Work” is one of those commonsense ideas that we mostly never think to question. It dominates our lives to the extent that we forget it’s not a universal constant. Rather, how we think of it today is the product of cultural changes in the past. Examining the history of the concept and the ways it’s changed over time can help us think about how we might change it in the future.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we have two broad ways of understanding what work is: First, work is the thing you do so you can get stuff. Stuff, in this instance, is both the things you need (food, shelter, clothes) and the things you want (a Nintendo Switch, beer, a flat-screen TV, etc.). But the lines are not always clear in determining what qualifies as a want and what qualifies as a need.

When people talk about “welfare cheats,” they focus on people buying things beyond the bare necessities—as if poor people are somehow not entitled to feel the idle happiness of entertainment and connection.

During the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, footage showed trains leaving packed platforms and power boards festooned with improbable numbers of mobile phones. Some made the argument that no real refugee would, or should, have a smartphone. As if your phone—which can contain all your contacts, your bank details, your emails, and all the photos of your family—wouldn’t be the first thing you’d grab as you fled your home for good. As if the exigencies of needing to abandon your home and former life meant you’d no longer have the privilege of owning a piece of consumer technology.


In Work: The Last 1,000 Years, Andrea Komlosy offers six historical cross-sections of labor relations in the world: in 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900, and today. One of the trends that emerges is just how important free movement has been to workers. Moreover, Komlosy identifies several historical efforts to curtail the free movement of people whose labor could accelerate or impede other people getting stuff.

Historical progress is tied to moments where large groups of marginalized people take, or are given, freedom of movement.

From enclosure, to feudalism, to debtors’ prisons and vagrancy laws, to the infrastructure of U.S. slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow regime, the wealthy have always tried to restrict the movement of what Karl Marx called “surplus population.” (Though Marx’s term could more easily be described as “people who need to relocate to secure the stuff they need to live.”) Migrants become easy targets in moments of perceived shortage—“They’re here to take our jobs!”

After all, we often argue that historical progress is tied to moments where large groups of marginalized people take, or are given, freedom of movement: the emancipation of the serfs in Russia or slaves in the United States. In medieval Europe, the establishment of towns outside the authority of feudal nobles, which gave respite to runaway serfs, also conforms to this trend.

People have historically torn themselves from their homes to find work, and at various moments in the past, the powerful have attempted to curtail the ability of workers to move to find better work—either by stopping “cheap” workers from leaving or by preventing “surplus” workers from arriving.

Humans aren’t self-sufficient. We need external input to continue living. At its heart, work is what you do—through the medium of money—to get enough stuff to live, and then maybe a bit more. There is debate over the boundary between the “need” and the “more”; where and how you set that boundary is ultimately (one form of) politics. If you’re a Marxist, you call that “accumulation.” If you’re an economist, you call it “growth.”

Essentially, the activity that Hannah Arendt called “labor,” which is a cyclical activity designed to stave off necessity, is only one part of why we toil away in paid employment. In the 21st century, we are remunerated for our efforts with money, and money is a fungible resource that makes it hard to easily delineate between needs and wants.

Only part of our jobs is related to maintaining the essentials of life, but because we pay for luxury items with the same resource, we can’t tell which part of our effort goes to which. It’s not like you work Monday through Wednesday for food and housing, and then Thursday and Friday for your Netflix subscription and a beer ration.

It’s the second way we think about work, however, that has such massive implications for the ways we relate to one another. Work—“earning a living”—is also the sole legitimate means most people have to secure the life resources they need. Since those resources are reduced to monetary remuneration that makes it impossible to clearly differentiate a want from a need, it’s impossible to tell when somebody dips below subsistence, and the price of asking for help becomes drastic interference from others.

Without work, you’re left to charity, welfare, or death. Once you’re on welfare or subject to charity, your life is no longer fully your own. You’re dependent: subject to state scrutiny, forced work programs, or limitations on your ability to exercise free will and agency through mechanisms like food stamps or cashless welfare cards.

Work, then, under liberal capitalism, is what you do to demonstrate to other people that you can be trusted to live your own life free from their interference. Ultimately, we as a culture have not agreed on the universal right of the living to their own continued lives. We’ve only agreed to it as a conditional right.

We’re left with a collection of attitudes that lionize the wealthy for hard work done in the past while demonizing the poor for trying to find access to work in the present.

This makes a job a moral undertaking. But this is not a new idea.

If there’s one character other than Marx who shows up in all the books I’ve read on this topic, it’s Max Weber. His incredibly influential The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism outlined the notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic,” which holds up frugality and industry as godly qualities. According to Richard Donkin, the Calvinists, Puritans, and Quakers all helped convert Protestant nonconformism into capitalism.

Connecting the Calvinist notion of the “saved” to the notion of “hard work” gave employment a moral character it just can’t shake. Centuries later, we’re left with a collection of attitudes that lionize the wealthy for hard work done in the past while demonizing the poor for trying to find access to work in the present. Despite all our miraculous technologies and the productivity they’ve enabled, we can’t find a better way to think about the distribution of stuff beyond crudely delineating who owns what.


Of course, these definitions leave questions unanswered. For instance, isn’t work more than just subsistence? What about the “psychic pay” of a job well done?

Partly, this is about the limitations of sources. Most histories of work impose a broadly Marxist frame on a large swathe of the past, rather than attempting to understand that past on its own terms. It’s extremely difficult to focus on the individual. People quickly become indistinct blobs with names that enforce identities and solidarities: peasants, slaves, workers.

Despite those shortcomings, the basis of a working definition remains. In the 21st century, work is a thing you do to show others you should be allowed to keep existing based on the fact that you won’t take their stuff.

And re-examining how we think of these concepts in ways both large and small is imperative to continuing to thrive and survive on this planet. With the coming of a climate breakdown, we’re going to need to do something other than build walls to hold out the surplus population. We’re going to have to collectively find a way to define and then meet people’s needs without relying on their ability to convince an employer to pay them for their labor in an increasingly competitive and unsustainable market—and in the face of rising wealth inequality.

The other option is a world where simply being born doesn’t entitle you to your own life.


This was originally posted on my blog.