Book of the week: The Story of Work by Jan Lucassen
Lucassen, a Dutch historian, sets out to ‘chronicle the history of human work’
Fittingly, a vast amount of labour has gone into this book, said Christina Patterson in The Guardian. In it, Jan Lucassen, a Dutch historian, sets out to “chronicle the history of human work, from our first strides as Homo sapiens 700,000 years ago to the rise of the robot now”.
He begins his account in the hunter-gatherer period – which accounts for 98% of human history. Although less blissful than is often supposed (stalking mammoths was no picnic), hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian and cooperative than any that have existed since.
Around 12,000 years ago, agriculture emerged, and this eventually generated the increased yields that made it possible for some people to start doing other types of work. “The seeds were sown for the stratified societies we live in now.”
While a book on this scale could have been “full of vague extrapolations”, Lucassen is a lively writer with an eye for the arresting detail. “The result is an encyclopaedic survey that’s also a whistle-stop tour of human history – and it’s absolutely fascinating.”
As “people learnt to wring more output from the land, they built the basis of modern human existence”, said The Economist. Not only did the first professions emerge, but also notions of private property (whose roots, Lucassen suggests, lay in livestock farming). “From around 7,000 years ago the first great cities arose, in Mesopotamia and then South and East Asia.”
In these more complex societies, new working arrangements appeared, including servitude, self-employment and – crucially – wage labour. The latter, Lucassen suggests, eventually combined with “standardised, low-denomination coinage” to produce the “economic magic” that came with “true markets”.
It must be said that reviewing this book often felt like “work, not play”, said James Marriott in The Times. Amid the “daunting subheadings”, and detailing of arcane academic debates, it was hard to discern an “overarching theme”. Yet if one key idea does emerge, it’s the way that, particularly in the modern era, work has “increasingly monopolised human time and human psychology”.
When Lucassen’s survey arrives at the present, his “central and abiding worry” becomes clear, said Simon Ings in The Daily Telegraph. He fears that with the rise of automation and technological surveillance, slavery – a “depressing constant” of recorded history – will make a strong return. It’s a bleak note on which to end a book that, though exhausting, is enlightening – and “full of colour, surprise and human warmth”.
Yale University Press 544pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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