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Is Work Good?

Author: Simon Duffy

Recently I was interviewed on the radio. I was trying to describe the range of problems hitting disabled people and those in poverty - sanctions, benefit cuts and low wages - when the interviewer said, “But what about the growth figures? That’s good news isn’t it? Things are getting better, aren’t they?”

What struck me most about this encounter was her profound incredulity when I suggested that (a) growth is not always good and (b) not everyone benefits from this growth.

And this got me musing.

Economics and welfare

When many people think about the welfare state they often start with the benefit system (which they wrongly picture as being 'just a few poor people’). Perhaps, with a little encouragement, they can see that the welfare state also includes other important institutions: healthcare, education, housing and disability support.

However, the welfare state was not just created by our commitment to these important institutions. The birth of the welfare state is profoundly intertwined with the birth of what is sometimes called Keynesian economics. Although economists disagree about almost everything, the great breakthrough of Keynesian economics, was to give extra depth to our understanding of the complexity of economic systems. Seeing economics only through the lens of the market is dangerous because it misses some of the essentially social and psychological factors that promote economic health. Leaving everything ‘to the market’ is dangerous because markets, on their own, can become highly toxic and self-destructive.

Keynesianism, at its simplest, is a way of combining the socialist’s sense of social responsibility, with the liberal’s understanding of the value of freedom and property. It was the insights of Keynes that enabled post-war political leaders to increase employment - as paid work - and so to reduce poverty. Keynesianism gave life to the welfare state.

More particularly, Keynes persuaded world leaders that economies needed demand; even if that meant that the state would have to simply spend in order to create the necessary demand. Demand in economics is like oxygen for animals - without demand the economy crashes. Demand creates a kind of optimism - faith that things will work out for the best. To farm, to make, to sell, all of this requires optimism - a belief that people will turn up and buy what you’ve farmed or created. No optimism, no business. So to help stalled world economies, Keynes argued, the state must spend first. Tax revenues would look after themselves afterwards.

This is one of the reasons that growth - any growth - is seen as a good thing. For it goes back to this profound Keynesian truth: without faith in the future the economy falters through lack of belief.

Now it seems to me that we must maintain this Keynesian commitment - our sense of social responsibility - to ensure that the economy works. When some argue that the state should not ‘intervene in the market’ then I wonder what has changed since World War II and the creation of the welfare state. The modern world is not more secure than the pre-war world; if anything it is less secure. State intervention is not less important now than it was in the 1930s; if anything is is more important. It seems to me that the neoliberal critics of state intervention have lost their sense of reality.

However, I do recognise that Keynesianism was always an ambitious and ambiguous project. Giving the state a responsibility to influence demand in the economy also meant giving officers of the state and politicians enormous levels of power and influence. There was always a danger that party political interests - for both Left and the Right - might govern decision-making more than concern for fairness, the community or the planet. The powerful don’t have a great track-record of exercising power with self-discipline and justice.

Today we are in a world where neoliberal critics of Keynesianism and the welfare state are in the ascendancy. This is for many reasons, but at least two rather brute facts are (a) the demise of the USSR and democratic communism in Western Europe means that there seems to be little risk of revolution, and hence less political pressure for social justice (b) the growing power of global corporations, with their ability to buy policy influence, has ensured that in the public policy marketplace, neoliberalism is in high demand. Funding think tanks and politicians to destroy the welfare state has never been easier.

So, if we value the welfare state, but want to strengthen and improve it, then we will need to think carefully. We will need to build on the Keynesian commitment to ensure the state maintains its responsibilities on behalf of the wider community. However that old model was not sustainable. The hubris of the state, and the power of its enemies, has left the old model of the welfare state in tatters.

What is the new model for the welfare state? Trying to find the answer to this problem is the task The Centre for Welfare Reform has set itself. This short essay is just a provisional exploration of the economics of social justice, and it sets out some of the things we will need to think about if we are going to stop digging a hole for ourselves and start to finally climb out.

The growth problem

I only studied economics briefly at university; but I remember well that the the problem of growth was recognised in all the main economics text books. The problem goes something like this:

Not all human activities can be measured in money. For example, bringing up children, studying, planting a garden, helping your neighbours or participating in politics are all good things - but they don’t involve financial transactions. But it’s easy to count money and so we’ll just measure how much valuable human activity is being carried out by counting how much money has been spent. We’ll call that economic activity.

Not all economic activities are good. For example, building an arms factory, which pollutes a river, and then paying someone to clean the river is all very expensive and adds up to a lot of economic activity. But nothing good has been achieved with all the money spent. But it’s difficult to distinguish good economic activities from bad economic activities, so we will just treat all economic activity as if it’s good.

We treat economic growth as good, even though we know that we can spend money on bad things and that not everything valuable costs money.

Here we see a common problem. The discipline of economics makes what are called ‘simplifying assumptions’ in order to enable it to develop as a complex quasi-scientific enterprise: counting money means you can use maths, graphs and charts. Very quickly you have experts (a few people) and non-experts (the rest of us) and, even though the experts don’t often agree with each other, our power to debate and discuss economics has disappeared into the hands of the powerful and clever - who manage things ‘for our good’.

Option A - Some would like us to ignore the growth problem.

‘Don’t worry - in the long-run people will make good decisions and having more money doesn’t stop you from doing all the other valuable things you might you do with your time. The more money the better.’

Option B - Others see money as the root cause of the problem.

‘It’s by converting everything into money that we lose sight of the real value of things. We would be better off living in a ‘no money economy’ where we worked the land, bartered and worked together.’

Now, if I only had to choose between those two options, then I’m afraid I would choose Option A. I am terrible at DIY, only an average gardener and someone whose limited skills probably only have value in a complex money-using society. The romantic in me likes the sound of Option B, but I’m pretty sure I’d be one of its first casualties.

But we don’t have to choose between these two options. Here I will set out Option C.

Option C - We start to pay much more attention to the things money can’t buy

Option C means we decide to treat money as the things that it is - a very useful tool - but something that has absolutely no real value in itself. It is a tool which is incredibly helpful for getting us all to interact, use our gifts and create things of greater value together.

Money is not the problem - we're the problem.

The problem is that focusing only on money and money growth is foolish and has very many negative consequences. Here are just a few:

Nature - Economic activity often causes damage to the natural world, the environment and the climate - Nature has its own intrinsic value which we thereby destroy, but we also need the natural world for humanity to thrive. Treating it as just a product to be used at our convenience is dangerous and wrong.

Family - Economic activity eats up time and takes us away from other important things we should do. Working long hours, however much money we earn, takes us away from family, friends and relationships. If we replaced all the love and support of family with the paid support of carers, baby-sitters or teachers then economic growth would increase - but life would be a whole lot worse.

Citizenship and Community - Economic activity is organised by the priorities of those with money. But there are other valuable community and cultural activities that give us many different ways to be valued, to participate and to give of ourselves. If we are only working then we are not being citizens, we are not voting, not volunteering, not singing, not celebrating, not worshipping and not playing. Human life and culture has been constructed for centuries using mostly voluntary activities - these cannot all be reduced to zero-hours contracts.

Justice - On its own, free economic activity drives up inequality. This is an almost logical feature of any economic system. Unless there are safeguards and balances, differences in wealth and income tend to become more extreme over time; as those with more can use the fact of their wealth to leverage greater personal advantage.

Economic growth, in itself, is not a bad thing. But it can become poisonously bad if it starts to eat away at nature, family, citizenship and justice. And it can only be judged as a good thing if we can test it in the context of those other good things - if they are also thriving then all is well. If they are not thriving then no amount of economic growth will save us.

The work problem

The negative impact of these economic simplifications on our lives can also be seen when we look at another of those ‘obviously good things’ - work - more specifically paid work (or what some people further narrow to ‘employment’.

The modern worship of work is a fascinating social problem, with many aspects.

This issue is particularly striking for me because, for the group of people I care about most, people with learning disabilities, one of the many social injustices that they face is an on-going exclusion from paid work. Friends, and people I admire, like Anne O’Bryan and Norma Curran, have argued vigorously that people with learning disabilities have the right to work, can work and make great employees. Everything they say is true, well evidenced and fully documented.

But, one of the arguments that is also used is that being a paid employee is one of the primary routes to social value in our society - and people should not be deprived of the option to take this route to social value. Again, there is no argument here; in our society being an employee gives you social status.

However, as a philosopher, I have always had a worry about this point. Two things strike me.

First, some societies don’t value work in the same way as our society currently does. For example, one of the oldest debates in philosophy concerns what counts as the most valuable form of living. Aristotle argued that citizenship was the highest form of the active life, and beyond that philosophy was the highest form of being. Now I don’t intend to defend Aristotle’s second point (which I think highly dubious) but his first point seems highly defensible.

A just society values people as citizens before all else, because a just society needs people to be citizens. A citizen is someone we treat with respect - and as an equal. It is the core and essential status possessed by the members of a just society. It is citizens who maintain that society, support others to become citizens and ensure that the ideal of citizenship is protected and valued. It is the highest honour; yet it is an honour that we seek to give everyone - to be treated as an equal.

Amongst the competing routes to social value then, I think citizenship must be more important than having lots of money or being an employee.

Also, as Aristotle recognised, being a citizen is something one does in a state of freedom - free from work, and free from the undue economic influence of the powerful. Work too much and you don’t become free, you become a slave. Only freed from work you can act as a free citizen.

But the second problem that comes with this one-eyed focus on paid work is that there is a grave danger that it reinforces the value of paid work only at the cost of reducing the value of other human activities and social roles. Paid work is only one kind of work; and doing paid work is only one way of being human.

In fact it is useful to think more deeply about all the modes of human existence - the different kinds of work and the different alternatives to work. I would suggest we can identify four very different kinds of work (doing) and three different kinds of non-work (being):

1. Loving - Human life would not exist without mums and dads. And this is not just about sex and pregnancy. As all new parents quickly discover, being a parent is much harder than being ‘at work’. And of course, as families also know, taking care of each other - through thick and thin; through sickness, disability and old age; through birth and death - taking care of each other is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of love.

2. Making - Humans are productive. Humans need to change the world in order to live in it. We must grow, sew, hunt, harvest, build and craft. And as the modern world has become more complex, so the work of making has become more diverse and more specialised.

3. Giving - Humans have to give of themselves, to sacrifice, in order to build communities in which to exist. At its most extreme humans have had to fight wars in order to survive. At its most civilised people give themselves to their vocations, their communities, their faiths, their art and to the business of citizenship.

4. Exchanging - Humans have also discovered that they can collaborate, share and exchange. How this is done takes many forms. In the past bartering and sharing enabled people to work as a community. In the modern world these system have turned into a more complex business of buying, selling, swapping, renting, taxing, lending and granting.

The key here is to notice that, of these four basic human functions, at best, only two (making and giving) can ever be part of what is called work today. And even these are much bigger categories than what we tend to call ‘employment’ (e.g. I am working if I am painting, whether or not I choose to sell my paintings). All four functions are forms of work and each is important - and equally so.

In addition, it’s important to notice that part of life which is also absent from this focus on work - three modes of being, which should exclude work in any sense.

5. Relaxing - Humans love to party, to drink, to have fun, to enjoy art, theatre, dance and music. For many of us what has real value starts when we stop working and start to relax.

6. Resting - Humans also need time just to rest, to sleep, to stop doing and just be.

7. Reflecting - Lastly, humans are creatures with spirits, and the spirit is restored differently in different cultures - but the purpose of the Sabbath across Israel, Christendom and Islam was certainly to protect this aspect of ourselves from the busy outside world.

So, not only is work not the only kind of work, it is also important to remember that human beings must also not work in order to be human.

It is likely that the modern world has simply lost sight of an older wisdom. In fact the observant will have noticed that my seven-fold account of human life corresponds to the seven day week and the names of those days in the Greek, Roman and Norse traditions:

  • Monday (lundi) is the day of the moon - a day of rest
  • Tuesday (mardi) is the day of Tyr or Mars - a day of service
  • Wednesday (mercredi) is the day of Woden or Mercury - a day of exchange
  • Thursday (jeudi) is the day of Thor or Jove - a day of making
  • Friday (vendredi) is the day of Freya or Venus - a day of loving
  • Saturday (samedi) is the day of Saturn - a day of relaxing
  • Sunday (dimanche) is the day of the sun or the day of the Lord - a day of reflecting

You do not have to be religious to perhaps wonder whether this ancient pattern might not underline a deeper truth about how human beings should balance their time.

Finding a better way

Neoliberal ideology and corporate self-interest have played an obvious part in helping us lose sight of the true meaning of growth and how best to use our time. But there is at least one more reason why the powerful often prefer a model of economic growth and social value that reduces everything to earning money. For earning, especially employment, is easy to tax. The powerful like us to do things that they can tax, because this provides them with the resources they can use to spend money ‘for our benefit.’

In the UK this is a particularly striking issue because our leaders continue to talk as if the answer to our problems is to get more people ‘into work’ - by which they mean employment - yet the rate of employment in the UK is already astonishingly high. Our employment rate is 73% (6th highest in the world after Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, New Zealand) while our unemployment rate is 5.8% (one of the lowest in Europe). The UK’s combination of high employment and very high income inequality is reflected in very low salary levels for many. 5.2 million people in the UK are earning below the Living Wage.

Getting more people into low paid employment is no answer to our problems.

The powerful often prefer to tax all of us and then spend those taxes paying some of us to do what otherwise we’d have done for other reasons. Sometimes this seems entirely appropriate; for example we all pay taxes so an education can be provided to all children. But sometimes the benefits of this approach seems less clear. For example, parents are encouraged to go out to work, to pay taxes, so the government can then provide them with free childcare. Does this make sense? Certainly this is one of the questions that we will need to think about. When should the state tax and direct? When should the state leave well alone? What other things might we do to support each other and to improve the world in which we live?

I am not sure how to rebalance our understanding of work. But I think it is important that we start by freely admitting that economic growth and work is a very crude measure of social progress. We need to put in place checks and balances to ensure that other valuable things - like nature, family, citizenship and justice - are also protected.

We can probably guess at what some of these protections might look like, and I give the following examples, not because I am sure that these are the best solutions to the problem I’ve described, but because they at least indicate that change is possible:

  • Basic Income - This would provide the basic security necessary to stop people having to work just to survive and would allow people to make more balanced judgements about where to invest their energies.
  • Parental Leave - Much longer periods of parental leave - for both parents - would enable people to give more time to their families.
  • Holidays - Creating more festivals, closing shops and stopping people from having to work would open up more chance for rest, relaxation and joy.
  • Public Duties - Creating more ways for people to give to their community; expecting and valuing public contribution, civic action and political activity.
  • Limiting hours - Being much more rigorous in limiting the number of hours someone can work
  • Increased Minimum Wages - Increasing the cost of labour will increase efficient use of labour and reduce the need for people to work excessive hours.

I understand that much of this will seem like a pipe-dream. But it is not. It is merely a kind of new Keynesianism - we must take our responsibility for the economy seriously. We must exercise this responsibility with balance and thoughtfulness. We must keep an eye on what really matters: on real and sustainable growth and on the kind of balanced human life that enables everyone to flourish in their own particular way.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Is Work Good? © Simon Duffy 2015.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.