Theological Studies, June 2002 v63 i2 p410(2)
Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR. (book review)
By Sharon Beder. New York: Zed, 2000. Pp. viii + 292. $69.95.
Although not primarily a work of theology per se, Beder's volume contains rich cultural analysis that is indispensable for anyone attempting to expand the dialogue between the Christian gospel and a modern industrial society that is dominated by an irrational and destructive work ethic and driven by the lure of consumption and achievement. In those places where B. deliberately shies away from offering theological opinions, the Christian ethicist may easily extend B.'s judgments about human values (ecological responsibility, distributive equity) in order to propose arguments for more specifically Christian implications of her analysis.
The volume's three parts each make distinct contributions to B.'s project. Part 1's account of the history and development of the work ethic in its pre- and post-Reformation stages is reliable enough, but marches along to an overly familiar cadence, often relying too heavily on a few secondary sources for insights into traditions of thought regarding work and its meaning. The middle part seeks to evaluate the implicit norms of our contemporary "culture of long hours" (250), surveying social mores as well as public policy and labor practices in various countries. While B. argues persuasively that an inordinate emphasis on material success has warped Western culture's perceptions of many crucial matters, fostering an unfair stigmatization of the poor and the enforcement of punitive policies toward nonworkers, too many loose threads are left hanging. Nowhere does she consider the logical alternatives (whether they consist of some version of egalitarianism or other ascription of social status) to the dominant work ethic that she exposes as a destructive and fraudulent ideology. If the notion that "you deserve whatever you reap from your work effort" is to be repudiated and replaced by some other workable pattern of social reward, this volume misses the opportunity to contribute to the constructive phase of this project of social reform.
The final third of the book is the most original and powerful. In investigating the mechanisms by which work values are instilled in each rising generation in contemporary society, B. offers a deeply disturbing expose of the school systems of industrialized nations. She portrays our system of education as little more than a labor supply line for business--an elaborate form of behavior modification that is more often concerned about preparing youths to be reliable and compliant employees than to become creative and critical thinkers. These well-researched and eye-opening chapters survey such developments as the trend toward corporate-school partnerships and the proliferation of business programs and entire business universities (such as Disney University and McDonald's Hamburger University) to make a cogent case that education has now become overly responsive to corporate interests at the expense of liberal values.
The book's greatest strength is its ability to combine a solid critique of the value system prevalent in Western industrial societies with a thorough and credible institutional analysis. Thus readers experience more than mere confirmation of their worst fears regarding the normalizing of workaholism; they also gain much insight into the particular roles of the business community, the media, government, religion, and educational institutions in exacerbating these lamentable cultural trends. B. articulates the inescapable conclusion that "the values associated with the work ethic have permeated every institution of modern industrial society" (264). Although this sober assessment of the status quo does not lead B. to offer a comprehensive blueprint for change, it nevertheless makes the potential contribution of motivating and preparing those who are versed in religious social ethics to reexamine with renewed seriousness the gains and losses implicit in our customary approach to the topic of work and achievement. If it is indeed true that "it is a combination of social conditioning and daily busyness which prevents a deeper questioning of the direction in which modern societies are going" (270), then religious voices are among those best positioned to challenge the status quo and explore the moral implications of the centrality of work in our lives. By offering attractive visions of the good life drawn from the deep wells of their traditions, religions are the most promising avenues for modern people to become more than "work machines" and to find meaning in the full variety of relationships that constitute their lives.
Finally, one especially felicitous strength of the book is its use of cross-national comparisons. B. draws frequently from the social history and labor policy experience of her native Australia as well as the U.S., Britain, and numerous other cultural settings in order to cast doubt on the maxim that "what is good for business is good for America" (or Australia or Britain, etc.). B. documents how, in all these contexts, the illusion of easy social mobility has been exaggerated and the poor unfairly blamed for economic failures, as the work ethic has come to legitimize vast social inequalities.
THOMAS MASSARO, S.J. Weston Jesuit School of Theology
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