Saturday, February 22, 2014

Work is not just work, it is life
By Editor
Sat 30 Nov. 2013, 14:00 CAT

The call by Southern Province permanent secretary Bert Mushala on civil servants to change their work culture should be extended to all of us, to all citizens of this country.

Our current national work culture will not enable us to get the great majority of our people out of poverty and move our country into prosperity. With this work culture, we will not be able to be a middle-income country by 2030. For us to achieve that, a lot has to change in terms of our work culture.

We want a good life, more money in our pockets; we want all the nice things but we don't want to have the sweat that accompanies those nice things.

Nothing good comes out of a life of ease, a life without toil and effort, without labour and sweat.

Our desire to have a good life, a better life, a comfortable life should be accompanied by a desire to toil. In this life, we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. One can be free from the necessity of work only by the fact that he or his fathers before him have worked to good purpose. If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and one still does actual work though of a different kind, he shows he deserves his good fortune. But if he treats this period of freedom from the need of actual labour as a period not of preparation but of mere enjoyment, he shows that he is simply a cumberer on the earth's surface; and he surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the need to do so should again arise. A mere life of ease is not in the end a satisfactory life, and above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.
As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation. An economy is created by millions of people playing various roles at various times. Most people operating within an economy can be compared to the bricks in a building. Each plays a role, but an insignificant one, and each can be replaced without changing the look of the building. In the same way, most of our individual economic activities can be changed without affecting the overall economy; but if enough of us change our economic behaviour, the economy as a whole will change.

There are some whose economic decisions have a much greater impact - bankers financiers, politicians, chief executives, economists and so on and so forth. They are like the lintels, the reinforcing of the beams of the building. Even a small change in their behaviour can have a major effect on the whole edifice. Thus, some people have a much greater influence on the economy, and the consequences of their economic choices are more profoundly felt.

There are others who are pushed to the margins of the economy, who have little or no role to play. They may have been useful at some point, but they have been denied a permanent place in the economy. These people are like the rubble, the broken bricks and the excess sand and stone which, once the building is functional, are taken away and dumped.

Then there is the type of economy, be it capitalist, socialist or perhaps some combination of these. Each brick and each structural piece of a building comes together according to a plan or a blueprint. It is this plan which determines what kind of building it is, how well it fulfils its purpose, and how it impacts on those who use it. Similarly, we conduct our economic lives in the context of an overall plan or set of policies. Just as the plan of a building provides the basic structure into which the bricks or other components must fit, so the policies according to which our economy is operated provide the economic structure in terms of which we live our economic lives.

Of course, it is much easier to think of a building as a building rather than trying to imagine all the different bricks and other parts individually. However, the fact that the economy is so complex can lead to certain problems in the area of our moral responsibility for our economic choices.

We can easily start to believe that we are insignificant as individuals; that the economy is so complicated and so huge that our individual actions and decisions are of no consequence. As a result, we lose a sense of responsibility for those actions and decisions, thinking that whatever we choose to do is only a 'drop in the ocean' and therefore not really important. Thinking in this way can soon result in our choosing the convenient or selfish option, regardless of its 'ripple-effect' on others and the economy as a whole.

We can come to believe that things are simply 'the way they are', and that the negative aspects of the economy, such as poverty and unemployment, are inevitable. We accept that these 'economic realities' are somehow pre-ordained, rather than the result of human agency. This lessens the responsibility we should all feel, especially when our economic choices may be adding to those negative consequences.

The idea of bringing about a change in the economic system, or an adjustment in the way it is run, or simply of dealing with its negative consequences, begins to seem impossible. We resign ourselves to the fact that such a large and complicated structure cannot be modified or altered to become more just. And if change is impossible, then we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for things remaining as they are.

Finally, we transfer our responsibility to certain abstract concepts, and we pretend that it is these concepts, rather than ourselves, that are accountable for the way the economy works. For example, we hear that 'the market is worried' about interest rates when it is actually people who have money to invest, or who need to borrow money, who are worried. We talk of 'market forces' being responsible for the success or failure of a business, when in fact it is we who decide whether or not to buy what that business had to offer. Behind these various concepts lie human actions and decisions, real economic choices made by all of us. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using these concepts as a sort of 'shorthand', a way of talking about economics. The problem arises when we use, intentionally or not, to diminish or exclude our responsibility. We impute human qualities, as it were, to these concepts and make them answerable for the consequences of our actions and decisions.

In the face of so large and complicated structure as the economy, it is all too easy for us to neglect our moral responsibilities. Each of us, even the most influential, is but a small part of the whole. Economic trends are largely unpredictable and bringing about significant and worthwhile change is extremely difficult. Any number of well-intentioned interventions can be seen, with hindsight, to have done more harm than good. Given all these, and the simple fact that by far the majority of us are not confident of our grasp of economic issues and discourse, it is perhaps understandable if we prefer simply to get on with our lives, avoiding the difficult choices and the complex arguments. For all people of goodwill, this is not an acceptable option. We cannot abandon our moral responsibilities, even when it is difficult to fulfil them.

But in order to derive benefit from an economy, people must be able to participate in it; and for most people, the primary means of economic participation is through work. Indeed throughout human history, it has been a basic norm that all are expected to work, and thereby to contribute to the economy. Those who refuse to do so, for no good reason, have generally been excluded from the benefits of the economy.
However, if society expects all its members to work and to contribute, then it should make it possible for them to do so. In this regard, a profound responsibility rests on both the political authorities and those who hold powerful positions in the economy. Everything possible needs to be done to maximise job opportunities, and where the choice is between greater profits and greater employment, the latter must be chosen. This is so because most people rely on work in order to earn a living. There are very few people who do not have to work for a living.

One of the main tasks of an economy, therefore, is to ensure that there are enough jobs, or opportunities to work, to meet people's needs to earn a living. Where there is high unemployment, we have an indication of an unjust economy.

When it comes to the importance of work, we must not consider work just as work; it is life itself.

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