One Thousand Years of Labor

What We Do

The evolution of work.


If you’re old enough to read this,” wrote the great blue-collar poet Philip Levine in 1990, “you know what work is.” What could be more obvious and more concrete than work? It’s your cubicle, your backache, your boss. Good or bad, it needs little explanation. Even to talk about it too much off the clock is to be a bore. It’s just there. Per the infamous American small-talk formulation, it’s simply what one does.

Over recent years, however, the definition of work has become more complicated, as a host of debates have flared up around it. What kinds of activity deserve recognition and reward, and what kinds do not? Which forms of labor create value, and which ones absorb it? Socialist feminists have long insisted that housework is work and should be paid, and a new generation of feminists have extended this insight: When women are expected to console and cheerlead in everyday life, isn’t this a kind of unpaid work? It’s certainly draining. The logic of this argument, in turn, travels from informal caregiving to the official caring industries: Why is it a teacher’s job to buy supplies for her students, instead of the responsibility of the employer? And why must a nurse exhaust herself on the job to make up for corner-cutting management decisions?

Nor are the only contested categories of work related to care labor. One finds such arguments across American society. Interns still labor in a gray zone of quasi-volunteer traineeship as much as employment. Universities claim that graduate students don’t do work, while a burgeoning campus union movement declares otherwise. Uber insists that its drivers are small-business people, not employees, as do 10 to 20 percent of other employers in America. Environmentalists call for recognition of the “services” provided by the ecosystem; some even argue that we need to acknowledge what political theorist Alyssa Battistoni calls the “work of nature.”

Naming an activity as work gives it standing. Through work, we gain entry into the powers of citizenship, the ability to participate in democratic life as valued, autonomous, and self-determining beings; recognized labor brings us into collective life. The question of what counts as work is therefore not a technical issue, but a question of who is valued, who bears rights, and who must be heard. It is, in this sense, ineluctably a political question and a question of power. Far from being determined by the market alone, the mutating definition of work tracks long-term historical changes and political struggles. If it’s difficult to maintain this perspective about our jobs as we go about them, it’s because work so often seems to be the same thing hour after hour, shift after shift, year after year: another day, another dollar. But in a larger historical context, it becomes possible to discern the constant churn in both work itself and our ideas about it.

Capturing this churn is the difficult task that historian Andrea Komlosy attempts in her new book Work: The Last 1,000 Years. Echoing David Graeber’s widely read 2011 tome Debt: The First 5,000 Years—which sought to give an account of borrowing’s place in human history in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis—Komlosy attempts the monumental task of writing a large-scale global history of labor adequate to the growing instability in how we define and participate in work. Altogether, it must be said, her task is probably even harder than Graeber’s. In one form or another, almost everybody in every society works, so there’s a lot of history to convey in a slender 272 pages.

Komlosy begins by clearing the ground. “The term ‘work,’” she explains, “encompasses both market-oriented and subsistence activities; it includes human activity for the sake of naked survival and also the satisfaction of desires for luxury or status, as well as activities for the sake of cultural representation or demonstrations of power and faith.” Within this wide category, two extraordinary changes stand out over the last millennium: the increasingly widespread distinction between work and home in space, and between labor and leisure in time. The gradual and uneven emergence of these distinctions gives Work its main narrative arc; Komlosy argues that these separations help mark our modern age. The innumerable points in history when these distinctions blur or collapse also give us a sense of how arbitrary they are.

In Europe, two traditions—the Greek and the Judeo-Christian, which eventually intermingled in the vast post-Roman world—gave shape to premodern ideas of work and defined the relationship between work and home and between labor and leisure. The Greek tradition, the product of a slave society, saw work as an unambiguous curse, fundamentally incompatible with freedom and citizenship—and therefore relegated to those considered outside the polis. The Judeo-Christian tradition upheld the possibility of redemption through labor, recasting idleness as sinful, not civic. The interplay between the two gave the West its ambiguous cultural inheritance on this question: a notion of work that could encompass both mass enslavement and the pathway to salvation; something absolutely alien to dignified and autonomous selfhood, yet also central to it. This inner tension has shaped the gradual separation of work from the worlds of home and leisure.

While Komlosy, an Austrian historian, keeps Central Europe at the heart of her narrative, she is quick to acknowledge the exclusions that might serve as a counterpoint. In many parts of the world outside Europe, “indigenous languages knew no generalized concept of work. Instead, specific names were developed for activities like hunting, farming, fishing or preparing food.” In those cases where a general concept of work did exist, it named only the harshest tasks of survival. The brute force of empire changed this, imposing what Komlosy calls “a general, market-oriented concept of work.” European conquest thus remade daily life around the world, devaluing “the reciprocal, the immediate and the gratuitous,” which had once defined many forms of human activity in the past.

Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself. Chinese, meanwhile, offers a linguistic split between gongren and dagong that has its own history and significance. The terms today distinguish between work secured under the Maoist social contract and viewed as free and unalienated, and the more precarious labor of workers sprung loose from the decollectivization of agriculture, who were understood to be “uneducated, uncouth, uprooted, dangerous and volatile, subject to constant supervision and harassment by authorities and employers alike.”

Such dualisms aren’t stable; they change with history. As the sociologist Richard 
Biernacki has shown, even in relatively similar societies like England and Germany, quite different meanings of “labor” emerged during the rise of capitalism, thanks to their different paths toward industrialization. Because rural English households produced a considerable volume of commodities in the early years of capitalism—spinning wool, for example—the value of labor inhered and was measured in the product that was manufactured, such as yards of yarn. This idea outlasted the demise of household production. British factory workers also thought of their labor as embodied in the things they made; the wage was the price the employer paid the workers for the yarn they produced. Exploitation was something that happened in the course of unequal exchange in the market, rather than during the production process. In Germany, on the other hand, there was no extended period of widespread rural domestic commodity production. As a result, German workers conceived of their labor not in terms of its material output, but rather as an abstraction, arbeitskraft (“labor power”), that was measured in time. For them, exploitation occurred in production itself, not in the process of sale.

This cultural difference led to differently designed factories and different methods of management. It also helped produce different kinds of workers’ movements and, ultimately, the different political orientations of the British Labour and German Social Democratic parties. In Germany, where arbeit rules, working-class politics generated the world’s first mass Marxist party, one that officially embraced a revolutionary break with capitalism. On the other hand, in Britain, the land of work, working-class politics produced the reformist socialism of Labour, and in the United States—well, the less said, the better. Indeed, in its original German, Komlosy’s book is not titled Werk—the most obvious and direct translation—but rather, Arbeit. (It is also striking how recent efforts to name the imposition of extra burdens on women and people of color in daily life stress the word labor, as in “emotional labor,” rather than the more positive connotations of work.)

Linguistic comparison is one way to grasp the historical proliferation of categories for imagining work. But there are many others—paid and unpaid, free and unfree, secure and insecure, to name a few. The distinction between independent and dependent workers, for example, was central in the development of US political culture in the 19th century. Emerging from the onset of industrialization and the threat that it posed to the autonomy of artisans and yeoman farmers, this distinction ultimately formed the ideological basis of the Republican Party and the mass opposition to slavery in the North. It was also one of the tributaries feeding the idea that women, African Americans, and Asian immigrants were not “producers” but rather quasi-slave dependents of various kinds, and thus not worthy of direct inclusion in the social contract. As the historian Rudi Batzell noted in a 2014 essay on the xenophobic California Workingmen’s Party, party advocates argued that Chinese workers did not belong in the US labor market because they were “content to be mere machines driven by their employers.” The thousands who crossed the Pacific to dig gold from the hills, build railroads over the Sierra Nevada, and harvest the fields of California were, by this alchemy, not workers. The wave of pogroms against Chinese laborers surrounding the first federal immigration restriction, which specifically targeted these workers, indicates the stakes in the question of whose work counts.

If the first half of Work is spent teasing out these kinds of linguistic and categorical distinctions and some of their historical grounding, Komlosy sets out in the second half to make good on the book’s subtitle: “The Last 1,000 Years.” Her approach is to take global cross sections in the years 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900, and the present. In 1250, Europe was a remote agrarian backwater, connected by Indian Ocean and Silk Road trade routes, and by Mongol military might, to the more urbanized societies of the Middle East and Asia. Baghdad had 1 million people in 1250; Hangzhou, at least 650,000. Meanwhile, Europe’s largest cities—Venice, Milan, Genoa, Naples, and Paris—all hovered under 100,000. Across Eurasia, the household was the main organ of production, whether on feudal estates, in farming for tax or tribute collection, or in handicraft labor. When Asian unification under the Mongols began to disintegrate, sped by the apocalypse of the Black Death, the maritime expansion of Western Europe began. In that region, the serfs rebelled and, because of the labor shortage following the plague, were able to gain some real leverage, eventually leading to their emancipation. The lords of Prussia, Poland, and Russia, meanwhile, imposed a coercive “second serfdom” on their peasantry, compelling them to produce commodities for export to the merchants of Britain and the Netherlands. A similar process occurred on a vaster and more brutal scale along Africa’s Atlantic Coast and in the Americas, where the arrival of European ships brought extermination and enslavement. By the time Komlosy arrives at the period around 1500, we are given a remarkable triptych of how work was understood and practiced in much of the world: the “simultaneous emergence of wage labour, forced labour (corvée) and slavery.”

The rise of global European empires forged new connections among different types of work around the world. British merchants now bought cotton grown in the countryside of India and spun into yarn or woven into cloth by peasant households that could survive on low wages thanks to subsistence agriculture. Gradually, these producers became dependent on mercantile credit and thus increasingly subordinated to mercantile power, leading to intensifying exploitation in the global periphery—the rise of large-scale plantation slavery being the clearest example. These conditions, Komlosy argues, also prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution.

In the late-18th and 19th centuries in Western Europe, production left the household and began to undergo mechanization. Vast streams of people, sprung loose from the land, now wandered their countries and the globe in search of employment, remaking home and community alike. “The rise of centralized energy supplies moved work—and the workers—into the factory halls,” Komlosy explains. “Work remaining to be done in the households underwent an ideological reinterpretation: now it was considered reproduction, women’s work and motherly obligation, relegated to the private realm.”

In the American context, as historian Jeanne Boydston argues in her classic Home and Work, this moment marked a shift from a “gender division of labor” to a “gendered definition of labor.” Where men once did some kinds of work (say, in the fields) and women did others (for example, sewing clothes), early industrialization rewrote these rules: What women did ceased to be understood as work at all. The private sphere became a space of intimacy rather than production. Women’s work, no matter how onerous, went unacknowledged and vanished from view as work.

The interlocking triad of global labor—waged, coerced, or enslaved—persisted through this period. Raw materials for new factories were produced by plantation slave labor; European factories soon displaced the sites of production found in Asia, leading to a process of large-scale deindustrialization on that continent, particularly in India. Even as slavery was rolled back, other forms of coerced and indentured labor arose to replace it. By the turn of the 20th century, the world economy had become integrated to an unprecedented degree, but on unequal terms. Workers in the parts of the world relegated to peripheral status still labored under only semi-free conditions; they combined “modern” wage labor with other forms of agrarian and household-based survival strategies.

Whatever its material effects, European hegemony over the world of labor recast the image of work—and with it, the global hierarchy itself. Even though only a minority of Europe’s population was enlisted in “gainful employment,” industrial production became the totem of modernity, all other forms of work a racialized symptom of “backwardness.” “As soon as legal standards were set for what kinds of work would receive what wage,” Komlosy tells us, and “what sorts of protection were entailed or which insurance benefits included, individuals had an ideal type against which to measure their own situation… To what were they still entitled? Who else were they expected to provide for?”

The unemployed had to answer similar questions: “to whom must one attach oneself for security and sustenance, both now and in the future?” Workers’ movements and workers’ states also became focused on finding in work the unfulfilled promise of the liberal order—the notion that equality could be established once formal democracy penetrated the economy and created an “industrial democracy.” In this way, much of the political world for much of the 20th century seemed to speak with one voice when it came to politics and work: Productivity was the point of entry into full membership in a society, whether socialist or capitalist.

Such ideas about employment ruled throughout the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. They persist into our own, but they are now increasingly at odds with our lived reality. The relocation of industrial production to the Global South did not bring the old social contract with it. Because production spread under the sign of the neoliberal regime of trade and investment, it created insecurity within both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. “Hard and precarious working conditions, low wages, extreme exploitation and bans on trade union activity were accepted as the price of entry,” Komlosy writes of the newly industrialized nations. In the Global North, employment underwent its own profound fragmentation: falling wages, insecure terms, worsening conditions.

Komlosy seems to anticipate an inversion of the global order, as the late industrializers of the Global South surpass the old industrial core, reducing the Northern Hemisphere to a peripheral supplier, as Britain did to India two centuries ago. But this scenario seems unlikely. The current world order rests on the military and financial power of Western imperialist states and economies—and as demonstrated by the wave of protectionism emerging in much of the Global North, these countries are unlikely to give up their place amiably. Even if Komlosy’s prediction doesn’t come to pass, however, the fragmentation of work in the Northern Hemisphere has tremendous political implications. A social contract with formalized gainful employment at its center, we learn in Work, is a recent and historically fleeting phenomenon. Now that it is in a state of disarray, the political system that emerged parallel to it is also decaying. Liberal democracy gave millions of workers the vote, free speech, housing, health care, pensions, unions, civil rights, and national self-determination because of their ability to halt the gears of production. Now that so many cashiered workers have lost their leverage, the liberal world order itself appears to be at risk of coming to an end.

But while the 1990s apotheosis of liberalism did not bring history’s end, neither, one suspects, will its failure end older forms of exploitation and struggles for emancipation. New formations of ruling and working classes will continue to emerge and develop new strategies for survival, transforming the state in the process. The rise of the financial elite, the displacement of industrial workers, and the absorption of millions of women into the labor market in the late decades of the 20th century created a new working class in the service sector—one that has tentatively begun to counterattack in recent years through living-wage and $15-minimum-wage campaigns aimed at the lower levels of American government, and through campaigns by downwardly mobile professionals. But such efforts still seem meager in the face of the scale of workers’ defeats in recent decades. The decline of industrial employment, center-left politics, and organized labor raises a dire question: Must we now try to imagine a struggle against inequality and exploitation that doesn’t have wage labor at its center? And what would that mean?

On the further precincts of the left, this idea is now taken for granted. Anti-capitalist politics no longer means a struggle between classes at the point of production, but consists instead of occupations, riots, blockades, sabotage, communal mutual aid, and perhaps insurrection. The wreckage of the organized-labor movement and the collapse of its political representation, in other words, has lent credibility to the voices that could never invest hope in trade unions or electoral politics.

But this approach can seem speculative or adventurist. Unfortunately, other strategies for rejuvenating workers’ power often appear little different. A common refrain in the more labor-oriented sectors of the left is that the logistics industry offers potent leverage: If you shut down the port at Long Beach, or the warehouses in the Inland Empire that process goods from the Pacific, or the Amazon distribution centers, or the UPS Worldport in Kentucky, you could squeeze the whole economy. Workers in these sectors could then heroically fight for all workers and win important gains across the board. But while logistics workers have won important incremental gains (higher wages, safer conditions, limits on piece-rate payment, reclassification of independent contractors), we have yet to see anything that suggests they could achieve the kind of systemic leverage that is often hoped for.

Liberals, for their part, are busy writing up proposed legislative changes for when the Democrats regain control of government. These are all to the good, but they seem as utopian as general strikes at the moment. The last two times that Democrats had supermajority control of Congress (first in the late ’70s, and again in 2009–10), they failed to pass such reforms despite lobbying campaigns by labor. Now such control seems far off indeed without a mobilized working class, which is unlikely without legal reform—a political catch-22. And even if this does happen, one dreads to think what the Supreme Court would do.

A popular formulation on the left in recent years is the phrase “diversity of tactics.” If ever a movement called for such diversity, it is labor in 2018. While the landscape is bleak, we have in fact seen surprising successes in the last decade—successes that have drawn on a broad range of approaches. Early mobilizations in response to post-2008 austerity, such as the Wisconsin Capitol occupation of 2011 and the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, blended elements of traditional workplace action and movement politics. Both of these efforts also flowed into (alas, unsuccessful) electoral campaigns against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yet the Chicago movement, which includes the Chicago Teachers Union but extends beyond it, did win a number of lower-profile elections and also sustained an ongoing confrontation with Emanuel’s administration over a range of issues less immediately related to employment, including schools, policing, housing, and taxation.

Working-class politics in our time has yet to develop a flexibility or radicalism adequate to the reality we face. Some members of the working class are employed, and some are not. Some have leverage and even organization at their workplaces, but most do not. Some are enfranchised politically; others are excluded. The enfranchised and the organized can multiply their power and enable the more dispersed workers around them to exert more strength, but only if they find ways to forge shared interests and identities. It is here that the definition of “work” matters. What makes such an expansive approach possible is a vision of the working class—and of work itself—that incorporates the insights of the feminist, environmentalist, anti-racist, and disability-rights traditions. Work is not only those forms of labor defined by capital. It can be valuable without aiding in capital’s accumulation, and it exists in many spheres of social life that often go unrecognized.

The teachers’ strikes of 2018, which insisted on the social value of care work to a larger working-class community, suggest some of the possibilities in this vision for compelling political change. And these movements have succeeded where many of their predecessors have failed, by foregrounding the historical mutability of work and the working class—as the West Virginia teachers did by citing the precedent of the state’s coal wars. The working class changes, and with it, so does our network of interdependencies and mutual obligations.

In one of the few striking turns of phrase in Work, Komlosy describes the final stage of her history—our own time—as “the desertification of reciprocity.” Capitalist development has eradicated the preexisting communal ways of organizing our mutual obligations—creating a desert and calling it a market. At the same time, however, capitalist societies have created their own complex networks of collective reliance. Some of these are organized through markets; others, such as social insurance and public education, through the state. Interdependency has not gone away, in other words, but there are many ways of organizing it, and not all are egalitarian or mutual—“reciprocal,” to use Komlosy’s term. A central challenge for the left, therefore, must be not only to rethink how we understand the working class, but also to consider how we can remake these interdependencies so that they bind us together in solidarity and mutuality. How can we defend and expand our reciprocal obligations and destroy the unequal ones? How can we make the capitalist desert we’ve inherited into a common garden?

This task is almost unimaginably immense. Yet the constituency for such a struggle is also vast, and it can be found in organized teachers and nurses, defiant graduate students and Uber drivers, domestic workers and incarcerated people. While the definition of work may be historically protean and politically contested, everyone nonetheless knows what it is, because everyone participates in systems of reciprocity and mutual reliance, and because everyone is working in one way or another. To win elections, save schools and hospitals, interrupt port operations, confront and close down police departments and immigration authorities: Each of these requires work and workers of all kinds, and none of these will succeed without the others. Each is too isolated on its own.

In another poem, “Fear and Fame,” Philip Levine tells the story of a metalworker taking his break. Clad in armor-like suiting, the poem’s protagonist “climbs” back into the world “with a message from the kingdom of fire.” He showers, changes clothes, eats a sandwich made by his aunt, straps on his watch, and “reassume[s his] nickname.” Then, once he’s finished, he puts back on “the costume of [his] trade” and returns to his task, “stiffened by the knowledge that to descend and rise up from the other world merely once in eight hours is half what it takes to be known among women and men.”

Capitalism has made work “the other world,” a time and place away from life itself. But work is also the way we are bonded to one another, constituting the field of mutual reliance that defines the modern world and makes it a livable place. No matter how it’s named, described, or governed, the question of work is always ultimately the question of what we owe one another. This is true at the point of production, the “half” of what it takes “to be known among women and men.” And it is true beyond it, in the other “half”—regardless of the costumes we wear. To redefine work again and again, to recognize the depths of our common obligations and shared potential, and to build a universal solidarity from the real particularities of daily life and toil, requires ceaseless struggle—but the reward is that still-unachieved goal, democracy itself.

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