Saturday 15. August 2020
#145 - January 2012


Economic crisis : the reinvention of work


Fr Henri Madelin’s thoughts on the meaning of human work while attending a conference on 8 December organised at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ‘Laborem exercens’ Encyclical.


For over 2000 years the Catholic Church has been helping the human race along every road in the world.  Drawing on this experience she has built up a living memory, a practical wisdom, a gift for understanding how the future will work out. The question of work and of the meaning of work in the human adventure is of concern to her. Thirty years ago, in 'Laborem exercens' Pope John-Paul II devoted to this theme a whole Encyclical, that is to say a message addressed to all the faithful, to “men of good will” according to the hackneyed formula; in other words, to those people who are in possession of  an upright conscience. That makes a huge crowd!


The present situation

In his universal message, John-Paul II explains that work is ‘the key’ to the ‘social question’; this question which has been agonising minds since the beginning of industrialisation. This question is no longer the prerogative of First World countries; it has also become an issue for developing countries because, as recent Encyclicals have stated,  “the social question has become global.” After the ’proletarian individuals’ of the 19th century, we now have’proletarian nations’ scattered across our planet. While, in bygone days, the problem of ’class’ was highlighted at the centre of this issue, in more recent times the emphasis has shifted to the ‘world’ issue. (LE, 2, 4) The new world situation will, according to this document, have as much influence on the world of work as the industrial revolution did in its day.


There are many reasons for this.  “The widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production, the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials, the growing realization that the heritage of nature is limited and that it is being intolerably polluted, and the emergence on the political scene of peoples who, after centuries of subjection, are demanding their rightful place among the nations and in international decision-making.” These new conditions are going to weigh heavily on the future distribution and organisation of work.  “For millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining.” They will very probably involve “a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries.” But they can also “bring relief and hope to the millions who today live in conditions of shameful and unworthy poverty.” (LE, 1, 3).


The essence of work

As a philosopher and theologian, John-Paul II is analysing work in its function that distinguishes it from other human tasks. It belongs to man endowed with intelligence and reason, according to the story of his origins as given at the beginning of the Bible. Man was created “in the image and the likeness of God”. He is therefore drawn towards the aspirations that belong to an upright man at the heart of creation. His mission is to “subdue the Earth” without harming it, in a way that is better understood these days with the world-wide ecological movement. He is thus different from his partners in the biosphere who cannot construct a project or sustainably apply their will to a task which has been preconceived in a mind that has thought about it. In his film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin managed to present a remarkably good picture of the degrading and quasi-bestial nature of some kinds of ’work’. In different languages around the world, slang words also makes this distinction very clear. But it is the Book of Genesis which first uses the expression: “working with the sweat of one’s face”. That is the sign that the work of man demands physical and psychological effort  “in the midst of many tensions,  conflicts and crises”, whatever form they might take in the history of mankind. ( LE, 1,2) Work has a serious side, as confirmed by St Thomas Aquinas when referring to work as “bonum arduum”(something that is good but costing dear)..  This is also what is meant by the ILO nowadays when they cite  “decent work” as an objective.


Approaches to work

The Encyclical accentuates the different facets of work. Work has an objective side. It is a task to be completed alone or in a team under the protection of trade union organisations which rightly defend the interests of the workers, often placed in a position of inequality vis-à-vis their employers. The subjective aspect receives priority attention in the papal document. A worker works, transforms himself, and becomes human by means of this existential process. He comes out of his shell, changes and forges strong relationships with his fellow beings. Work is therefore a ’transitive’ activity, meaning that it has its beginnings in a human subject, endowed from the beginning with a logical intelligence. In order to arrive at a result which comes from him(self) the subject applies his capacities to an object. His mastery of techniques passes through an objective stage which is the application of some technique. The task then acquires an ethical characteristic, since “the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say a subject who decides of his own volition.” The actions carried out during the process of work vary a great deal, ranging from typing on a keyboard to acquiring a new client. (LE 4,5, 6)


All these tasks must serve towards the realisation of the humanity of man, “to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” “ The proper subject of work continues to be man.” “The primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject.” Reasoning thus is to situate oneself in the domain of ethics, to give priority to values, to choose purposes, and by the same token to recognise the superiority of the subjective meaning of work over its objective meaning.


The logical conclusion of this approach comes then from the pen of John-Paul II in the form of the rewording of a well known verse from the Gospel regarding the Sabbath: “Work is above all for man and not man for work.” (LE, 6,6) Work needs a time of rest; it must stop at defined moments in time, as the Lord did at the beginning of creation when choosing the Sabbath as a day of rest at the end of his work of creation.


A ‘personalist’ perspective

‘Personalism’ emphases the central nature of the person as an autonomous subject, a freedom-in-work in relationships with other people to make up a society. Meetings are held either face to face or through efficient organisations. The person is situated at the crossroads of the emergence of self and the welcome of the Other. Emptiness is when the person is denied, when “there is nobody any more”, when nobody responds “in person”. The most frequently used word in this text of John-Paul II is the word “person”. As John-Paul writes, “In fact, in the final analysis it is always man who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man  – even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest "service", as the most monotonous even the most alienating work.” (LE, 6,6). From which follows the affirmation which is not refuted in various other places on the planet with different production structures that “the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.”» (LE, 7,3 ). 


For John-Paul, work - thus personalised - acquires an undeniable priority, a true primacy over everything which has only an instrumental character in the production process, which is the characteristic of capital. (LE, 11,3-6) In the function of this concept of work as necessary to the personalisation and socialisation of man, unemployment is  “always an evil”, and when it reaches certain dimensions, it is even a ’calamity’. It becomes a particularly painful problem when, as we can see nowadays in Spain, “it especially affects young people, who after appropriate cultural, technical and professional preparation fail to find work, and see their sincere wish to work and their readiness to take on their own responsibility for the economic and social development of the community sadly frustrated.”  (LE, 18).


We can add that modern work, with its increasing specialisation, entails a very great interdependence between men, which can only serve to increase the need for ethics in work and the importance of social links. The notion of the social body also has to be expanded today, well beyond the networks of interdependence in work. When society has to give birth to a project for everyone, it is ’in labour’ just like a woman producing a child, in creative work, devoting her whole being to the task, passing through the grim stage of pain and travail to become finally transformed in transports of joy. It is the whole of our society that must from now on be ’in labour’ if we are to recognise in each the dignity which characterises it, that which it is called on to become since the beginning. The project must include all people who find themselves marginalised in situations of unemployment. The main question which agitates every society on this planet is this: How to “reinvent  work” in order to make it the place of full and complete solidarity that is capable of generating a real social fruitfulness.


Henri Madelin SJ

Jesuit Office, Strasbourg


Translated from the Original French

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