To Camden Town Hall last night for a briefing from Keith Moffitt, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Council. Afterwards, some of us decamped to Pizza Express. One of our party is thinking of getting a job. Some unsolicited advice:
You are thinking of quitting the failing family business and finding a job in accountancy, or in politics, work you find agreeable and to which you sound, on our slight acquaintance, well-suited. Do not do this. Or, at least, do not do this because you find the work agreeable and yourself well-suited to it.
Instead, answer this question. If you did not need the income, what would you work on? What do you want to make happen so much that, if you needed to and could afford it, you would pay to be allowed to work on it? This is your work. Get busy at it and then figure out how you get paid for it.
How could that work? It might not. It is entirely possible you are the only person out of six billion on the planet who wants to see this work done. (Then you’d better get busy. Who else is going to handle it?) That is entirely possible. But it’s extraordinarily unlikely that you are the only person who cares about your project. Almost certainly, other people also want to see this work done. Find them, and some of them will pay you to do it. There are many ways they might do so: as customers, as taxpayers, as sponsors; heck, they might even have an organisation with a salaried role ready to employ you. But find your work first. This is the spiritual meaning of full employment.
This path is not for everyone. It is not for the many people working the Forty Year Plan. The Forty Year Plan would have you working on someone else’s goal for forty years, at the end of which you are to be paid enough to sit around, play cards and go on cruises. (The last part is not working out so well these days, but that is the plan.)
The Forty Year Plan pretends your work is a burden to be laid down as soon as you can manage. Until you can shuck off your load, you are a beast of burden. Then you go to pasture.
This is an insulting proposition, and you should reject it. We are social animals. We raise our children, who could not survive alone, and we take care of our old and our sick. We cannot and we do not manage alone. Even castaways who spend years alone survive only by the grace of salvaged wreckage, tools and manufactures: the work of others. Even the hunter-gatherers who test a young man’s ability to live alone, off the land, do not live that way. Robinson Crusoe’s story is a founding myth of modernism, the self-made and self-sufficient man, but he is a literary fiction. The reality is that we live by collaboration, by helping each other. Our work is how we relate to each other.
Whoever lives and does not work is supported by the rest of us. We all do this at times: when we are children, when we are sick. There can be nothing wrong with this; it is simply part of being human. But to be able to work and to choose not to, to withhold one’s help from others, has no virtue and no dignity. It entails an insult, either to oneself – my work is of no value – or to others – you do not deserve mine. To hold up living without working as a goal, as the good life, corrupts individuals and corrupts society.
Worse, the Forty Year Plan robs us of our work. It is no longer our work, how we relate to others, how we make our way in the world and what we contribute to others. Instead, convinced that only this way can we eat and provide, we labour on someone else’s goal, which is all too often no more than the corrupt intention to live at our expense.
Sometimes it is much worse. Hannah Arendt famously wrote of “the banality of evil” and emphasised that, while Nazi leaders made genocide their policy, administrators made it reality. It took efficient and ambitious officials such as Adolf Eichmann to run the railways and the ovens. We still have not recognised the corrupting influences of careerism and debt. As the character Nick Naylor says in Thank You For Smoking, “95% of everything that happens is done to pay the mortgage.”
More from Tawney:
“The Nationalization of the Coal Industry” in The Radical Tradition, R.H. Tawney, Penguin, 1964
Men will no longer give their labour and risk their lives for a system which they regard as morally indefensible and professionally incompetent. The alternative to it is the discipline of professional pride and responsibility – that the mine-workers should be recognized as partners in a communal enterprise, and have the power to discharge the obligations which that position will entail.
It is such a change, and only such a change, which will extricate the industry from the impasse into which it has been brought. For grave as are the technical deficiencies of the present organization which are criticized by the experts, it is not in these that the centre of the problem is to be found. The single greatest economic loss to the coal industry, and indeed to British industry as a whole, is the dissatisfaction of the majority of those engaged in it; and if it is important to increase the output of wealth, it is not a paradox, but the statement of an elementary economic fact, to say that a change which made possible cordial and constructive co-operation on the part of the workers, would do more to produce that result than the discovery of a new coal-field or a generation of scientific invention. That co-operation will not be available to swell the dividends of shareholders. It will be forthcoming only if the coal industry is turned into an honourable public service, which is carried on for the benefit, not of a class, but of the whole community, and for the success of which the workers themselves bear, in conjunction with the representatives of the consumers, an effective and increasing responsibility.
In conversation with Moffitt: “We must restore the honour to public service; not just to politics, but to nursing, teaching, fire fighting and so on.”