Frithjof Bergmann on Envisioning New Work Systems
(Second in a series of articles exploring the ideas of Frithjof Bergmann’s and the New Work
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The Current System is Neither Final nor Inescapable
“We feel helpless because there exists no alternative to our economic system. It lies beyond the boundaries of what we can imagine.”
We tend to equate work with the system that provides us with jobs. Yet the Job System within which we work – where an employer compensates us for units of time spent in pursuit of a specific set of tasks – has been with us for only about 200 years. For more than 99% of human history work was organized differently.
The Job System originated in the early factories, mines, and mills of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, a very precisely specified, sharply delimited task had to be performed, usually in exact rhythm, repeatedly. The individual was typically required to execute one task:
“Whether the person had talents for a myriad of other matters was completely irrelevant. She or he was hired for this one thing, and it alone counted and was at stake. The deeper and far more instrumental reason for the fact that the vast majority of jobs do not utilize people’s real talents is therefore the very structure and design of the Job System… ‘If I hire you to shovel sand, then the fact that you can also sing or recite poetry is of no concern to me’.”
The Job System was “Not Welcomed with Jubilation and Cheers”
To gain perspective on our current system – where a specific task (or small number of tasks) is performed in exchange for wages – it is helpful to recall that the Job System was vigorously opposed by many from the outset. The virtues of agrarian life were praised in the ancient world:
When the sun rises, I go to work
When the sun goes down, I take my rest
I dig the well from which I drink,-Ancient Chinese, 2500 BC 1
I farm the soil that yields my food,
I share creation, Kings can do no more.
Shakespeare celebrated agrarian life one and a half centuries prior to the dawn of the industrial age:
O God! methinks it were a happy life,-William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, 1623 2
To be no better than a homely swain,
To set upon a hill, as I do now . . .
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
Ah, what a life were this, how sweet ! How lovely !
By the nineteenth century, the growing predominance of wage labor and the Job System was already in evidence, prompting many to recall the “undisturbed happiness” of “rural occupations” that did not utilize wage labor:
“Such is the superiority of rural occupations and pleasures, that commerce, large societies, or crowded cities, may be justly reckoned unnatural. Indeed the very purpose for which we engage in commerce is, that we may one day be enabled to retire to the country, where alone we picture to ourselves days of solid satisfaction, and undisturbed happiness. It is evident that such sentiments are natural to the human mind.”– John Loudon, A Treatise on Forming, Improving, and Managing
Country Residences, 1806 3
Thomas Jefferson never tired of warning against the new job-oriented life in the cities, which was in his estimation worse in every respect than agrarian life:
“I have often thought that if Heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, will watered, and near a good market for the productions of the market. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden.”-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles E. Peale, 1811.4
In the mid-twentieth century, Helen and Scott Nearing left their jobs in New York City to work on a farm in Vermont. They created an alternative to a system that rewarded work with money:
“We have no intention of making money, nor do we seek wages or profits. Rather we aim to earn a livelihood, as far as possible on a use economy basis. When enough … labor has been performed to secure the year’s living, we will stop earning until the next crop season.” Ideas of “making money” or “getting rich” have given people a perverted view of economic principles. The object of economic effort is not money, but livelihood. Money cannot feed, clothe or shelter. Money is a medium of exchange – a means of securing the items that make up livelihood. It is the necessaries and decencies which are important, not the money which may be exchanged for them. And money must be paid for, like anything else.” 5
For the Nearing’s, an alternative to the Job System carried with it the promise of “simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, an opportunity to be useful and to live harmoniously.” The alternative they created also aimed to allow them to “make a living under conditions that would preserve and enjoy joy in workmanship, would give a sense of achievement, thereby promoting
integrity and self-respect”. Another aim was to provide “leisure during a considerable portion of each day, month, or year, which might be devoted to avocational pursuits free from the exacting demands of bread labor to satisfying and fruitful association with one’s fellows, and to individual and group efforts directed toward social improvement.” 6
Bergmann recalls “that our Job System was a wholly strange and new invention when it was ushered in through the Industrial Revolution”:
“The dearth of jobs is the result of a social, human, arrangement that we artificially and perhaps not very intelligently contrived. There is nothing final, or inescapable about them.”
Reviewing the history of work reminds us that the Job System is not the only system for organizing work: Just as the Job System replaced the agricultural system that had gone before it, a new system of work can replace the Job System.
What Creates a Job?
“Our limited vision is no accident: The Job System carries within it converging causes that have contracted our imagination and reduced us to this condition of helplessness, passivity, and dumbfounded desperation.”
How does our Job System transform work into a job? Why is much of the most important work not getting done? The threats of climate change, mass extinction, and a range of associated ecological catastrophes would seem to warrant massive mobilization and an infinite demand for work. Yet work aimed at addressing such problems is often difficult to find. Why?
For a job to be created, a specific set of criteria must be met:
• somebody else (i.e., an employer) has a set of tasks that they value and that they feel
needs to be accomplished.
• the prospective employee must be able accomplish this thing that the employer values.
• the task must be something that the employer believes will increase its wealth. Otherwise,
the employer will not have the means to continue to pay the employee.
• a need for human work must be present. “If a set of machines can make the same product
or provide the same service, the (the employer) will do without” an employee.
“Only if this complex configuration comes to coalesce does the precarious reality which we call
‘a job’ come to exist.” For these reasons Job work is very restricted and is frequently unable to
address our most pressing individual and collective problems.
On Infinite Opportunities for Useful Work
“It is surely easy to see, on the face of it, that the idea that work is a natural resource, or like a river that could dry up, is flagrantly false. Work is clearly not limited. Anything but!..This scarcity of work (that addresses our most pressing problems) is an artificial creation. It is an artifact of the Job System.”
Bergmann’s observations regarding the infinite nature of work are reminiscent of the Bhagavad
Gita, an ancient Sanskrit poem that emphasizes that the universe, the mind and body work
unceasingly. The universe – personified as a deity – says that work is infinite:
“If ever my work had an end, these worlds would end in destruction, confusion would reign within all: this would be the death of all beings.” 7
But Bergmann’s observations regarding misallocation of our efforts have little to do with
metaphysical speculation: he is more concerned with the everyday impact of the “delusion that
work is limited”, insofar as its affect is to impair our ability to cultivate and express worthwhile talents. The amount of “undone work” is immeasurable as are “the vast efforts that could
(otherwise) be intelligently organized and expended”. The Job System leaves a “world of
potentialities that lies fallow and uncultivated and rotting in the overwhelming majority of
Yet the Job System is associated with an even greater liability than that which is emphasized by Bergmann: ecological catastrophes that should stimulate infinite demand for work fail to do so. The failure of the Job System to address existential threats by translating such threats into demands for work is even more conspicuous now than when Bergmann first set out to create New Work. The Job System not only fails to cultivate our talents and skills but also obstructs our capacity to address threats to our survival. In this sense a failure to envision alternatives to the Job System thwarts our capacity to realize the central purpose of work.
All quotations are from the following source unless otherwise noted:
Bergmann, Frithjoff. New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens Us.
Zero Books. 2018.
1 through 6: Nearing, Helen, and Nearing, Scott. The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty
Years of Self-Sufficient Living. Galahad Books. 1974.