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Any work deserves pay!

💡 This text comes from the translation of my book written in French. 
So you'll find a few references to French culture that are less well-known internationally.

Culturally and unquestionably driven by a dominant capitalist model, we perceive work as exerting effort in exchange for income, toiling for pay, and trading time for money.

To comprehend this deeply ingrained sentiment within our collective unconscious, we must begin by examining our history.

The etymological connection between "travail" and "tripalium" ("tripaliare": to torment, to torture) is commonly referenced by labor sociologists. It suggests that toil is experienced as suffering and that work is associated with pain.

However, a more plausible origin can be found:

A more likely etymology associates travail with "tra" (from the Latin "trans"). This conveys the idea of a crossing, a transformation, or an obstacle to be overcome 1.

In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, three types of activities are distinguished:

  • Praxis (doing) is an inherent action aimed at the individual's perfection.
  • Poiesis (making) refers to the production of an external work.
  • Theoria (thinking).

Praxis encompasses noble activities like ethics and politics, while poiesis is associated with production activities carried out by craftsmen and slaves. Poiesis is considered lesser value and reserved for a lower social class with lower moral standing.

However, it is important to consider the historical context. Aristotle's contempt for poiesis is likely driven by his desire to maintain a privileged position among the nobles of Athens, even though he is merely a "metèque" (alien) 2. This justification allowed him to support slavery and the expansionist ambitions of his student, Alexander the Great, whom he tutored.

In other regions and provinces, crafts and agriculture were highly regarded and not despised at all.

The "great sages" we study also have a political and social context that supports some of their ideas.

From all of this, we understand that work is often associated with difficulty, pain, and even punishment.

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." — Genesis 3,17-193

In the Middle Ages, religion used labor as a means of submission, allowing the clergy and nobility to maintain their status without engaging in physical work.

Medieval society was divided into three distinct orders:

  • Those who fought: bellatores; nobles (princes, lords, knights).
  • Those who prayed: oratories, the clergy, churchmen.
  • Those who worked: laboratories, peasants, tenants, villains, and serfs.

Work was considered a way to elevate one's soul and strive for paradise.

It is worth noting that the word "work" did not appear in texts until the 11th century. Before that, labor was defined as the effort and pain of childbirth. It wasn't until the 13th century that work became associated with craftsmen.

Trades were organized into guilds under the patronage of a saint. The concept of being salaried did not exist yet. Each person was free and paid according to their work.

A more modern understanding of work can be found in the writings of 18th-century England during the "Age of Enlightenment." This period gave birth to rationalism, individualism, and liberalism, which are highly valued today.

During the early days of the English Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith, known for his foundational work on capitalism, examined the content and organization of work.

In France, guilds were abolished in the second half of the 18th century due to pressure from physiocrats (liberals) and supporters of Hume and Smith. Work was primarily carried out on a contractual basis in factories and manufacturing plants.

This contractual arrangement sometimes involved negotiations between workers, leading to the emergence of a labor market. This bargaining process played a role in the development of the labor market. In Émile Zola's Germinal (1885), bosses would "[...] come alone to the cash register, then divide the money among their workers, saving time." (Chapter IV) 4

This bargaining dynamic is also discussed in Karl Marx's writings, where he addresses the exploitation of workers by other workers.

Notably, in mid-19th-century France, almost 60% of the population was still involved in craft activities through small businesses consisting of only five or six people. In these family-based enterprises, expertise was highly valued, and wages were based on piecework. Women, who were responsible for household and meal duties, often earned less as these tasks took up a significant portion of their time, along with caring for the family and apprentices, who often resided on the premises.

In rural France, poverty rates were significantly lower compared to cities and large industries.

Let's go back to the end of the 18th century, the beginnings of the industrial era in the UK, the time of Adam Smith and trade.

It was during this period that Thomas Malthus grew up. Malthus took a dim view of the growing population and shrinking farmland. These lands, held by landowners, were more profitable for grazing sheep than for farming (the enclosure movement). The exodus had already begun to provide labor for the new textile mills.

Industrialization and mechanization offered many jobs for unskilled women and children, especially in the textile industry, which was not very open to men. Even those who did work there often earned only a "starvation wage". However, not everyone could find work.

Malthus came to believe that social assistance for the poor and beggars could increase their life expectancy and reproduction, which hurt their motivation to work. As members of parliament, and with the help of his friend David Ricardo, the originator of liberalism, they strongly influenced the Poverty Management Act of 1834.

In England, unemployment became a stigma of incivility, and poverty became a crime. A hunt began against those who could not support themselves, and hospices for the poor forced labor upon thieves. It didn't take much to be imprisoned. These stories are recounted in Charles Dickens's novel "Oliver Twist" (1837).

In France, Victor Hugo portrayed this suffering through the character Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables" (1862).

The first thoughts on a labor code appeared around 1896 and took shape around 1905. Work was also the central theme of the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris. Work is indeed the employment of time provided in exchange for pay.

Over time, work has transitioned from being a right to being perceived as a duty.

During the Second World War, "Work, family, country" served as the motto of the French state.

This motto holds even greater significance as it originates directly from the Popular Front strikes of 1936 when socialist and communist movements gained power.

The reason why company directors and the clergy were particularly alarmed by the socialist and communist movements was their challenge to the traditional hierarchy of employers over employees.

Recent studies have revealed that this hierarchical structure, which appears to have existed since immemorial, was absent in hunter-gatherer societies. In the mid-twentieth century, certain tribes in Australia and South America still upheld this free organization system. Their customs of sharing and reciprocity far exceeded our concept of the individualistic organization prevalent in modern work.

  • 1

    Dujarier, Marie-Anne. Troubles dans le travail (French Edition) (p. 68). Presses Universitaires de France.

  • 2

    In ancient Greece, a metèque was an intermediate status between citizen and foreigner, reserved for Greek nationals of other cities.

  • 3

    There's nothing trivial about reading scripture to define a culture of thought. And it's often on this basis that books on economics and management were written, even in the 19th century, and which are still used as references in schools and universities. Examples include Max Weber, Maslow and Herzberg.

  • 4

    Zola - Germinal -