On "Work"

A History of How We Spend Our Time

Posted on January 14, 2022

Work is a book by James Suzman which seems to be a popular version of his academic works.


The book starts by exposing the relationship between work in the physical sense, eg. transformation of energy, and work in the human sense. Work appears to be something that is characteristic of all life forms: Life is about extracting energy from the environment in order to sustain an organism. More and more complex life forms evolved through more and more efficient energy extractions capabilities, from the primitive chemical absorption of unicellulars to photosynthesis, to parasites, to plant grazers, to meat eaters… Eating more evolved life forms that already have extracted and refined energy from other sources is more efficient. Omnivorous animals dominate the “ecosphere” as they are able to extract energy from a wider variety of sources, and humanity made a leap through the discovery of fire which allowed humans to become even more efficient energy harvester.

But life is also about spending energy. Most lifeforms spend 100% of their energy on basic needs: Looking for food, mating, reproducing, but it’s not always the case: Suzman gives one detailed example of a south african bird that spends a great deal of its time building intricate nests that are not used. Living in an bountiful environment from which it can easily feed itself gives it more “free time” to spend energy on “useless” matters. Other examples abound and testify for Darwin’s sexual selection principle: It’s not enough to be the “fittest”, one has also to reproduce successfully and it’s perfectly possible that species evolve seemingly useless characters that provide an advantage for mating and reproduction.

Suzman spent lot of time living with and studying what is left of the Khoisan (aka. Bushmen). They are the closest approximation to how our ancestors would have been living, they have been around for 10s of 1000s of years and barely changed their way of life. Khoisan are hunter-gatherers that feed from a somewhat hostile, arid environment, yet it’s been estimated they “work” about 3-4 hours per day maximum, more often less. They do not accumulate food nor any kind of goods and their society is fiercely egalitarian: The rich are mocked and anyone can ask anyone else to give him or her something they own, which guarantees quick equalisation and distribution of any kind of riches

From the work of Marshall Sahlins, James C. Scott, Pierre Clastres and others, we now know “primitive” societies have been much more affluent than the Western narrative usually asserted it. There are a lot of archaelogical evidences from the early days of humanity showing that people were doing something else than gathering food, engaging into production of art, crafts, and probably a lot of purely social activities that leave no trace. Humans, like all living beings, don’t seem to like staying idle hence “work” has a natural tendency to fill time. We don’t even know what the omnipresent Hand-axe was used for, but we know it required training, time and skill to be done properly.

It’s not clear at what point society became unegalitarian, there are tombs showing differences in wealth before agriculture, but it’s clear agriculture raised significantly the amount of work people had to do to sustain themselves especially as in the early days, agriculture was inefficient, dangerous, bread epidemics… See Against the grain for more thorough discussion on the “Agriculture revolution” narrative. It’s not even clear that agriculture in and of itself breeds inequality as there are evidences of egalitarian farming societies, and even egalitarian city dwellers like in Çatalhöyük.

The second half of the book is devoted to how our urban, highly mechanised, energy hungry society came into being, from the early days of agriculture with archeologic findings in Palestine and fertile crescent. Agriculture was a revolution that took time to take off but fundamentally changed our relationship to work and our environment: Agriculture made the concept of delayed returns central to the life of the first farmers, whereas HG societies were built around immediate returns. Whereas in the latter case, man is part of an environment that profusely provides everything that’s needed for him to strive, and no more, in the former the environment becomes the nature, an external source of food, wealth, resources and energy that must be worked on, harvested, accumulated, invested.

Humanity’s relationship to its environment became more and more instrumental, nature was objectified and contrasted with culture whereas the hunter-gatherer societies had a symbiotic relationship with their environment.

Then Suzman draws from the work of Malthus, Keynes, Sahlins, Taylor to demonstrate how this fundamental shift turned scarcity as a central driver of our lives. Malthus “proved” that infinite growth was unsustainable because productivity of the land would grow linearly where population grows exponentially. Technical progress disproved his predictions for a couple of centuries, until the growth of fossile energy consumption has thrown the climate into a trajectory that could prove fatal to humanity.

During the XIXth century and the first half of the XXth, continuous improvement in productivity lead to a decrease in the amount of time people spent working, from 70-80 hours a week in the early days of industrial revolution, to about 40 hours. Keynes predicted this fall would continue thanks to increasing mechanisation but he was proven wrong: Since the 70s, work time has stagnated or even slightly increased again, esp. in the U.S and since the 1980s, inequalities in the distribution of wealth (and revenue) have also increased drastically as documented notably by Piketty’s work.

Work has become a central part of our lives to the point it mostly defines us (the first thing 2 strangers talk about when introduced to each other is the work they do), yet this should not be considered “normal” or a necessity: It’s a consequence of the industrial revolution, that was made possible by increasing yield of farming and increasingly energy efficient machines, which in turn created an increasingly complex economic system and society.

Durkheim founded sociology in order to better understand this complex system, which lead him to study the “malady of infinite aspiration” or anomie. Work has become something we do in order to do something else, a mean to an end, a way to earn money that we can spend consuming things we have been producing in the first place, but indirectly. Contrary to what classical economists like Smith, Malthus and others thought, scarcity might not be a consequence of the infinite desires of men and their growing numbers pitted against limited resources, but rather this “infinite aspiration” is a consequence of modern conditions of living.

Scarcity, greed and the absurd accumulation of wealth they generate, are then a by product of our civilisation, not its foundation.


I’m having a hard time summarizing the core idea of this book, what really James Suzman is after. The second half of the book which delves into the more modern history of (Western) societies sounds somewhat like it adopts a moralist’s stance, a criticism of modernity’s appetite for work and unlimited growth that is all too easily contrasted with the ascetic yet joyful way of life of hunter-gatherer tribes like the Khoisan, or what we know from archaeological evidences. The first half, which exposes findings and evidences from still existing hunter-gatherers societies, is the most interesting one as it questions the narrative around primitives, the superiority of Homo Sapiens, and the take-off that agriculture permitted.