The Weekend Australian - Review

A sur­vey of hu­man tri­als

- Francesca Bed­die Francesca Bed­die is an historian and pol­icy an­a­lyst. She is a for­mer gen­eral man­ager of re­search at the Na­tional Cen­tre for Vo­ca­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search. Overpopulation · Arts · Social Issues · Society · Namibia · Windhoek · Rome · Lubbock · Thomas Piketty · Émile Durkheim

By James Suz­man Blooms­bury Cir­cus, 464pp, $29.99

Why, in an era of un­prece­dented abun­dance, are we pre­oc­cu­pied with scarcity and there­fore aspire to more and more growth? In his new book Work: A His­tory of How We Spend Our Time, Cam­bridge­based an­thro­pol­o­gist Suz­man tries to an­swer this ques­tion by em­ploy­ing the se­cond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, also known as the law of en­tropy.

His idea is that en­tropy – the en­ergy not avail­able to do use­ful work, like the steam that es­capes from an en­gine – ‘‘un­picks what­ever or­der the uni­verse cre­ates’’. En­tropy, he ar­gues, has ‘‘driven hu­mans to di­rect en­ergy sur­plus into some­thing pur­pose­ful’’.

This is the book’s leit­mo­tif, but rep­e­ti­tion does not make the con­cept eas­ier to grasp. Nev­er­the­less, most of this his­tory of work is ac­ces­si­ble and thought-pro­vok­ing.

To ex­plain con­tem­po­rary at­ti­tudes to work, Suz­man traces the con­ver­gence of the way hu­mans use en­ergy with our evo­lu­tion­ary and cul­tural his­tory. Af­ter the hunter-gath­er­ers, whom Suz­man knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bush­men of eastern Namibia, came mas­tery of fire. This be­gan a process of cap­tur­ing en­ergy that has changed how peo­ple live, pro­duce and value time.

I found the chap­ters about early hu­man en­deav­our the most in­ter­est­ing and en­light­en­ing. They lead to the propo­si­tion that, af­ter fire, farm­ing (which trig­gered pop­u­la­tion growth) and then the ex­ploita­tion of fos­sil fu­els in the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion have had dra­matic ef­fects on work, so­ci­ety and the cli­mate.

What Suz­man ad­mires about the Ju/’hoansi is their sat­is­fac­tion with just the re­sources avail­able to nour­ish them. He ad­mires their be­wil­der­ment at the no­tion of scarcity, which now drives the pur­suit of growth in mod­ern economies, although he also ac­knowl­edges that, for sub­sis­tence farm­ing so­ci­eties, scarcity was often a mat­ter of life and death.

His cri­tique is that when ‘‘hardly any of us now pro­duce our own food … the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of scarcity still un­der­write(s) how we or­gan­ise our eco­nomic life’’.

Suz­man shifts across cen­turies as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He il­lus­trates his points with ref­er­ences to in­di­vid­u­als, some fa­mous, some anony­mous, some such as Thadeus, an ur­ban dweller on the out­skirts of Wind­hoek, Namibia.

Thadeus’s story il­lus­trates an im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment: in­creased ur­ban­i­sa­tion, with 2008 a land­mark year when more peo­ple lived in cities than in the coun­try­side for the first time in hu­man his­tory. But the story of cities goes way back, to the com­mu­ni­ties built by ter­mites and to an­cient Rome where the first guilds were es­tab­lished.

The book is a feat of syn­the­sis: Suz­man draws on an­thro­pol­ogy, ar­chae­ol­ogy, eco­nomic his­tory and phi­los­o­phy. He hu­man­ises many of the thinkers he quotes, of­fer­ing snip­pets about their lives that il­lu­mi­nate or just en­ter­tain. For ex­am­ple, he tells us that Sir John Lub­bock, the per­son be­hind in­tro­duc­ing the bank hol­i­day to en­cour­age work-life bal­ance, also tried to teach his poo­dle Van how to read.

One per­son Suz­man does not men­tion, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French econ­o­mist whose work on the con­cen­tra­tion of wealth and ris­ing in­equal­ity must have in­flu­enced Suz­man’s anal­y­sis.

When he reaches the re­cent past and dis­cusses the rise of the con­sumer so­ci­ety and then the dom­i­nance of ser­vices, Suz­man’s opin­ions and prej­u­dices rather than schol­arly in­sights come to the fore.

He hates man­age­ment con­sul­tants and is scathing about bloated uni­ver­sity bu­reau­cra­cies. In the lat­ter case, his crit­i­cism is not ac­com­pa­nied by a dis­cus­sion about the trend to­wards de­mand for higher skills and mass ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. This change in per­spec­tive raises the ques­tion as to when Suz­man’s his­tory of work should have stopped.

I sug­gest in the 1980s when his lived ex­pe­ri­ences fog up the his­tor­i­cal lens.

Most of the con­tem­po­rary anal­y­sis is in Western coun­tries, though Suz­man does talk about the Ja­panese phe­nom­e­non of ‘‘karoshi’’ – death by over­work. He also men­tions those whose health can be af­fected by bore­dom at work, and worka­holics.

Suz­man strikes me as one of these, given the enor­mous breadth of his can­vas and his foren­sic search for in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes.

He is, how­ever, am­biva­lent about am­bi­tion as well as af­flu­ence. Emile Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘‘mal­ady of infinite as­pi­ra­tion’’, caused by peo­ple’s sense of dis­lo­ca­tion dur­ing the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, is, Suz­man fears, be­com­ing a per­ma­nent con­di­tion of the mod­ern age.

This has re­sulted in the blur­ring of work and leisure, with peo­ple find­ing it more and more dif­fi­cult to be idle.

It would have been good if

Suz­man fur­ther in­ves­ti­gated the con­se­quences of this blur­ring.

But his real omis­sion is in­ad­e­quate dis­cus­sion about the in­di­vid­ual and so­cial ef­fects of un­em­ploy­ment in mod­ern economies, es­pe­cially in the time of COVID (which he does men­tion) when work is prov­ing to be an im­por­tant psy­cho­log­i­cal as well as eco­nomic prop.

In­deed, the role of work in build­ing so­cial cap­i­tal and self­es­teem de­served greater at­ten­tion in this his­tory.

Suz­man is the di­rec­tor of An­thro­pos Ltd, a think tank that ap­plies an­thro­po­log­i­cal meth­ods to solv­ing con­tem­po­rary so­cial and eco­nomic prob­lems. Work does not pro­vide so­lu­tions. We still do not know how to reach the Key­ne­sian dream of valu­ing ends above means and pre­fer­ring the good to the use­ful.

Nev­er­the­less, this sur­vey of hu­man en­deav­our gives us plenty to think about as we nav­i­gate the post-COVID fourth in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion and try to make bet­ter work for all, with less waste, less car­bon and more leisure.

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