When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

04 August 2006

Arbeit gibt nicht frei

Reflecting on the misery of industrial England in the 1840s, Thomas Carlyle mixed acute discernment with moralistic perversity. Capitalism, he wrote in Past and Present (1843), bore 'the Gospel of Mammonism,' in which money, through its 'miraculous facilities,' held its devotees 'spell-bound in a horrid enchantment.' That's a nice encapsulation of capitalism's grotesquely religious character, akin to Marx's later exposition of 'commodity fetishism.' But in the face of that 'Gospel'—whose fruits Friedrich Engels would judge in The Condition of the Working Classes in England (1845)—Carlyle recommended, not the apostasy of revolution, but an evangel of Work. To his tired, hungry, sweated countrymen, Carlyle delivered a sermon on that 'unpreached, inarticulate, but ineradicable and foreverenduring Gospel: Work, and therein have well-being.'

That's quite an admonition to people already burdened with twelve-or-more-hour days, but Carlyle continued to bless the sweat of Adam's curse as the beads of beatitude. A little later, in his 'Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,' Carlyle recounted the character-building benefits of African enslavement with a sanctimonious sadism worthy of Christian Reconstructionists. Behind the racism lay the Gospel of Work, now preached with the brutal eloquence of the whip. "If it be his own indolence" that prevents a man from his "sacred appointment, to labor while he lives on earth," then, Carlyle pronounced, every "wiser, more industrious person" had a duty to " 'emancipate' him from his indolence." (Arbeit macht frei, as a later generation of the Wise and Industrious would put it.) The man who dubbed economics the dismal science was certainly a piece of work.
Eugene McCarraher, "The False Gospel of Work," in Christianity Today (July/August 2006)

Hat tip: Brother Joe Bageant

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