In science, the definition of work is energy transfer. Force is applied and there’s displacement.
Using that definition, almost all we do is work: creativity, exercise – and of course raising a family and housework. Capitalism prefers that we think of work only as what we do for a wage. Yet this unpaid, unrecognised work is all part of the system that creates a sustainable workforce of billions.
Enter the wage system
Our ancestors had access to communal land. They grew food for themselves, grazed animals and gathered firewood. From the 12th century onwards, landlords forcibly displaced people as these lands were enclosed. The former peasants, left with nothing, had no choice but to head to cites where the wealthy who owned factories offered a wage in exchange for their labour. In essence, employers withheld the means of survival from the new working class.
You work for us, or you starve. You’ll generate much more wealth than the wage we give you. We’ll keep that surplus wealth for ourselves.
Employers are often referred to as ‘wealth creators’, but they’re closer to vampires. The amount of work we’d need to do to sustain ourselves in comfort is much less than modern capitalism extracts from us. The ‘work week’ exhausts us, and leaves us needing to consume, to self-medicate.
Khalil Gibran said: ‘Work is love made visible’ – it could be. Love is a verb, and joy can be found in meaningful effort. The wage system keeps us far from that utopia.