Arbeiten zum vergessen is a phrase associated with the post war years in Germany. It means “working in order to forget”. You fill your days with things to do because if you allow a little bit of space you might start reflecting on unpleasant matters. So, you put your head down and ensure you don’t have any free time. This work ethic is partly credited for giving rise to the wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the West German economy in the post war years. Arguably, the consumerism of that time served a similar purpose of forgetfulness. When you weren’t working, you were shopping or otherwise entertaining yourself. Nowadays we have the internet, Youtube, Netflix and a million other distractions. There’s an almost unlimited number of ways to fill up your day and prevent any pesky free time from causing troublesome thoughts to arise. Thoughts like “what am I doing with my life” and “what’s the meaning of it all.” The exact kind of thoughts that should be dealt with during the initiation/individuation process.
Although the baby boomers are remembered mostly for free love, rock festivals, protests and other rebellious activities, the truth is that it was a small but vocal minority who were driving those trends. Most boomers got a job and settled down in the suburbs with a house and 2.3 children. It was the era where it was still possible to work for a single company your whole life and get a gold watch when you retired. It was also the era when active participation in religion dwindled steadily as the Sunday church service was replaced by the Sunday drive.
I mentioned in the last post a phrase uttered by ex-Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, “work is our religion”. This is especially true here in Australia which is the most bourgeois society on the planet (Canada and New Zealand being the main competitors for the title. It’s not a coincidence that these countries had the most hysterical corona response). Once upon a time, I volunteered as an English teacher to refugees here in Melbourne. As part of the program, us volunteers were given a couple of days training during which we were shown a video of one of the sessions held with the refugees when they were being settled. The facilitator of the session stood in front of the group, who were mostly of African and Middle Eastern origin, and told them “you have to work. In Australia, everyone must work.” What she meant was “you have to get a job. You have to be in paid employment.” Why did she need to spell it out so explicitly? Because where they come from everyone doesn’t have to have a job and, in fact, the idea that everyone must have a job is fairly new even to western countries.
Ask the average person why everybody has to have a job and they’ll say it’s because there are things that need to be done. But, as we found out during corona, this is not really true. It turns out there are entire industries that are “non-essential”. So, we don’t really need to work. We work because work is our religion. Using the terms of this series of posts, we say that paid employment is the exoteric framework of society. That’s what the facilitator was trying to convey to the refugees. In order to fit in here, you must get a job. She’s right. By most metrics, people who are unemployed do worse than people who are employed. We assume this is because the unemployed are poorer but there’s much more to it than that. To be unemployed is not to fit in. It is to be a social outcast. For that reason, the unemployed are far more likely to commit crime, become drug addicts and have mental health problems.
To use another term from this series of posts, getting a job is an initiation. As with all initiations there must be a preparation and the preparation for the initiation of work has become incredibly long in the modern west. A full sixteen years is now the norm as even our universities have reoriented around what purports to be vocational training. Teachers and professors are therefore the elders and the process ends in your becoming a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker. After tribal initiations, you might have been known by your spirit animal or the moiety to which you belonged. After an initiation into the religion of work, you’re known by your job title. “What do you do?” is usually the first question anybody asks a stranger.
The religion of work is so ingrained in western culture that most people couldn’t imagine life without it. But, a quick look back in history reveals that many cultures viewed work in a very different way. “Only slaves work”. That would have been the attitude of your average Athenian or Spartan in ancient Greece. If a citizen of those societies ended up working for a living, that was proof that something terrible had happened to them. They must have made some gigantic mistake. There could be no other reason to demean oneself by working.
In his classic essay “In praise of idleness”, Bertrand Russell pointed out that modern society has long had the technical and organisational means to almost entirely do away with work. This had been proven in the centralised economies of the war years. It would have been a trivial matter to rejig those economies to satisfy basic needs and allow every citizen in western countries to live a life of leisure. We didn’t do it and a big part of the reason why is because of the work ethic which is traditionally associated with Protestantism (Max Weber’s famous Protestant Work Ethic) but also has strong roots in the catholic tradition too.
The religious origins of the work ethic are no coincidence and it is here we must differentiate between work and paid employment. Paid employment can be thought of as the exoteric form of work. It’s the societal structure that organises the activity. It should be counterbalanced by an esoteric side which we can call the spiritual aspect of work. This is the higher meaning of the work and it comes through to the extent that you feel your work is a manifestation of what we could call the spirit or even God.
The same is true for leisure time. The word holiday means “holy day”. It was not the time to visit the local shopping centre. It was the time to celebrate the sacred. Both work and leisure are sacred to the extent that through them you are celebrating and manifesting the spirit. A “religion of work”, on the other hand, puts the cart before the horse. Work should be in service of the sacred, not an end in itself.
The whole problem with work in the industrial era is that the sacredness has been taken out of it. This was true right from the beginning of the industrial revolution. The fire pits of the factories even looked like the flames of hell. Those fire pits have been replaced by office suites but from a spiritual point of view the situation is not really much better as I outlined in my post on the trauma of bullshit jobs. Similarly, the filling of leisure time with consumerism removes the sacredness from that activity as well. The religion of work and the associated religion of consumerism are just facsimiles of actual religion.
Thus, although work in the form of paid employment has taken up the role of initiation in our society, it is not a proper initiation in any sense of the word. Businesses are in business and must prioritise finances over people. Strangely enough, many people appear not to understand this. Back when the GFC hit, the company I was working at fired about 1/3 of its employees. I had fully expected to get fired myself but through a stroke of luck was not. What was surprising was how surprised my colleagues were. Many seemed genuinely shocked. “How could they do this to us?” was a phrase one of my teammates uttered. This was a middle aged man who had much more experience of work life than I did and yet he seemed unaware of the realities of the business world. He seemed to think the company owed him something other than the legally prescribed severance package.
In traditional religions, you only got kicked out if you became a heretic or an apostate. In the religion of work, you can be kicked out at any time based on unknown market forces. Nobody is responsible. Nobody can be held to account. It’s just the way it is. And if the market forces are severe enough, you may find yourself excommunicated into permanent unemployment with a skillset and experience that the economic gods no longer deem worthy. If work is our religion, it’s a heartless one. Wolfgang Giegerich was right, there is a brutality to it all. It is, in fact, an anti-human system or at the very least ahuman. Humans are merely incidental to the process. If they can be automated away or their jobs shipped overseas, all the better.
These free market forces just happen to also fit the archetype of The Devouring Mother: arbitrary, vindictive (from the employee’s point of view) and callous. The outward shows of empathy like “we value our employees” or “we encourage diversity” only apply as long you toe the line and as long as there is a need for you. It is certainly not the unconditional love of the true Mother archetype. And things are getting even more arbitrary now that your job can be judged “non-essential” based on unknown criteria cooked up by a room of unelected bureaucrats. No correspondence will be entered into and the judge’s decision is final. Sorry, not sorry.
As Sir James Goldsmith noted back in the 90s, the economy is supposed to work for the people and not the other way around. One way to look at the globalisation agenda of the 90s is that we deliberately put the economy above the people. Where that happened most clearly, however, was not the west but China. China instituted an old-fashioned form of uber-capitalism, albeit one wrapped up in a socialist façade. In China there are no labour laws, no health and safety laws, no unions and, in fact, almost no protection in law at all for citizens and workers. As bad as The Devouring Mother nanny state is in a country like Australia, it’s ten times worse in China. Hence the social credit scores and facial recognition and all the other wonderful technological innovations going on over there.
In March 2020, the west decided to copy China. Is that a coincidence? Is it a coincidence that the complete disregard for human rights, civil liberties, rule of law and democracy that we have seen the in west in the last two years mirrors the situation in China? The west shipped our jobs to China and with it our anti-human religion of work, consumerism and greed. To use an old phrase, we helped create a monster. In 2020, we got it all back with interest. There is a certain karmic justice to the whole thing.
But since then the story has taken a twist. The side effects of globalisation had already been building in the west in the form of real estate and asset bubbles and general decline in the quality of life. To take just one example from Melbourne, the length and quality of the average person’s commute, whether on public transport or by road, had become steadily worse in the years leading up to corona. Many people were already feeling the pinch of this hidden inflation. The religion of work was already bursting at the seams. Then corona hit and now you have mandatory gene therapy and masks to add to the top of the list of “inconveniences” just to earn a living. To this day, many workers still have to wear a mask at work even though they are vaccinated not to mention all the other arbitrary rules enforced without rhyme or reason.
All that would have been bad enough, but now we’re seeing the return of not just hidden inflation but real headline monetary inflation. The religion of work entails participation in the consumer economy. It also entails the notion of building wealth, what is called The Australian Dream (copied from The American Dream). But neither the consumer economy nor the building of wealth works with rampant inflation. If we think of this as the Holy Trinity of the Religion of Work – employment, consumerism, building wealth – all of these are now directly under threat. No surprise then that the effect of all this is that some people no longer want to work. In seemingly every industry in Australia there are shortages of workers at the moment. Companies complain that they can’t even get people to interview for jobs.
Part of what the rebellious baby boomers were complaining about was that the esoteric content of work and leisure had already disappeared. That’s also what Jimmy Carter was talking about in his addresses to the nation in the late 70s. The religion of work has lacked esoteric content for a long time. Nevertheless, it has fulfilled the exoteric function of ordering society in the post war years. What happens if that structure breaks down? There will be practical consequences. After all, not all jobs are “non-essential”. Some jobs actually need to get done for things to continue working.
But the more interesting consequences might be cultural. If work loses its ability to provide exoteric structure to society, what will replace it? We would need something new to fill the void and that is where Spengler’s second religiosity becomes relevant. We’ll talk about that more in the next post.
All posts in this series: