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Is Work Wrong? | Labour, Class and Capital Punishment

Not had much time to post – flat out at work preparing for a school inspection, and reading and writing when I can too. All of which ironically brings me to post about the very idea of work… It starts with rather a good story, which I hope you’ll bear with before I try to make my point…

I’m reading The Many-Headed Hydra – Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Life of the Revolutionary Atlantic – which opens with the fascinating story of the Sea Venture, which left England for Virginia in 1609.

The ship was commissioned by the Virginia Company to restock (and effectively save) the fledgling settlement in the Americas. It was part of a fleet of three ships carrying supplies, criminals being sent to work on the plantation, skilled labourers and Virginia Company money-men. The Admiral of the Company was even himself on board. It was thus a micro-society, containing men and women of every class. And it was a new boat whose timbers had not yet sealed.

After 6 weeks at sea the fleet hit a storm, and the Sea Venture was separated from the others. They battled for three days in a hurricane, and the boat was taking on water so badly that every man, woman and child – regardless of status or position was tasked to bail out constantly to save the ship. Exhausted, they eventually considered themselves lost and, thinking themselves so close to death, cracked open the supplies of rum, deciding that now they had worked together with no regard for class, if they were going to die they might as well die together in the same way in a merry feast.

As they drank, the helmsman spied land and wrecked the ship on Bermuda, whereupon all were saved. Expecting a hostile, haunted isle, they were surprised to find it a virtual utopia. Food was plentiful, the environment beautiful… they could all survive with very little effort.

A long way from home or rescue, most of them set about making a new life for themselves – a life far better than they had ever known. They needed do little work, and once shelters were made they enjoyed themselves and considered themselves new Adams and Eves.

But a small number of them – those who had positions of power within the Virginia Company – were very unhappy about this. They demanded that everyone work to make new ships, and that they should aim to make it on to Jamestown. Of course, the rest disagreed, knowing that as soon as they reached there they would be worked literally to death as slave labourers.

Considering it their divine duty, the Virginia Company officials set about re-establishing class divisions and a culture of hard work, and did so with the establishment of capital punishment: killing those who refused to tow the line.

Thus, eventually, the vast majority ended up back on ships and heading for Jamestown, which they found starving and ravaged. Most died there.

The story is a famous one, and even at the time created quite a stir. Shakespeare almost certainly based The Tempest on it, and many philosophers were troubled by the problems it created: viz, are human beings created for work or leisure?

As I’m so under the cosh at the moment with my own work, it’s something I’m thinking a lot about. Why am I working so hard? Certainly not all of it is for personal satisfaction, and far too much is about paying the bills. It’s a vicious circle of needing to work to make enough money to sustain the lifestyle I’m told I need if only I’d work a bit harder…

And all the while there are those who do so little, and make so much. Step up Carlos Tevez…

The nagging question is this: to what extent are we still suffering this Protestant Capitalist work ethic? The movement of people off the land and into the factories was certainly driven in part by hard-core protestantism…

Early settlers in the Americas were shocked by how little the Native Americans did – and yet how well fed they remained. We just seem so tied into this crazy system of labour, and it’s killing us all, and the planet, and I don’t really see much being modelled elsewhere. Most of the church seems to preach a gospel of labour. ‘They chose their preachers like they chose their horses,’ as RS Thomas wrote, ‘for their hard work.

We may have patched up their homes a bit, but we still demand so much from the working classes. And still punish hard those who step out of line and demand an alternative life…

 

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