"Selling the Work Ethic" by Sharon Beder is a highly readable and thought-provoking history of how work has come to dominate our society. Using thorough documentation and skillful analysis, Ms. Beder contends that today's pathological obsession with work is a direct result of the capitalist production of human subjectivity. The author argues that a change in priorities from production and consumption to one that privileges the quality of life and the environment is needed to resuscitate our frayed society.
Section One discusses the Reformation and the transition from precapitalism to the present. Ms. Beder contrasts the anti-materialist teachings from ancient Greece and the early Christian church with the Protestants who gave a voice to the emerging capitalist class by equating prosperity with virtue. As time progressed, business-sponsored schools, churches and newspapers promoted the work ethic and coerced labor to accept the discipline of the factory. The effectiveness of this mass propaganda is attested to the fact that despite declining real wages and growing inequality, the myth of the American Dream persists to the present day.
Section Two is on the topic of motivating work. Ms. Beder begins with Taylor and Ford to show how industrialists experimented with various methods for controlling and exploiting the workforce. But as welfare capitalism subsequently sought to create emotional and familial bonds with employees and curb union militancy, the downsizing and job insecurity of the postmodern era has shattered the employment contract. Hence the recent restructuring of government welfare programs has been necessitated to punish the poor into accepting menial jobs that otherwise might go unfilled.
Section Three is about conditioning. The education system molds students for production through overwork and instills the ethos of competition by organizing team sports. Mass marketing leads to increased consumption of the commodities that signify status in a society of mass anonymity. Unfortunately, the stress of working long hours to achieve material success manifests itself in a myriad of social maladies including anxiety, obesity and rampant drug abuse.
Ms. Beder concludes that the work ethic crowds out time for people to reflect on the deeper meaning of their lives and to work collectively towards change. While the author offers little guidance as to how people might move beyond this impasse, those who do take the time to read her book are rewarded with greater insight and understanding. In this respect, then, "Selling the Work Ethic" may help readers begin to deconstruct and challenge the status quo.
I highly recommend this book to everyone.