Selling the Work Ethic

Robert R. Locke


Citation: Business History, vol. 44, no. 1, 2002, p. 130

SHARON BEDER, Selling The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR (London: Zed Books, 2000. Pp.viii + 292. H/back ISBN 1 85649 8840. [pounds sterling]49.95; p/back ISBN 1 85649 885 9, [pounds sterling]15.95).


This book casts a wide net in an attempt to come to grips with a topic of profound significance to modern man. Part I begins with five chapters about Work, Wealth and Inequity. The first roots the work ethic in a religious asceticism that equates poverty with idleness and sin. It is the familiar ground of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The three chapters that follow move quickly to the nineteenth century where they catalogue a variety of sources that legitimise the work ethic during the industrial revolution (for example, the 'myth' of the self-made man, the gospel of wealth) and justify social inequality (the ratiocination of classical economics, the predilection of Social Darwinism). Part II contains five chapters on 'Motivating Work -- Coercion and Persuasion'. One deals with Increasing Productivity, touching briefly on scientific management and the organisation of work in order to show how their appearance in the early twentieth century instead of bettering people's lives led to their degradation; a second chapter explains how newly fashioned corporate managerial hierarchies foster the organisation man and company loyalty in order to have a docile workforce. By this stage the argument has progressed to the period immediately after the Second World War. But this post-war system collapses in the next three chapters which cover the end of the twentieth century. Downsizing and globalisation bring an attack on public welfare and the unemployed. An ethic of entrepreneurial self-help replaces that of the organisation man. Part III (Motivating Work -- Conditioning) covers, in three chapters, the collective brainwashing of society that gets people to work harder for less money in a frenzy of pointless consumerism. A conclusion closes this familiar, sad tale of unspeakable evil with an exhortation to change.

If the topic is serious, if it is treated broadly, the book nonetheless lacks explanatory power because it does not explore alternatives or opposites. The work ethic pursued here really pertains to the English-speaking world, for Beder only casts the occasional glimpse at alternative capitalist societies and does not make them alternative when she does. Alternatives, which have prospered under capitalist regimes, can have very different work ethics; indeed, they can be rather different forms of capitalism. Beder, for instance, does not distinguish between the entity concept of the firm that exists in continental Europe and Japan and the proprietary concept of the firm that dominates Anglo-American capitalism. In the former, workers have long vacations, short working hours, and participate, in varying degrees, in the management of the firms in which they work. Not to explore these alternative market-driven capitalist societies is to paint a picture of capitalism that is much too bleak and certainly incomplete .

The book's analytical method is in fact robbed of context because it ignores dialectics. The opposite of work is idleness and surely Beder does not support the contention that we all become idle in order to escape the exploitative work ethic of globalising managerial capitalism. If she does not, then the work ethic per se is less the subject of this book than a work ethic that deprives people of their humanity. Marx's analysis deals with alienation which is a much more useful idea than that of the work ethic because the ethic of work can be a profoundly liberating human experience. Maria Callas said, 'I work, therefore, I exist'. A work ethic is not a sham and Beder has missed a great opportunity really to take the capitalists to task because she ignores the complexities of her subject.


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Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb