The Struggle for Meaningful Work

The Struggle for Meaningful Work

Socially necessary labor should entitle us to respect, decent pay, and safe conditions—not a duty to work relentlessly, without complaint.

Waterfront, Joseph Kaplan, ca. 1940 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In March 2020, most of the governors in the United States issued stay-at-home orders for all but “essential workers”—people involved in providing services necessary to support basic human needs. The public hailed essential workers as heroes and called for them to be given hazard pay. Many employers accepted this demand. Yet shortly after, harsh treatment of essential workers became the order of the day. Employers ended hazard pay. Hospitals fired healthcare workers for complaining about the lack of personal protective equipment. Slaughterhouse owners sped up disassembly lines, which forced workers to crowd closer together and increased the spread of COVID-19. 

This conflict over the proper treatment of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest battle in a three-century struggle over the political implications of the country’s traditional work ethic. Does the fact that workers are engaged in socially necessary labor entitle them to respect, decent pay, and safe working conditions? Or does it mean that they have a duty to work relentlessly, without complaint, under whatever awful conditions and low pay their employer chooses in pursuit of maximum profit? The first view I call the progressive or pro-worker version of the work ethic; the second, I refer to as the conservative work ethic. At various periods in European and North American history, one side or the other has held sway over moral thought and economic policy. 

The three decades following the Second World War marked the high point of social democracy and a triumph for the progressive work ethic. In the rich democracies of Europe and North America, the postwar period was distinguished by high rates of economic growth widely shared across economic classes, strong labor unions, a robust welfare state centered on universal social insurance, state investment in education and healthcare, powerful liberal-democratic institutions, and a general sense of optimism. 

Today, the denizens of Europe and North America are suffering reversals of these developments. Neoliberal policies are largely to blame. Financialization, fiscal austerity, tax cuts for the rich, harsh welfare restrictions, assaults on labor unions, and international trade agreements favor capital interests and constrain democratic governance. These policies have increased economic inequality, undermined democracy, and reduced the state’s ability to respond to the needs and interests of ordinary people. 

In my new book, Hijacked, I argue that neoliberalism revives the conservative work ethic, which tells workers that they owe their employers relentless toil and unquestioning obedience. It tells employers that they have exclusive rights to govern their employees and organize work for maximum profit. And it tells the state to entrench the authority of these executives through laws that treat labor as nothing more than a commodity. To reinforce the commodification of labor, the conservative work ethic instructs the state to minimize workers’ access to subsistence from sources other than wage labor, including publicly provided goods, social insurance, and welfare benefits.

The connection between neoliberalism and the conservative work ethic might not be obvious at first. Neoliberals define their position in terms of a libertarian preference for “voluntary” market orderings over state action, purportedly leaving individuals free to pursue their own conception of the good. At first glance, they differ slightly in this regard from the original proponents of the conservative work ethic, such as Joseph Priestley and Jeremy Bentham, who stressed the need to impose a single view of the good—the work ethic—on lazy and imprudent workers. But these views are just two sides of the same coin. Proponents of the conservative work ethic such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Malthus argued in the late eighteenth century, as neoliberals do today, that labor is a commodity properly subject to the laws of the market. Conservatives made explicit what neoliberals leave implicit today: labor markets are the conduits by which most workers fall under the government of their employers, who impose the discipline of the work ethic on them. 

Neoliberalism is thus not best characterized in terms of individual freedom within the market. Instead, it can be seen as government by and for capital interests—by business and wealthy property owners. This is just as British advocates of the conservative work ethic insisted during the Industrial Revolution, when there was a property qualification for the franchise. The neoliberal doctrine of shareholder capitalism—the claim that the sole purpose of the corporation is to maximize profits—is simply another implementation of government by and for capital interests. During the Industrial Revolution, landlords and capitalists used their power to grab wealth for themselves at the expense of others through such practices as enclosures, monopolies, rack-renting, state-chartered private colonies, and usury. Today, neoliberal policies license numerous similarly exploitative business practices, including monopolization, predatory lending, union busting, demotion of employees to gig workers, and various private-equity schemes that undermine healthcare, veterinary care, retail sales, news organizations, rental housing, and numerous other sectors by exploiting workers and consumers alike. 


Over a century ago, Max Weber offered his own gloomy assessment of the work ethic at the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In promoting a disciplined labor regime founded on religious asceticism, he wrote, the work ethic ultimately gave rise to a secular capitalist system that trapped people in an “iron cage” of meaningless drudgery for the sake of interminable wealth accumulation. But Weber offered only a partial reading of the seventeenth-century Puritan ministers who invented the work ethic. He missed that they also offered an uplifting vision for workers—one that anticipated important features of social democracy.

What, then, was the original Protestant work ethic? At the level of individual morality, it comprised a suite of virtues: industry, frugality, temperance, chastity, and prudence. Habits of hard work were highly valued in this ethic. But the Puritans also had ambivalent attitudes toward work that were ultimately taken in contradictory directions. On one hand, they argued that work was an ascetic discipline that demanded ceaseless toil in pursuit of profit. They criticized able-bodied beggars as parasites. And they instrumentalized all activity, leaving no room for leisure and pleasure, except as needed to restore the capacity to work. On the other hand, they exalted the dignity of labor, insisted on the equality of all callings, and promoted freedom of occupational choice. They demanded fair and living wages, safe working conditions, and relief from tyrannical employers. They sought to provide jobs for the involuntarily unemployed—an early attempt at a job guarantee—and argued that anyone unable to work had a right to charity. Their sermons and texts on Christian ethics condemned the idle and predatory rich—landlords, monopolists, usurers, rack-renters, price gougers, financial schemers, slave traders, and anyone else who profited by taking advantage of others’ vulnerability and need. They advanced an ideal of work that ultimately inspired Marx’s conception of unalienated labor. A worker’s calling, they argued, should be a freely chosen activity that advances the welfare of others and inspires the worker’s enthusiasm by affording a domain for the development and exercise of their distinctive talents.

Puritans were able to reconcile the tensions between these two sides of the work ethic because their model workers were yeoman farmers and craftsmen—that is, workers who were simultaneously manual laborers and property owners. The same people who fulfilled the demands of the work ethic were able to reap its rewards. (In the seventeenth century, wage labor was still relatively rare.) By the late eighteenth century, however, the Industrial Revolution was separating capital owners from manual workers, who were reduced to wage laborers. This led to a profound class-based split in the work ethic. Advocates of the progressive work ethic continued to insist that the same people who fulfill the duties of the work ethic—those engaged in work that helps others—are entitled to a wide range of benefits. Landlords and predatory capitalists—the upper-class targets of Puritan critique—hijacked the work ethic and turned it into an instrument of class warfare. They stressed discipline, frugality, and asceticism for workers, while taking the lion’s share of the benefits of that disciplined labor for themselves. Using wealth as evidence of virtue and poverty as evidence of vice, idle rentiers and busy capitalists who profited from exploiting others cast themselves as heroes and the poor as scoundrels. Thus arose the conservative work ethic.

As capitalists of the Industrial Revolution drove workers into poverty by destroying their alternatives to wage labor, demand for relief under the traditional Poor Law—Britain’s system of means-tested poverty relief—increased. Advocates of the conservative work ethic attributed poverty to laziness, improvidence, and licentiousness, and blamed the Poor Law for promoting these vices. Political economist (and famous chemist) Joseph Priestley proposed replacing the Poor Law with mandatory individual savings plans. Thomas Malthus proposed its gradual abolition, leaving the poor to rely on uncertain private charity. Jeremy Bentham proposed that the administration of relief be outsourced to a private corporation licensed to imprison paupers and force them to work in panopticons for little or no pay. The English Poor Law reform of 1834 and British policy during the Irish famine of 1845–52 imposed punitive and stigmatizing conditions on relief, including forced labor, confinement to workhouses, loss of civil rights, asset-stripping, arbitrary time limits, and burdensome paperwork.

In the past forty years, neoliberals in the United States have proposed and sometimes implemented similar policies. George W. Bush tried to replace Social Security with individual savings plans. The political scientist Charles Murray argued that welfare benefits for the able-bodied should be abolished, launching a debate that ultimately led to the partial replacement of welfare with workfare—payments tied to work requirements—in 1996. Recent efforts to place work requirements on access to Medicaid and SNAP follow the same logic. Neoliberal legislators have imposed burdensome documentation requirements that prevent many otherwise eligible people from taking advantage of disability insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, financial aid for college, and numerous state-administered programs. Punitive asset limits on some states’ welfare programs force the poor to liquidate their retirement and college savings in order to qualify, ensuring their poverty in old age and across generations. Neoliberal low-tax policies have led police departments to fund themselves and the courts by ticketing the poor with excessive fines for trifling and arbitrary infractions. In a reprisal of Bentham’s plan for pauper panopticons, some who can’t pay these fines and fees are consigned to halfway houses run by private prison corporations, where they are forced to work for little or no pay. People struggling with drug addictions are often subject to similar treatment. 


How can we overcome this vicious regime? The advocates of the progressive work ethic offer some suggestions. From the Industrial Revolution to the twentieth century, debates have raged about how best to promote and reward labor. Conservatives argued that the poor could only be induced to work hard if they are subject to precarity and ruled by their employers. The middle classes, in this view, could be motivated through a culture of competitive conspicuous consumption. Progressives countered that all workers would work hard if they received the full fruits of their labor. They rejected the idea that the good life is a matter of competitive acquisition in an essentially antagonistic zero-sum status game. They advocated for economic arrangements that emancipate workers from groveling subordination to superiors, and in which work is a meaningful domain for the exercise of varied and sophisticated skills. They looked forward to a society in which everyone could enjoy a life beyond the work ethic—one that, while recognizing work-ethic virtues, also promotes a broader set of values and goods. Instead of working overtime at what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs,” people would enjoy ample leisure time as well as meaningful work that is genuinely helpful to others.

This line of progressive thinking begins with the seventeenth-century Levellers and John Locke and continues through American and French Revolutionary figures such as Thomas Paine and Nicolas de Condorcet, classical economists such as Adam Smith and James and John Stuart Mill, Ricardian socialists such as William Thompson, and Marxists such as Friedrich Engels and Eduard Bernstein. These thinkers offered vastly different analyses and proposals, but each understood that property relations needed to change to meet the challenges of their times. Far from holding private property sacred, even the liberal political economists in this lineage proposed dramatic changes in property law to advance the welfare of ordinary people. All advocated for the abolition of feudal property rights because they rejected any connection between ownership of land and the right to govern other people. All opposed primogeniture, entails, and other inheritance devices that kept large estates intact in perpetuity for the sole benefit of a few families. Smith advocated the abolition of slavery, unpaid apprenticeships, chartered monopolies, private colonies, and most joint-stock corporations. Paine and Condorcet invented the idea of universal social insurance. Paine’s proposed social-insurance program, which would be funded by an inheritance tax, also included universal stakeholder grants. The Mills argued that ground rents should be capped using a 100 percent tax on rent increases. J.S. Mill, champion of the peasant proprietor, used Locke’s labor theory of property to justify the expropriation of Irish landlords and the redistribution of their holdings to the peasants who worked the land. He also supported labor unions and argued that workers’ cooperatives were the ideal organizational form for modern industry.


The ideas put forth by advocates of the progressive work ethic were partially realized in the postwar social democracies of Western Europe. These countries adopted a suite of policies to achieve its goals, including comprehensive social insurance, facilitation of labor unions and sectoral bargaining, codetermination (joint management of the workplace by representatives of both labor and capital), dramatic expansion of affordable or free public higher education, and guaranteed paid vacations and family leaves. However, as Sheri Berman and Thomas Piketty have argued, social democracy has lost its vision and vigor, partly under the pressure of neoliberal institutions and ideology. 

To renew the social democratic project, we can learn from its predecessor, the progressive work ethic. At the policy level, political economists in the progressive work ethic tradition proposed creative and bold revisions of property rights. We should experiment not only with basic income but also with Paine’s stakeholder grants—which provide additions to wealth—as means of preventing precarity. We should also consider sharp limits on inheritance, as J.S. Mill proposed. He argued that no one should inherit more than enough for “moderate independence.” Following Mill’s hopes, we could also do much more to promote workers’ cooperatives, an idea that the postwar social democratic countries never seriously pursued. 

We can also learn from political economists in the progressive work ethic tradition to refresh the normative vision of social democracy. They understood that by far the most important product of our economic system is ourselves. In considering institutional design, our first question should be: how are people shaped by our modes of organizing the production, exchange, distribution, and provision of public goods? This question devolves into at least two more. First, do work and other institutional arrangements enhance or degrade individuals’ capabilities and virtues? And, second, how do different ways of designing production and exchange, business models, enterprise governance, the delivery of public goods, and social welfare policies affect how we relate to one another? Do our economic arrangements encourage trust, sympathy, and cooperation, or do they foment distrust, exploitation, domination, contempt, and antagonism among individuals and social groups? With the rise of high-tech firms that profit from spreading misinformation and sowing outrage and malice, private equity investors that profit from breaching trust with other stakeholders, and healthcare providers that take advantage of the vulnerable and bury them in endless debt, it is high time that we incorporated concern for the quality of our social relationships into our assessments of business regulations.

As J.S. Mill anticipated and social democrats such as Bernstein understood, democracy lies at the core of that broader normative vision. One place to build democracy is in the workplace. Neoliberal workplace governance under shareholder capitalism has de-skilled work and degraded workers. It has also inflicted vast moral injury on workers by forcing them to participate in harming other people, animals, and the environment in the course of maximizing profits. If workers had a powerful voice in the government of their workplace, they would not choose to reduce themselves to de-skilled drudges or inflict moral injury on themselves. Democratizing work is a powerful way to promote democratic skills and dispositions, demonstrate that democracy can respond to ordinary people’s concerns, and thereby strengthen democracy at the state level. Most people want meaningful work as understood in the progressive work ethic tradition: work that affords a means for a person to exercise their agency and skill in the course of helping other people. Democratizing work, through workers’ cooperatives and enhanced models of codetermination, is a promising way to secure meaningful work for all.

Elizabeth Anderson is Max Shaye Professor of Public Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann  Arbor.  She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It) (Princeton University Press, 2017).  Her new book, Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers, and How Workers Can Take It Back will be released by Cambridge University Press in September.