Henry David Thoreau Was a Theorist of the Transition to Capitalism

Philosopher Henry David Thoreau has developed a reputation as an advocate for self-help in the form of withdrawal from work. But in his writing, he advanced a thoroughgoing critique of work under capitalism and defended the emancipatory potential of labor.

Thoreau's simple advice to make the most of our lives has overshadowed his radical social intervention. (B. D. Maxham / National Portrait Gallery)

Henry David Thoreau was no reclusive layabout, contrary to the popular vision of his hermitage at Walden Pond. When he retreated to the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847 in an attempt “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he did not just sit alone and still in the elements (though he did do plenty of that). In between his frequent jaunts to town, Thoreau also built a cabin, tended a bean field, and honed his writerly craft, all the while reflecting deeply on the value of labor both within and beyond the capitalist marketplace he had temporarily left.

Outside of Walden, he felt the sting of that market in his labors. He barely scraped by as a writer; up until his deathbed, he chased editors down for pay. Meanwhile, he supplemented his meager literary income by selling his many talents: teaching, carpentry, pencil-making, and, most significantly, surveying. “I have as many trades as fingers,” he boasted.

Laboring was not a distraction from Thoreau’s philosophical work; it was integral to it. Capitalism’s complex division of labor both fascinated and repulsed him as he came to realize that labor was something more than activity that produced value for the market. Throughout his works are passages reflecting on the humanity and interest of craft activity: farming, pottery, logging, carpentry, blacksmithing, fishing, hide-curing, canoe-building, thread-making, candle-making, and more.

He saw, like his contemporary Karl Marx, that human history was the history of labor. In a blistering review of a book promising a utopia of machinery, free from the drudgery of work, Thoreau averred: so long as “there is a certain divine energy in every man . . . no work can be shirked.”

Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living, by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, confirms the American philosopher’s place as a thinker concerned with the development of labor under capitalism, overturning his reputation as a dilettantish aesthete. The authors, both philosophers by trade, walk a tightrope between realism and idealism. They neither downplay the poor conditions that capitalism produces for labor (both in Thoreau’s time and our own) nor fail to acknowledge labor’s humanizing potential.

As they write, Thoreau held “that if we take our labors upon ourselves, we actualize ourselves and discover ourselves, if not invent ourselves.” But Kaag and van Belle’s attempt to use Thoreau to “guide us toward a more meaningful relationship to work” falls into the trap that often catches admirers of the philosopher: a bias toward individualistic self-help — rather than the social transformation Thoreau sought — as a solution to the harms caused by work under capitalism.

Thoreau the Political Economist

Kaag and van Belle take as their starting point the so-called Great Resignation of workers during and in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Thoreau, too, they write, was thinking about work in a time when “the meaning of labor underwent radical revision.”

Indeed, in his native Concord, Massachusetts, over the course of the 1840s and 1850s, Thoreau witnessed seismic shifts as the small town’s agricultural economy marketized. The arrival of the railroad, built by immiserated Irish laborers, meant that economic pressures forced local farmers to cultivate cash crops; as farmers’ living became tied to the market and they toiled all the more to pay their mortgages, their prospectless children left town to find work elsewhere, only to be replaced by a new class of landless, waged farm laborers. Meanwhile, land concentrated into the hands of the wealthy few who could afford it. Capitalism had come to Concord.

In the first chapter of Walden — fittingly titled “Economy” — Thoreau articulated these changes in temporal terms. Farmers, he wrote, “have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years” to pay their mortgages, thus “digging their graves” as soon as they were born. Furthermore: “Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.” From this grim starting point, Thoreau derived a time-based theory of value — “the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.”

That is, for Thoreau (as indeed for Marx), it was not the act of labor itself that endowed value but rather the time that it took relative to the life of a human being, the very finitude of which placed an ethical premium on how that time was spent. As Kaag and van Belle rightfully note, an “abiding message of Walden” is that “life is precious because it is so ephemeral.”

The problem, then, was that, in capitalism, even purchasing essential things cost too much life: a worker was, in Thoreau’s originally italicized words, “employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries.” Receiving cash remuneration to pay for necessities, overworked “operatives” made commodities not for use and immediate sustenance but for the abstract value of exchange to pad the pockets of the capitalist class: the “factory system” made clothing not to “honestly clad” people but so “corporations may be enriched.”

Thoreau essentially identified a core feature of Marx’s analysis of labor under capitalism, based upon a distinction between necessary and surplus labor. During part of a workday, workers produce goods equivalent to the value of subsistence goods needed to reproduce their labor power. This is the value of the whole workday’s wage. Yet they continue working to the end of the day, producing more value. Labor during that first part of the day is necessary labor; the remaining day’s work is surplus labor. Value produced by the latter is surplus value, appropriated by their employer — in a word, exploitation. Hence the problem: even if workers spend most of their day performing surplus labor, such labor appears as necessary, and it is, as they must perform it to receive wages (their means of subsistence) produced in hours of necessary labor.

Thoreau argued that we ought to reverse this undue extension of necessary labor time. In what would become the third volume of Capital, Marx would write that the “reduction of the working day” — of the “realm of necessity” — is the requisite for extending the “realm of freedom.” Around a decade prior, Thoreau gave voice to the same sentiment:

[When someone] has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.

Thoreau’s temporal theory of value thus issued an imperative: we ought to reconsider how a lifetime could be spent, given that necessary things currently cost too much of it. His own life’s labor was a decades-long project of seeking to balance, for himself, these realms of necessary and non-necessary labor; to make time for the beautiful activity of creation alongside the provision of food and shelter.

Meaningless Work

Thoreau’s brief experiment in self-sufficiency at Walden Pond was an exercise in this endeavor. While there, he concocted ways of reducing necessary labor time. Chief among these were resting and the reduction of needs themselves. These simple suggestions have come to be interpreted as Thoreau’s solution to the coercion caused by dependency on the market.

But his call to work only so as to reproduce necessities was not, unlike now-ubiquitous manifestos for slow and simplified living, an implicit demand for personalized austerity. Necessities were historically variable: “whatever . . . has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any . . . ever attempt to do without it.” Thoreau was no primitivist; he acknowledged that it was “better to accept the advantages . . . invention and industry of mankind offer.” Crucially, this was a call for a reorientation of human labor around the social question of what is deemed to be valuable, rather than in response to the profit motives of capitalists.

Thus, more significant to Thoreau than moralistic asceticism was the aim to find non-necessary labor that was neither “meaningless” nor “prosaic,” as so much paid, necessary labor was (indeed, Kaag and van Belle dedicate a chapter to “Meaningless Work”). Thoreau held up a mirror to wage workers:

Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.

This was not meant to be a finger-wagging dismissal of the humble toiler, with whom Thoreau identified (as he wrote in a later essay, “It is my own way of living that I complain of as well as yours”), but an attempt to point out the internal contradictions of capitalism. The aim of his life at Walden was to at least demonstrate that a world of reduced necessary labor time was conceivable, even within a capitalist world in which people were completely dependent on the market in order to reproduce their existence — a world that might otherwise feel inevitable or inescapable. This reduction of necessary labor time, as Thoreau realized in his time at Walden, initiated a transformation in the very experience of necessary labor. When it was not artificially extended by the demands of capitalist labor, necessary labor itself could become meaningful: a “pastime,” a “sport,” or an “amusement.”

Necessary labor, like any creative ability, could be a deeply humanizing activity under the right circumstances; it was the market that undid such a possibility of synthesis. (Over)laboring in the market robbed us of life: if “getting a living” was not “glorious,” then “living is not.” And if such labor devalued life, then, per his theory of value, the things produced would cost all the more.

Transcendentalism for Whom?

Kaag and van Belle, in their book, do not adequately consider the political-economic implications of the critique Thoreau advanced against modern work. Rather, they attempt to use Thoreau to suggest ways to improve our relationship to our day-to-day compensated work — to indeed make our getting a living, our necessary labor, “glorious,” in Thoreau’s words. But in doing so, they miss Thoreau’s radical social intervention: a prerequisite to any such improvement in necessary labor is the tout court reorienting of production, and not merely the improvement of the existing employment experience.

Granted, the authors do pay dues to the Concordian as the steadfast labor radical that he was. They note, for instance, that the staunch abolitionism that led him to help fugitives on the Underground Railroad (activity they call “the most radical form of union activism”) derived in part from his contempt for the way slavery degraded the status and activity of labor among the enslaved. In our own time — speaking to a range of modern employees from bartenders to carpenters to retail reps to warehouse workers to tech bros — Kaag and van Belle acknowledge the tie between the domination of the clock and the domination of the boss, and the alienation workers feel when they are “governed by scripts they do not write, procedures they do not endorse, and bosses they do not know.” The authors know that Thoreau wanted to “dismantle” the current order to build one in which “a flourishing human being” could exist; that he “encourages us to pull down a system that forces billions of people into a race against the clock.”

These occasional asides to Thoreau’s intensity, though, are deflated by the authors’ reception of his political views, which are treated as a source of embarrassment:

Despite all of Henry’s bluster and seeming disgust for capitalism . . . a more cool-headed Thoreauvian of the postmodern age can, we think, prevail — and without doing too much injustice to the firebrand of Walden.

Injustice, alas, is done to the firebrand by virtue of Kaag and van Belle’s general failure to move beyond the perspective of an individual employee (and the apparently immutable nature of normative, waged employment) in rethinking our relation to work. As they state in their preface, for Thoreau there was a “potency of personal change and accountability when it came to work — change and accountability at the fundamental political unit: you.”

Part of the issue here is the book’s self-proclaimed audience, which delimits Kaag and van Belle’s message (and their use of Thoreau) from the start. Early on, the authors presume — perhaps out of an attempt at earnest realism — that “only those with enough time, money, and education” will be able to read the book, while there remain “workers who won’t have the time or the means.” They lament, “What is truly a shame is the fact that we live in a system of labor in which workers don’t have the time or the means to read any book.”

Though they are right in this observation to a degree, it seems to eclipse the tradition and existence of the working-class autodidact, or the simpler fact that workers can read and can act upon their reading. Kaag and van Belle’s patronizing folly is in unwittingly allowing this assumption of a specific audience to determine the content of their argument, which could otherwise be broadly addressed to the real, complex world of workers: as if acknowledging potential barriers to working-class access somehow absolves the authors from having written a book of labor advice that, in its substance, mirrors those very barriers.

The laborers Kaag and van Belle address, as they acknowledge, are not the “most economically disadvantaged” who shoulder the most “meaningless work”; rather, the addressees are presumably moneyed (no doubt there are managers among this book’s readers) and are also of the white-collar ilk who can work from home. In insisting on working from home, the authors say, in a stretched allusion to Thoreau, we have “staked our pond houses.”

Doubtless, remote and white-collar workers can be and are exploited workers, with their own meaningless tasks and own meaningful attempts to stake out more autonomy. The point here, though, is that Kaag and van Belle positively aim for a particular subset of these workers — a putatively elite, professional subset, and a subset sociologically primed for the language of mindfulness, self-care, and personal responsibility in the meaning-making that comes along with the authors’ use of Thoreau.

In sum, the book cannot seem to decide if it is a radical intervention or a self-help manual for the ennui-addled PMC. The rightful urgency of the critiques offered mismatch the substance of the authors’ prescriptions. Thus, the nods toward those who have it much worse than the book’s presumed audience appear less as any basis of argument and more as du jour liberal acknowledgements of the underprivileged and marginalized, meant to shore up elites’ conscience.

In this book, then, the most oppressed workers (and they are often nodded to in hand-wringing asides) become moralistic props rather than agents capable of changing the nature of labor, insofar as they are posited as precisely the people who are unable to heed the labor advice offered. The upshot: Do these things Thoreau teaches us, so that you do not end up as immiserated as those workers who have apparently no ability to live otherwise. But a book that recognizes how much is wrong with work today should not limit itself to individualistic assurances toward a readership that the authors know is not in the primary position to radically change the social organization of labor.

That is where Kaag and van Belle most diverge from their book’s titular philosopher and his magnum opus. In Walden, Thoreau is far more generous in his audience, unpretentiously addressing those closest to the bottom:

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not; — but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.

Here Thoreau the laborer extends a gesture of solidarity to the “mass of men,” suggesting that his following ruminations and critiques are and ought to be accessible to all, including and in particular those most capable of wielding Thoreau’s insights to change their world of production. We could collectively attain a life in which all labor could be truly humanizing — indeed, in which the “free labor of man, even the creative and beautiful arts” (“the delight of the ages”) could be pursued by all, unfettered by the demands of overextended labor to merely survive. Society could be remade in the image of Walden Pond.