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Edward Bellamy

The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society

By John Bellamy Foster - Monthly Review, September 2017

Fie upon this quiet life. I want work.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, Act II, Scene IV

The nature and meaning of work, as it pertains to a future society, has deeply divided ecological, socialist, utopian, and Romantic thinkers since the Industrial Revolution.1 Some radical theorists have seen a more just society as merely requiring the rationalization of present-day work relations, accompanied by increased leisure time and more equitable distribution. Others have focused on the need to transcend the entire system of alienated labor and make the development of creative work relations the central element of a new revolutionary society. In what appears to be an effort to circumvent this enduring conflict, current visions of sustainable prosperity, while not denying the necessity of work, often push it into the background, placing their emphasis instead on an enormous expansion of leisure hours.2 Increased non-work time seems an unalloyed good, and is easily imaginable in the context of a no-growth society. In contrast, the very question of work is fraught with inherent difficulties, since it goes to the roots of the current socioeconomic system, its division of labor, and its class relations. Yet it remains the case that no coherent ecological mapping of a sustainable future is conceivable without addressing the issue of homo faber, i.e., the creative, constructive, historical role in the transformation of nature, and hence the social relation to nature, that distinguishes humanity as a species.

Within late nineteenth-century socialist-utopian literatures, it is possible to distinguish two broad tendencies regarding the future of work, represented on one side by Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, on the other by William Morris, author of News from Nowhere. Bellamy, standing for a view familiar to us today, saw enhanced mechanization, together with comprehensive technocratic organization, as the basis for increased leisure time, considered the ultimate good. In contrast, Morris, whose analysis derived from Charles Fourier, John Ruskin, and Karl Marx, emphasized the centrality of useful, enjoyable work, requiring the abolition of the capitalist division of labor. Today the mechanistic view of Bellamy more closely resembles popular conceptions of a sustainable economy, than does Morris’s more radical outlook. Thus the notion of “liberation from work” as the foundation of sustainable prosperity has been strongly advanced in the writings of first-stage ecosocialist and degrowth thinkers like André Gorz and Serge Latouche.3

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