The historical origins of Do What You Love

A debate core to Financial Freedom 2 is the cultural assumption Do What You Love (And the Money will Follow). The central article in Module 5.2 is Jacobin Mazagine’s interrogation of that idea in “In the Name of Love.” But where did the idea that Labor being Moral come from? Why do we believe that work should have meaning and purpose? I explore this below.

Our modern globalized (colonized?) concept of work originates from feudal society in Northern Europe. Historical sociologists call it "life-cycle" service: everyone was expected to spend roughly seven to fifteen years as a servant in someone else's household. You worked as an apprentice to a master craftsman, became a journeyman, and then finally became a master craftsman yourself, with your own apprentices. Peasants spent their teens as "servants in husbandry" and "milkmaids" before running their own farm. Nobles spent their youth as "pages" to knights and "ladies-in-waiting" to married ladies. The idea was that you spent your youth acquiring the knowledge and experience needed to manage a household, whatever economic class you were and "achieving mastery of one's baser desires." Ultimately, disciplined work under the direction of an adult would allow you to become an adult yourself and reach self-employment (the framework of apprenticeship to economic adulthood and the desire for mastery is, I believe, universal around the world, not just feudal Europe). 


The advent of the industrial capitalism started in the 1700s when Northern European started creating goods with the help of machines, instead of solely labor. Wage labor shifted from being a transitional stage of mastery and self-employment in your youth to a permanent relationship for your entire life. Working in a factory did not eventually lead to owning a factory. You did not work seven to fifteen years on the railroads learning how to eventually own capital and equipment to build your own railraod. With industrial capitalism, you became a permanent member of a working class, the "proletariot," a neccessary input along with machinery and financing to produce goods, for which the capital-owner (the capitalist) would profit.


The accompanying belief to industrial capitalism was the "Protestant work ethic." The essayist Thomas Carlyle was wildly popular amongst the new middle class (capital-owning) bourgeoisie, proposing a new “Gospel of Work” to Victorian England. “Work, and therein have wellbeing,” he wrote. Work was the civilizing function that taught charity, discipline, and Godliness. In his essay Past and Present, he writes:

"It has been written, ‘an endless significance lies in Work;’ a man perfects himself by working. ...Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like hell-dogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!


All true Work is sacred; in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven. Sweat of the brow; and up from that to sweat of the brain, sweat of the heart; which includes all Kepler calculations, Newton meditations, all Sciences, all spoken Epics, all acted Heroisms, Martyrdoms,--up to that 'Agony of bloody sweat,' which all men have called divine! O brother, if this is not 'worship,' then I say, the more pity for worship; for this is the noblest thing yet discovered under God's sky. Who art thou that complainest of thy life of toil? Complain not. Look up, my wearied brother; see thy fellow Workmen there, in God's Eternity; surviving there, they alone surviving: sacred Band of the Immortals, celestial Bodyguard of the Empire of Mankind."

Carlyle’s conclusion is the internal assumption so many have today: it is obscene to put a price on something of absolute value. If work is noble, then the most noble work should not be compensated. Because of that, workers, the proletariot, the inputs to production, should be satisfied with the internal satisfactions of Goodness that accompany work (the Protestant work ethic’s civilizing function also led to the Temperance Movement, and the Prohibition, which was widely seen as trying to civilize the Irish, Italian, and German alcohol-drinking Catholics).

With the increased secularization of society, the religiosity of Labor as Noble has diminished. I submit to you that it’s become a secular religion, i.e. a cultural belief that binds people together. Making money or caring about making money is seen as crass and unenlightened. The new religion has a new commandment: Thou Shalt Find Meaning and Purpose in Your Work. We praise people who find work with “meaning and purpose” instead of chasing monetary compensation (most immigrant families do not do this, by the way). We uplift them as examples as living with Right Livelihood. And there is an implicit assumption that you should not ask for more money at work because it would be greedy. We see this in particular in the social services and the nonprofit “industry.” What right to you have to care about the money if you got to spend your daily hours fulfilling your soul?

So much to discuss here:

1. Thoughts on the historical origins of Do What You Love? Could the Gospel of Work and the belief we should find work with meaning and purpose have been created to justify paying educators, nurses, and other people in the “caring” professions less?

3. How much do you relate to the meaning and purpose within the Gospel of Work? Without the Gospel of Work, what meaning and purpose would you derive in your life?

H/T to David Graeber, whose book Bullshit Jobs fueled most of this.