1/100: In Praise of Work

Physical work is liberating.

We have spent the last 200 years, that is the period since industrial revolution, demeaning physical work. Before the industrial revolution, physical work was seen as the source of all value mankind could produce. The wonders of farming, celebrated by the French Physiocrats, were there for all to see: Man's physical labour making nature yield life sustaining produce. But, since the Industrial revolution, this changed. First, people were seen as mere resources, eligible for only a meagre subsistence pay and less than amenable living conditions, who must 'man' the machines and just that. The magic of physical work was gone. The workers became mere cogs, as celebrated in Charlie Chaplin's The Modern Times. Then, started the man-machine competition: For the same work. Machines were taking away not just the glory of physical work, but physical work itself. The heroes of this age were men who could beat the machines, people like John Henry or Stakhanov, stuff of industrial age mythologies, supermen who retained the glories of man's physical abilities. And, then, finally, automation started taking over: The last heroes of the physical age faded, aged or dead, and the rapidly multiplying transistors on the silicon chips made any kind of physical work unnecessary. The new heroics of human civilization were not defined in terms of the Olympian deeds, but in terms of microwaves intelligent enough to turn itself on when needed. The ideal man owned all the gadgets and never moved an inch, except for working out in the gyms. RIP physical work.

This is a point of time when the transformation is complete: From the French economists who saw farming as the only source of value creation to the age of intellectual capital, where value resides not in things but in the idea embedded in them. But, one can argue this is more a political construct than anything else: Physical work must still invariably be done, just that it is valued at less. So, a labourer would be paid less for his work than a surgeon, and the surgeon would be paid less than a banker, but this will be done not because of the value of their work, but the political constructs around it: Indeed, bankers rule the world.

Ideas that value resides not in things but in concepts embedded in them sounds neat and practical, but only till you start thinking about world's bottom billion, who live by scavenging and value only what can be eaten. One can, with reason, argue that intellectual capital is the illusion of value than value itself: That economic value is no longer politically neutral. The problem with physical stuff, those which are made or produced, is that they are largely politically neutral, and therefore, clever campaigns are devised to add or subtract political value to or from them: Hence, fair trade, organic and all the other labels. All of this obscure the fact that it is still physical work, that lovable movements of human hands and body, synchronized by human mind, that creates 'things', that embeds judgement, responsibility and ownership in them: No clever automation or concept have yet found a way to replace the same.

It is the last statement which implacably put physical work ahead of anything else. When you do something, it belongs to you, emotionally. Indeed, if you are paid to do something, the legal ownership belongs to the man who bought your labour. But, it is still yours emotionally, because you have not only embedded your time, but spent your judgement, love and responsibility in constructing the 'thing'. One goal of modern management has been to undermine this sort of emotional connection: Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor, all the proponents of multi-divisional organization moved the definition of work from creating or making something to doing something, where you don't get to see what you are doing. But, lately, as the scientific civilization enters its tired last phase, there is a lot of talk about employee motivation and ownership: The fact that the workers should be working as if they know they are building a cathedral. So, the emotional ownership is back in vogue: With it, the supremacy of what is being done with hand.

I shall argue, therefore, in favour of liberating experience of doing something by hand. It is pragmatic too: In the age of automation and Asia, as Daniel Pink puts it, you would rather learn something which has to be done by hand, and therefore, can't be outsourced. In a way, gardening is a safer profession than equity analysis: It is only a matter of time and political expediency that the equity analysis will go to India. Gardening will never go, not at least your neighbour's garden's work. No concept will make the flower bloom without the hard, disciplined work that needs to be put in.

In the end, therefore, praise be on thee, physical work. In the act of creating by hand, men come the closest to God. Notwithstanding the enemies of physical work, and the web of conspiracy undermining it, this is the only way to remain connected with the world, feel the nature and its forces in your life. I shall rather dream of a life where I can do something with my hand everyday, rather than being a slave of a know-all microwave.


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