Work as a curse

There is an unfortunate dispute of narratives taking place between those who listen to the scientific consensus on social isolation and those who defend obscurantism and necropolitics. This dispute can only occur now because there's a significant amount of human beings who have embraced scientific obscurantism and the most reactionary political and social thinking. If they aren't crazy in a medical sense, they definitely act as if they were by putting their own lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk. There is also the case that some of them have enough resources to isolate themselves and their families, but they preach an end to isolation for others, especially the poor. These people, in addition to being obscurantists, are also immoral. But something caught my attention in the midst of this surprising and insane battle: the glorification and romanticization of work, especially when the obscurantists accuse those who are in favor of social isolation of not wanting or not enjoying work—and this would be a sin, somehow.

The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, by Michelangelo

With the coronavirus pandemic, we are now able to observe even more clearly that the system needs to constantly exploit labor in order to survive. We see it all over the world. Because of social isolation, the poorest and least qualified are being fired by their bosses. Many of those who belong to the aristocracy of the proletariat, professionals such as engineers, had their salaries cut. In order to stay where they are, the owners of large means of production—it is necessary to make this explicit, as we cannot equate the popcorn seller or the owner of a local bar with the CEOs of Walmart and Berkshire Hathaway—need billions of human beings toiling under their command. There are exceptions, of course: a few billionaires and multimillionaires support benefits for workers during this crisis, as they don't want to give the impression that they are slave owners at the worst possible time.

It is well known that certain political movements have always had the habit of accusing the poor who receive welfare of being averse to work. This is a form of class prejudice considered acceptable within these movements. In Brazil, we had the unfortunate opportunity to see something similar after the creation of Bolsa Família (“Family Grant”) and other assistance programs for low-income people. Over the years, the criticisms against programs that benefit the poorest have grown in number and tone, to the point that we can state, without a doubt, that they helped fueling the ultra-conservative and irrationalist movement we see in the country today. If being poor was once frowned upon, now there is a real and explicit hatred for the poor in the country.

The protest caravans promoted by conservative and neoliberal political movements in Brazil in the last few weeks are good examples that these political trends do not accept that people need to stop working, even when they are at risk of becoming infected with a dangerous disease. The protests had the clear goal of embarrassing workers to return to their jobs. That is, when the situation becomes extremely unsafe, these movements do not defend the right of individuals to stop producing surplus value for the owners of the means of production.

It is important to observe the discourse used by these movements and also to see how work came to be thought of in the modern and contemporary worlds. The idea that work is something noble, an activity where we find ourselves as human beings, is not exactly new, but the way in which the nobility of work is emphasized is recent in human history. Despite somewhat disagreeing with the majority view that the ancient Greeks saw manual labor only negatively, Werner Jaeger writes the following in his classic Paideia:
Work and suffering must have come into the world at some time; but they cannot be part of God's original perfect scheme of things. They were introduced, says Hesiod, speaking as a moralist, by the disastrous action of Prometheus in stealing the divine fire. To punish that deed, Zeus created the first woman, the crafty Pandora, mother of all womankind; out of Pandora's box came the demons of sickness and old age, with ten thousand other evils who now inhabit all the earth and all the sea. (JAEGER, 1947)
Therefore, for the Greeks, work had a sinister origin. It was a curse, one of the many sufferings mankind was sentenced to. Even though Jaeger argues that work wasn't only seen in a negative light by the Ancient Greeks, he agrees that Greek society saw the mythical origins of work as being punitive. There was no work in the mythical “golden age” and, if there was something similar to work, it wasn't as arduous as man's labor during the “iron age”, which were the times that Ancient Greeks believed they belonged to. With the arrival of Greek philosophy, this negative view of work started to be rationalized, as we will see now.

Plato (1991) writes that crafting and manual work (here meaning all manual labor, manufacture and agriculture existing at the time) are considered low, since toil would imply a natural weakness of the superior element, that is, a weakness of intellect. In the Statesman, Plato (1984) writes that the architect is superior and commands the manual worker because he has theoretical knowledge, and thus is closer to pure knowledge than the man who only obeys commands and uses his hand. While in the contemporary world both the architect and the manual laborer are seen as workers, this was not the case in Ancient Greece. And in Plato's scheme, the philosopher was above the architect and any other knowledgeable person who uses the intellect for practical reasons, since the philosopher seeks to contemplate the truth in a pure and disinterested way.

After Plato, Aristotle would also argue for the inferiority of manual labor compared to intellectual activity, which was considered to be a type of leisure—the intellectual seeks to understand the world without the intention to modify it or deriving any material benefit from it. The word “school” itself derives from the word scholé, which means idleness in Greek. The idea was that leisure is a time when we do not act with a practical purpose, thinking and understanding nature and reality were not considered productive activities, materially speaking. In the book Politics, Aristotle equates manual laborers with instruments, both those who work in the fields and those who work producing goods are instruments with a soul. They have the same function as domesticated animals and should not have the same status as men of means, the only ones he considers worthy of being free citizens:
But there needs to be ownership of property among them too, since it is necessary for citizens to have an ample supply, and these people are citizens. For the group of mechanical craftsmen does not take part in the city, nor does any other class whose craftsmanship is not directed at producing virtue. (...) So those without whom a city cannot be organized, and how many of them are parts of the city, have been described. For farmers and artisans and the whole class of menial workers are necessarily present in cities, but it is the arms-bearing and deliberating groups that are parts of the city. Each of these is separate, some permanently and others by turns. (ARISTOTLE, 2012)
Although Plato and Aristotle criticized several aspects common to Athenian city-state thought—and we should remember that the political model of the city-state went in decline with the rise of Alexander, Aristotle's pupil—, the aristocratic and hierarchical thinking of both reflected the feelings that existed in that society, founded on slave labor and the exclusion of most inhabitants from political life. In Athenian democracy, only a minority of adult men had political rights, such as participating in the assembly and owning property, including land for cultivation. In fact, this was the reason why many metecas (foreigners) dedicated themselves to commerce and teaching rhetoric, as in the case of the sophists. 

With the advent of Christianity, at the end of antiquity, Western thought continued to regard work as a curse. Saint Augustine wrote in one of his sermons:
A hard condition is the life of man. What else is it to be born, but to enter on a life of toil? Of our toil that is to be, the infant’s very cry is witness. From this cup of sorrow no one may be excused. The cup that Adam hath pledged, must be drunk. We were made, it is true, by the hands of Truth, but because of sin we were cast forth upon days of vanity. (AUGUSTINE, 2007)
This view lasted for more than a thousand years. Earthly work supported only the body, but what mattered to the medieval man was the soul. It was only with the urban renaissance during the late Middle Ages that work began to be seen in other ways. And, from the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, new positive conceptions of work began to emerge and compete for space with the old beliefs. People like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were sometimes well paid to perform work that made them happy (BOTTON, 2009). Protestantism brought about an even greater change for the idea of work. According to the reformers, God is not only in the work done by priests and monks, but in any kind of worldly labor, as long as it did not involve the practice of sins, of course. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber writes:
But at least one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. (WEBER, 2001)
Such positive notions of worldly works have only started to take hold in the last 500 years. These ideas became more secular as scientific and technological progress took shape, mainly from the end of the 18th century and forward. Events such as the independence of the United States and the French Revolution brought a glorification of the common man and his work activities. They started to be considered a way to achieve happiness. One of the most famous parts of the United States Declaration of Independence states the following:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The main historical reason cited for the thirteen colonies to seek independence was precisely the constant and burdensome interference by the English metropolis when it came to the economic activities of the colonists—that is, English interference when it came to their work. John Locke had a great influence on the American Revolution, so it is easy to see how the values of liberalism contributed to the appreciation of the idea of work as something noble. For Locke (2003), God gave the world to men equally, and the way we have to acquire individual ownership of something is through work. This thesis, of course, was later criticized by many authors, including neoliberals thinkers and authors belonging to other traditions, such as Marxism. The important thing here is to show that the idea of work as a positive activity that ennobles man started to be included in philosophical thinking and, also, in popular thought.

From the perspective of political movements that defend the private ownership of the means of production—such as conservatism and neoliberalism—work was something we should perform for those who are our superiors in society (that is, if we are not fortunate enough to have inherited or conquered the ownership of some means of production, then we must gladly sell our labor force to some capitalist). But from the perspective of other political thought currents, this type of society was just a historical step to be overcome in the course of radical social changes.

For example, according to Marx (2001), capitalism was a necessary historical stage that needed to be overthrown. Within a capitalist framework, work is not capable of making man feel accomplished, something that would become possible when humanity achieved socialism (ELSTER, 1992). This way of thinking led movements in defense of the proletariat to also idealize or even romanticize work—not the work done under the yoke of capitalists, of course, but the work that humans would perform in the future, when humanity became free from class struggle and workers became the collective owners of the means of production.

This short genealogy is not exhaustive, of course. The concept of work has more complex nuances than this simplification. However, as an overview, we can say that this story is not incorrect, even though it lacks detail. I could have dealt more with how and when intellectual activities came to be considered work, or explained the Latin origin of the word “work” itself, which has to do with an instrument of torture.

Although I did not delve deeper into the historical details, we can see how the idea of work has changed over the past 2,500 years. For most of that time, it was seen as a kind of divine punishment. It was only in the last 500 years that work began to be valued and gained an aura of nobility and dignity in popular imagination—even being the cause of ideological disputes between different political movements, each defending their vision of work as being the more dignified and noble one.

However, I'll finish this article with a touch of negative or pessimistic thinking, as usual. Cioran was a philosopher and author who constantly remembered the way the ancients thought about life—and also about work. His writtings can be considered a denial of the optimistic and romanticized notions of progress and history. While Kant, Hegel, Marx and even Nietzsche saw the future as a time of achievement for humanity, a time when we'd have the opportunity to achieve something better—regardless of how each of them interpreted such improvement—Cioran saw the future the same as he saw the past and the present: man will work, die and suffer for nothing, until the day the species become extinct.

At certain times, Cioran (2014) seems to praise reactionary thought, but such reading is problematic, because in several passages, notably in works such as History and Utopia and A Short History of Decay he makes severe criticisms of the capitalist world and any society that is built on top of exploitation. The problem, according to him, is that they all end up being that way, even those we hope to be different. In A Short History of Decay, Cioran (2014) goes so far as to state that he doesn't understand how people have not yet completely destroyed our society—and it is clear that he writes about the unequal society based on exploitation, where most work to enrich a few, while many die of hunger.

This author borrows the mythical vocabulary of ancient civilizations, both Western and Eastern, to explain the human situation in a similar, analogous way. Schopenhauer (2014; 2015) does the same in his writings, although his philosophy has different bases than that of Cioran's. The appreciation for the idea that we were cursed is present in both philosophers. However, they don't really believe in a curse. The use of mythologies is only comparative. It is “as if” the world were a prison created by the gods to punish us for some original transgression—in the beginning of time there was a universal imbalance that caused us to fall into the universe of matter. Because of this event, we are forced to toil through sweat and tears.

Perhaps our reality is even worse, as in the case of the skeptical Cioran. He argued that nature, through its blind and random processes, ended up producing an animal that thinks and is conscious, an animal that needs to create illusions in order to survive. All mythologies and religions would be just that: illusions that we created to withstand the nothingness we really are. At least for these pessimistic authors, the ancient and medieval idea of work as divine punishment was closer to reality.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This article was originally published April 29th, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

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