What Price Works?

What Price Works?

Daniel Bell, the labor editor of Fortune and a former editor of The New Leader, modestly calls his little essay “notes on work … [tied together] by a mood, and some questions.” Indeed, had he elaborated on all the ideas with which these “notes” are crammed, he might have written a full-fledged “philosophy of labor.” The concentration of his thesis into a sequence of brilliantly antithetical statements rewards the reader with elegant fireworks which vainly try to conceal the profundity of the intellectual effort underneath. Nor, for that matter, does graceful presentation ever interfere with one reader’s awareness that Mr. Bell actually is handling dynamite.

For his “questions” attack the basic myth of our society—that the value of work, its cost to society, is measured by its “efficiency,” its cost to the user. Erich Fromm has recently dealt with the social and human cost of industrial labor which cost accountants fail to include in their calculations. The reverse of this efficiency cult, says Bell, is the cult of leisure as a conditioned protest reflex. “Conspicuous consumption was the badge of a rising middle class, conspicuous loafing is the hostile gesture of a tired working class”; workers try to escape from the monotony of their job by arbitrary changes of pace; and they dream of the glamors of leisure in terms of non-work instead of meaningful work. Management recognizes the problem which its purely technological reasoning has created for the worker, but instead of abandoning its approach, which is so intimately wedded to the whole social economic system of industrial capitalism, it substitutes “human relations” and “satisfactions of human associations in the plant” for the satisfaction of work itself.

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