Americans love to work. Just ask any politician or corporate stooge, particularly of the conservative variety, and they’ll reaffirm this eternal truth. In American culture, work is everything: it’s how we spend the majority of the time we are so graciously granted on earth; it’s how we afford the necessities of life, like feeding and clothing ourselves, procuring shelter from the elements, and affording the cable through which we experience high art like Duck Dynasty.
Americans simply must love to work. Heck, they work longer hours than anyone else in the industrialized world, even though they’re getting less and less out of work as wages continue to stagnate, unions have been decimated, and vacation times wither away along with retirement-savings. Americans also love to toil even as study after study continues to highlight the health dangers associated with excessive work. If that’s not evidence that Americans are the ultimate large-scale ant farm, than what is?! After all, the French don’t work nearly as much as Americans and often report being happier, and Americans love to mock the French.
Certainly, American politicians, especially those members of the saggy-jowled, geriatric dominated, overly caucasian troll pit known as the Republican Party love to point out that work is essential to American identity. As Salon’s Brian Beutler reports, GOP luminaries like Ayn Rand altar boy Paul Ryan (R-Neverland) oppose measures like universal health insurance (now popularly embodied by “Obamacare,” which is, by an objective standard, the most evil thing in the history of humanity…) and unemployment benefits because these programs allegedly prevent Americans from “getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class.” Talking Points Memo similarly reports how Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and his senate colleagues worry about how not working supposedly creates dependency. “People, if you pay ’em for years and years, they won’t look for a job,” Shelby complained, “This creates no job. It’s just a check.”
So where does this American cultural obsession with work come from? And why is the GOP so Hell-bent on forcing Americans into any job, no matter how bad the pay, how meager the benefits, and how non-existent the chance for advancement? It all boils down to two things: the authoritarian streak in U.S. culture, and the lingering influence of the Protestant Work Ethic. You’re all familiar with the latter, even if you’ve never read the 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by German sociologist Max Weber, the schlub who first coined the phrase. You’re familiar with the term because it still infuses the rhythm of everyday American life.
But if you’re a bit fuzzy on the specifics of Weber’s concept, here’s a very quick refresher. Building on ideas first formulated by Protestant head honcho Martin Luther, Max Weber argued that work was an essential duty that equally benefitted individuals and society. He theorized that in Western culture, the unique influence and traits of Protestant belief — including self-control, individual religious discipline, denial of baser urges, soberness, and overall white-bread WASPY blandness — led Westerners to seek out secular vocations with fervent dedication and enthusiasm.
Rather than chastise Western culture for its obsession with work and money, Weber viewed this obsession as a true virtue. “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life,” he wrote. Weber thus concluded that, “the earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.”* This mystic “calling” to which Weber referred was work, and Western Civilization’s adherence to that calling, he argued, was the secret to its material and spiritual success.
Basically, Weber claimed that modern Westerners’ love of work made them very good at creating the most profit-spewing form of capitalism the world had ever seen. And which nation eventually rose to the top of the modern profit-spewing, money-idolizing, Gordon Gekko-epitomizing heap? You guessed it: the United States.
The essence of Weber’s idea has long been infused into American culture, but it’s been especially dominant in the modern era — the industrial period that began in the mid-to-late 19th century and continues today — when the notion that work is the essence of life has guided generations of Americans. And while the “work is life” ideal has resulted in undeniably impressive material benefits for American society, it also has a sinister side that’s bolstered some of the more authoritarian strains in U.S. culture.
In his now-classic study The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, historian Daniel Rodgers traces the origins of American work ethic to an early, idealized world of artisan-shops, family farms, and small-business firms that promoted thrift, communal and family values, and yes, the fruits of one’s labor. The industrial era that began in the mid-19th century, however, obliterated the old simplistic notion of small-scale economies.
As labor turned into a large-scale hellscape of grinding wage slavery, horrific factory conditions, and a political class that catered to business’s every whim, the notion that work = life understandably lost some of its appeal. “The industrial revolution in the end left in tatters the network of economics and values that had given it birth,” Rodgers writes.* Even as American work became more backbreaking and soul-destroying, the ideal of “work as a virtue” embodied by the Protestant Work Ethic survived and thrived as a rhetorical cudgel that plutocrats and politicians used to reduce workers to mere peons. After all, a people too busy with work are also too busy to fight for better work conditions.
Therein lies the authoritarian essence of the Protestant Work Ethic: it gives a reason why people should work non-stop, regardless of pay or conditions, and it pads the bottom lines of the plutocrats who run American society while reducing American workers to increasingly desperate, overworked, and undervalued component parts to the greater economic whole. By arguing that work should be a desired virtue, powerful business magnates from Andrew Carnegie to the modern-day Koch Brothers and their toadies in the GOP and the business-friendly wing of the Democratic Party have retained an ideological stranglehold on many American workers. By arguing that work is not only necessary, but also virtuous, they shape the narrative of a culture that fetishizes profits and materialism, sanctifies work for its own sake, and numbs individuals into accepting more work while getting less in return.
Sadly, Americans have historically been quite willing to believe that relentless work in the pursuit of prefabricated consumer crap is the meaning of life itself. Historian William Leach outlines this propensity in his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, and he’s worth quoting in full:
In the decades following the Civil War, American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and of its moral sensibility.*
Leach writes that the guiding themes of this type of consumer-obsessed society were, “acquisition and consumption as the means to achieving happiness…and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.” And how do you get money? You work, of course. And if money is harder to get, and if you want more of it, then you simply work harder. This is the American society we’re still stuck with today, and it’s excesses have created an epidemic of unemployment, rampant depression, and family crises.
But the GOP says that Americans have to keep on working, lest they be tempted by the proverbial Siren’s call of dependency into critically re-examining the cherished values of modern American society. It’s long past time that we buried Max Weber’s ideas alongside Social Darwinism and other nutty notions from a century ago and realize that often the most fundamental truths a society holds sacred are also the ones that need torn down. So here’s a note to the GOP and their business constituency: if you think that working all day, every day will make you fulfilled, then by all means go ahead and do so. But don’t apply that assumption to a society that’s increasingly forced to work more for less of everything. That’s how revolutions start, and those can be very messy events indeed.
* See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 53-54.
* See Daniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), xii.
* See William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3.