Before the advent of industrial capitalism (revolution) approximately 200 years ago, work referred in a generalized way to activities directed at satisfying the human need for survival, for the vast majority, at a subsistence level. It is only in the recent past that work has become synonymous with regular paid employment, a separate sphere of specialized economic activity for which one receives payment. Thus, the current conception of work is a modern social construction, the product of specific historical conditions that are typically denoted by the term ‘industrial capitalism:
=The first part of this term indicates that work is a productive activity involving machines powered by inanimate energy sources that is undertaken outside the home in a dedicated building that one has to travel to each work day.
=The second part indicates that work involves monetary payment, typically agreed in advance in relation to time and/or output, and is part of a market system in which productive property is privately owned with a view to making a profit and that everything has a price.
Work in pre-industrial societies
In order to appreciate the revolutionary character of the modern conception of work, it is useful to consider briefly the main features of work in pre-modern societies before comparing them with work in modern societies. Since the objective here is to contextualize historically in a succinct way the contrast between work in pre-modern and modern societies. At this period work was evolved in the following areas:
1. Hunting and gathering (i.e., ‘Stone Age’
4. Industrial capitalist
5. Post-industrial/ Informational/Global capitalism
Hunting and gathering societies
The earliest known human societies were based on hunting and gathering and lasted longer than any other type of society, namely from the beginnings of human society, estimated to be at least 40,000 years ago, to around 10,000 years ago. Somewhat surprisingly given the globalization of industrial capitalism, a small number of these ‘Stone Age’ cultures have survived into the modern era, for example, Aborigines in Australia and Pygmies in Africa.
Consequently, everyone in such societies participated, to a greater or lesser extent, in productive work; the young and old, men and women, even political and religious leaders undertook their roles on a part-time basis. Biological differences between the sexes and age groups led to adult males specializing in hunting and fishing and adult females in gathering and food preparation, with everyone often contributing to the building of shelters. Preparation for the sex-based adult work roles in such a limited division of labour was informal, although formal ceremonies (initiation rites) typically marked the transition to manhood and womanhood.
The emergence of semi-nomadic and later settled horticultural societies based on the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals about 10,000 years ago, combined with the use of metals instead of stone for tools and weapons, led to the creation of a more reliable economic surplus, an increase in the size of the population, and the differentiation of economic activities.
The increase in trade and the conquest of people were not only made possible with technological innovations such as metal working, but were found to be a viable economic alternative to the ‘conquest of nature’ (Nolan and Lenski, 1999: 138). The production of a ‘margin worth fighting for, above the subsistence of those engaged in getting a living’, led Veblen to call this stage the first predatory era (1970 1899: 32).
The next major stimulus to production occurred sometime around 5,000 years ago, it involved the widespread use of the plough and the harnessing of animal power for agriculture and transport. The farming of fields using animals to pull a plough rather than gardening based on human energy to operate the hoe became the predominant method of cultivation. Following these technological innovations, production expanded markedly, the population grew, and social differentiation increased, especially along class lines, including the production, transportation and distribution of everything from food and spices, to tools and weapons.
Economic growth led to a greater diversity of occupations and the emergence of urban centres in which the use of money became the preferred medium of exchange, which in turn further stimulated trade and therefore production and community specialization. For the vast majority, home and work were still not separated, with the household being the unit of production as well as consumption for its members.
It was at this historical juncture that the important distinction between a productive class of people who worked for a living and a non-productive, parasitical leisure class reached its fullest development.
In Europe, this class prevailed during the feudal era when its members were ‘not only exempt, but by prescriptive custom’ they were ‘debarred, from all industrial occupations’ (Veblen, 1970 1899: 22).
This degree of social differentiation involved the emergence of work and leisure as separate spheres of activity for the dominant class, whereas formerly such activities were embedded in a range of other institutions, notably kinship and religion. In Veblen’s terms, there are upper-class and male-dominated leisure class occupations, such as government, war-fare and religious observances, that are concerned with predatory, non-industrial activities and are accorded the highest status, and there are lower-class and female-dominated productive activities, such as farming and craft work, which are considered ignoble according to the standards of the leisure class.
Work in industrial capitalist societies
Consideration of the many models of evolutionary change shows that there is near universal consensus regarding the social significance of the rise of industrial capitalism, namely that it transformed the life and work of everyone.
Hence the tendency to focus on the contrast between this new type of society and all types of traditional rural societies and the plethora of dichotomies to summarize the differences.
What is also agreed is that the process of capitalist industrialization started in England towards the end of the eighteenth century, developed soon after in America, France and Germany, and subsequently the rest of the world to the point where it is now a global phenomenon in the sense that goods and services are made from materials sourced from many parts of the world, and sold around the world.
The first part of the term ‘industrial capitalism’ refers to the use of inanimate energy sources such as electricity, gas or nuclear power, and the consequent reorganization of production involving machine technology, which results in the establishment of large-scale specialized workplaces such as factories and the increased time synchronization of labour and technology in an economy based primarily on manufacturing rather than agriculture.
‘Capitalism’ refers to a profit-oriented system based on the private ownership of production, on an individual/family or corporate basis, that operates in a competitive market system in which the owners of capital employ free wage labour on a monetary basis. The apparent clarity of these definitions does not imply, in the case of the word ‘industrial’, any suggestion of technological determinism and, in the case of the word ‘capitalist. The key feature to be this are:
1 Production system
2 Unit of production
3 Division of labour
5 Education and recruitment
6 Economic system
7 Meaning of work
8 Purpose of work
Main features of work in industrial capitalist societies
(1) Production system
The re-organization of work started with the introduction of new sources of inanimate energy to drive machinery, replacing water or wind power and human or animal muscle power. The key innovation was arguably the invention of the condensing steam engine to power cotton machinery in 1785 (Smelser, 1972 1959).
The steam engine not only revolutionized industry, but also transportation and mining, and led to a huge increase in production. For example, output increased by over 300 per cent when power looms replaced handlooms in the British textile industry during the early nineteenth century (Berg, 1994).
The increased scale of the power sources and the complexity of the machines meant that a large amount of capital was required to finance production and work was moved out of the home and into factories, which in turn had profound implications for workers. In contrast to pre-industrial production, in which ‘the workman makes use of a tool’, in the new factory-based system of production under the control of the capitalist, ‘the machine makes use of him … we have a life-less mechanism independent of the workman.
(2) Unit of production
The change from the household as the productive unit in which family and non-family members lived and worked together, pooling resources, and producing food and goods for their own consumption, to the factory and other large-scale specialist units of production, such as offices, in which individuals worked for wages, was gradual.
Initially whole families were recruited to work in the factories, with parents effectively subcontracting work to their children. This system had many advantages;
a) It maintained parental authority,
b) Facilitated occupational training,
c) Enhanced the family income.
Also, in the absence of state welfare, the family was the only resource available to individuals when faced with a crisis, such as sickness or lack of work (Anderson, 1971). So long as these circumstances pertained, families ‘continued to work and live as a unit’ (Kumar, 1988b: 157).
Most importantly from the standpoint of capital,
the move from household to factory production removed control over the work process and the product from the worker and enabled capitalists and their managers to supervise and discipline workers more easily, thereby reducing the costs of production (Marglin, 1980).The increased control of workers by employers, facilitated by the introduction of the factory, was reinforced as alternative sources of income disappeared and non-family sources of labour and non-family relationships became more significant. Consequently, individuals became more independent of their family of origin and more dependent on the labour market and hence an employer.
(3) Division of labour
The advent of capitalist industrialization caused a decline in a range of pre-modern types of work, especially those connected to agriculture, such as black-smiths and basket-makers, a large proportion of whom were self-employed, and created a vast number of new types of industrial work.
Machines were designed, built, installed, supplied with energy and raw material, operated, maintained, and supervised by different types of worker who, following the separation of conception and execution, were divided by education (e.g., professional and elementary) and skill categories (e.g., skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled). New professional specializations were created, notably those based on the application of scientific and technical knowledge such as mechanical engineering, and a mass of factory workers, consisting of ‘individuals of both sexes and of all ages’, were organized with ‘barrack discipline.
The expansion of the factory system and the related increase in production led to an improvement in the means of transportation and communication, and an increase in the number of people employed in new industries such as canals, railways, gas, post and telegraphy. The consequent change in the occupational structure can be illustrated with reference to the shift in employment from primary sector work which dominated pre-industrial societies (e.g., farming and fishing) to secondary sector work (e.g., mills and factories) and tertiary sector work (e.g., education and communication) which together dominate industrial capitalist societies.
Prior to the rise of industrial capitalism, the working year was interspersed with a generous number of religious and secular holidays, the working day varied from long days in the summer to short ones in the winter, and the pace of work ranged from periods of intensity during harvest time to a more relaxed tempo once a specific activity had been completed.
This was because work tended to be task-oriented and influenced by the seasons. At the risk of romanticizing the past, before industrial capitalism, work was intermittent and irregular, and involved a semblance of time freedom in that a person could decide when to start and stop work, and how hard to work. Work discipline, such as it was, tended to be minimal other than that imposed by the workers’ definition of their needs and the weather (Thompson, 1970).
The rise of the factory with its ubiquitous clock was a revolutionary event that came to dominate the lives of wage workers. Industrial work involved fewer holidays, much longer hours, and timed labour, with the factory bell demarcating the relatively unstructured non-work time from the highly structured and supervised work time in which a higher tempo than previously experienced was set by the technology owned by the employers on whom employees were dependent for work.
Schor (1993) has estimated that hours worked nearly doubled between 1600 and 1850 in Britain, from under 40 hours a week to over 70; it took around 100 years of trade union and political pressure to reduce the working week back to 40 hours.
Thus, work and life ceased to be task-oriented and characterized by irregularity and independence, and became the epitome of regularity and dependence, measured with increasing precision in hours, minutes and eventually even seconds.
The stricter division between life and work and the increased synchronization of labour within the factory raised time-consciousness, pro-
voked resistance, including the attempt to retain the tradition of the non-working ‘Saint Monday’ that was widespread in many pre-industrial work cultures in Europe and America (Reid, 1976; Thompson, 1967).
The centrality of time to work in industrial capitalism has led some to argue that the time piece rather than the steam engine symbolizes this era. For example, Mumford (1934) has argued that the increased scale of industrial production put a premium on the synchronization of people and technical processes and that this was achieved via the clock. Similarly, Thompson (1967) has claimed that what was different about work in industrial capitalism was its focus on time rather than tasks and a clearer distinction between work and non-work.
(5) Education and recruitment
The increase in the division of labour with its new work–time discipline occasioned by the development of industrial capitalism, necessitated a marked expansion of compulsory education, which prioritized punctuality and regularity, and specialized training in vocational subjects.
The tendency for educational institutions to parallel the expected workplace experiences of their pupils has been called correspondence theory (Bowles and Gintis, 1976). The introduction and expansion of formal education in all industrial societies also led to the growth of examinations and the award of credentials to certify competence for impersonal recruitment to different types of work (Collins, 1979).
Weber referred to this as the ‘”rationalization” of education and training’ and noted that the process of bureaucratization ‘enhances the importance of the specialist examination.
During the transition to industrialization, whole families, including young children, were recruited to work in the new urban factories, but over time the introduction of legal restrictions on the employment of children (and women) in factories, combined with state provision of education for all, undermined the kinship basis of factory labour
(6) Economic system
The rise of industrial capitalism involved the development of a market econ-omy in which capital, labour, goods and services are exchanged for money free of traditional social obligations and constraints such as restrictions on who could engage in certain economic activities.
Most importantly, in industrial capitalism economic relations become separated, formally at least, from non-economic relations, and distinguished by the primacy accorded to the freedom to maximize economic gains by employing free wage labour. In contrast to pre-modern paternalism, employers had no obligations beyond paying the lowest wages possible in the new competitive market system, since to do otherwise risked economic failure, although industrial paternalism limited the more extreme operation of the free (labour) market culture (Joyce, 1982).
Thus, social relations under capitalism are reduced to market values expressed in monetary terms and, as a consequence of this commodity status, workers are ‘exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all fluctuations
of the market’ Weber agreed with Marx that industrial capitalism involved the development of a class system in which both capital and labour are freed from all restrictions, but emphasized the rationality of modern capitalism: ‘capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewedprofit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise’
Although Marx focused on exploitation and Weber on rationality, both agreed that in industrial capitalism, waged work (i.e., employment) is both separate and different from non-work, especially family life. Where previously the two spheres had been united in the form of the household economy, under industrial capitalism, the commodified and rational character of work is the opposite of the non-commodified and non-rational character of relationships beyond employment.