Theology of Work

A postfordist view of human responsibility in work from a theological perspective

Being originally, What Theology of Work best describes your understanding of Human Responsibility?

Adrian Worsfold

April 1997

The Economy We're In

Outlining trends in the economy precede relevant religious perspectives on human responsibility.

The information society is one key development. The increasing simplicity of computer-human interfaces accesses increasingly complex and powerful programs. These include huge relational databases, and research now includes linking databases which were not formally designed together. The second related development is in the Internet as a world library, constantly enlarged by new information. It incorporates other media, work groups and conferencing. Spreadsheets, word processing and automation allows control over economic processes.

The information age gives power to the tertiary economy. Supermarkets, for example, not only reorder just in time, but swipe cards mean they know where the goods go and what else each consumer buys. Tax and social security can be an information system. Insurance and credit want to know more about individuals. Gene mapping is a significant development.

Thus a surveillance society is threatened unless there are liberal means of access and accountability. There has to be a legal separation of information. Access requires computer literacy. It may be in the future that virtual reality reform movements have to take place. This demands updated training: not the statistical and people processing of government schemes (like my mind numbing experience of "play work" in a Training and Enterprise Council sponsored IT training), but up to date accessing skills, personal development and critical education.

The second main movement is postFordism. Fordism and Taylorism (together a management system of Adam Smith like breaking down tasks into their minimum components and removing the intellectual element into central planning) fitted bureaucratic career work and economies of scale. Now the intellectual element is decentralising and work becomes team based.

Secondary production was the Fordist lynchpin, which primary industries supplied and tertiary industries distributed and financed (distorted by short term financing and currency requirements). With high fixed costs and low variable costs, standardised parts and products entered mass markets over long runs. Japanisation changed this (first in Italy in Europe in the late 1970's). Smaller assembly suppliers are contracted to big firms "just in time" and meet quality thresholds. Thus the larger firm is freer to alter output. Paddy Ashdown visited Derby and Burton, 22 to 22 June 1993, after the 1992 General Election. Eamonn Kearney ran Johnson Control Automotive (JCA) in the same manner as Toyota which it supplied, and he told Paddy Ashdown that just in time is 'like a drug':

'You are always living on the edge of your chair, everyone has to be pulling their weight - everyone has to be thinking all the time - everyone has to realise that, if something goes wrong it's not "your" problem, or "his" problem, it's "our" problem and we'd better solve it.

I left Derby the following day thinking that this was a good motto for a firm - an even better one for a country. (Ashdown, 1994, p. 148)

Large firms sell off more diverse areas or grant more autonomy down the line. Thus Hull's Holliday Pigments was sold by Reckitt and Coleman to a more specialist firm, management was restructured and greater focus put upon the product and the competition.

Mass markets needed stability, which called for government Keyenesian demand management. Now economies of scope can replace economies of scale for specialist marketing and this basis for demand management diminishes.

British capitalism in particular had a "feudal" bloc character of managers and workers as status groups involved in bargaining. The labour bloc was largely semi-skilled but of a market power that commanded reasonable wages. Differentials were established, and, with unionisation, made labour the least flexible of factors of production. Now flexibility is key. Some workers use IT and enjoy "empowerment" in groups, although this can be viewed as a more ingeneous means of powerlessness and control!

Mass markets were linked to easily identifiable national working class public housing and lower middle class private housing lifestyles. Now there is a profusion of sectoral lifestyles. Old mass market capitalism represented a social democratic consensus of mass political parties. Now politics has little ideology left. Voters lose out as national boundaries break down as International capitalism predominates and only then relates to regional consumer cultures. Government is a weak referee, limited in its effect over the flows of capital with insufficient tools to even try to balance inflation and unemployment.

The stability of careers, by which individuals have borrowed to buy homes and raise families, become available only to some corporate few (and many of these only develop Curriculum Vitaes). Others either provide short term highly paid specialist work bought in by firms, or have uncertain pay and employment in low skilled services; or (educated or uneducated) inhabit a large pool of underemployment and unemployment in poverty.

Christian Concerns

Christian approaches have been concerned with the debate between market freedom, control and social justice, in its concept of human responsibility.

Roman Catholicism continues to demand the priority of labour over capital in the economic system. The state should plan and reduce inequalities, but subsidiarity means such is subject to the rights and duties of individuals and families.

Yet private capital is now trimphant. This is reflected by Conservative Christians arguing for a free competitive market economy but collective laws on personal reproductive morality for human responsibility; against this Christian Socialists maintain the need for regulation to gain social justice in the economic sphere. Ronald Preston has expressed this latter position sabbath like:

Perhaps the underlying Christian concern is to insist that "economic growth is made for man and not man for economic growth"... (Munby, 1966, p. 112)

Most industrial mission insights have related to this camp. Margaret Kane (Kane, 1980, p. 85) sees dreams of returning to full employment, diversification and small firms and service industries bringing renewed success, participation in more manageable enterprises, using skills to the full, controlling one's own work, making money for oneself rather than others, using technology appropriately and rejecting affluence itself in favour of more human values. Her signs of hope involve the right to useful work (p. 112-115), renewing the urban setting (pp. 115-118) and young people gaining experiential and social education (pp. 118-120).

Given the changing economic structure, a recommendation for collective bargaining could be extendable to how business works.

A complete change in the style of organisational behaviour in all institutions, and for industry a change from an authoritative to a participatory style of industrial relations. (p. 67)

Most people of humanist views or of other religions can enter this debate this far. However, these participants are lost when its underlying purpose is revealed: the theology of Churches, the Kingdom of God and eschatology. Margaret Kane claims that:

The struggle for faith is part of the struggle to be human... There is only one humanity, and it is the humanity offered to God in and through Jesus Christ. Moments when we anticipate the perfection of our humanity may be celebrated now, but for final perfection we must wait. (Kane, 1980, p. 168)

Two Mythic Sources for a Theology of Work

The notion that we must "wait" shows the place of eschatology in the Christian perspective: that something external must happen to give perfection. It hands over final responsibility to a myth system and its contained God to deliver. It is not the only one humanity but one belief.

This one belief has undergone the decline of the Churches and economic change. Even Christian apologists see this. John Robinson implies that the Kingdom of God is greater than the Church (Robinson, 1980, p. 46) but the Church was central and yet he asks where are the Niebuhrs and Temples of yesteryear? New leads will come not from the old centres but from the edges as with liberation theology, black theology, women's theology, other disciplines, other faiths and those outside the churches altogther (p. 96). The old Niebuhrs and Temples related to a more unified religious condition and mixed Fordist economy, both now arguably passing away.

So now all religious believers make their mythic contributions to a bigger pot. This is partly because "subsidiarity", regarded so highly by Roman Catholicism, as such includes the relativity of all beliefs and doctrines, fragmenting cultural and social identities (including labour), and capitalism diminishing the state. This suggests postmodernism.

New approaches must consider the diversities of the networking information society, postFordist economics and postmodernism. A creedless or credally ambiguous theology can faciliate diversity and deal with transcience and major change. Generated myths should also recognise their own self-evolution and limitations. I combine Unitarian and Western Buddhist insights, combining pragmatism and history with a new and radical application.

The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) and the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) was founded by Sangharakshita in the 1960's, a native Briton ordained in both Hinayana and Mahayana traditions during 25 years mainly in India. The movement has autonomous regional centres in Britain, parts of Europe, America and India. It makes a distinction between importing a cultural baggage around Buddhism and its essentials.

Something of the Fordist - 'the Church' link can be recalled with the argument Sangharakshita makes that Christianity promotes the group over the individual. He thus rejects it - unless Christianity dissociates from the Old Testament, gives up the belief in God, makes Christ a teacher not saviour and improves on Jesus's teachings (Sangharakshita, 1990, p. 38). I agree. He may not like the dovetailing but I see a logical connection between Western Buddhism and the potential of Unitarian pluralism, drawing on its roots and offering further development of social (in terms of values) liberalism.

From its earliest days non-conformity used business to gain social status. Once the Salters' Hall Conference in 1719 had decided among most Presbyterians, General Baptists and a minority of congregationalists to reject creeds in favour of the sufficiency of the Bible, a somewhat literalist reading of Unitarian conclusions gained entry into English Presbyterianism. This movement combined miracles through to the resurrection, materialism, science and deism with economic liberalism. Out of it came the market and the invisible hand. The rising class of Mercantilist Presbyterians became capitalists.

The discovery of natural laws was seen as a form of divine revelation intended to facilitate the exploitation of what came to be thought of as 'natural resources'. (Hewett, 1985, p. 71)

Its middle class and free trade political radicalism up to the 1832 Reform Act and beyond intended to sweep away the social, political and religious restrictions of the old regime. Then, as families passed money down their lines, and their businesses grew against perceived social and moral urban chaos, many became philanthropic.

This was not just altruistic or charitable, but made good business sense. One necessary Unitarian model village was built at a textile mill at Styal in Cheshire. Not unlike the Quaker Garden Village in Hull, the housing and facilities involved a kind of social contract with the factory and its owners (although workhouse supplied labour of up to 18 years of age was under indenture, a form of paid slavery).

Unitarianism became two movements, one of a sovereign God and concerned with industry, education and welfare, and the other pietistic, mystical and liturgical which reinvented old English Presbyterianism (Webb, 1986). Whiggish economic liberalism became social liberalism and eventually spilled into Welfare State socialism (see McLachlan, 1972, pp. 174-5). With opposition to original sin, its theology was the  building of the Kingdom of God on earth, while all sides had sought civic respectability.

With sociological marginalisation (as every other Church), Unitarianism found its Christian wings merging and a new wing of pluralism emerged.

Any pluralist theology intends to promote: liberation from conformity and ignorance; human values; freedom, reason and tolerance; decentralisation; and more than the material. These come from constitutional creedlessness, and evolution of practice. Process supercedes beliefs, which differ.

A number of pluralist Unitarians draw on Eastern insights. My use of Western Buddhism relates to its non-theism (develops to non-realism) and because there follows a pragmatic spirituality. It claims to offer Western culture "a New Society in the midst of the old" (Subhuti, 1983, p. 174).

Many Order members as well as Friends work in the wider world, but the movement itself developed "ethical businesses", in the context of the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the key route to the New Society (p. 174). These include publishing and vegetarian cafes as part of its own financing and providing work.

Work provides a skilful outlet for human energies, through which people can learn about themselves; inaction leaves most people flat and bored. Within the context of the New Society work provides the opportunity to to act alongside others who are also trying to develop. In the co-operatives which the FWBO has established, work is always 'Right Livelihood': it is ethically skilful. The profits of the work not only supports the workers but also contribute to the running of Centres and the spread of the Dharma in many different ways.

Although a lot of work may be done, a skilful life is not a hectic one. it is balanced: work is balanced with play, effort with relaxation. Leisure is not used as a form of distraction or concentration. In fact, living in  simple way, one will be happy to sit quietly and do nothing at all. (Subhuti, 1988, pp. 83)

A central problem identified by the movement is anomie and alienation throughout the cravings of Western life, whether money or sex, which seduce more that they deliver.

Although no particular sexuality is promoted (unlike Christianity's continued emphasis on monogamous heterosexuality), and a variety of relationships exist, communities have evolved in a single sex framework. The effect is rather like that of the Bransholme Women's Centre, where its single sex arrangement allows training aspects to develop without distraction.

So there is a key emphasis on developing friendship and internal cooperation in business relationships. Metta or loving kindness is a goal. Also there is a wider definition of work involved, beyond simple emplyment.

This approach is extendable. If idealistic, it also suggests a Middle Way striving for a psychology of the purpose of work with co-operative reliance and individual self-development - protecting the individual from the collective (Sangharakshita, 1990, p. 39). This is also the rationale of Unitarian pluralism.

The Economy we might be in

The postFordist economy provides opportunities for diversity but equally generates dukkha or alienation. Raw competition suggests dynamism but can be stressful and destructive. It is not necessarily beneficial to business organisations which are price makers and trade with inequalities of information.

The point is that if information is held asymmetrically and your welfare depends in part on other people's strategies, the prosecution of undiluted competitive self-interest is often self-defeating. (Hutton, 1995, p. 251)

With cooperation comes trust, a social contract.

If there is trust, the transaction costs of doing business can be lowered because trust reduces the need to invest in costly information gathering. (p. 252)

Workers become more productive when a social contract exists, as developed historically from Owen's New Lanark Mills and co-operatives and Unitarian style businesses. Trust today means more information and decision sharing. However, whilst such medium to large corporations are economically very significant, they are becoming less significant in employment.

More efficiency once meant lowered factor prices and released factors of production allowing increased output and more services in the economy which reemployed the displaced workers. Today, any increases in production or services are rapidily absorbed by technology. A resulting competitiveness of labour dampens an even greater shedding of labour, but it still shedding. This leaves a problem of how to circulate large corporate profits through the economy which might then demand and generate newer goods and services.

Even if a huge increase in diversity and quantity of output was possible to absorb labour, one can imagine the strain on natural resources and infrastructure. Lifestyle must change. One start relating to agriculture might be vegetarian eating, giving the land more potential.

Therefore some collective regulation, income redistribution and welfare provision remain necessary, but focussed upon work and education that meets the need for diversity and a sense of self-control, choice, accountability and creative dynamism, with new definitions.

Education, for example, should not just be for training, but "releasing potential" as the Humberside Training and Enterprise Council slogan at least suggests. It may have to be possible to separate work and employment. Olya Khaleelee and Eric Miller (writing from a Christian angle) see a separation between a Protestant work ethic and Protestant employment work. They ask:

"Instead of paid work as a part of life," said one person, "it will have to be work as part of paid life." "The doing has to be divorced from the paying." (Khaleelee, Miller, 1984, p. 8)

Still, money is vital to live. An underclass and a poverty trap benefits system generates a black economy. Orchard Park and North Hull Enterprises is an example of bridging the gap, and allowing small busines growth through self-employment and employing others legally. The Prince's Youth Business Trust is another example but, when hanging twenty paintings in an assisted cafe, I overheard business advisors admitting this scheme has a high wastage rate. Located up three flights of stairs beyond a music shop in the city centre and out of the way of an intended student clientele, this failed.

Many who come to Western Buddhist work were unemployed or on low wages, and gain a sense of control, space and purpose and change lifestyle.

In the context of the problems and opportunities of the postFordist economy, as elsewhere, the human responsibility here is not to seek some collective common good but to encourage, nurture and enhance what makes human beings unique: their creative individuality within society and culture. Thus I draw upon Unitarian pluralism and Western Buddhism.


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