The need for emancipating ourselves from the work ethic of the Technosphere

Recently, I read the book The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, Energy & the Politics of Work by Cara New Daggett. This is a fascinating analysis of the role of thermodynamics as a worldview in the 19th century colonial and imperial expansion of capitalism. The linkage between science and ideology runs via Protestantism, with a core group of Scottish scientists and engineers shaping this peculiar intellectual synthesis. The defining conceptual cluster is energy, efficiency as avoidance of waste, and work. Work is a disciplinary regime that aims at mobilizing energy, both in terms of employing the new machines of the industrial age, and the strenuous physical effort of the worker. In other words, thermodynamics combines with the peculiar work ethic of Victorian Britain and the United States, the main references in the book. This work ethic was disseminated via the colonial expansion and imposed on indigenous populations as a ‘civilizing’ project that only thinly disguised the main interest in keeping wages low and exploiting cheap labour for capitalist accumulation. In the United States, the ideological amalgam was institutionalized in vocational schools for Black and Native American students.

This analysis reveals the cultural embeddedness of the physical relations between humans and the technosphere. A major methodological question in technosphere analysis is how the physical mechanisms of maximum power production and ensuing entropy production become binding for human action, what I call the ‘Lotka puzzle’. We fall down to Earth because of gravity, but we are free to follow technosphere mechanisms, despite their physical nature. The key to establishing this ‘culturalization’ of the physics of technosphere evolution is the work ethic of industrial modernity and its progressivist productivism. Productivism is deeply engrained in the modern economy, such as in national accounting standards of GDP. The work ethic ties this back to disciplining the individual. The important observation, also emphasized by Daggett, is that almost all ideological strands in industrial modernity emphasize productivism, which is salient in the fact that Universal Basic Income is rarely supported by socialist parties which otherwise take critical distance from capitalism. As Marx believed, communism becomes only feasible once capitalism has reached the pinnacle of productivity, though with a radically unequal distribution of wealth that would trigger the revolution.

Productivism is also implicit to most thinking about ‘greening’ the economy. Concepts such as ‘nature capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’ are deeply productivistic, almost naturalizing the capitalist work ethic. This is even more salient when considering the call for renewables which mostly does not necessarily imply the absolute reduction of energy consumption, only if achieved by higher efficiency. Daggett concurs with the point often raised in this blog, namely that the focus on global warming may distract attention to the more fundamental issue that even carbon-neutral energy use may go along with what I diagnose as the expansion of the technosphere, to the detriment of life on Earth.

Therefore, the key to regaining human autonomy from technosphere aka capitalist drivers of growth is reneging the work ethic of Western (white and male) modernity. To be precise, this relates to the productivist notion of ‘work’ which marginalizes non-productivist kinds of work. The most important one, emphasized by feminist scholars, is care. But there are many other non-productivist forms of work, once we strictly separate the social and the physical meaning. One important form of physical effort that is almost archetypically ‘non-productive’ is ritual, one of my major research topics in the past decade in the context of China (Herrmann-Pillath, Guo and Feng 2020). Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party, but also all Chinese modernizers in the 20th century condemned ritual practices as ‘wasteful’, since non-productive. Yet, ritual is pervasive in human societies, and anthropologists have even argued that it is a defining element of being human (Rossano 2016). Scholars have diagnosed the social and spiritual malaise resulting from the denigration of ritual in Western modernity (Seligman et al. 2008). Ritual was a central form of life in the highly civilized societies of East Asia, such as in Japanese Shinto. Tellingly, today Japanese researchers such as Hiroi Yoshinori consider the role of Shinto in creating a post-growth society. Shinto, like other ritual complexes such as Fengshui in China, establishes a direct relation between humans and nature.

Hence, care, ritual, or other forms of work such as artistic creation must become defining elements in a new cultural framing of work. We must radically reverse the focus on productivism towards activities that are restorative and conservative in a principled way. For example, many rituals serve to reinstate and confirm a social order, or much artistic work is about reaffirming and re-expressing the beauty, say, of a Beethoven symphony. Progress can be also redefined against this background, since there are so many ways to improve the conditions of living together, both humans and non-humans, that do not require raising technosphere productivity. That was the famous message delivered by the Chinese emperor Qianlong to the British MacCartney delegation demanding the opening of China for English traders. Qianlong expressed his deep conviction about the high civilizational standard of China without any need for further material progress. It is worthwhile to rethink this encounter. After all, one of the intellectual fathers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 was a Chinese intellectual, who co-chaired the commission together with Eleanor Roosevelt, Zhang Penchun: He explicitly strived to imbue the Declaration with universalist Confucian notions of human progress towards goodness, that is, civilizational advances. To overcome the legacy of 19th century work ethics, we must adopt a truly transcultural vision of Homo faber.

Daggett, Cara New. 2019. The birth of energy: fossil fuels, thermodynamics, and the politics of work. Elements. Durham: Duke University Press.

Herrmann-Pillath, C., Guo, M., Feng, X. 2020. Ritual and Economy in Metropolitan China: A Global Social Science Approach. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Rossano M. 2016. The Ritual Origins of Humanity. In: Hartung G., Herrgen M. (eds) Interdisziplinäre Anthropologie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-10978-3_1

Seligman, A. B., R. P. Weller, M. J. Puett and B. Simo., 2008. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

4 Replies to “The need for emancipating ourselves from the work ethic of the Technosphere”

  1. The intention of diverting final useful energy into the creation of deliberately unproductive structure certainly smells like stepping away from the Max Power hidden hand and, therefore, for me is almost the definition of agency. To swim against the thermodynamic tide. But are you suggesting that even the concept of that tide, with all the efficiency narrative thermodynamics invokes, is itself a cultural construct born of Protestantism? I wouldn’t go there myself, but rather would see the science being hijacked, even if that science was discovered/formulated by those same people.

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    1. The context of discovery must always be distinguished from the facts discovered. Newton’s mechanics was imbued by theology in his mind. That does not invalidate the science. Same applies here. Yet, I think that there might be some interpretive leeway in applying fundamental thermodynamics, especially when it comes to concepts such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘waste’. One of the most intricate issues is the concept of physical work, I think, since the difference between ‘work’ and mere dissipation refers to some conception of order refering to the results of work, even in physical terms. Perhaps there is some truth in Baitaille’s thinking about just ‘wasting’ the flow of solar energy (in ‘La Part maudite’). Ritual is ‘waste’, but physical work. But it does not further accelerate the wheel, just when burning fossil fuels. Both flows with the tide, still the consequences differ in ecological terms.

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  2. The active meaning in the title implies that we can choose from different work ethics. The premise is that I have autonomously chosen such a work ethic, and I can also choose different ones. However to choose actively requires additional conditions, and these conditions are not easy to achieve.

    The first is the supply and demand relationship between job seekers and recruiters. In a market where there are far more job seekers than there are offered positions, each job seeker will have little choices, and they will be forced to adhere to the work ethic that the recruiter demands. Then it is almost impossible to choose a more eco-adaptive work ethic at this point, as working in a company to survive in a capitalist market he must adhere to the creed of efficiency and productivity, or he will lose his position and be replaced by someone else. It seems more appropriate to discuss the design of capitalistic institutions and changes of the game rules to allow capitalism and ecosystem to coexist.

    Imagine that the job seeker has plenty of choices in the market, and he also needs a decent income to ensure that he can have the bargain power and the choice to quit (imagine that the salary each job offers is not enough to support his life, and he still needs to obey the existing work ethic). At this time, a universal basic income may become an important safeguard for choosing the eco-work ethic he expects.

    If all the conditions are met, enough choices, a stable income and a variety of alternative corporate culture, just like working in a Nordic company with high benefits and a balanced work culture, it does not necessarily mean the latter ethic would be chosen. In my opinion, the work ethic is formed not only by social institutions, but also by deeper cultural, moral and identity roots. Most Asian countries still pay tribute to hard work. Huawei’s new employees are required to sign a devotee’s agreement in recognition of heroic behavior and dedication that sacrifices themselves for the company and the collective good. The roots could be found in Chinese history with collectivism. There are not many differences comparing to capitalist work ethic: focus on efficiency, maximum output and profit, work overtime, and beyond that, put the interests of the company before their own. This corporate culture has little to do with capitalist ethics. A similar example shows that, in many Asian countries, people regard it as shameful to receive government aid, such as unemployment insurance, UBI, which will bring shame to themselves and their families. Working hard has nothing to do with disrespectful with nature, or the exploitation of natural resources, but is purely a matter of self-identification and work habit.

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    1. Of course we cannot choose our work ethic as long as there are no fundamental cultural and institutional changes in our societies. That’s why the post on universal basic income is complementary, UBI would enable the choice. In addition, obviously your notion of ‘work’ is tied to the market. How about ‘996’ in caring for a sick child at home? It’s an issue of recognition as well. Another reason for UBI.

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