Fairy Tales

What if the whole Protestant work ethic is a crock of shit?

According to Wikipedia, the Protestant work ethic a set of values based on hard work and diligence. “It is also a belief in the moral benefit of work and its ability to enhance character.” The foremost proponent of the Protestant work ethic is Max Weber. “To emphasize the work ethic in Protestantism relative to Catholics, Weber notes a common problem that industrialists faced when employing precapitalist laborers: Agricultural entrepreneurs will try to encourage time spent harvesting by offering a higher wage, with the expectation that laborers will see time spent working as more valuable and so engage it longer. However, in precapitalist societies this often results in laborers spending less time harvesting. Laborers judge that they can earn the same, while spending less time working and having more leisure. He also notes that societies having more Protestants are those that have a more developed capitalist econonomies.”

In a developed capitalist economies like the United States, we have elevated this notion of the Protestant work ethic to near mythical status. Our leaders are only too fond of castigating the lower classes to be more industrious, with the clear undertone being that it is their own damn fault if they are poor.

And this brings us to the fascinating history of how early industrialists were  able to enlist workers to toil in their factories. Yasha Levine, in his Recovered Economic History series: Everyone But An Idiot Know That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, Or They Will Never Be Industrious, says that it wasn’t Protestant work ethic that led people to the factories. Quoting from economic historian Michael Perelmen’s book, entitled: The Invention of Capitalism, it is clear that early capitalists used “brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery. The transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly…English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists.”

“Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?”

“But in order for capitalism to work, capitalists needed a pool of cheap, surplus labor. So what to do? Call in the National Guard!”

“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’

Of course, some policies never go out of style. The language employed by the elites of the era are eerily familiar to the laments heard from western leaders on the need for pain and suffering to be borne by the common people. English merchant Patrick Colquhoun summed up the popular elite sentiment that is still true today–“Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society…It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.”

The embrace of austerity across much of the developed world makes a lot more sense when one understands the real economic history, rather than the fairy tale of Protestant work ethic leading one straight to heaven.

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