The aim of Olivier Grenouilleau’s work is to report on the way in which Westerners have “thought and reinvented the meanings of work”. Over the three hundred pages of the book, the historian analyzes how the job, alias the toil, the job, the turbine, passes or not from the curse to the redemption, from the glorification to its condemnation and that of the Neolithic at the home office.
Olivier Grenouilleau is one of the French representatives, with colleagues like Michel Boucheron but also Fernand Braudel, of “global history”, world history. This school, initiated in North America by an author like William McNeill and popularized by a historian like Timothy Brook, intends to make the world its subject of study.
If you needed one last reason to convince you, Grenouilleau, 60, has already published a sum on slavery – read here the review of the book by the one who became the current Minister of Education, Pap N ‘Diaye.
“The invention of work”, by Olivier Grenouilleau, Editions du Cerf, October 2022, 296 pages.
1/ Work, a burden of civilization
Grenouilleau, as a good global historian, takes some distance. “In the beginning is the work”, he could have written, paraphrasing the Holy Scriptures. This occupation which, under the influence of the Bible, Plato, Adam Smith or Darwinism, makes the human species pass from the obscurity of the primitives to the light of the civilized.
Work would thus have been the means and the sign of the progressive rise in power of a humanity revealing itself to itself.
The book then evokes the birth of humans seen by the first cosmogonies, that of Sumer in present-day Iraq for example. These populations, inventors of writing, consider that Man was shaped by the gods to work for them. “Man is designed to be their slave,” comments Grenouilleau.
Same thought among the Greeks for whom the earth no longer “spontaneously produces what is necessary for life. It will have to be worked on”. The work is thus thought of as source of redemption from divine punishmentwe find here the biblical notion of the earthly paradise, of Adam and Eve, summoned to leave the Garden of Eden because of their misconduct in the face of their god.
2/ Work is also a “work”
Divine punishment, work is also, almost, in parallel, considered by other thinkers, if it is “done in a good way”, as the possibility of accomplishing a work. The West oscillates between conviction work and its glorification.
“It is thus, between good and evil, that work settles in the Greek consciousness, and by the same Western one”, he theorizes, showering his readers with fascinating details. For an Aristotle or a Plato, Grenouilleau puts forward Socrates, Hesiods or Ovids devoting the importance of work. “As for povertyexplains Thucydides, in “The Peloponnesian War”, to admit it out loud is never a shame; it is one of not trying to get out of it”. And we get out of it by working, supported, of course, by an army of slaves.
In 317 BC, a census in Athens reported 250,000 slaves out of a population of 431,000, points out the book. That is nearly 50% of the entire population. “The privilege of the free man is not freedom but idleness, which has as its obligatory corollary the forced labor of others”comments, advised, Aristotle, son of a doctor, in his “Politics”.
But Grenouilleau also insists on the valuation work by Hebrews and Christians. “Your labor is not in vain in the Lord”, says Paul in a letter to the Corinthians. During the Middle Ages (376-1492), “the idea of a curse weighing on work is, however, gaining ground” notes the author. So do thoughts that God desires Humans to work. Monastic practice thus ensures “a rehabilitation work “. Saint Augustine also believes that “Divine law requires man to work. This is good “. In 1198, Pope Innocent III even canonized a merchant from Cremona: “work becomes merit”, explains Grenouilleau.
3/ The celebration of work in modern times
Grenouilleau then describes the thoughts of modern-day intellectuals. Until the 20th century, these economists or philosophers, sometimes both, celebrate toil. The supporters of Utopia like Thomas More, the promoters of the Reformation (Martin Luther) or the thinkers of the Enlightenment (Adam Smith) believe, with Jean Calvin, that “Men were created to work hard and not to be lazy and idle”. The latter, arriving in Strasbourg, thus registered on the register of the corporation of tailors. the “work is even useful or even necessary and indispensable to public prosperity »adds Grenouilleau.
Our historian then summons all the new economists from Thomas Hobbes to John Locke via Antoine de Montchrestien, the inventor of political economy, who consecrate the public utility of work. The so-called “Enlightenment” current even sets itself the goal of associating valuing work that is useful to individuals to valuing work that is useful to society. This leads to the liberal currents, to that of the utopian socialists (Saint-Simon or Fourrier) and the “Darwinists” who try to associate “these seemingly contradictory dimensions”.
4/ Modern work between hell and human achievement
The emergence, in the 19th century, of large-scale industry and the proletarianization of populations combined a vision of work that philanthropists portrayed as hell on earth and a notion of work, abstract, idealized and magnified like never before.
The idea is to convince the “employees” of the benefits of their work and to clear the conscience of the “exploiters”. For Grenouilleau, this paradox leads to three trends: the condemnation of new forms of exploitation, the irruption of the question of social reform and the redefinition of the value and meaning to be given to work.
The more central work becomes, the duller its meaning becomes, both in the universe of ideas and in the concrete world of labor.
Then came thinkers like Durkheim, Taylor or Jules Amar in France, who reduced the “human, emotional and spiritual charge” work. But the latter are then combated by the Marxian analysis which demonstrates a ” deeply alienating dimension of a work that has become mechanical and the Promethean promise of the emancipation of man thanks to the mastery of the productive machine”, explains Grenouilleau.
For Engels and Hegel, work, via the use of machines by the productive forces, will also be “the means of liberation and fulfillment” workers, adds Grenouilleau. “Man, by work, is made as great as God”, enthuses Joseph Proudhon, son of a winegrower-cooper-brewer. In short, as Grenouilleau points out, by the “work, humanity will realize itself”. The thought is carried by liberalism, and the social reformers, Marx, Engels and Proudhon at the head, by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress, the Hegelian philosophy and the social reformers. “The Western world believed in it until the great crisis of the 1930s and, for the communist world and popular democracies, the credo remained in force almost until the collapse of the USSR in 1991”…
5/ The end of work?
At the end of the 20th century, work is under attack from all sides?
With the universal income, we now think of the possibility, if not of completely freeing ourselves from work, at least of allowing everyone to establish a more personal relationship with it.
We then arrive at the appearance observed by a Richard Florida (The rise of the creative class) or a Michel Lallement (L’âge du faire) of a ” new social class composed of creators from scientists, engineers, academics, poets and more generally those working in the field of high technology services », comments the historian. This class would regroup almost a third of the working population of the United States. “An autonomy of work, but also at work can manifest itself there”Point Grenouilleau.
He also explains that “more global projects of transformation or even overcoming of work continue to be thought out, with a view to individual fulfillment and social reform”. Under the aegis of Hannah Arendt, “it is no longer through work that man can accomplish himself but by going beyond it”.
What also advocates, in “The end of work” a Jeremy Rifkin in 1995. The thesis is supported by the work of Olivier Marchand and Claude Thélot who demonstrates that, from the 18th to the 20th century, “We have gone in France from 3000 hours worked per year and individual of working age to 1600”. Bob Black, in 1985, closed the ban, in his book “The abolition of work”. “No one should work, he advocates. Work is the source of virtually all the misery in the world. To no longer suffer, we must stop working”.
Does this article make you want to read Olivier Grenouilleau’s book? Have you already read it and want to share your reading? Your reactions are welcome in the forum below subject to their moderation. Thank you all.