The tao of work

Molly Scott Cato
The whole notion of a 'work/life balance' is a symptom of how divided we have become from what makes our lives meaningful, and what brings home the bacon
Work and life cannot be in balance when a person is alienated from herself

The holiday months, especially if we spend them relaxing on the beach or walking the hills of our beautiful country, offer a good opportunity to reflect on the other 50-odd weeks that so many in our society spend chained to the work-station. In this year of unusually feverish politics, perhaps some in less public employments will consider emulating the example of so many politicians to choose to ‘spend more time with their families’.

This is a sentiment that would have made no sense in pre-industrial times, when work took place in the home and the land surrounding it, or in a workshop attached to the home, and where all the family were involved in its livelihood from the time the children could first walk. In pre-industrial society work and life were not distinct categories. Before horsepower was provided by fossil fuels work was also shared within a community—haymaking being a good example—reinforcing wider social bonds.

Some delightful accounts of work in the pre-capitalist era are found in the novels of George Eliot—relaxing reading during the summer months. My favourite is Adam Bede, the tale of a master craftsman whose emotional conflicts are balanced by his perfect control and dexterity in work. On the surface he is a tall and stalwart hero with ‘an arm that was likely to win the prize for feats of strength’; his inner life is haunted by a struggle with an over-possessive mother, anxiety for a brother who is away with the fairies, and passion for the ditsy local beauty, the charmingly named Hetty Sorel.

George Eliot wrote her novels in part to illustrate the shift in work values that the movement from an agrarian to an industrial society had brought about, and the change in relationships and spiritual life that followed. In Medieval times the life of the artisan was naturally embedded within his or her spiritual existence. The master to whom he was apprenticed had paternal and also spiritual responsibility for him. The guild to which he eventually gained membership had its own mysteries and its own – sometimes bizarrely appropriate – patron saint.

In the novel Adam eventually finds peace with Dinah, who is a lay preacher with the ‘Methodies’, a sect that attempted to encourage a rebirth of the static ordering of life that religion had supported in the Medieval villages and towns but that was utterly destroyed by the urbanization of the 18th century. The Benedictine rule ‘laborare est orare’ (to work is to pray) was replaced with the New Jerusalem of patient work in one’s own station that so infuriated Marx.

Marx was, of course, a materialist, but even he accorded work an almost spiritual importance in his account of the human being. His revulsion against the capitalist work system stemmed from its ruthless determination to expropriate not only the value of a person’s work but also the autonomy of his labour. This process alienated man from his essential essence. From an environmental point of view we might extend this to say that through our work we are alienated from the planet on which we depend, an example of occupational injury writ large.

A holistic approach to labour would require that we can express our deepest selves through our work. In the late capitalist economy, too many of us are forced to trade off the times in our lives when we are doing what we dislike to earn money (defined as ‘work’) against times spent expressing our true nature (‘life’). Work and life cannot be in balance when a person is alienated from herself by the capitalist work system and while human beings are alienated from nature. A green economy requires a genuine work-life balance not only with our human nature within but also with the Nature without.

Molly Scott Cato is a reader in green economics at the Cardiff School of Management.

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