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Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

read in Jul 2021

book info on goodreads

“Work” provides a rich history of how humanity has spend its time. Interestingly, Suzman’s book takes a social anthropological point of departure for answering this question. It primarily bases its argument on fieldwork with the Ju/'hoansi, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherers tribes. It brings forth many arguments that challenge fundamental economic theories. Indeed, Suzman develops an extensive critique of the principle economic problem. Although it is primarily a historical account of work, the book has a lot to say about today’s changes to work induced by digital technologies.

Suzman provides a refreshing, but for an anthropologist surprisingly scientific definition of work. Work for him is in principle about the energy quest. The search for ever more energy, which, in the early days, was meant to fulfil basic needs, but has turned into a self-feeding process. The story of work then in the book is the story of how humans tapped into ever richer energy sources. It describes several energy revolutions that humanity went through. From consuming plants to meat, from raw meat to cooked meat through the discovery of fire, from hunting to farming, from primarily human labour to mechanical labour and ultimately from mechanical labour to automation. This development in energy sources is directly associated with the development of the human species including its mental capacities.

No scientific discipline has been so concerned with work as the field of economics. Economics is about the efficient allocation of scarce resources. However, as Suzman shows and as more and more people start to believe in the age of robotics and artificial intelligence, this economic scarcity has not always been the organising feature of human economic life. Economic scarcity might actually be a social construction. He makes this point by explaining how the core assumption that underlies our economic institutions and thereby our understanding of work are an artefact of the agricultural revolution. In other words, scarcity did not exist prior to farming societies and still does not exist in hunter-gatherer populations until this day. Scarcity became socially constructed when people moved to cities and developed greed of what others had. A form of scarcity articulated in the language of aspiration, jealousy and desire. Anthropologist Durkheim also recognised this problem when developing the concept of anomie which he described by the “malady of infinite aspiration”. While Durkheim imagined that humanity will eventually find a cure for this condition and become happy without work pursuing leisurely activity, Suzman argues to the contrary:

“Since then, the kind of stability that Durkheim imagined would eventually settle in following industrialisation has come to resemble just another infinite aspiration that slips frustratingly further away whenever it seems to be nearly in reach. Instead, as energy-capture rates have surged, new technologies have come online and our cities have continued to swell, constant and unpredictable change has become the new normal everywhere, and anomie looks increasingly like the permanent condition of the modern age.”

Even though basic human needs are easily met, corporations and advertisers are continuously creating new, artificial needs that fuel the scarcity problem and drive economic growth.

Based on his extensive fieldwork in Africa, Suzman shows that hunter-gatherers had much more free time than we have today. Despite the common believe that such tribes live poor and precarious lives they are able to easily fulfil their basic material needs because they did not have exorbitant desires. For example, hunter-gatherers have an immediate return economy rather than the delayed return economy of industrial and farming societies. That means they never gathered more food than they needed on one particular day and they did not think about storing food either. Hunter-gatherers like the Ju/'hoansi also employ a principle of demand-sharing rather than supply-sharing according to which it is appropriate for every member of the society to ask for food from anyone at any time. With the agricultural revolution and the subsequent migration of people into cities due to the abundant food supply this changed significantly. Farmers started to extend the labour and debt relationship they had with their land to their personal relationships in the form of exchanges and transactions. That is why much of our financial terminology such as capital or stock spring from these early farming societies.

“It is perhaps unsurprising, then, despite the fact that hardly any of us now produce our own food, that the sanctification of scarcity and the economic institutions and norms that emerged during this period still underwrite how we organise our economic life today.”

If work is primarily about seeking ever richer energy sources then the question becomes where does all this new found energy go? Suzman shows that the complexity of a society at any particular time is a useful measure for the quantity of energy that it captures and also the amount of work that is needed to build and maintain this complexity. That is why population growth has largely eaten up the improvements in productivity through farming and the industrial revolution. With the advent of farming and later automation, people started to develop new jobs and roles out of a mix of circumstances, curiosity and boredom. This is what lead to the growth of the third sector economy and service industries which absorbed most of the workers that got displaced due to the industrial revolution. Suzman argues that it is not necessarily that these people had to find work because they had to fulfil their basic material needs, but that it has to do with our understanding of work grounded in the agricultural revolution:

“Another way to interpret the expansion of the service sector is in terms of the culture of work that has become so deeply ingrained in us since the agricultural revolution. This is a culture that makes us intolerant of freeloaders and canonise gainful employment as the basis of our social contract with one another even if many jobs don’t serve much purpose other than keeping people busy.”

In other words whenever there has been a large surplus of energy, people found creative ways to put it to work by inventing new forms of work.

In the end, Suzman outlines several interesting lessons of the history of work for the next energy revolution triggered by robotics and artificial intelligence. The problem is that while we are good at inventing new jobs, we are not good at creating meaningful and fulfilling jobs. Furthermore, it remains to be seen for how much longer humans will be able to come up with new jobs.

“Even more importantly, it is now far from certain whether or not the service sector will be able to accommodate all of those whose work will be determined superfluous to requirements by the next tide of automation, whose waves are already licking against the shores of this last refuge of working men and women in the post-industrial age.”

The information age has brought tremendous growth to developing countries because jobs could be easily outsourced to countries that were less expensive in terms of wages. Automation removes those advantages because the cost of high technology such as AI, unlike labour, is the same in the developed world. Automation will inflate the wealth of business owners that are able to run largely automated businesses. It will also increase return on capital rather than labour as one is able to invest in automated businesses. This will exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor leading to a further decoupling of economic growth and average wealth. Suzman concludes with an intriguing proposal:

“One aim is to reveal how our relationship to work - in the broadest sense - is more fundamental than that imagined by the likes of Keynes. 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.”

The key idea of Suzman’s book seems to be a challenge of scarcity economics. A challenge of the key principle of both our contemporary understanding of work and our unsustainable occupation with economic growth. By surfacing these assumptions and showing how hunter-gatherer societies seem to strive based on a different set of assumptions, “Work” invites us a different, more sustainable future for ourselves. A future in which we can harness our energy in the spirit of meaningful work.