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On ‘work ethic’

By Peter Womack


The expression is somehow on everybody’s lips. Its incidence in the media has risen steadily over the last decade or so, and now an attentive reader of the broadsheets is likely to encounter it every day. It’s most often found on the sports pages: one recent 48-hour period registered online praise for the respective work ethics of the footballer Nicolas Anelka, the cricketer Peter Siddle, the tennis player Marion Bartoli, and the British Lions rugby team.

Linguistically, this is rather surprising. The concept of an ethic – a theoretically identifiable system of moral assumptions – is, you could say, metadiscursive: the word doesn’t speak about what is good, it speaks about a way in which people speak about what is good. This makes it useful to sociologists, but you would hardly expect to find it serving the immediate purposes of football managers. How has it vaulted the academic fence and got into the mainstream?

Everyone agrees that it comes originally from Max Weber’s classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in Germany in 1905 and in English translation in 1930. And indeed the earliest English entry for ‘work ethic’ in the current OED is from a 1959 article by a historian who was using it to refer explicitly to Weber’s theory. However, it turns out to be one of those pseudo-quotations, like ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ or ‘Play it again, Sam’, which are very famous but can’t be found in the text they supposedly come from. Although Weber certainly argued that Protestant teaching attached a special value to hard work, the expression ‘work ethic’ appears nowhere in his book. It isn’t what he said, quite. It’s the sound-bite version of what he said.

work ethics

The ‘ethic’ Weber described is a complicated mixture of spiritual and practical imperatives, embracing ideas of self-government, the suppression of natural impulses, the search for marks of divine grace, and the purposive ordering of a person’s whole life. It is distinctively Protestant in the sense that it took the ascetic discipline of the monastic tradition and tried to rewrite it for life in the world. It was also, according to Weber, the victim of a historical irony: these particular virtues, promoted for religious reasons, were often conducive to making a great deal of money, and so bringing about conditions of luxury and leisure that threatened to undermine the virtues themselves. In other words, what Weber has to say about work is embedded in a story about how we became who we are. Many historians have argued that it is not an entirely true story; but it is nevertheless an interesting one. Reducing it to the simple promulgation of a ‘work ethic’ destroys most of its interest, its power to provoke thought. The cliché works, as clichés often do, to make the idea at once more digestible and less alive.

In the process, several inconvenient signs of life drop away. One of them is the class content. As Weber tartly puts it, a ‘bourgeois businessman’, interpreting his bottom line as a mark of God’s blessing, ‘could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so.’ Meanwhile, ‘The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen’. That is, the shared beliefs of employer and employee caused both of them to act in the employer’s interests. ‘The work ethic’ is not the same for everyone: it depends where you are in a system of working relationships. Abstracting the phrase from the system loses that subtlety. A work ethic becomes the attribute of an individual. Some people have it, some people don’t, and all those who have it have the same thing. Society vanishes from the idea.

And then what vanishes next is ambivalence. As used by a cultural historian, the phrase offers a non-committal description of somebody else’s values. Some people believe that hard work is a sign of spiritual grace, just as some people believe that children are innocent, or that eating meat is wrong. I can describe such beliefs without saying whether or not I share them. For much of its life, that is how ‘work ethic’ has been used. If you track the quotations in the OED, you see that most users take up a position that is external to the values they are naming, and several are actively hostile — implying, for instance, that the work ethic is unwholesomely guilt-ridden, or that it’s destructive of beauty and pleasure. More recently, though, that critical reserve has been worn away by use. When the team needs to improve its work ethic, or when the lack of a work ethic among young NEETs demands urgent action, there is no doubt that we are talking about a Good Thing. The expression changes not its meaning but its function: once it served to identify certain values, now it works to enforce them.

This closure is then sealed into the phrase by the very peculiarity of its trajectory. As it spreads, it increasingly features in discourses where ‘ethic’, as a singular noun, never appears in any other connection. Insensibly, then, it starts to look as if the work ethic is the only ethic in town — not only that working is good, but also that there are no other ways of being good. At this point the work ethic has become (a) ahistorical, (b) unambiguous, and (c) unquestionable. We might wonder (idly, of course) whose interests are served by this perfect semantic storm.

Professor Peter Womack teaches literature at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book was the New Critical Idiom volume on Dialogue. His article in the current Cambridge Quarterly, ‘Dialogue and Leisure at the Fin-de-siècle’, looks to Oscar Wilde for another kind of ethic.

The Cambridge Quarterly is a journal of literary criticism which also publishes articles on cinema, the visual arts, and music. It aims, without sacrifice of scholarly standards, to engage readers outside as well as inside the academic profession. It welcomes articles that encourage the re-reading of familiar authors, as well as those that champion new or neglected work. The journal remains committed to the re-appraisal of accepted views, and the principle that criticism and scholarship should reinforce the pleasure for which literature and other works of arts are created.

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Image credit: Work ethics. By marekuliasz, via iStockphoto.

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