Saturday, January 17, 2009

Labour in the 18th century

Keith Thomas, writes in the Independent (UK) (HERE)

'The Saturday Essay: “If only the devil did make work for idle hands...”

“On the other hand, work was widely admired as a divine activity, practised by God during the creation of the world and by Adam and Eve in Eden. It was a sacred duty and the source of all human comforts, creating wealth and making civilisation possible. It was a cure for boredom and melancholy and a remedy for vice. It was the only sure route to human happiness, bringing health, contentment and personal fulfilment. It structured the day, gave opportunities for sociability and companionship, fostered pride in individual creativity and created a sense of personal identity. Idleness could never make people happy; and the ideal society was one in which there was satisfying work available for everybody.

The classical economists took the first of these two views. Adam Smith agreed with Dr Johnson that every man was naturally an idler. It was axiomatic that human beings preferred leisure to work. Labour meant "toil and trouble". It was undertaken only for the sake of remuneration, what in North America is still revealingly referred to as "compensation". The object of working was to acquire wealth, and the object of wealth was to avoid having to work.”

However, Locke also believed that psychologically, "men cannot be perfectly idle; they must be doing something".

It was his 18th-century successor, David Hume, who did most to develop this insight. "Every enjoyment," he wrote, "soon becomes insipid and distasteful, when not acquired by fatigue and industry. There was no craving of the human mind more constant and insatiable than the desire for exercise and employment."

When Adam Smith declared that labour involved the worker only in "toil and trouble", he was thinking primarily of manual work. Indeed he explicitly said that it was only what he called "the inferior employments" that were performed solely for the sake of the money, thus conceding the possibility that other occupations could be rewarding in themselves. Nevertheless, Karl Marx had a point when he declared that Smith's view of labour as a curse was psychologically misconceived

I think Keith Thomas is slightly off centre in some of his remarks.

For instance, it was only with the expulsion of Adam And Eve that they had to work, it being fairly clear from the start that the Eden Garden was a paradise of sorts, where all their needs were provided for in the forest, where, as Smith put it, ‘The pulling of wild fruit can hardly be called an imployment’ (Lectures in Jurisprudence [1762-3] 1978, p 14, Liberty Press).

Before they left the paradise of the Eden Garden (a somewhat misleading appreciation of the realities of the lives of hunter-gatherers), Adam and Eve were told in no uncertain terms, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’[Genesis 3.v.19) (taking many millennia from the life of the forest to the labour of farming).

Labour meant "toil and trouble” ’is another slightly misleading take on Smith’s use of the phrase. In his discussion on the ‘real and nominal Price of Commodities’ he states that the ‘Real price of everything, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.’ He goes on to say that what something is really worth ‘is the toil and trouble which he can save to himself, and which he can impose upon other people’. And what ever is bought with money is ‘purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our body. The money or those goods indeed save us this toil.’ [WN I.v.2.p 47; Edwin Canaan, 1937 edition, p 30-1]

The ‘other people’ are the sellers of what he wants. He labours to acquire money to save him the 'toil and trouble' of making the things he wants for himself. It is not the toil and trouble of wage labour that is decisive; it is the ‘toil and trouble’ of making what he wants himself, or, realistically, having to do without what he wants because he couldn’t make these things for himself – they are beyond both his reach and grasp.

This relates to Adam Smith’s basic observation that the hunters of North America were living in comparative poverty compared to the ordinary day labourer of Scotland in terms of their mutual possessions. The life of a hunter was hard enough to collect the few basic things needed in the hours he spent each day, without contemplating what else he might desire if they were in reach.

The notion of ‘toil and trouble’ is a psychological impulse – much like the desire to ‘better themselves’ – which impels labourers in a commercial society to seek work to acquire the goods that constitute their real incomes. Idleness was a problem for the very rich (anxious boredom with goods and each other was their main problem, as the novels of the 18th-19th centuries show), whereas for the very poor it was their anxieties from poverty, exacerbated by the intermittent absence of work, and suffering from the strange view among some legislators and those who influenced them that relieving poverty was an ‘inconveniency to the society’. (WN I.viii.36: p 96: Edwin Canaan, 1937 edition, p 78-9 )

The higher real incomes are, the greater the motivations to work well to acquire what their incomes can buy, to save them and their families the ‘toil and trouble’ of daily lives.

‘Tis a pity, as David Hume might have put it, that it took long enough for society to see the connection between what Adam Smith was talking about, when he lamented the short-sightedness of treating labouring men as little better than labouring cattle. It’s not that they were idle in the abstract, any more than slavery was basically inefficient (as well as inhumane). The slave who had ‘no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible’ (WN III.ii.9: p 387; Edwin Canaan, 1937 edition, p 365;, is but a step or two away from the low-waged labourer, whose interest is to act as ‘idle’ as he can get away with).

Commentators in the 21st century might show some humility when discussing life in the 18th century (and, perhaps life today in an impoverished, failed states).

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