Work Harder Dude, or You Won't Get Paid!

By Simon Worthington, 10 July 2001

Richard Donkin’s Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work is a revealing genealogy of the inner workings of the corporate system. With its examination of work’s histories in serfdom, slavery, forced and waged labour, this is a real page-turner for anyone with an interest in capitalism and/or globalisation.

In the book’s foreword, Warren Dennis of USC Business states that “one of the secret scandals of contemporary organisations is the ahistoricity of its managers”; by the end of Donkin’s book you grasp why this may be no accident. Its historical examination of work is broad, starting with the use of rudimentary tools 2.5 million years ago and ending with present day management systems of single status workplaces such as the dot com. Throughout this mapping process, Donkin’s primary project is an attempt to point to a day political program of ‘social capitalism’ (which one loosely interprets as something like The Third Way).

Donkin’s use of the evolutionary metaphor is thankfully not based on an upward curve of progress (which is a model he seeks to dispel), as much as on the principle of unremitting change. To illustrate structural sophistication, for example, he lifts one example from the work of the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Here an apparently matriarchal, pan-European civilisation, which Gimbutas claimed flourished from 6500 to 3500BC, demonstrates the erstwhile primacy of anti-hierarchical organisations. It is one of many moments in the book where Dorkin refers to work that proved relevant to feminist practices being sidelined.

The ‘Protestant work ethic’ and the manner in which this set of values has been transformed into present day capitalism is central to Blood, Sweat and Tears; closest to his heart though is the corporate adoption of a social agenda at a structural level (for example where management is shared among workers). However, he acknowledges that many of such practices have been cynically used to cut costs and, based on their past record, doesn’t hold out for either the private or public sector delivering. Somewhere in this tug between profit and ethics sits a job description for what must be the toughest work ever.

Simon Worthington <simon AT> is Boss and founding editor of Mute. We’re not sure what Simon is exactly, but he has a penchant for anything with wires and disks in it - preferably generated by the street.

Blood, Sweat & Tears: the evolution of work // Richard Donkin // Texere Publishing Limited // 2001 // ISBN 1-58799-076-8[]