Review – Work: a history of how we spend our time

Though sometimes misdiagnosing political problems as spiritual pathologies, James Suzman's book provides a compelling history of how work came to dominate our lives. Review by Madoc Cairns

May 11, 2021 · 4 min read

It’s hard to kill a myth. The dream of the Golden Age – Cockaigne, Eden, Atlantis – a land where work is rare and abundance the norm, has persisted for thousands of years. James Suzman, as he relates in Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, believes he’s found it. Hunter-gatherers live in ‘affluent societies’, their needs fulfilled by 15 hours of foraging a week. Groups like the Ju/’hoansi in Namibia enjoy low-stress lifestyles: they don’t have much, but they don’t want much either. Pre-agricultural humans were likewise long-lived, leisured and egalitarian. What’s more, they were happy.

We’ve come a long way since then. Suzman tracks the rise of ‘scarcity economics’ over 15 millennia of human civilisation. Beginning with the pioneering farmers of Natufia, he leads us through the nascent city states of ancient Sumeria, the bustling conurbs of Imperial Rome, the smog of the industrial revolution – and into the automated societies of the future. Work – the purposeful expenditure of energy to meet needs – is one of the two protagonists of Suzman’s narrative. The other is desire.

Our desires, Suzman argues, are out of sync with our needs. Unlike the Ju/’hoansi, who accumulate very little and live day-to-day, modern humans accumulate constantly, driven onwards by the fear of scarcity. We inherit that fear from our farmer ancestors, for whom scarcity meant famine and death. Present-day urbanites don’t face famine – quite the opposite – but we still fear scarcity, whether social, aesthetic or financial. And this fear impels us to consume more and more; to work longer and longer hours, heedless of the personal or environmental cost. We are, quite literally, working ourselves to death.

It’s a grim trajectory, but one Suzman relates well, and with an eye for telling details. Vivid characters – like the young Rene Descartes, the Marxist archaeologist Vere Childe, and the influential industrialist Frederick Taylor – help Work’s sweeping narrative to cohere. Suzman is also humble enough to admit his limits. We don’t actually know what the millions of stone-carved ‘Acheulean hand-axes’ were used for, he notes, but we do know that they weren’t used as hand-axes.

Political shortfall

Work is an enjoyable, informative book. Suzman has aimed high, and he very nearly hits the target. He’s not let down by his scholarship, but by his politics. Suzman flirts with anti-capitalism – particularly the arguments of David Graeber – but balks at committing to a programme. He doesn’t want to be ‘prescriptive’. This isn’t entirely true, however. In Work’s last chapter Suzman mounts an impassioned defence of the bible of the population control movement, The Limits to Growth. Far from being the dry scientific treatise Suzman presents it as, The Limits to Growth was a political document. It argued, to take one example, that the real source of global inequality was third-world birth rates rather than colonialism. The ‘steady-state’ society it promoted was one built on free markets, private property and – implicitly – the continued ‘leadership’ of the west.

Throughout Work, Suzman’s distrust of ideologies leads him to misdiagnose political problems as spiritual pathologies. Victims of overwork are killed by ‘their own desires’; gross inequality emanates from psychological drives; ‘scarcity economics’ entraps rich and poor alike. Suzman’s embrace of old-school population control might jar with his leftist influences, but it fits well with his surprisingly deterministic view of human nature.

Even for those who find his conclusions disappointing, Work is still worth reading. Suzman’s history illustrates how work came to dominate our lives. It also shows how, one day, it might not. It’s impossible to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We can’t return to the Golden Age. But we can build something better.

Work: a history of how we spend our time by James Suzman is published by Bloomsbury

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