Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Stakhanovite Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Ruth Davidson, the newly-elected leader of the Scottish Tories, is seeking to revive the fortunes of the party by arguing that we don't understand the importance of hard work and this is because of 'socialism':
"We are a resourceful people, responsible for many of the world’s greatest inventions. Our ingenuity and endurance has built business empires and spread commerce across the globe.

Decades of socialism have dampened our natural capacity for enterprise and hard work, but the flame still burns.

We can rise again if we learn from recent events and decide that we are determined to make Scotland work."
Well, good luck selling that one on the doorsteps. We'll ignore her conflation of socialism with a large state as well as her ignorance of who has been running the country for most of the time since 1945 to ask the question: what evidence is there that a large state is damaging to the work ethic?

It interested me because my honours dissertation was on the subject of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis, applied to 19th Century Scotland. One of Weber's central arguments is that the work ethic - the notion that hard work per se is a virtue - was seen as irrational in terms of individual utility to early modern man and that capitalism benefited from the the peculiarly protestant inner-worldly asceticism that saw hard work as something that certificated salvation.

I'm not even going to attempt to rehearse the arguments here - except to say that there is, I think, something in this notion that there is a disutility to hard-work, which therefore requires some kind of ideological support.

You might disagree with this in the 19th century context but I'm interested in this idea as applied to the people coming to Britain from the former communist states of Eastern Europe. I don't want to indulge in stereotypes but can we at least agree that there is possibly good empirical reasons behind the reputation that, for example, Polish emigrants have for being at least as hard-working as indigenous workers?

In other words, coming from countries where the state has been as large as anywhere in human history does not appear to have damaged either the work ethic nor the entrepreneurial spirit of east Europeans. I'm wondering if perhaps there isn't something like a Protestant ethic going on - the ghost of dead secular, rather than religious, beliefs prowling around in people's lives? Because, one should stress, the notion that hard-work is virtuous isn't as obvious as one might think, if you look at it with a utilitarian eye.

This got me to wondering: perhaps it is capitalism itself that is damaging to the work-ethic? There is no certificates of salvation to produce, no sense of Stakhanovite heroism to be had, but a rather more limited notion that with hard-work one can succeed and enjoy the fruits of one's labour in a meritocratic society. The disadvantage with this is that it is a more easily, and more immediately, falsifiable notion than either the protestant or communist ideas of work as an ascetic tool used in the pursuit of salvation. Here I think Eric Hobsbawm was on to something where he argued that capitalism during the long boom from 1945 to the seventies benefited from the fact that people hadn't yet followed the idea of utilitarian individualism to its logical conclusions. Because to the rational utility-maximizing individual, hard work seems more positively irrational than the unthinking supporters of the capitalist system would have us believe.

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