Show 256: Labor Day Weekend Special! “Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR”

Barry Seidman marks Labor Day with a discussion of the rhetoric and effects of the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, which has allowed a separation of work from “jobs” in the American mindset. If as humanists we value “the good life,” along with creativity, freedom and the interest in each of us becoming the best we can be, why do so many of us ignore or even encourage a socioeconomic system which deprives so many of us of these things?

Work in the normative sense is about the natural human proclivity to be productive, contributing members of society via creative, liberating and satisfying efforts. Such work is about freely associated labor, equal opportunity, the ability of each member of society to find and perform whatever kind of work he or she enjoys and can excel at, and work performed without relying on command authority or any other form of coercion.

Work as “jobs” (that is, work as we know it today under capitalism), is quite something else. We worship work (jobs) in today’s culture, identifying those who can’t work or find it difficult to find satisfying, joyful work, as lazy, deviant or “too picky”. When people can’t succeed in our work-money centered society, we blame them rather than the system they’ve found themselves in. We even go as far as to argue that those who don’t well adjust to the system are therefore mentally or emotionally challenged somehow!

Work is today a tedious chore for most, un-free in that most work for others and not for themselves, and heavily demanding in that work occupies most of our waking moments and offers little in reward but a paycheck (which is soon turned over to bills and the shopping mall.) Yet this kind of empty, soulless work – which has been commanded by some forms of Christianity, and made inevitable by capitalism – is considered a virtue by most Americans even as so many of us live under amazing work-related stress.

Why is this dysfunctional notion of work taken on faith and hardly ever questioned by most Americans (or others living in the capitalist West)? Why do some religions preach work as a virtue, and how has that teaching destined so many Americans to be wage-slaves for most of their lives? Why has the religious notion of the “work ethic” bled into secular society, and who really benefits from this mindset? Finally, how can we learn to re-think how we see work so that we can rethink how we see life, ourselves, and each other?

This and more will be discussed with social scientist Dr. Sharon Beder, author of Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR and Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values.

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