked longer in the 1990s than in the 1950s, with labor time steadily increasing since the 1960s.
Still, some people are hopeful that the digital age will spell out a complete overhaul of our work societies. Jeremy Rifkin, for instance, argues in his The End of Work that, while the previous mechanization of production replaced the physical power of human labor, new information and communication technologies are substituting the human mind itself. He predicts that automated machinery and sophisticated computers can potentially perform up to 75% of the tasks now carried out by the labor force in industrial nations and suggests, somewhat idealistically, a turn to volunteering and community service—the so-called third sector—as a means to solve the problem of mass employment and to offer people a meaningful occupation freed from the pressures of the marketplace.
We may all be about to be forced into compulsory leisure, with artificial intelligence whisking away our jobs, and even the need to perform basic tasks such as grooming our pets, bathing our children or finally organizing the mess in our basements. Perhaps—who knows?—computers will soon even obviate the need to think, to write this article and, most certainly, to read it. Would that be such a bad thing?
In the meanwhile, however, let’s lay back, relax and enjoy an afternoon nap. It’s Labor Day, after all.
* Some sections of this article were adapted for my book States of Grace: Utopia in Brazilian Culture (SUNY UP, 2018).