The Godliness of Work
Two weeks ago, on Labor Day I published a piece about the anti-labor lobby. It focused on the various policies that the ostensibly “pro-labor” lobby advocated. This week I wish to go beyond the policies and dive into a bit of the culture that drives those ideas. It is a culture which is not simply anti-labor but, in fact, profoundly anti-work.
First, we should recognize that being anti-work is not a Christian perspective. Work is not a product of the Fall. In Eden humans had jobs. They were to give names to the animals and generally take care of the Garden. So, even while not wanting for anything, humanity was expected to work.
This continued in the Old Testament. In Exodus 16 when God provided for the wandering Israelites by giving them manna from heaven, they had to go out in the morning and gather what God had set down for them. That is, they had to work. All throughout both the Old and New Testament there is the assumption that one must work, to produce. True, there is care and concern to be directed at those who could not work, but there was never a denigration of work itself. This is both a moral perspective and a practical one, as humanity can only consume that which it produces. We need to keep this in mind as we contemplate those who do, in fact, denigrate work itself.
Those That Hate Work
The best place to turn to examine this phenomenon is to those that claim to advocate on behalf of laborers. In the public sphere this is those of a socialist bent. This is a somewhat modern iteration of socialism as the older Marxist variety was about changing work, not abolishing it. Most of the animosity toward work is driven by a utopian view of the world that bears little relation to reality. Here is an article from 2009 that appears here, on a socialist/anarchist site, that is quite serious in its offerings. The title of the article is “The Abolition of Work”. Here is a relevant quote:
I am not playing definitional games with anybody. When I say I want to abolish work, I mean just what I say, but I want to say what I mean by defining my terms in non-idiosyncratic ways. My minimum definition of work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or “communist,” work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness.
This is clearly antagonistic to the whole idea of work. Also, there is notably no discussion of how anything will get produced and how humanity will be materially sustained. The point is that there is a clear hatred of the very idea of work itself. It appears this derives from a utopian socialist ideal that does not consider that without work/labor as a part of freely functioning market with freely formed prices society cannot rationally allocate scarce resources. This is commonly called the socialist calculation debate.
To live in reality is to not deny the reality of scarcity. Scarcity gives rise to the concept of cost. Every first-year econ course goes over this idea, even if only the notion of opportunity cost. If we do one thing, we cannot do another; I can either produce this or that, not both; I can acquire X or Y, not both. The introduction of money into this equation does not change this reality one bit. To imagine that scarcity is part of a capitalist conspiracy or is “fake news” is to imply that we can eliminate it and only God can do that. That darn First Commandment again!
If we can firmly grasp the reality of scarcity and its ever-presence in our lives, then the next question is can we make it any better? Yes, in fact, we can make it better; not perfect but better. The best way to make it better is to produce more goods and services. The best way to produce more goods and services is to get ourselves better tools. We call those tools capital. With more capital (tools) we become more productive, therefore we produce more. If we produce more then we can consume more. All of this implies the arising of a market with real prices communicating real information about the best use of these scarce resources at our disposal. This is really the only true way to mitigate scarcity. It is how we have improved the lot of humanity ever since the industrial revolution. We can do this simply by living out the Gospel and treating others the way we wish to be treated; loving God and neighbor; and loving one another the way God loves us. In short, this means work. Therefore reject this culture of anti-work.
There are other expressions of this anti-work mentality to be found in some socialist publications. There are two leading publications of current socialist thought. Current Affairs and Jacobin. They offer commentary, much of it intelligent, on social, cultural and economic matters. One does not need to do a deep dive into these publications to see that they oppose work itself.
Here is one offering from Current Affairs. It is titled “Bullshit Jobs”, which is the name of the book that this article is reviewing. It is all about how work sucks in the current economic/political environment. It is a generalized screed about current work and a condemnation of a capitalist order that the author thinks is responsible for this. This author is very vague about what constitutes a “good job”. This article admits that we are not really under capitalism-so it is work itself that is being attacked.
While a lot of jobs are tedious, and many are not fulfilling, this is not a valid critique of work itself but rather a highlight of the fact that we no longer live in Eden. Also a lot of the “bullshit” jobs that are being criticized here are a result of interferences with the voluntary marketplace.
Another expression of this non-reality based utopian ideal comes from this piece in Jacobin magazine. Coursing throughout the work is a generalized distaste at having to actually perform work to acquire the things we need to sustain our life. A vague Nirvana is offered is only we socialize the economy.
This hatred of work itself has filtered down to the level of elected officials as well. In a somewhat famous statement by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she made the argument that those who cannot work should be provided for, as well as those who are unwilling to work.
This attitude has impacted much recent policy. Using the pandemic as cover, laws were enacted which often provided more money for not working than people could make from working. Also a series of policies-rent abatement, loan repayment deferral, etc were put in place to allow people to make ends meet without working. This, of course, was after the policy makers crushed the workplace in their overreaction to Covid. We are now living out the damaging consequences of these anti-work policies in the form of ever rising prices and supply chain disruptions.
A Faithful Response
We as people of faith should be able to offer a better response. We should embrace work as grounded in God’s desire for humanity. We should acknowledge that work provides dignity, and purpose to our human lives. We should also recognize the reality that productive work is what allows us to produce that which will sustain us materially. This also means that it provides the means to sustain those that are unable to work.
Our God is certainly a God of principle, and a God of practicality. God would not give us a set of principles that did not also work in practice. The God that expected work from the able Adam and Eve expects it from those of us who are equally able. The God that sees the good that this work provides to His people in ancient times also sees the good that this can provide for us today. The best response to the gifts that God has showered on His people is to embrace work, encourage an environment where there are no artificial impediments to productive work and then do what I think God wants us to do-enjoy the fruits of that labor. Love God, and love your neighbor means loving those things that make us fully human-including work.
Praise Be to God