Work and Labour

I am discovering more and more frequently a confusion in how our society conceptualizes work.  The confusion arises, not between vocation and occupation, as most people and every conceivable self-help book seems to assume, but between work and labour.

Work is performed is the task performed within the context of an exchange.  It is dominated by the considerations of wages and costs and production and contracts and hours and benefits and pensions and vacation days and retirement packages.  Whether it is performed by a CEO of a major corporation or a chattel slave on a banana plantation, work is always about doing a task to earn recompenses or to avoid reprisals. It is always a matter of economy.  Work is therefore not natural.  It is the product of a certain kind of human culture, and it requires the idea of the contract, even if this contract is only implied.  Work is not a matter of instinct or of nature.  It is a matter of human culture and technique.

Labour, however, is made up of the tasks that we perform out of relation to family and to friends and to community.  It is what we choose to do in order that we might live better with others, so that we might live with more conviviality.  It is the cooking we do to feed our families, and it is the driveways we shovel for our elderly neighbours, and it is the children we watch for our friends, and it is also the contractual work that we do, when we do it in the proper spirit, as a way to provide for those around us.

Labour is not primarily concerned with economy and exchange, though it may sometimes participate in these things of necessity.  It is primarily concerned with giving and service.  Labour performs the task, not because of what it will receive in return, but because of what it can give.  It is the task that we undertake, not necessarily because we enjoy it, although we may in fact enjoy it, not necessarily because we will gain something in exchange, though we may in fact gain something in exchange, but merely because it allows us to give more fully to others.  It is the everyday task offered as a gift and as a sign of love.

  1. It’s interesting to read you thinking in this way, since the word that has been echoing in my head for the past 2 months is gratuity. I have lots I want to eventually say about it, and I’d like to hear you say more about the above. We’ll have to find some time to think more on this.

  2. Dave,

    Yes, the idea of the gratuitous would probably be productive here. We will need to talk about this further.

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