Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Work: a history of how we spend our time

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Suzman, J. (2020). Work: A history of how we spend our time. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Work: a history of how we spend our time cover

From the title and sub-title of this book, you’d be unlikely to imagine the breadth of scope of the work it contains. James Suzman takes us on a a remarkable and fascinating journey through the evolution of our species: how we’ve worked to live and how we’ve lived when we weren’t working. But his actual starting point is the evolution of all life of earth. He defines ‘work’ as the ‘transfer of energy’ from that which occurs on a celestial scale, to that which takes place at a subatomic level. Living things are all about moving energy – i.e. doing work – and when that work stops, they are dead.

Although all living organisms, by this definition, do work. Suzman makes a distinction between purposive work and purposeful work. Purposive work is done to achieve a certain end, but can be done ‘blindly’ (e.g. automatically or instinctively) whilst purposeful work requires conscious planning. Only our species along with a few, still fiercely contested, others are capable of purposeful work. Even among animals that have developed tool using behaviours -around 70 species that we know of (including 15 invertebrates) – most use their tools purposively by evolving ever more specialised behaviours to exploit their environments. Homonids, on the other hand, have “short-cut this process by becoming progressively more plastic and more versatile. In other words, they became skilled at acquiring skills.” We use tools purposefully.

Suzman explores the evolution of larger brain sizes in hominids and connects a couple of step-changes in brain size to behavioural/cultural changes. Around 1.5 million years ago, Homo habilis appears to have started eating other animals which had already concentrated the energy from plants in flesh, organs etc. Then, he argues, an even more significant change occurred around 500,000 years ago when hominids learned how to use fire to cook food, facilitating more efficient conversion of tissue to energy. Both of these food revolutions made it much easier for hominids to meet the greater energy requirements required to sustain the evolution of larger brain sizes (a disproportionately energy hungry organ). But the ability to meet higher energy needs faster, profoundly affected the evolution of hominids in other ways. Suzman’s contention here is that it led to the creation of leisure time and thence to the differentiation of work and leisure: “by giving our ancestors more leisure time, fire simultaneously breathed life into leisure’s conceptual opposite, work, and set our species of on a journey that would lead us from foraging in forests to the factory floor.

Suzman argues that in contrast to a widely held belief that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were ‘nasty, brutish and short’, they probably led lives of comparative affluence with a great deal of leisure time that they used to develop sophisticated social and cultural structures: “in many hunter-gatherer societies, and potentially for most of human history, scarcity was not the organising feature of human economic life and hence that ‘the fundamental economic problem’, at least as it was described by classical economics, was not the eternal struggle of our species.” Hunter-gatherers that live in forest environments often regard the forest as a benevolent, sharing spirit that takes care of them. Even those that live in harsher environments like deserts tend to see the hand of benevolent spirits everywhere, helping to take care of them. Nearly all small hunter-gatherer societies living in temperate and tropical environments show very little inclination to gather surpluses, instead usually consuming what they catch/find the same day. This is called an ‘immediate return economy’ which contrasts with a ‘delayed return economy’ – a phenomenon which began to develop here and there around 65,000 years ago when the greatest migration of Homo sapiens took them to temperate environments where communities needed to undertake a certain amount of planning and storage of surpluses to get them through the winter.

But the biggest switch from immediate return economies to delayed return economies took place from between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago when a series of unrelated and geographically distinct populations around the world started to grow crops and keep domesticated animals – the Agricultural Revolution. The reasons for this simultaneous emergence remain unclear but it could be related to an unusually severe series of climate changes just before this time (the Younger Dryas period) which caused a dramatic cooling of the earth. Strong evidence suggests that early farming communities worked harder and probably lived shorter lives than most hunter-gatherers. Pre-industrial farming communities often flourished early in their establishment but whilst their ability to expand the energy they created grew arithmetically, the size of their populations tended to grow geometrically meaning that life just got harder and harder the longer they were established. There are countless examples, in the archaeological record, of farming communities growing and then crashing. Suzman writes: “For subsistence farming societies […] the ‘economic problem’ and scarcity was often a matter of life and death. And the only obvious solution to it involved working harder and expanding into new territory.” Furthermore he sees that this has profoundly influenced they way in which we lead our lives today: “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.

The delayed return economies of agricultural societies led to the evolution of money to manage credit and debt arrangements between farmers. The earliest evidence of money is found in Mesopotamian city-states in the form of clay ledgers. Money was enumerated in terms of grain or silver, but actual grain and silver probably didn’t change hands that often – almost exactly the situation with modern money. Today the relationship between labour effort and reward is heavily out of kilter – but it wasn’t always that way. Apart from the privileged elite, labour and reward were much more closely linked in the past. But trading brought about the concept that the value of goods was not connected to the labour put into building them (‘labour theory of value’), but the value that buyers derived from them. Exchange value became untethered from use value – particularly under capitalism.

Suzman describes how the evolution of cities followed naturally from the agricultural revolution and has been christened as the ‘urban revolution’, regarded by some as the second phase of the agricultural revolution. It only came about once a critical threshold in agricultural productivity was reached and farmers produced sufficient surpluses to support an explosion of other professions like ‘bureaucrats, artists, politicians and others’ – people who did work other than farming. Two new entirely new classes of work evolved once people lived in cities. The first, alongside the development of writing systems, included a whole new range of professions from scribes to architects. The second was the merchants – those who controlled the collection and distribution of resources produced in the countryside. Suzman wrote: “[…] city merchants quickly learned that trade was a possible route to wealth and power. And this was important because while among farming communities people were preoccupied with meeting their basic need, in town and cities other, different needs and desires shaped people’s ambitions, and correspondingly how and why they worked.

City life and the new professions that came with it increased opportunities for social mobility, but along with that comes increasing inequality, resulting in the poor and wealthy living cheek by jowl. This has led to the ‘malady of infinite aspiration’ – a term first used by Emile Durkheim to describe the negative feelings experienced by many people who are desperate to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. John Keynes described this in terms of absolute and relative needs. Whilst the former are finite, the latter are infinite because whenever we reach a certain level, we move our aspirations upwards: we can never have enough. People in cities aspired to the social class above them and ‘conspicuous consumption’ was born. Suzman wrote: “The embrace of conspicuous consumption was at first confined to the aristocratic and well-to-do merchant classes, but as more and more people became dependent on cash wages rather than the product of their own labours, consumption became more influential in shaping both the fortunes and the aspirations of what would later be referred to as the working classes.”

John Keynes believed that as economic growth continued, living standards would increase and working hours would reduce. And whilst the former has certainly been the case – the standard of life for most people in advanced economies now easily surpasses the threshold where Keynes believed absolute needs would be met – working hours have gravitated to around 40 hours/week in most advanced economies. This despite productivity increasing 4 or 5 fold since the 1940s. A big part of this has been the revolution in advertising – pushing up consumption and people’s desire to buy more stuff. Indeed when people are faced with a choice of cutting their working hours and earning the same money, or keeping their working hours the same and earning more, the evidence shows that they take the latter option. John Galbraith – author of The Affluent Society – believed that “by the 1950’s most Americans’ material desires were as manufactured as the products they purchased to satisfy them. Because most people’s basic needs were now easily met, he argued, producers and advertisers conspired to invent new artificial needs to keep the hamster wheel of production and consumption rolling rather than investing in new public services. Real scarcity, in other words, was a thing of the past.

Suzman describes The Great Decoupling which is a contested idea that in the 1980s the relationship between wages and productivity growth (and along with productivity, output and GDP) that had increased together through much of the 20th century broke down. Productivity, output and GDP continued to grow but wages for all but the highest paid stagnated. It happened in the 1980s and although the reasons are ”not yet clear” one contributing factor was likely to be the wider adoption of neoliberalism and ‘trickle down economics’. Suzman gives a number of statistics which show how after the Great Decoupling, the gap between very top and middle earners has grown enormously. He attributes much of this to a manufactured ‘War For Talent’ promoted by the global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. They promoted the idea – based on false demographics – that people in the age group 35-40 years old would be fewer in number than anticipated – and hence there would be a smaller pool of available ‘talent’ for companies to scrap over. They promoted the idea – uncritically adopted all over the world – that the ‘top talent’ was worth paying much, much more for. It seemed for a while after the financial crash in 2008/9 that this might come to an end. But the idea of top talent was now so entrenched that banking and other executives were soon back to paying themselves the same huge bonuses as before the crash on the basis that they needed the top talent to get them out of the mess they had created!

Interestingly, Suzman also postulates that the crash was a major reason for the lack of action on climate change: “The problem was that because economics had masqueraded as a science for so long, people quite reasonably began to treat expertise in general with more scepticism, even in far more solidly grounded sciences like physics and medicine. As a result, among the more unexpected casualties of the financial crisis was the once near-universal confidence in people like climate scientists warning of the dangers of anthropogenic climate change and epidemiologists trying to explain the benefits of immunisation.”

Many post-industrial economies have massively expanded their ‘service sector’, including the invention of many services that serve no real needs at all (the so-called ‘bullshit jobs’ or ‘nonsense rolls’) and Suzman examines the effect that this has had on job-satisfaction. He writes: “There is no doubt that many people – among them some of those employed in ‘nonsense’ roles – find satisfaction in their work, or at the very least enjoy the companionship and structure it brings to their lives. Even so, the problem is that the overwhelming majority of workers across the world don’t get a great deal of satisfaction out of their jobs.” However, he argues that in their leisure time, such people often pursue hobbies that mimic actual work. Many hobbies are often the pursuit of activities that refine and use the kinds of manual and intellectual skills that, in the ancient past, we depended on to stay alive, e.g. hunting and fishing, gardening (agriculture).

Suzman ends the book with an examination of automation in the work-place and the relationship with environmental crises. He notes that John Keynes used the term ‘technological unemployment’ to describe unemployment caused by the progression of technology that automates work previously done by people. Keynes correctly predicted it would be important but he did not anticipate how much of the slack would initially be taken up by the growth of the service sector. He was also incorrect about the consequences. He believed that once everyone’s basic needs were satisfied, inequality would become irrelevant. He supposed those made unemployed would share in the wealth created by automation and, for a while, it looked like that would be the case until the ‘Great Decoupling’ which coincided with neoliberalism in the 1980s. An Oxford study by Frey and Osborne in 2013 brought home to people just how current a threat automation was to people’s jobs. And if we didn’t know it then, we certainly do now with current advances in AI. In relation to the unfolding multiple environmental crises, Suzman notes that were Keynes alive today: “it is possible he would zero in on [the environmental crises] which suggested that it was the medicine Keynes described for curing the economic problem – technologically led economic growth – that was making the patient sick.

The account above can be no more than a selective precis of James Suzman’s book – so wide ranging and discursive is it. Despite its breadth, there is a clear narrative arc and I never felt that Suzman was going off at a tangent. Or perhaps I never felt it was a tangent I was not happy to follow! It was a pleasure to read on so many different levels and definitely a book I would be happy to dip into again. I’m going to leave the final words to Suzman himself who says, in the book’s conclusion: “The principal purpose [of this book] has been to loosen the claw-like grasp that scarcity economics has held over our working lives, and to diminish our corresponding and unsustainable preoccupation with economic growth. For by recognising that many of the core assumptions that underwrite our economic institutions are an artefact of the agricultural revolution, amplified by our migration in cities, frees us to imagine a whole range of new, more sustainable possible futures for ourselves, and rise to the challenge of harnessing our restless energy, purposefulness and creativity to shaping our destiny.