A Revolution in Work

Contemporary job insecurity is more than a response to dominant neo-Liberalism. The pace of technological change gives less of a role for human beings with millions of jobs predicted to disappear. With the advance of third and even fourth level education a serious mismatch has emerged between skill sets and the requirements of our economies. Only a revolution in work will allow for greater fulfillment and individual autonomy in this changed environment.

Theodore Zeldin’s latest work: The Hidden Pleasures of Mankind: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future offers a profound examination of the failings of contemporary corporations to offer dignified employment to their workers. He mines history for alternative responses to contemporary challenges.

The book is an extension of Zeldin´s non-profit Oxford Muse foundation that provides an online platform “to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life“. It is a forum where ideas are flashed before participants offering a kind of intellectual Tinder. Proceeds from the book go to that project.

In terms of originality and variety, Zeldin –  born to Jewish-Russian parents in 1933 – is arguably the preeminent historian of his generation in Britain. His lack of a deserved public profile derives perhaps from concentration on the history of France although his Intimate History of Humanity (1994), like this work, provided a staggering global range of sources in his exploration of the human condition in different historical circumstances. But as well as providing a collection of portraits that yield insights into historical processes, in his latest work he looks explicitly at how contemporary societies might offer greater satisfaction for beleagured citizens.

He is a trenchant critic of large corportions and trends towards privatisation. In spite of this, Ikea allowed him to conduct research into its modus operandi which he criticises for a ruthlessly expansionary appetite and inability to nurture the hidden talents of many of its workers. Zeldin harks back to an economy composed primarily of micro businesses operating at all levels of society resulting in greater communication, and a personal relationship with money as opposed to one mediated by impersonal banking institutions.

Zeldin argues that individuals must overcome an inability and unwillingness to share deep thoughts attributing this to how: ´Many are schooled to believe that they need to be hypocrits. The hidden thoughts in people´s heads are the great darkness that surround us.´ For Zeldin the utility of the historical knowledge he has accumulated over a long and impressive career is apparent: ´I juxtapose people and ideas from different centuries and backgrounds so as to find new answers to the questions that perplex the earth´s present inhabitants.´ The hidden pleasures of life lie in the exchange of creative ideas that have brought satisfaction through history.

He is also a restless soul himself. He says: ´I do not wish to spend my time on earth as a bewildered tourist surrounded by strangers, on holidays from nothingness, in the dark as to when the holiday will end, stuck in the queue waiting for another dollop of ice-cream happiness.‘ It appears that a life of climbing the greasy academic pole accumulating honours has proved insufficiently rewarding for the author.

He wonders what the great adventure of our time should be, recalling (eurocentrically) that in the sixteenth century it was the discovery of new continents; in the seventeenth questions of science challenged great minds; while in the eighteenth equality was the great idea that gripped energetic individuals.

Echoed across history he has already listened to a widespread contemporary concern to live less self-centered existences; or in harmony with all the earth’s creatures; or “a quest for beauty, and its appreciation in many forms.” But the great idea of our time remains elusive during an epoch when more people than ever seek a purpose to their lives, and where dominant corporations offer scant reward for skill and artistry, preferring instead a form of ‘teamwork’ where orders are taken from on high.

Later in the book Zeldin considers that giving new meaning to work could be the great adventure of our time: “so that it is more than the exercise of a valued skill, more than the enjoyment of collaboration with others, more than a price that has to be paid in search of security and status, means using work to redefine freedom.” Zeldin is calling for a subtle but far-reaching evolution. Quite what this “freedom” is not explicit but he favours the more haphazard arrangements that once obtained to the formality in most work environments today. The latter sees individuals carry masks into their daily lives.

He traces the origins of the companies that now dominate the world’s resources, recalling how for over a century between 1720 and 1825 in England, during an era of seismic development, it was a criminal offence to start a company. He draws attention to how in the United States until the nineteenth century there were two competing ideas regarding the purpose of companies: the first were those with charters restricted to the pursuit of objectives in the public interest such as canal building; the other regime issued charters of a general character allowing companies to engage in whatever business proved profitable. The latter category remains the dominant form, divorced from responsibility for fellow-citizens, it has carried all before it.

Zeldin quotes Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who predicted that the tedium of performing monotonous work renders an individual: “stupid and narrow-minded. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in rational conversation, but of conceiving generous, noble or tender sentiment; and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning even the ordinary duties of private life.” History certainly shows how many individuals have risen above their lot as unskilled workers, nonetheless a life of unceasing monotony can have disastrous effects. But one wonders whether there ever was, or can be, a fabled ‘New Jerusalem’ or ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ where physical work and mental engagement attain a balance; an artisan creativity inhabiting all fields. Of course that elusiveness should not stop us striving towards it.

It is apparent that multinationals such as Ikea and Walmart, biographies of whose founders (Ingvar Kampard and Sam Walton respectively) he explores, have gobbled up huge numbers of smaller enterprises. Zeldin found that before the nineteenth century villages and towns contained multiple businesses which demanded a wide variety of skills rather than the narrow specialisation that bedevils contemporary life. Peasants found many outlets outside of the season of the harvest. He argues that: “Without a Reformation of Work the wonderful aspirations of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity cannot grow to more than an incomplete slogan.” Many workers now lack a sense of fulfillment in their jobs, their real passions and talents not recognized and nurtured by remote employers.

The book has chapters with surprising questions such as “How many nations can one love at the same time?” and “Is ridicule the most important form of protest”. He provides short biographical accounts of a range of diverse characters: artists, businessmen, philosophers and scientists who have already sought answers to some of the questions that he pursues. At times these biographies might seem cursory but the breadth of his knowledge ranging across eras and continents allows what may seem broad brush history to form a vivid picture, and assuredly a guide to different forms of life.

Albert Einstein was among those who bemoaned the dominance of specialization in his field. He decried how it is “providing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist”; even going so far as to joke that “since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity I do not understand it myself anymore”.

Zeldin himself argues that: “Specialisation has been responsible for innumerable improvements in skill and knowledge, but it now only bears fruit when it is pollinated by seemingly unconnected visitors from other specialities and when it can escape from being paralysed by bureaucratic medication.” He disparages the legacy of a century of academic growth: “I did not foresee, however, nor did anyone else, the huge cloud of ignorance that the explosion of university education would spread across the world.’ Insightfully he writes: “every time I want an answer to some questions … I risk being buried under a torrent of responses, a hurricane of facts never imagined before, and an onslaught of ever-more ingenious explanations, each from a different point of view. The more information there is, the more ignorance there is.” He seems convinced that most academics have lost sight of the big picture.

The author provides an interesting analysis on the history of the hotel trade. He argues that this sector could become “a significant force in promoting a better understanding of enigmatic strangers and mysterious neighbours”. But these institutions have changed considerably since the nineteenth century when in most parts of the world meals were served at communal tables. That was until Ellsworth Milton Statler (1863-1928) began to offer “a bed and a bath for a dollar and a half,” and standardized the experience in the way Henry Ford did cars. The hospitality industry was born.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Cesar Ritz was building imitation palaces as hotels that parodied aristocratic rituals of ostentatious opulence for newly ascendant bourgeoisie. The cumulative result is over-priced and impersonal institutions rapidly reaching obsolescence. Unsurprisingly, many people choose the more social and often cheaper experience of Airbnb, or even couch surfing.

As part of his research into the Future of Work, Zeldin examined the experience of hotel workers and guests. Fascinatingly, in light of the recent terrorist attack, one of the hotels he researched was in Tunisia. He found that “In a Tunisian seaside resort, most hotel guests on holidays were too exhausted by their jobs to want to do anything more than rest, and never spoke to the locals; they went back knowing very little about the country they had visited, while the locals who cleaned their rooms and served their meals felt insulted by their lack of interest.” Unfortunately, one local took it into his head to respond to insult with injury. It is a depressing thought that cheap air travel only seems to accentuate differences between cultures.

It is obvious that we need to develop new economic models that allow greater human flourishing and exert less demands on the environment. Zeldin’s book is an important contribution to these debates, especially his critique of corporate culture and the ‘management science’ that guides its leaders. Perhaps one failing of the book is that it tries to do too much: exploring important questions such as gender relations and the capacity for religions to change dilutes its core enquiry into the evolution of work practices and their possible reform.

Finally, Zeldin’s draws an interesting analogy between the importance of human connections and the cells in our bodies billions of which die and are replaced inside our bodies every day: “They are born with a capacity for suicide, which they trigger when they fail to exchange signals with their neighbours; they survive when they succeed in combining with other cells to produce something more than themselves. Cells are constantly transforming themselves, and the proteins in them adapt to the other proteins around them, like dancers joining a ballet.” Humans flourish through social interaction and revelation. Working life should nurture this but often it has the opposite effect. Political rights conferring freedom are of little relevance if individuals are not free in themselves. A revolution in how we work, as well as the economic system that underpins it, is overdue.

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