The work ethic: They sell it, but do we buy it?

Christina Ho, The University of Sydney

Sharon Beder Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR Carlton North, Scribe Publications, 2000 (292 pp). ISBN 0-90801-148-2 (paperback) RRP $30.00.

Sometimes way up on the 57th floor of their corporate headquarters, you find a wide-open window, and if you stick your head out, you might just see the sky. And if it makes you feel deadened or sick or frustrated or lonely or crazy or helpless or angry or just sad, remember, it doesn’t have to be like this at all (‘Stella’, Processed World, 1992).

We whinge about it, worry about it, and get exhausted by it, but five days a week, we go marching back in for more. When we don’t have it, our economic and social survival are threatened. How did work come to take over our lives? Why have our jobs come to define who we are? These are the questions Sharon Beder sets out to answer in Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR.

Spanning four centuries, this is an ambitious attempt to explain how the ‘culture of work’ has motivated Western capitalist society since the Reformation. Whether it has come out of the mouths of Protestant preachers, laissez-faire economists or modern-day marketing gurus, the work ethic has kept capitalist system rolling, Beder argues, so that work and production are now ends in themselves.

Author of Global Spin: the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (1997), Sharon Beder has an ongoing interest in how ideas are shaped and popularised. Selling the Work Ethic pursues this theme on a much larger canvas, attempting to get to the heart of capitalist culture by exploring the history of ideas around work, from the teachings of Martin Luther to the advertisements of General Electric.

After all, work wasn’t always so important in people’s lives, explains Beder. In ancient societies, it was seen as a degrading activity, an annoyance that interfered with more noble pursuits like philosophy and politics. Only after the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did work become virtuous, a sign of blessedness. ‘Hard work served God, and wasting time was therefore the deadliest of sins,’ writes Beder (p. 15). Profit-making, hitherto a symbol of avarice, came to signify diligence and dedication.

Religion and capitalism proved convenient bedfellows. Beder writes: ‘Protestantism provided a conducive environment for capitalism to flourish in, and the moral high ground from which to pursue profit freely and with good conscience’ (p. 26). But over the centuries, the religious work ethic was gradually secularised, taking the form of familiar mantras of capitalism such as the free market and the idea of the ‘self made man.’ While individual advancement was glorified, poverty and unemployment were criminalised.

In the early twentieth century, the exhortation to work came in the form of Taylorism, scientific management and Fordism, strategies which fragmented and deskilled jobs, and separated mental from manual labour. The subtler Human Relations and Human Resources movements followed, featuring employee ‘participation’ and ‘job enrichment.’ These were attempts to foster workers’ identification with their jobs and employers, regardless of how mind-numbing and meaningless they found the work.

And when all else fails, the lure of consumerism—the television set, stereo, car, computer, white goods—keeps people working: ‘Once people were persuaded that they needed the many goods that were being produced, they had a reason to want to earn money beyond what was necessary to provide an adequate standard of living’ (p. 225).

Beder provides a compelling portrait of a pervasive but under-analysed aspect of capitalism. She reminds us that ideas are political. Also enticing is her notion that we can effectively draw a continuous line from sixteenth century Protestantism to today’s work-and-spend culture. Her critique of the work ethic is a critique of capitalism tout court: to create a socially and environmentally sustainable society, we need to ‘unlearn’ the powerful but ‘now pathological’ values of industrial culture.

Ancient societies regarded work as a degrading activity that interfered with noble pursuits like philosophy and politics.

Alongside the history of the ideology of work, Beder provides evidence of contemporary trends—corporate downsizing, workforce casualisation, the rise of workfare, and the corporatisation of education. Yet despite the important political contribution of this book, there is little that is actually new. Every paragraph is laden with footnotes, often to other academic works on the same subject, and she quotes large slabs of text from other works, without always integrating them well into her own. Beder also relies overwhelmingly on Western sources, while her conclusions refer to ‘modern capitalist society’ as a whole. In some instances, her work would have benefited from a comparison with non-Western capitalisms, especially Japanese initiatives in welfare capitalism and corporate paternalism. However, given that the book is aimed at a general audience, these criticisms are minor.

Of greater concern is Beder’s sometimes underdeveloped and deterministic analysis. The ideology of work has profoundly influenced capitalist development in the West, but Beder overemphasises its power. She assumes that Capital always succeeds in actualising its interests simply because it is the predominant force in capitalist societies. Yet she herself cites instances where the ideology of work failed to achieve the objectives of its advocates. Despite the teachings of preachers, employers, government officials and others, the first generation of industrial workers refused to take on the discipline of the factory (p. 37). The monotony of their jobs made work ‘increasingly meaningless and unbearable,’ also undermining the work ethic (p. 95). Later, with the social catastrophe of the Great Depression, many realised that ‘unemployment resulted from business and market failure rather than individual failure’ (p. 47). The post war period was marked by falling worker morale and productivity, and ‘large numbers of workers were not satisfied with their jobs’ (p. 104). Today, in the heartland of work ethic propaganda, surveys continually show that Americans believe the ‘American Dream’ is out of their reach (p. 77).

Beder explains how capitalist-instigated developments in the labour process ultimately made it difficult to keep pushing the work ethic:

The irony is that having made work the centre of life, both material and spiritual, capitalism then proceeded to destroy work as a satisfying, meaningful activity for millions of people by fragmenting it and reducing some jobs to activities that were better suited for animals or machines to do. Unable to rely on a work ethic to motivate manual workers in such jobs, employers have used the services of engineers, psychologists, sociologists and others to find ways to increase productivity and motivate workers (p. 109).

Clearly, while the work ethic has been the pre-eminent ideological tool of the capitalist class, it hasn’t always succeeded in achieving the outcomes desired. But Beder doesn’t interrogate these failures of the work ethic—her project is to show how the ideology, pushed by all the powerful interests in society, has maintained its hold over us all.

Beder mentions that employers have responded to worker indiscipline with Taylorism and scientific management, and strategies like electronic surveillance in contemporary workplaces. To what extent, then, does modern capitalism rely on more coercive measures to maintain worker productivity? Beder writes: ‘The acceptance of capitalist values by workers has been more effective than force or coercion in ensuring a passive, compliant workforce’ (p. 263). But this overlooks those episodes of labour history that have involved force and coercion—strike breaking, union busting, the creation of anti-employee laws, not to mention workhouses, poorhouses and punitive work-for-benefit programs for the unemployed. ‘Capitalist values’ may have often been widely accepted, but what is missing here is an analysis of when ideological indoctrination fails, to be replaced by brute force. Beder’s work needs more detailed analysis of the relationship between the work ethic ideology and actual capitalist practice.

Ultimately, Beder’s account of the work ethic is somewhat one dimensional because it focuses solely on its proponents, at the expense of those on the receiving end of the ideological barrage. Apart from occasional allusions to falling morale and productivity, and strategies like ‘soldiering’ during the Depression, she makes few references to workers’ agency or resistance. It is as if generations of workers have simply accepted the work ethic in one form or another. Much of labour history tells us otherwise. And surely, understanding past struggles against capitalist ideology can only assist with the political resistance Beder aims to advance.

The personal qualities consumerism requires directly negate the Protestant work ethic that orginally nurtured capitalism.

Nor has the work ethic always been embraced by the ruling classes in their own lives. While employers have pushed hard work and thrift to their workers, aristocrats and capitalists have continued with extravagant lifestyles and their pursuit of what Thornstein Veblen at the turn of the twentieth century described as ‘conspicuous consumption.’ The work ethic has clearly not been universally accepted.

In contemporary industrialised societies, Beder argues that most people ‘can conceive of no identity outside of work’ (p. 127), and that work ‘provides people with a sense of belonging, a place in the order of things’ (p. 124). There is a grain of truth here. As Beder notes, most people identify themselves by their occupations (‘I am an engineer,’ or ‘I am a secretary’). But do most people genuinely identify first and foremost with their jobs, or does Beder overinterpret conventions of social interaction?

Another obvious source of identification is one’s family role. Many women may, for example, identify firstly as a mother, and secondly as a secretary. Much feminist scholarship has explored the competing priorities in women’s lives. In a recent study by Barbara Pocock, women discuss how work and family compete not only for their time and energy in daily life, but also for their identities as ‘mothers’ or ‘workers’ (Pocock, 2001). Beder writes of the breadwinner having ‘a respected place in the family,’ making ‘a recognised contribution to society,’ and having ‘his masculinity affirmed’ (p. 125). Perhaps the identification with work, then, is an archetypically male phenomenon. Beder doesn’t consider whether male workers have historically responded differently to women to the ideology of the work ethic.

Consumerism is another challenge to the primacy of work in people’s identities: ‘Where the work ethic failed to motivate workers, the consumer ethic stepped in,’ Beder writes (p. 225). She documents how twentieth century employers encouraged workers to see consumerism as the rationale for their work, so ‘measures of success were moved from the realm of production and work to the realm of consumption’ (p. 233). She claims that consumer values have ‘come to replace the work ethic for many people as a motivator for work and as a primary source of identity’ (p. 239). In other words, people now tend not to identify with their work, but with the consumer items and lifestyle they can purchase by working.

If people identify with consumption rather than work, one could argue that the consumerism has replaced the work ethic altogether. After all, Beder notes, the personal qualities consumerism requires—wastefulness, self-indulgence and artificial obsolescence—directly negate the Protestant work ethic that had originally nurtured capitalism (p. 225). And if consumption increasingly defines who we are, this sphere of life might offer possibilities of political resistance. Consumerism may be about ‘deception’ (p. 265), but cultural theorists and others have documented how consumers also use clothes, shopping centres and popular culture for their own purposes, including anti-capitalist resistance.

Having been spun through so many permutations, from the religious principle of the sixteenth century to today’s corporate marketing blitzes, it is not clear that the work ethic we began with is the same beast we live with now. Has capitalism been so inexorably triumphant in foisting this ideological doctrine on us all? Beder paints a tidy—perhaps a too tidy—portrait of capitalist evolution over the last 400 years. She leaves out challenges to the orthodoxy, and glosses over the complexity that muddies her picture. These muddying complexities may be precisely where we can see opportunities for guiding the future in different directions.


Beder, Sharon (1997) Global Spin: the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

Pocock, Barbara (2001) Having a Life: Work, Family, Fairness and Community in 2000, Adelaide: Centre for Labour Research, Adelaide University.

‘Stella’ (1992) ‘Downtime!’, Processed World 29, Summer/Fall.

Christina Ho is a PhD student in Political Economy at The University of Sydney. Her research is on migrant women and the Australian labour market.