Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

23 April 2013

The Idea of Work

The forthcoming Myths and Realities event at the British Library (to be held on 29 April) will explore whether we ‘work to live or live to work'? Many of us are working longer hours than ever before, and the age of retirement is increasing, while at the same time there is increasing job satisfaction reported many areas. The event will consider whether work is a means to an end or if it is the end itself. In this post, Toby Austin Locke explores the idea of work in our society.

We all have those mornings when we wake up and breathe a deep sigh at the prospect of dragging ourselves from bed, to return to our office or place of work to start all over again. Even those of us who are lucky enough to work in jobs we enjoy, in which I thankfully include myself, every so often face a sinking feeling at the sound of the six o’clock alarm. Our dreams of youth, of being an artist, musician or robot, seem distant absurdities, the follies of youthful imagination.

We all have these moments of despair at the reality of work, at realising we have become something other than the object of our dreams, but as far as I know there is only one case of someone having woken up to find themselves transformed to a giant bug…Ok, maybe not a real case, I do know that Kakfa’s Metamorphosis (2009) isn’t a true story. But regardless of whether it is factual or literary, the point remains the same


Public Domain Mark

Franz Kafka, 1906 

The transformation of Gregor in the Metamorphosis is often considered to mirror Kafka’s life. As his diaries and correspondence (1982) show us, he was torn between a deep dissatisfaction with his job and an immense guilt resulting from his desire to write. His family, and particularly his father, did not consider authorship a worthy way to spend his life – he should work, work hard, and earn good money to support himself and his family. His writings demonstrate the clear anguish these conflicting interests caused within him.

This guilt that arose within Kafka was explored by avant-garde French theorist Georges Bataille in one of his later works, Literature and Evil (1985). In the only existing television interview with Bataille he discusses how Kafka is exemplary in showing how literature is on the side of ‘evil’, of how “writing is the opposite of working” (1958). This seems like an odd statement, and not particularly logical - Bataille is known for his off the wall propositions, next to statements such as “the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space” (1988), the claim that writing is ‘evil’ looks like common sense.

A little contextualisation helps to uncover what is meant by this statement. Bataille comes from a line of philosophy that, following from Nietzsche, considers ‘evil’ as an entirely relative component of socially constructed values and moral codes. ‘Good and evil’ do not hold the same absolute qualities in this way of thinking, as they do in, say, the Christian way of considering morality. ‘Good and evil’ are produced by society’s moral standards and expectations.

German sociologist Max Weber famously described the Protestant work ethic as part of “the spirit of capitalism” (2011). The notion of working hard, of bringing your best to a job whatever that job may be, of being useful, productive, and noble in your labour was considered by Weber as central to capitalist societies’ moral codes. And you can certainly see his point, Government employment policy, as a browse of the employment section of the British Library’s Social Welfare Portal will show, has long been oriented around ensuring people contribute their labour to society, ensuring people are useful and productive. This notion is ever more salient in contemporary government rhetoric, and one could barely ask for a better example than the opening line of George Osborne’s latest budget speech, where he declared “this is a budget for people who aspire to work hard and get on” (2013).

This helps us understand what Bataille means by his statement; what he is saying is that literature goes against this productive work ethic and as this work ethic is generally considered virtuous and ‘good’, the unproductive act of writing literature, the non-useful expenditure of time that it entails, is ‘evil’. Literature is an unproductive use of time and energy.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once considered hunter-gather societies as The Original Affluent Society (2004). He outlined how it was precisely because these societies did not have the drive to work, to produce, because it was considered virtuous, that they were more affluent. These social groups do not work because of a moral code that considers work ‘good’, that insists that the use of time must be focused on productivity and utility, they work for their needs and as a result spend much of their time engaged in seemingly unproductive activity, they are affluent in their leisure time and the time they spend with their social groups and families.

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Situationist International

All this throws up various questions. Why do we work such long hours? Why do we spend so much of our lives in our places of work? Why do we feel the need to always be productive, to always be useful? Do we simply adhere to a socially constituted moral expectation when we work? Or is it something else? Is it that many of us quite simply enjoy working? There are certainly days when one can be forgiven for sympathising with the cries of the radical group Situationist International to “abolish work” (1981). Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves - is work really a means to an end, or, in our societies, is it the end in itself?

Myths and Realities

The event 'Work to live, or live to work?' will be held on the evening of Monday 29 April at the British Library. For further details and booking see our 'What's On' pages.

References and useful links

Bataille, Georges (1958) Interview with Pierre Dumayet,

Batille, Georges (1985) Literature and Evil, London: Boyars, X.950/46419

Batille, Georges (1988) The Accursed Share: an essay on general economy, Vol. 1: consumption, New York: Zone Books, YC.1988.b.10164 

Kafka, Franz (1982) The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-23, Max Brod (eds), Harmondsworth: Penguin, X.958/15070 

Kafka, Franz (2009) Metamorphosis, London: Arcturus, YK.2011.a.28425 

Knabb, Ken (eds) (1981) Situationist International Anthrology, Berkeley California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 83/26856

Osborne, George (2013) Budget speech: full text, New Statesman,

Sahlins, Marshall (2004) ‘The Original Affluent Society’ in Stone Age Economics, Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, YC.2005.a.1789

Weber, Max (2011) The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Oxford University Press, YC.2011.a.16275 

Toby Austin Locke is currently working for the British Library Social Sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London. You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke or read more of his blog-posts at



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