Work: The Last 1,000 Years is a book by Prof Andrea Komlosy from the University of Vienna. Despite the echo of a handbook like an experiment from the title and the cover, this book is a true piece of academic work, and therefore needs time to be processed and understood. Moreover, the writing style is evidently a translation from German. On the positive, the fervent precision in wording definition. On the negative, the complexity of sentence construction, which makes this read even more complicated. This does not impact its quality though.
The academic background is also visible in the scientific structure of the book. After an initial introduction, focused as mentioned on definitions and language, the book dedicates time to the explanation of the categories of analysis that are used. The “juicy” part of it is, however, chapter 6, which covers more than half of the book itself. Work is analyzed through a number of historical cross-sections, based on “representative years”: 1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900 and today. The cross-sections thus serve as signposts for the striking changes in the way work has been perceived and organized throughout history, and the ways in which different conditions and relations combine. Each of these cross-sections is analysed looking at the key characteristics of Work in that period, a chapter focused on Local Conditions and labour relations, with a focus on Continental; Europe; a paragraph on interregional connections and one on Large-scale connections which looks at Work on a global perspective.
The author follows an essentially “socialist” line of thinking in both the definition of work and the analysis of the forces that affect its role in society. It is through this approach that the book is capable to deliver a positive outlook on global cultures across the world without considering the anthropological aspects of this. The author is very considerate on providing all possible caveats in treating a concept from a western perspective, and trying to expand it to a global context. Yet she is able to offer some very thorough analysis on the topic, adding a detailed historical perspective.
The separation of workplace and home – of working hours and free time – remained the exception for most of human history, only becoming widespread during the Industrial Revolution through the centralization of gainful employment in the factories and offices of the industrialized West at the end of the eighteenth century.Andrea Komlosy, Work: The Last 1,000 Years
This yer, at the core of what we name Middle Age, represents the growth of urbanization in Europe, and the coming of age of a new system, following the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the long period of the so called barbaric invasions. With the end of the Mongol Empire, which de facto created the Eurasia Region, a new society was brewing in Europe, focused on a renewed role for civil organisations represented by cities. Cities attracted a new type of worker, the artisan, focused on a “tool- and quality-oriented understanding of work“, distinct from the labour in the farms on the countryside.
This year represents a period of the geographic discoveries and of expansion of Western Europe in the form of plantations and mines in the new American colonies. This led to a transformation of the European production, which focused on finished goods based on much more reliable sources of raw materials. This also led to creation of a first divide in Europe, between the West, which became more industrialized, and the East, which instead focused on agriculture.
This year represents the peak of the so called “ancien régime“. It’s a period where Merchants establish and propagate the so called putting-out system of production, creating networks of cottage-based production of goods, particularly in the textile sector. This system started introducing a division of labour, whereby each household participating in the system would produce a few steps in the value chain, not the entirely finished product. This mean tying the people into a chain that ensured control bu the merchants. It’s also the period where trade of slaves reach its peak, still focused especially on plantation work. The new Capitalist way of working is born.
After the French and the American revolutions, it’s the Industrial Revolution that takes stage in the world of work. This moved the control of global; commodity chains to Great Britain essentially, who dominates this phase. Mechanisation brought wage labour out of the house and workshop and into the factory, contributing to a completely new experience of what it meant for many people to ‘go to work’. Factory means dependency on a waged income, something that is entirely new.
The labour movements of the XIX century brought union fights and socialist ideas. With this, the narrowing of the conception of work to gainful employment outside the home finally become dominant on a global scale. Despite the fact that the prediction that this type of work would mean the extinction of all other types, this new, restricted conception of work as wage labour’s implantation into legal codes, state planning and the demands and political imaginary of the labour movement itself solidified its pre-eminent position in twentieth-century discourse.
The author looks at the more recent developments starting with the aftermath of the World Wars. However, it is particularly after the 1980s that work starts changing again. The flexibilization of labour relations began to accelerate in the 1980s, triggered by the crisis of industrial mass production, as what were once considered ‘normal’ working conditions became increasingly uncommon in the industrialized countries as well.
Work: The Last 1,000 Years makes an interesting contribution in three areas especially. First, in the understanding of the concept of Work across the different societies and their development. What is considered work today is the result of several social and economical forces. An interesting chapter focused for example on the words used to designate the concept of Work in various languages, and looks at an established Dualism that exists in most cultures between Toilsome Work and Creative Work.
A second great area of discovery is the role of women in the world of work through history. This is always mentioned not with an ideological feministic outlook but rather looking at the historical evidence of their role across history.
The third aspect is the relevant con text given to the perception of Work in other areas of the world. We end up learning that today’s situation is very much the result of the westernization of the rest of the world, particularly through the two ideologies that competed in the aftermath of the second world war, Communism and liberalism, who both pushed for a definition of work as gainful employment. This restricted the definition of work in many contexts, creating the economic and value perception issue we have today whereby gainful employment seems to become more and more an exception.
To sum up, a great source of information, with a solid background of research, often pointing out also the unusual direction of the investigation. The books build on a great knowledge by author in terms of economic history, and poses many of the right questions, in the last chapter, also on what has to come to the role of work. In many ways, this book has added many confirmations to the Brief History of Work article that I wrote, and more content in general for the Meaning of Work series. It helps once more to confirm the main assumptions for the Discourses of Work that I have set up, giving more depth of historic perspective on some of these.
Did you read this book? Feel free to add your comments.
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