Being Productive Is My Purpose in Life

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In the last post, we established that just because economists’ calculations codify their assumptions into labor law, does not mean that productivity will increase as planned. But what are we to make of the idea of productivity itself? What gives this concept its shape and its gusto in our lives in 2017?

While most of us would hardly define our life’s purpose in terms of productivity, it is hard to deny that it orders much of our days. Within the worlds that I occupy, a good day is often one that we have achieved something. We say excitedly: “I was very productive today!” or we believe that we have done something that contributed somehow to society and that makes us feel good and valuable.  The flip side of the coin is that days we have not managed to focus, or haven’t completed a task or many tasks, can be frustrating or feel wasteful. Even our leisure time—or other time spent not working—is shaped by productivity in the sense that it should also be productive (buying groceries, running errands) or it should help us to be more productive later (rest, vacation, exercising, etc.). Productivity then, is taking ever-increasing space, shaping and bending all parts of our lives into the mold created by the market. But things have not always been this way.

Over the past few centuries, ideas about work and time have developed along a specific trajectory, which have collaborated to create notions of value linked to production for both the individual and the collectivity. In a previous post, I have stated that value has been subjugated to the dictates of the market.  This post will delve into productivity and its constituent parts—work and time—assessing productivity’s role in creating value.  What we will see is that none of our conceptions about time, work, and productivity are natural. What I mean by this is that though time measured by the clock or the necessity of going to work to earn a wage are not inevitable—they have not been this way throughout history, nor do they take the same meanings in other parts of the world.  With this point we have arrived at the heart of anthropology— what will emerge as a dominant theme over the course of  this blog is a tenacious insistence that much of our worlds are taken for granted. Things appear natural or universal when in fact they have required centuries of reinterpretation and changing circumstances to take the particular shapes they assume today.

Work in ancient times  retained an entirely different understanding, as explained in a lecture by Professor Mark Breusers.1 Prior to early Christianity, work had a variety of interpretations, though none of them saw work as a fulfillment in and of itself. Work did not have a special worth outside of Hebrew and early Christian understandings, which infused work with the value of being part of God’s work and blessing on the world. The church in the middle ages designated that work be an “instrument of spiritual purpose” and a discipline that encouraged obedience. Work was necessary for survival, not to hoard wealth. As I mentioned previously, morality was always intricately connected to the emerging economy and the same is true for labor. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant ideology gave work further moral impetus. During the reformation, with the specialization of skilled labor, work became identified with a life-calling that was ordained by God for individuals. In this way, work itself is piety and people can alter and improve their lives through work. Additionally, if one could work, it is their moral duty to do so, in order for their life purpose to be fulfilled. Here we can see that work becomes an end itself, no longer just a means to fulfill another end.

By the time we find ourselves in the industrial revolution, the contours of society and the place of work is shifting yet again, gaining the prominent position that it currently holds. Dominique Méda, in a contribution to an issue of the International Labour Review, guides us through some of these transformations.2 During the 18th century, aside from being a means of obtaining wealth, work was elevated further— it could emancipate the individual. This makes way for work to become the sum of an individual’s effort (as well as the nation or an industry and so on). Practically speaking, if work is the sum of an individual’s effort, then it also becomes the means by which social relationships and society are organized, according to Méda. By the 19th century, the goal became not only to use work to emancipate individuals in our own societies, but also to contribute to the emancipation of the entire world through civilizing the Other, instilling the principles of time and work the world-over.   It is this period that Méda writes we owe our ideology of work:

Work is presented on the one hand as a truly creative freedom, a symbol of human endeavor whose full realization is fettered by the way in which production is organized and which will provide the basis for the eventual creation of a more just social order based on capacities, on the individual’s contribution to production; and, on the other hand, as the facilitating factor of common endeavor. Work thus becomes a synonym for creation (…) it is a means of self-expression.3

Work, then, is not just contributing to the greater good, or responding to a calling in life, but it also has the central function as being the means through which a person can express identity and therefore negotiate belonging in society. Without work, how does one fit?

Work, of course, is not the same thing as productivity, but it cannot function without it. The ambiguous nature of productivity allows for its sweeping deployment across a broad spectrum of activities and units of measurement. I say it is ambiguous because there is nothing precise about productivity. The term is used to refer to everything from the economy of an entire nation, to the output of a small business, to the chores we complete within our families. There is no one thing that can be identified as the prime example of what productivity is, instead it takes different meanings in different contexts. What we can say for sure is that this ambiguity gives it power to act as a regulatory and disciplinary mechanism.4 Because there is no concrete measurement of productivity (though parameters are certainly defined within particular contexts such as that of a corporation), it is free to loom overhead always just out of reach. As a regulatory mechanism, the very idea of productivity guides our actions and decisions, and even our beliefs about the value of ourselves and our role in society. As a disciplinary tool, productivity works to govern the time and actions of employees, meanwhile reaching far beyond the office into our personal lives, shaping even the most intimate spheres. Of course, none of this would be possible if belonging to society was not contingent upon individual value secured through paid employment.

The essential element, which I can only briefly touch upon here, is the notion of time.5  Put simply, productivity is about the completion of tasks with reference to time, implying both timeliness and efficiency. Furthermore, in the case we have just examined, Macron’s proposed changes deal explicitly with time and the ways time is used by the state as an instrument of power to coerce workers into working more hours not for their own benefit, but for that of the state. Anthropologists have dealt extensively with diverse notions of time, examining time-conceptions of our own societies and those that differ greatly. Oft-cited is one of the discipline’s seminal works— Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer. In his text Evans-Pritchard explains that the Nuer have no concept of time as we do. There is no reference in the passing of events to an external indicator such as the clock and no general sense that time is something to be used perfectly, to be saved, or even to be wasted.6 Time, we realize, is not given, it is made. It is not however only those that seem exotic to us who can elicit the re-thinking of our own time-concepts.In my own field of specialization—the anthropology of Christianity—I too deal with disparate notions of time. In the work of James Bielo, who studies with Evangelical Christians in the United States, he emphasizes that foundational to the missionary work his participants seek to carry out in their cities is their understanding of time.[7. Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, And The Desire For Authenticity. New York: New York University Press.] For Bielo’s Evangelicals, the world is experienced in terms of God’s kingdom, which he calls “now, not yet” time. God’s Kingdom exists in space and time at this very minute, yet it has not yet arrived in its fullness either. Time, imagined in this way, calls for lives that are lived in the reality of working for God’s Kingdom, yet with the acceptance that it will not transform to reach its fullest potential until the time that God has already ordained. This has implications for how these Christians occupy and move about their worlds, structuring their work and their activities in a particular way. What this shows us is that time is central to how we make ourselves and our work, and that perhaps even in our own societies, our views of time need to be made evident to us as well.

This is a charge that has been made by anthropologist and philosopher Tim Ingold. What Ingold suggests in his paper Work, Time and Industry is that though we are forced to contend with the clock in our societies, our social reality indicates that we do not so easily fit into the time-orientation designated by the industrial revolution.7 I would argue then, in the French case, that along with examining how productivity and the workplace are experienced on the ground in France, that conceptions and experiences of time also need re-examination. Furthermore, if we consider Cléo’s comments about what workers want and expect, then understanding how time operates in the everyday work environment is also crucial.

As I draw this post to a close, I want to return to our question of value. Productivity is not only valued by governments, companies, and workers because it is tied to greater value on the market. There are also moral implications. E.P. Thompson points out that the imposition of time-discipline plays a critical role in the creation of morally good subjects. Non-productivity is debase; those who do not spend their time productively are not participating in society as one ought: “In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time.'”8 Similarly, it is clear that even in everyday conversation, those who work are good, and those who don’t are lazy and selfish. They fail to live up to what it means to be a good person—one who has a life-calling and works hard to fulfill it— contributing in some way to the greater good of society.

  1. Breusers, Mark. 2017. “Work: Working To Live And Living To Work?”. Lecture, Leuven, Belgium.
  2. Méda, Dominique. 1996. “New Perspectives On Work As Value”. International Labour Review 135 (6).
  3. Méda, pg. 634.
  4. Foucault, Michel, 1926-1984. Discipline And Punish : the Birth of the Prison. New York :Pantheon Books, 1977.
  5. For an anthropological perspective on time, written in the form of a blog series, take a look at the blog of Krystal D’Costa, who also seeks to put anthropology into practice in a way that is easy for those outside the discipline to understand. See here her series on time:
  6. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg. 103.
  7. Ingold, Tim. 1995. “Work, Time And Industry”. Time & Society 4 (1): 5-28. doi:10.1177/0961463×95004001001.
  8. Thompson, E. P. 1967. “Time, Work-Discipline, And Industrial Capitalism”. Past And Present38 (1): 56-97. doi:10.1093/past/38.1.56.