Work. A History of How We Spend Our Time is a very recent book by James Suzman, a British anthropologist and photographer who has derived much of his expertise from spending time in the Kalahari region among the Ju/’hoansi, a residual population of hunters/gatherers. As I spent time researching for my Meaning of Work series, this book came along as a key source of reference. Although I’ve read it after the initial drafting of that research, I can confirm its great contribution in supporting some of my assumptions.
The book is a clear mix of different angles and points of view on what Work has represented for the human being. For sure, the anthropological perspective is predominant, but there is a lot of great insights coming from other branches of science and human thought: philosophy, economics, social history, archaeology etc. Despite its heavy scientific grounding, the book is written in a very divulgation style, and the author is not shy in offering insights of first-hand experiences, especially of the Ju/’hoansi.
The main concept that emerges from the book is that a History of Work is also a History of Economy not as a science, but rather as a human construct. The law of scarcity that constitutes the basic assumption of economic theory is a recent invention compared to the entire history of humanity. Tribes of hunters and gatherers did not act as if nature produced scarcity: on the contrary, they acted as if nature produced constant abundance. These behaviours have been consistently observed in many of the tribes that survived until modern times. Their economic life was organised around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity. From a purely rational perspective, if hunter/gatherers were working a lot less than farmers, had a better diet and more leisure time, why is it that today the context is completely different and based on a scarcity law that is probably only apparent and psychologically driven?
For 95 per cent of our species’ history, work did not occupy anything like the hallowed place in people’s lives that it does now.James Suzman, Work. A History of How We Spend Our Time, page 101.
In this book, the quest for the history of work translates into a history of how energy is produced and consumed. The author identifies four “points of convergence” that make up the contemporary relationship with work. The first is the domestication of fire. In learning how to outsource some of their energy needs to flames, they acquired the gift of more time free from the food-quest, the means to stay warm in the cold and the ability to vastly extend their diets, so fuelling the growth of ever more energy-hungry, harder-working brains. The second point of convergence is the invention of Agriculture, which reveals how much of the formal economic architecture around which we organise our working lives today had its origins in farming and how intimately our ideas about equality and status are bound into our attitudes to work. The third one is the creation of cities, which quickly became crucibles of inequality. Finally, the fourth point with the appearance of factories, as populations in Western Europe learned to unlock ancient stores of energy from fossil fuels and transform them into hitherto unimaginable material prosperity.
The book brings us through a journey that starts from exploring how animals work, and what the true definition of work is. It explores the concept of purposeful activity as a prerequisite of work. It guides us through the meaning of tools in the development of humankind and work and then accompanies us in the four points of convergence just mentioned.
The book is a discovery that many of the “common assumptions” on the history of work are often untrue. We discover that the first tools, where probably no tools at all. That large buildings pre-date the agricultural revolution, and that cities also have had a different history than in the past expected.
A pillar message that is evident through the book is the change in mindset that moving from a hunter/gatherer society into an agricultural on entail. Hunters and Gatherers have short-term thinking, focused on immediate return from their labour. Farmers, instead, have what has been named as a “delayed return economy“, because the return of work will come at a later stage. Suzman builds a compelling case whereby the idea of economy of scarcity depends exactly on this change of mindset. Elements like money, credit, societal hierarchy, are all established because of this change of mindset.
Concepts that we consider widely common, such as time is money, thus occupy a minimum part of human history, and have been matched especially in the last decades, following the Industrial Revolutions. We also discover that the founding parables of economics as a science, those that Adam Smith brilliantly illustrated, are simply wrong. Economy the way we know it is much a social norm, not a definite science.
One last interesting analysis that can be derived from this book is the relationship between work and automation. We all have the feeling this is an entirely new experience. But the reality is that humanity has tried for millennia to move a big part of work to “non-human” workers. These being, according to the society and the context, animals and slaves (for which the non-recognition of their status as “human” was a key element in each society practising slavery). Interestingly, all these modified societies and create turmoils due to the relationship between work and capital intensity.
Work. A History of How We Spend Our Time is really a great book for all those that want to have a better understanding of how work has developed through society. The capacity of the author to pick societal trends that concretise through millennia in history, evading the traditional chronology we always assume, is really paramount. Reading the book is a constant mental exercise of challenging many of our assumptions.
The relationship between energy, life and work is part of a common bond we have with all other living organisms, and at the same time our purposefulness, our infinite skilfulness and ability to find satisfaction in even the mundane are part of an evolutionary legacy honed since the very first stirrings of life on earth.James Suzman, Work. A History of How We Spend Our Time, page 310.
The book itself is also a confirmation of the thinking I have been pursuing recently: reasoning on the concept of Work means having to reason on the concept of Value. The book gives me also many confirmations on the topology that I have proposed around the Discourses of Work, although there are also some elements that challenge some of my assumptions and understanding of the past.
What I missed in this book is a look at the future. The author builds a strong case for considering sustainability from a. different perspective and challenging the idea of growth that characterises our economic point of view. But this falls short in suggesting a new scenario for how work can still evolve, maybe through one of the new “points of convergence” that could disrupt the future of work.
Did you read this book? Pleas add your thoughts in the comment section below
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