In Defense of the Work Ethic

Conservatives have often embraced the work ethic in order to attack the poor and unemployed. In her latest book, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues for reclaiming the concept, explaining that its origins lie in a radical critique of the idle rich.

Wood engraving of workers dyeing hides, ca. 1850. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

“Every child,” Marx quipped in a letter to his friend the social democratic activist and theorist Ludwig Kugelmann, “knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish.” That work is central to the functioning of any society is undeniable, but whether this provides a justification for its positive valuation is deeply contested by both the Left and the Right. Members of the former camp sometimes conceive of work as pointless drudgery and view esteem for it as confused. On the Right, work takes on a quasi-religious status in a worldview that pits welfare queens up against hardworking citizens.

Entering the fray of these vexed debates is philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, the author of four books largely on ethics and political economy and one of the few voices in a complacently liberal academy to advance a critique of inequality. Her latest, Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back, picks up the set of problems of her earlier work but approaches them from the perspective of intellectual history. The task she sets herself is ambitious: retrieving the radical potential of the work ethic from the grips of conservatives who have used it to justify neoliberalism.

Hijacked makes a compelling case that the work ethic was at its Puritan inception largely a progressive force. Her task is to lay the ground for a rapprochement between liberals and the Left. Throughout the long history of the work ethic, conservatives have reinterpreted the concept and turned it against workers and the poor. These narratives live on today in neoliberal policies and discourse that have overseen rises in inequality whose analogy can only be found in the gilded age of robber barons.

The Protestant Work Ethic

It’s easy to associate the idea of the work ethic with conservatives and the Right. If, as reactionaries often assert, you work hard and live frugally, then there’s nothing stopping you from achieving financial success under capitalism. Poverty, barring some extraordinary circumstances, is largely the product of bad choices like living beyond your means; going into credit card or student debt without a viable financial exit strategy; or having children out of wedlock, with an irresponsible partner, or simply having more kids than you can afford.

The aristocratic values that were dominant across much of the West prior to the rise of capitalism did not hold labor in high esteem. Work was for peasants and shopkeepers; leisure was the true vocation of the refined members of the human species. Driven by a Protestant theological imperative to show proof of salvation, Puritans began to affirm the dignity of labor. Every individual was charged with finding and following their own “calling,” some line of work to pursue with diligence. The calling was genuinely universal, so that even humble jobs and unremunerated work — including domestic and reproductive labor — could be sacralized by God if they added real value to society.

In the seventeenth century, when it began to take shape, the work ethic had a surprisingly progressive character. The Puritan preacher Richard Baxter had only contempt for “the idle rich” — an epithet Anderson uses readily throughout Hijacked — who lived on land and monopoly rents and only extracted value from the blood and sweat of actual workers. Of course, the Puritans held to exacting ascetic standards — the “saint’s rest” awaits in the next life, after this life of toil. But nascent egalitarian values were clear enough. There was to be no special treatment for the rich and powerful, who did nothing to earn their lofty perches. And poor workers were exalted. Anderson quotes another Puritan preacher, Robert Sanderson: “[T]here is no member in the body so mean or small, but hath its proper faculty, function, and use, whereby it becometh useful to the whole body, and helpful to its fellow-members.”

Egalitarian Roots

John Locke is often both described as the father of liberalism and dismissed by leftists for an absolutist theory of property rights that justifies the appropriation of land and shunting the poor into factories. Yet Anderson rehabilitates Locke’s “sufficiency proviso” whereby any enclosure of common land must guarantee there is “still enough and as good left.” The inequality resulting from unequal ownership of natural resources is precisely what society, by means of the state, must rectify.

Anderson argues that the state is responsible for not just protecting negative rights from interference, but also providing positive rights to “the labor, assistance, and society of others in the same community.” Locke proposed breaking up the large estates of the landowners and redistributing them to common immigrants. The prevailing “headright” system that allotted fifty acres to the landowner for every servant Locke condemned as “perverted,” leaving “hardly any left for the poor people to take up.”

Anderson devotes a couple chapters each to the classical liberals Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Smith defended the interests of workers against employers and landowners in all cases, believing that legislation in favor of the worker was “always just and equitable.” Material inequality arises not from natural differences but from the division of labor and differential socialization. This was echoed by Mill, who claimed that of all the ways we avoid considering social influences on the human mind, “the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”

Inequality becomes entrenched, however, by the tendency of business owners and members of the same trade to collude in conspiracies against the public. For Smith, wages should be high and workers treated well. “It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.” Mill would take this further and advocate workplace cooperatives in a kind of.

Liberalism and Socialism

Karl Marx followed Smith and Mill in both their economic analyses and their humanist concern for freedom and flourishing for the poor and working classes. Marx celebrated labor, through which human beings could define themselves. But under capitalism workers do not own the fruits of their labor. Instead, machines and forms of social organization that could alleviate drudgery often serve to intensify it, depriving people of opportunities to pursue their desires, learn, and better themselves.

But Marxist ideas, despite being rooted in a humanist hostility to suffering, could be taken in illiberal directions. Stalin’s purges, Mao’s famines and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s mass murders all provide harrowing negative exemplars for the Left. Anderson, sympathetic to the broad aims of Marx’s egalitarian project, finds an alternative progenitor to these regimes in Gracchus Babeuf, the ringleader of the failed coup d’etat aiming to establish a Conspiracy of Equals in the French Revolution.

Babeuf sought to restructure all of society so that it functioned like the army, with strict discipline, assigned jobs, and identical uniforms. In Babeuf’s vision, everyone was supplied with the same goods and the same food from a common store. Cities, which he viewed as hives of vice, would be dispersed and children would be taken from their parents to be educated in communist virtue in sex-segregated schools. Surveillance would be the law of the land.

Twentieth-century totalitarians bear a greater resemblance to Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals than to Marx, Anderson contends. They certainly all betray the individualism found in the author of Capital’s early writings, which promise a life of self-directed fulfilling work as the aim of socialism. For Marx, each member of society must be accorded the full freedom to develop and express their individuality.

Anderson also turns to the revisionist socialist Eduard Bernstein in her effort to create a hybrid of liberalism and socialism capable of confronting inequality and authoritarianism. Bernstein argued that Marx’s predictions of the continuous immiseration of the proletariat were not only wrong when he made them but were increasingly falsified by capitalism’s development. Socialism — understood as emancipation of workers from the coercion of the market — would be achieved not by violent revolution or accelerating the contradictions of capitalism but only “through patient democratic experimentation.” This, Bernstein went on to argue, will teach us “how to organize society so that it promotes the common good consistently with the freedom of each individual.”

Bernstein turned a segment of the socialist movement away from revolution and toward liberal democratic politics. But his advocacy of workers within social democracy came over a century after social insurance was introduced firmly within the liberal tradition itself. Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Condorcet both promoted social insurance as a kind of prophylactic property reform against Babeuf’s plans to abolish private property and implement total economic and social control. Condorcet’s and Paine’s reconfiguration of property rights could promote workers’ freedom and stave off tyranny.

The fact that social democracy was achieved through an evolutionary path out of Marxism is an enduring embarrassment for liberals. But the ideology’s early progenitors, like Paine and Condorcet, pioneered social insurance; Paine even advocated universal stakeholder grants funded by a land tax, to ensure all individuals had a reasonable chance to flourish. Marx himself was continuing Smith’s sociological project of understanding the conditions conducive to the free flourishing of the individual. And Bernstein understood socialism as the legitimate heir of liberalism. Socialists may have invented parliamentary social democracy, but liberals should also champion it.

The Reactionary Turn

Anderson’s title, Hijacked, refers to the many ways the work ethic was captured by reactionary agendas. This was present even in Baxter, who shrugged at material inequality and advocated pressing able-bodied shirkers into labor, with whippings if necessary. The difference between Baxter and today’s advocates of workfare is that he thought that it was the working class, and not the rich, which should be cracking the whip.

The eighteenth century saw a reversal of this view of the natural dispositions of the popular classes. For the English polymath Joseph Priestley “the dangers of idleness are concentrated among the poor,” leading him to oppose the Poor Law, a system of state assistance to the poor established in England in the nineteenth century. These laws, Priestley argued, “debased the very nature of man” and “defeated the purposes of providence.” Public assistance just enables men to leave their families and blow their wages on alcohol. The echoes in Clinton-era welfare reform are loud and clear.

The dismal demographer Thomas Malthus, who argued that productivity growth could never keep pace with population growth, opposed the Poor Law’s corrupting influence. The lower classes, he insisted, must be aware of their precarity in order to pursue virtue. The fact that innocent children may suffer was one of the aims of these ideas. Infants are, after all, of little value to society, and the suffering of children for the vices of their fathers reflects God’s law. The poor only have themselves to blame, for “diseases . . . [are] indications that we have offended against some of the laws of nature.”

The utilitarian Jeremy Bentham anticipated the neoliberal passion for privatization, arguing for for-profit prisons charged with maintaining the pauper population and enjoying a monopoly on their labor. His envisaged company would build “panopticons” across the country and seize “all persons, able-bodied or otherwise” unable to support themselves. Liberals, too, were capable of advocating totalitarianism, at least for the poor.

Some on the Right would come to see the poor almost as a different species from the rich, with a wholly different nature. Malthus thought that once the poor met their subsistence needs, they would quit working. The rich needed no external inducements to pursue virtue, learning, and public service. Indeed, they required only the leisure and social surplus created by the working class.

This attitude persists today, and explains why after countless empirical studies of basic income pilots showing positive welfare outcomes and no meaningful decrease in productive output, economic commentators still wring their hands over the imagined impact of basic incomes to the work ethic. By contrast, there is rarely corresponding concern for the effect that inherited wealth may have on the moral character of the rich. Today propertyless millennials are blamed for their precarity in outlandish polemics against avocado toast, holidays, and other extravagances.

Anderson describes these anti-poor and anti-worker interpretations of the work ethic as an “epistemology of suspicion,” or the “stubborn belief that if they make a claim of need on others, or are found without means of support, they are almost certainly lazy, improvident, and dishonest.” This captures the dehumanizing portrayals of the poor and the harsh, humiliating means tests and work requirements foisted upon any poor person who asks for or receives public assistance. These are, of course, moral standards that do not apply to wealthy recipients of bailouts or incompetent businessmen able to claim bankruptcy.

This epistemology of suspicion separates the progressive work ethic from its reactionary twin. Smith is an instructive contrast. He harbors no hostility or suspicion toward the poor; he assumes they have the same natural human dispositions as the rich and, given the right social enabling conditions, are fully capable of bettering their own conditions by their own lights.

Hijacking: Reactionary Praxis

Anderson restricts her inquiry to the work ethic, but we see similar hijacking in countless other political issues. “Free speech” becomes a right-wing banner and a cudgel to use against protesters demonstrating against ideas they believe are malign. This coincides with literal book bans implemented by right-wing “free speech” partisans. The small r republicanism of America’s Constitution is brandished against democracy — caricatured as the “tyranny of the majority” — to defend minority rule even though “republic” and “democracy” were functionally synonyms at the founding.

The struggle against racism is co-opted as “colorblindness” and deployed against racial justice advocates, who are impugned as the “real racists” for calling attention to race-specific injustices and demanding corresponding race-specific solutions. Feminism becomes “gender critical feminism” and jumps into bed with the patriarchal right to reinforce sex and gender essentialism in the name of protecting women from a hallucinated scourge of male rapists who have chosen to undergo drastic social and bodily transformations to gain illicit access to female spaces.

Hijacking reaches a cynical crescendo when applied to specific individuals — when the Right opportunistically annexes liberals, progressives, and even socialists as their own. Frederick Douglass was no simplistic individualist pushing the conservative work ethic, but a defender of democracy founded on the dignity of others and the preeminent social justice warrior of his time, arguing for women’s rights and suffrage before most liberals were particularly comfortable with broad male suffrage.

His vocal support for open borders makes him a radical even by today’s standards. Martin Luther King Jr was not the defender of the colorblindness rotely intoned by conservatives, but a socialist who criticized American capitalism and imperialism and advocated for a guaranteed income. Hardly colorblind, in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he excoriates the “white moderate” as the most dangerous hurdle for the American Negro, whom America owed a debt of justice.

By reviewing the contested history of the work ethic, Anderson reveals powerful connective tissue between the Left and liberal traditions. The work ethic was deployed against ordinary people by liberals and socialists both. A more fundamental divide than between liberals and socialists exists between those liberals and leftists who harbor and weaponize an epistemology of suspicion against the poor and marginalized versus those liberals and leftists who genuinely embrace equality and freedom for all.