Hard work is not a virtue

In an article printed in the Church Times on 17th April 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron writes:

The Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none – and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.

Religious leaders have let him get away with it. They should not have. This is a far more serious attack on Christian values than any number of gay marriages.

Charity, compassion, humility and love are of course apple pie. Nobody is going to disagree with them. Even the most pathologically hate-filled want other people to love them and show them compassion. Cameron has added responsibility and hard work because they fit his agenda. He wants us to blame the poor for their poverty either because they are irresponsible or because they do not work hard enough.

Here there is a major difference between capitalist theory and all the major religious traditions. The fact that religious leaders so rarely draw attention to it (with a few honourable exceptions like Peter Selby) shows how much they have sold out.

The difference is about where wealth comes from. All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows. The wood and stones we need for houses are provided by the planet. It is true that we have to act on these things, but even our muscles and brains are given, more to some than to others. The proper response is gratitude. Societies characteristically express gratitude through celebration. By celebrating they reinforce their gratitude and therefore learn to trust the giver. Thanking and trusting draw attention to the giver and the purpose of the gift, and thereby lead to an ethical imperative: to make sure everybody’s needs are met, here and now, in accordance with the giver’s intentions. The relevant biblical texts are usually read at Harvest.

Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs. It is a common error. We all tend to assume that our own lifestyle, and the way we were brought up, is more normal than it really is. So Adam Smith and his wealthy colleagues, surrounded by desperate poverty, all too easily convinced themselves that the problem lay not in their own excessive and exploitative lifestyles but in overall shortage. In the same way some car-owners today may imagine that a family without a car is suffering hardship, and fantasise about universal car-ownership as a desirable objective.

From capitalism’s perspective, shortage – nature’s meanness – means that only by hard work can a society reach a tolerable quality of life. Hard work becomes a necessity, and thus a virtue. It therefore follows that the unemployed are free-riders. For those who buy into this account of reality it seems natural to divide the population between the goodies who work hard and the baddies who do not.

The situation is of course complicated, both by capitalism’s internal contradictions and by the inconsistent ways it is applied. We are also to some extent influenced by capitalism’s rebellious children, socialism and communism, which usually also treat hard work as a virtue. We permit some to be free-riders: babies, the ill, those over an arbitrary pension age. Otherwise we keep inventing new needs, new shortages, new imperatives to work hard. There is an added layer of abstraction in that ‘hard work’ is now, absurdly, defined not by service to other people but by service to ‘the economy’; for example, those who are paid to ring us up and invite us to buy things we don’t want are counted among the workers while mothers feeding their babies are not.

Despite the complications and absurdities, we have been taught to fear the threat of economic chaos. We have largely been persuaded that hard work is a virtue because an acceptable quality of life depends on it. As long as this belief remains popular, it follows that people who do not ‘work hard’ are receiving without giving. They are free riders, getting away with irresponsibility.

For those who accept this picture of reality, the harder everyone works the better our lives will be. It also follows, rather less popularly, that eugenics is a good idea after all since society will be more successful if it kills off people like me who cannot ‘work hard’.

As working hours get longer and conditions get worse, the absurdity of all this becomes increasingly obvious. Having to work harder than we want is itself a major cause of poor quality of life. The drive to get everyone to work harder only seems to make sense when we are bullying other people, not when we ourselves are the objects of the bullying.

The older traditions were right. We have been given the things we need. Between us we have the muscles and brains to make constructive use of them, but never equally. It is always the case that some can do more constructive work than others. The distribution of assets will never match how hard everyone has worked. However it does not need to. There is a limit to how much work needs to be done.

These two very different understandings of wealth produce very different attitudes to the poor, disabled and unemployed. They also produce very different social agendas. Should our society be constantly striving to do more, produce more, consume more, achieve more? Or should we rather enjoy what we already have, adopt a spirit of gratitude, and celebrate?

David Cameron, if there is an ounce of Christianity in you, you should know that we are all free riders. We are all recipients of free gifts. We are all scroungers. No amount of hard work will change that.

Posted by Jonathan Clatworthy. Comment here.

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