Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

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Paris, Saturday 16 November 2013

“Travailler plus pour gagner plus”

Work more to earn more

This was one of the electioneering slogans employed by right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy (b. 1955 in Paris, the son of a Hungarian immigrant) in his successful campaign to become President of France, an office he held from 2007 to 2012.

“Travailler plus pour gagner moins”

Work more to earn less

This, according to Sarkozy’s critics, was the reality of the labour market.

Since the canonization, in the second half of the 20th century, of the neo-liberal market economy as the only possible theory and praxis for a globalised world, it can hardly be contested that it is the latter slogan which holds sway across the global economy as conveyor belts speed up and working conditions deteriorate.

How refreshing, therefore, to read in today’s Financial Times –  of all places! – an article which pulls the ideological rug from under the feet of market apologists touting their take-it-or-leave-it live-to-work long-hours propaganda.

Here at Antigone1984 we believe that we work to live, not the other way round. Contrary to what the free-market ideologists claim, work, in our view, is not an end in itself.

Very agreeable, therefore, it was to read today’s article by Harry Eyres in his weekly column – called, appropriately, the Slow Lane and this week entitled “Why work so hard?”

Eyres starts by noting that the great Keynsian economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) got it wrong in his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” when he predicted that by the early 21st century the working week would have been cut to 15 hours.

In fact, Eyres points out, the number of hours worked in both the US and Europe has remained pretty steady for decades at more than 40 hours a week.

However, long hours at the coal-face have not always been the human norm.

For millennia, human hunter-gatherers managed to get by comfortably with their feet up for much of the day.

“The San (Bushmen) people of southern Africa thrived, with a good diet (2,500 calories day) on little work (two or three hours a day) and much play,” says the article, citing anthropologist James Suzman.

The much-invoked liberal myth of permanent human progress – from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industrialization – is not borne out by the facts.

“Farming did not immediately bring improvements in health and longevity,” says Eyres, referring to an article written by geographer Jared Diamond in 1987 which explains why agriculture was the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”.  According to Diamond, agriculture brought with it “the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Skeletons uncovered in Greece and Turkey show that men’s average height fell from 5ft 9in at the end of the last Ice Age – about 10 000 BC – to 5ft 3in in 3 000 BC after the invention of agriculture.

“So the myths of a golden age were not just nostalgic fantasy,” concludes Eyres, who goes on to query why, in  supposedly advanced societies in the early 21st century”, we are we all so addicted to work. “ Why do we assume that working harder and harder is an unquestionable virtue?”

He refers to the book “Willing Slaves” by Madeleine Bunting, published in 2004, which “revealed an epidemic of work-related stress and depression among British white-collar workers.”

The addiction to overworking reflects external pressure as workforces are squeezed. But people also over-work voluntarily, according to Bunting, to the extent that they associate work with status and money.

Here, however, a problem arises: “if they work all the time, when will they have the time to enjoy it [the money and status]?”

The article concludes by citing a demand made in 1866 at a congress in Geneva of the International Association of Working Men: “We require eight hours work, eight hours for our own instruction and eight hours for repose.”

Amen to that! Except that perhaps the Bushmen had a more enlightened idea of the number of hours it was reasonable to work….

We shall end this disquisition with the poem “Leisure” written by Welsh bard William Henry Davies (1871-1940) and first published in 1911:

What is this life if,  full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


We have no connection with the London-based Financial Times but we have a lot of time for its Saturday edition, which is a different animal from the business-focused publication produced during the working week. The Saturday edition comes replete with discursive in-depth essays ranging across a breadth of cultural and artistic as well as life-style and economic topics.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


This entry was posted in Economics, France, Hungary, Literature, UK, Uncategorized, USA, Wales and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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