Every time I see earth moving equipment, I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s definition of work. In his essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” he writes
Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
Thus in more colloquial language, there are two kinds of people in the world of work; namely, those who move the earth, and those who tell them where to put it.
Bearing in mind that Russell’s essay was published in 1932, and that the notion of work has seen substantial re-conceptualization since then, I still think his division of work is a colorful and striking dichotomy. But for me, it has also been a puzzle. I taught college for some 38 years during my working life, and I’m not sure which category of work I did. I certainly didn’t move the earth, nor as far as I know, did I tell anyone where to put it. Presumably college graduates are more likely to wind up telling others where to put the earth rather than move it themselves. If this is correct, then my function was to serve the reproduction of the managerial class.
There are obvious problems with Russell’s division of labor. He was a philosopher. Which category of work did he do? Into which category do the self-employed fall? How about service workers of all types?
Russell’s second point is certainly true. Management invariably makes more money than labor. But labor these days includes lots of people who don’t “alter the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface.” To quibble too much over the definition of work, and consequently, of workers does a disservice to the main point of Russell’s essay. It was his position that modern methods of production make it possible for us all to work less, achieve full employment, and lead richer lives. Instead, we demand that some work extended hours while others go without work. Those who work do not have an adequate amount of leisure and those without work cannot afford the leisure they have. Russell claims that this “foolish” social arrangement is buttressed by the ideology that only work and making money is virtuous, while leisure and consumption are not.
I don’t see that much has changed since his day.