Publications / Essay

Work in a Sane Society

The Third Charles Plater Memorial Lecture, 1972.

A recent article in The Times begins with these words:

“Dante, when composing his visions of hell, might well have included the mindless, repetitive boredom of working on a factory assembly line. It destroys initiative and rots brains, yet millions of British workers are committed to it for most of their lives.”

The remarkable thing is that this statement, like countless similar ones made before it, aroused no interest: there were no hot denials or anguished agreements; no reactions at all. The strong and terrible words – visions of hell – mindless, repetitive boredom – destroying initiative and rotting brains – millions of British workers, committed for most of their lives – attracted no reprimand that they were misstatements or over-statements, that they were irresponsible or hysterical exaggerations or subversive propaganda; no, people read them, sighed and nodded, I suppose, and moved on.

Not even the ecologists, the conservationists, the doom-watchers and warners are interested in this matter. If someone had asserted that certain man-made managements destroyed the initiative and rotted the brains of millions of birds, or seals, or wild animals in the game reserves of Africa, such an assertion would have been either refuted or taken as a serious challenge. If someone had asserted that not the minds or souls or brains of millions of British workers were being ‘rotted’ but their bodies, again there would have been considerable interest; after all, there are safety regulations, inspectorates, claims for damages, and so forth. No management is unaware of its duty to avoid accidents or physical conditions which impair workers’ health. But workers’ brains, minds and souls are a different matter.

A recent semi-official report, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, bears the title “Pollution: Nuisance or Nemesis”. It contains no reference to man-made arrangements which destroy the initiative and rot the brains of millions of workers.  Nor, indeed, would any reader even expect such references. He expects and finds learned discussions of “Some harmful pollutants” – DDT and PCB, metals, phosphates and nitrates, sulphur dioxide, etc. – and warnings of the modern perils – cancers, birth defects and mutations, that is all. He may fully share the authors’ concluding hope, when they say:

“We hope that society will be educated and informed so that pollution may be brought under control and mankind’s population and consumption of resources be steered towards a permanent and sustainable equilibrium. Unless this is done (they continue) sooner or later – and some believe there is little time left – the downfall of civilisation will not be a matter of science fiction. It will be the experience of our children or grandchildren.”

But it would hardly occur to him – the average reader – that the destruction of initiative and the rotting of brains of millions of workers could be classed as the worst pollution of all, the greatest peril, and the most important danger for something to be done about to avoid the “down-fall of civilisation.”

If it is thought that it may be a bit far-fetched to deal with the rotting of brains under the heading of pollution, it will perhaps not be considered unreasonable to look for a treatment of this subject under the heading of “Natural Resources: Sinews for Survival” which is the title of a companion volume, also published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The most important of all resources is obviously the initiative, imagination and brain power of man himself. We all know this and are ready to devote very substantial funds to what we call education. So, if the problem is “survival”, one might fairly expect to find some discussion relating to the preservation and, if possible, the development of the most precious of all natural resources, human brains. However, such expectations are not fulfilled. “Sinews for Survival” deals with all the natural factors – minerals, energy, water, wildlife and so forth – but not at all with such immaterial resources as initiative, intelligence and brainpower.

Similarly, I might refer to the international report on “The Limits to Growth” prepared for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. This report has caused a world-wide stir because it purports to demonstrate, with the help of a computerised world-model, that growth along the established lines cannot now continue for long without leading to inescapable breakdown. The authors therefore plead for policies which would lead to “a desirable, sustainable state of global equilibrium”. They believe that “much more information is needed to manage the transition to global equilibrium… The most glaring deficiencies in present knowledge occur in the pollution sector of the model… How long does it take for a given pollutant to travel from its point of release to its point of entrance into the human body?” (p. 180)

There is, here again, no reference to pollutants entering the human mind or soul.   But the report does say this: “The final, most elusive, and most important information we need deals with human values. As soon as society recognises that it cannot maximise everything for everyone, it must begin to make choices. Should there be more people or more wealth, more wilderness or more automobiles, more food for the poor or more services for the rich?” (p. 181). We might say: what a collection of choices! Even in connection with “human values” a choice affecting the rotting of human minds or brains finds no mention. And this is yet another example of the lack of interest in the vital question of human work and what the work does to the worker.

Considering the centrality of work in human life, one might have expected that every textbook on economics, sociology, politics and related subjects would present a theory of work as one of the indispensable foundation stones for all further expositions. After all, it is work which occupies most of the energies of the human race, and what people actually do is normally more important, for understanding them, than what they say, or what they spend their money on, or what they own, or how they vote. A person’s work is unquestionably one of the most important formative influences on his character and personality.

However, the truth of the matter is that we look in vain for such presentations of theories of work in these textbooks. The question of what the work does to the worker is hardly ever asked, not to mention the question of whether the real task might not be to adapt the work to the needs of the worker rather than demanding of the worker to adapt himself to the needs of the work – which means, of course, primarily: to the needs of the machine.

It is not as if there were any lack of studies and reports on productivity, on workers’ morale, workers’ participation in management, and so forth. But they do not seem to germinate any fundamentally new thinking; they do not raise questions about the validity or sanity of a system which destroys men’s initiative and rots their brains. They all – although in varying degree – start from the implicit assumption that the kind or quality of work to be done in society is simply what it is; somebody has to do it; if it is soul-destroying work, that is regrettable but unalterable; if people do not like doing it, we pay them more and more until enough people like the money more than they dislike the work. But, of course, this economic solution of the problem – paying what the law of supply and demand prescribes – is no solution from our point of view; some people, as St. Augustine observed, even take pleasure in deformities, and many are prepared – or they are forced – to ruin themselves for money. We are concerned with the fact that our system of production, in many of its parts, is such that it destroys men’s initiative and rots their brains, and inflicts this damage not on a few people by way of exception, but on millions of them by way of everyday routine. Why men or women tolerate it and accept it against pecuniary compensation is quite a different question.

We may remind ourselves of the teaching of the Church in this connection. “No man,” said Pope Leo XIII (R.N. 32-3) “may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God himself treats with great reverence, nor stand in the way of that higher life which is the preparation for the eternal life of heaven. Nay, more; no man has in this matter power over himself. To consent to any treatment which is calculated to defeat the end and purpose of his being is beyond his right; he cannot give up his soul to servitude; for it is not man’s own rights which are here in question, but the rights of God, the most sacred and inviolable of rights.”

Let us ask then: How does work relate to the end and purpose of man’s being? It has been universally recognised, in all authentic teachings of mankind, that every human being born into this world has to work not merely to keep himself alive but to strive towards perfection. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” To keep himself alive, he needs various goods and services, which will not be forthcoming without human labour. To perfect himself, he needs purposeful activity in accordance with the injunction. “Whichever gift each of you may have received, use it in service to one another, like good stewards dispensing the grace of God in its varied forms.” (1 Peter 4 : 10)


From this, we may derive the three purposes of human work as follows:

First: to provide society with the goods and services which are necessary or useful to it;

Second: to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards; and

Third: to do so in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born ego-centricity.

This three-fold function makes work so central to human life that it is truly impossible to conceive of life at the human level without work, which the Church declares, “even after original sin, was decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul”.

The truth of these propositions can be and in fact has  been recognized by people who would consider it to be below their level of intellectual dignity to take scripture seriously. Contemplating the possibility that “the economic problem may be solved,” J. M. Keynes considered that “there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without dread … It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself … To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing … For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. ”

To spread the bread thin on the butter – what could express more clearly the insight that work is like bread, the staff of life, while butter, enjoyable as it certainly is, symbolises mere consumption and leisure. It is simply not good enough to sustain the fullness of human life.

In spite of these insights, however, the main striving of technology and organisation is to eliminate the human being from the productive process to the greatest possible extent: ideally, to eliminate him al-together and to let machines do everything for him. As one industrialist put it to me a little while ago: “Surely, my job is to eliminate the human factor from the productive process.” His reason was this: “People are difficult to control and liable to make mistakes. Machines are easily controlled and do not make mistakes. ” Many workmen, at the same time, find their work so intolerably dull that they see absolutely no value in it other than the pay packet at the end of the week. If their work could be totally eliminated by automation, they would be only too pleased, provided only they could get a pay packet by other means.

It might be said, therefore, that it is the ideal of the employer to have production without employees, and the ideal of the employee to have income without work. The question is: Can the pursuit of these two ideals, undertaken with the marvelous ingenuity and energy of modern science and technology, produce – or maintain – a sane society? “Without work, all life goes rotten,” said Robert Camus. “But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies. ”

The modern answer to this question is “education for leisure”. As usual in the modern world, we allow all sorts of difficult problems and situations to arise, and then cheerfully call upon education to bail us out. But I have never been able to understand the meaning of these-deceptively plausible words “education for leisure”. Are we going to say to our children; “now, we want you to work hard to learn how to live without working at all?” Or are we going to train them for a workless existence already at school, by admonishing them not to do any work at school or at home but to kill time painlessly in some fashion that will involve no effort of any kind? Or are we going to persuade them to make all sorts of efforts, provided only that nothing useful will come of them?

Maybe these questions will be considered unfair. I know a very learned professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Science who thinks that “it cannot be long before most people have as much time for leisure (genuine leisure, not counting time for commuting and for the necessary business of eating and sleeping) as they spend on their work”. What will they do with their unoccupied time, their leisure? The professor’s answer is simple indeed: “A man can have a second profession in addition to that by which he makes his living, and his attainments in this second profession can be as high as in the first.” Now, this is, of course, rather splendid, but it does seem to be a rather unusual Interpretation of the world “leisure”.

However that may be, I think it will be agreed that man has been made for work, but not for mindless toil. The Lord God put him into the Garden of Eden and told him “to dress it and keep it”. So there was work even before the Fall, and the expulsion from the Garden did not mean the beginning of work, but the beginning of toil “in the sweat of thy face”. More urgent than a philosophy of leisure is a philosophy of work that distinguishes work that is good and wholesome from that which is unwholesome and soul destroying. The wish to eliminate work because technological and organisational developments have ruined its wholesomeness is like wishing to abolish rivers because they have become sewers, or wishing to abolish air because it has become unclean. Men need satisfying work just as much as they need clean air and clean water – and that is why I do not apologise for bringing this question of work into the context of pollution. Just as we are beginning to wake up to the need to clean up our environment, even at some considerable cost, is it not necessary to wake up to the need to clean up our work?

I read the other day that some brilliant designers of aircraft engines had succeeded in reducing the noise level of these engines by 50%. Perhaps one day we may learn that intelligent designers of a productive process had reduced the “boredom level” by 50%.

Science and technology are widely believed to be all-powerful: “Tell us what the problem is, and we shall solve it”. What if we said: “The problem is that the kind of work to which millions of people are committed most of their lives destroys their initiative and rots their brains. We want you to develop work processes which help people to become self-reliant, cheerful, competent men, enjoying their work as much as they enjoy their garden or their family or their sport or any of their leisure-time activities?” Ananda Coomaraswamy once said with reference to a sane and wholesome society of the past: “The artist was not a special kind of man, but every man a special kind of artist”

Inevitably, when we put such a proposition to our scientists, technologists, organisers and administrators – “don’t abolish people’s work but humanise it” – the immediate answer is highly unscientific, perhaps even unprintable. However they express it, the message is: “It can’t be done. It is not even worth trying. It is an utopian extravaganza even to try”.

This used to be the standard answer when reformers demanded the curtailment in the number of hours worked by children, the abolition of child labour, or indeed the abolition of slavery. The whole economy would collapse, they said. And today, after we have got used to the idea that human work can be largely eliminated, we think that the whole economy would collapse if any positive attempt were made to bring it back in a healthy way, however selectively.

Selectivity, of course, is the crux of the matter. Only a mad-man would make sweeping changes at one fell swoop. But a refusal to make sweeping changes is not the same as the immobilism that seems at present to hold sway with regard to the humanisation of work.

Happily, this immobilism is not altogether total. In spite of all the futuristic talk about the abolition of work and the desirability of education for leisure, some pioneers are seriously engaged in trying to improve the work situation, even if they can see no possibility of humanising the work process as such. The work situation, it is felt, can be improved by giving workers a greater say in the running of industry, by job enlargement, job enrichment, improved communications, and so forth. I have no doubt that these efforts are very necessary and very much worthwhile. Yet it can hardly be denied that their aims and objectives are still extremely narrow and conventional – higher productivity, improved quality of output, reduction of absenteeism, fewer strikes, and so forth, in short “better industrial relations” for the purpose of more or better production of goods, not for the purpose of producing better, happier, more self-reliant men and women. The aim is to have a contented labour force, but people can be contented and yet miss real life. Mindless work can make people altogether too contented – as has often been expressed by the victims of what looked like perfect work conditions: “Doing this I don’t lose any time, and I can think of other things,” in other words: “Instead of really living I day-dream”. A famous employer said that his men left their souls in the cloakroom at the beginning of the shift and collected them again at the end. He had a contented labour force as he paid them relatively high wages and was careful not to engage “trouble makers”.

Efforts to improve the work situation never can lead very far as long as the nature of the work itself is mindless and stupefying. All too often, the workers themselves resist them, because the only thing that makes their work tolerable at all is that it allows them to become machines themselves. They get habituated by way of self-defence and in an effort of self-preservation.

“Life is something I don’t see half enough of,” said a thoughtful and sensitive worker.   “Perhaps I shall see more soon because I don’t intend to stay in the factory much longer. I shall not be missed – nobody is ever missed. But what of him who takes my place? Will he stick it? If he does, he will receive at the end of fifty years a gold watch – then he will be able to measure in retrospect the time he’s wasted.”

With regard to humanising the work process itself, the immobilism of present-day industrial society is well-nigh total. As I said before, the kind and quality of work to be done is implicitly taken as given; somebody has to do it whether we like it or not. The time has come to question this implicit assumption and to attack this immobilism. Mindless work is as intolerable in a society that wishes to be sane and civilised as filthy air or stinking water, nay, it is even more intolerable. Why can’t we set new tasks to our scientists and engineers, our chemists and technologists, many of whom are becoming increasingly doubtful about the human relevance of their own work? Has the affluent  society nothing to spare for anything really new? Is “bigger, faster, richer” still the only line of development we can conceive, when we know that it entails the perversion of human work so that, as one of the Popes put it, “from the factory dead matter goes out improved, whereas men there are corrupted and degraded?” and that it also entails environmental degradation and the speedy exhaustion of the earth’s non-renewable resources.

Could we not devote at least a small fraction of our research and development (R and D) efforts to create what might be called a technology with a human face?

This ‘human face’ would reflect, to start with, in a certain way, the size of the human being: in other words, we should explore whether at least some organisations and some machines could not be made small enough to suit the human scale. Countless people long for a chance to become their own masters, independent and self-reliant – which they cannot become unless it is possible to be efficient on a small scale. Where is the small scale equipment, where are the mini-plants to give a chance to the small man who can and wants to stand on his own feet?

People say it can’t be done; small scale is uneconomic. How do they know? My own experience with the Intermediate Technology Development Group does not bear them out. It suggest to me that while the idea that “bigger is better” may have been a 19th century truth, now, owing to the advance of knowledge and technical ability, it has become – not all along the line, but over wide fields of application – a twentieth century myth.

I have in mind, as an example, a production unit developed by the Intermediate Technology Development Group which costs around £5000. The smallest unit previously available cost £250, 000, fifty times as much, and had a capacity about 50 times as great. The makers of this large-scale unit were completely convinced that any smaller unit would be hopelessly uneconomic. But they were wrong.

Think of it: instead of one unit requiring for its efficient operation a vast and complicated organisation, we can now have fifty units, each of them “on the human scale”, each of them large enough for a few enterprising people to make an honest living, but none of them so large as to make anyone inordinately rich. Think of the simplification of transport if there can be many small units instead of one large one, each of them drawing on local raw materials and working for nearby local markets. Think of the social and individual human consequences of such a change of scale.

Admittedly, this kind of work was initially undertaken solely with a view to helping the developing countries where on account of poverty markets are small, unemployment is high, capital is scarce, and transport is generally difficult and expensive. But it became quickly apparent that the results of this work were of equal interest to many communities in the over-developed countries, because everywhere there are innumerable people who are excluded from the productive process in a validly human sense because organisations, capital requirements and machines have become so big that only people already very rich and powerful can get hold of them and all the others can merely be what might be called “technological gap-fillers”.

A technology with a human face would not only favour smallness as against the current giantism; it would also favour simplicity as against complexity. It is, of course, much more difficult to make things relatively simple again than to make them ever more complicated. Any intelligent fool can invent further complications, but it takes a touch of genius to attain simplicity. I am not talking about the simple life as such – although there is much to be said in its favour: I am talking about processes of production, distribution and exchange, as well as about the design of products.  Complexity, in itself often the result of excessive size and the excessive elimination of the human factor, demands a degree of specialisation and division of labour which all-too-often kills the human content of work and makes people too specialised to be able to attain wisdom. It must therefore be seen as an evil, and it is the task of human intelligence – of R and D in the industrial context – to minimise this evil, not to let it proliferate.

Small is beautiful and so is simplicity. As a third line of endeavour, I should suggest that non-violence is also beautiful. We should diligently search for non-violent methods of production, particularly in agriculture, that is to say methods that work with nature instead of bludgeoning her. Thank God we now have ecologists, conservationists and others who are agitating in this direction. We also have the Soil Association which for 25 years has been doing pioneering work along these lines, although without official support of any kind.

All this, I believe, hangs together – smallness, simplicity, and non-violence, all related to the human scale, all related to the humanisation of human work, all conducive to the re-integration of the human being into the productive process, so that he can feel alive, creative, happy – in short, a real person – even while he is working for his living.

If one thing stares us in the face, it is that insane work cannot produce a sane society. There is no reason to believe that today, with so much knowledge, so brilliant a science, and such astounding technological skills at our disposal, we should be incapable of extending the job of creative productive work to those millions of our fellowmen who are at present deprived of it.

A sane society cannot emerge if, as Paul Goodman called it, millions of youngsters are “growing up absurd”; or if millions of men and women are condemned, most of their lives, to do work which destroys their initiative and rots their brains; or, indeed, if all – or most of – useful, productive, creative work is handed over to machines controlled by giant corporations, while people – real, living people – are told to find their fulfillment in leisure activities.

To build an efficient system of production is of course a necessary task but to humanise production and build a sane society is today the most important and most urgent task of all.


Publication By

E. F. Schumacher

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was an internationally influential economic thinker, statistician, and economist in Britain. His ideas became popularized in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized, and appropriate technologies. E. F. Schumacher was born in Germany in 1911. … Continued

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