Why the Dignity of Labour Can’t Save Us From Total Work

Why The Dignity of Labour Can’t Save Us From Total Work

James Simpkin

In The Dignity of Labour, Labour MP Jon Cruddas makes a case for a world in which the value of work is to be found not in the price of the products created for sale but in terms of the meaning it brings to human life and the communities it creates around itself. However, while Cruddas’s vision may indeed be a laudable one, his analysis is still at risk of leading us back towards what Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper called ‘total work’. Total work is the unfolding of the Weberian Protestant work ethic in an ever more secularised world to such an extent that work today has become our God, seen as the fount of our very being, demanding the sacrifice of all our time, family relationships, and physical and mental health (Taggart, 2018a, 2018b).

The essential core of human dignity must be decoupled from the capacity to work. When viewed through the lens of total work, whatever virtues work can indeed call forth in us —a sense of duty and care towards others, for example — it simply cannot bear the existential load that is being asked of it by Cruddas: to provide ourselves and our communities with the very meaning of life itself. This is because if it is work in itself that grants us dignity then it follows that the harder one works the more dignity one has, and soon one will find oneself back in the cycle of workaholism and burnout. Instead, this essay argues that although Cruddas’s practical prescriptions for a better working life — the resurgence of workplace democracy with a focus on trade unionism to pursue better pay and conditions, even a guaranteed right to work — are socially and politically laudable aims, a proper relationship with work can only come from the refusal to allow work to be anything other than a means to securing what Buddhist thinkers have called ‘right livelihood’—a way of obtaining the necessities of life and nothing more (Taggart, 2020a).

In order to reach this conclusion, this essay builds its argument as follows. Firstly, I outline the philosophical and ethical foundations underpinning Cruddas’s vision of good work, as well as the very practical policy recommendations he puts forward to achieve this goal. Secondly, I outline Pieper’s concept of total work and then use it to mount a critique of Cruddas’s vital and sincere but ultimately incomplete conceptualisation of a proper relationship with work. Finally, I synthesize these two viewpoints in order to correct what is lacking in Cruddas’s vision and integrate additional insights from Buddhist teaching to suggest that the only way to cultivate a healthy attitude towards work is through divesting it of the existential load to provide our lives with meaning (Taggart, 2021).

The Dignity of Labour

Jon Cruddas is the Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for the East London parliamentary seat of Dagenham and Rainham. Cruddas comes from an academic and public policy background; he holds a PhD in industrial and business strategy, was the Deputy Political Secretary to Tony Blair during the early years of his Premiership and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford. Cruddas can therefore be seen as a standard bearer of the intellectual socialist tradition within the UK Labour Party, in a similar way to MPs Anthony Crosland and David Marquand in the 1960s, and earlier extra-parliamentary socialists such as Harold Laski and G.D.H Cole. Indeed, Cruddas’s constituency is home to the monumental Ford Dagenham plant which was the site of major struggles over working conditions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Cruddas’s experience with labour organizing informs his argument time and again in The Dignity of Labour.

Cruddas’s call for rehabilitation of the workplace as the prime site of political struggle is grounded in Marx’s interpretation of David Ricardo’s Labour Theory of Value (LTV). In On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) Ricardo sought to scientifically establish that the amount of labour required to make a product determined its price (Cruddas, 2021, p.36). Cruddas reminds his comrades of Marx’s critique of the LTV, namely that the real value of work is not reflected in the price of the commodities it produces but in the social relations it forms (ibid). Ricardo’s theory falls apart when price and value diverge, as in the example of a nurse whose labour is socially valuable but who receives low pay (p.84). In rejecting the reduction of the value of human labour to its exchange value (i.e., the price of the products it creates), Cruddas is drawing back to a tradition that values human labour in terms of the meaning it brings to human life and the social relations it generates.

When Cruddas says work brings dignity to people’s lives he means that work ‘helps shape not just how we subsist but what defines us—beyond self-worth or personal standing, and the worth and standing of others—but a deeper shared humanity’ (p.117). Through work, Cruddas argues, we build our independence and a sense of identity.

Cruddas asserts that the past 30 or more years of neo-liberalism—including those of the New Labour government of Tony Blair in which he was a participant—have corroded the possibility of dignified work for most people. He writes that after ‘years of virtually zero productivity gains, households appear to have boosted incomes by working more hours in more jobs and with more intensity’ (p.77). However, according to Cruddas, a Universal Basic Income is not a desirable solution to inequality and exhaustion. All UBI will lead to, argues Cruddas, is a form of ‘indentured consumption’ in which any kind of bonds of collective struggle or community formed around work are destroyed and human interaction is reduced to a mere economic transfer between the state and the citizen as the perfect neo-liberal unit of economic consumption (pp.124, 173). For Cruddas, the rise of the gig economy and zero-hours contracts are the products of labour law rather than inevitable technologically determined outcomes (p.128).

Instead, Cruddas advocates for a return to workplace industrial democracy (p.129) and for the need to organise industrially and politically for ‘decent job and income guarantees, collective rights, strong unions and decent public services’ (p.172). What people want most from work, writes Cruddas, is ‘autonomy, influence and discretion over their labour, voice, initiative making, high-impact suggestion making’ (p.124). Indeed, Cruddas gives some very specific policy recommendations in pursuit of this goal including the establishment of a government backed What Works Centre to define and promote Good Work throughout the public services and their supply chains, the promotion of a Good Work Covenant which would include the right to work, fair reward, dignified work, participation in decision-making, and the establishment of workers councils with a role in electing worker directors (pp.175-78).

Total Work

Although Cruddas’s policy proposals have much to recommend them, and if enacted would certainly lead to much better working conditions, they still contain a fundamental flaw; in their lionisation of work as the locus of personal dignity, they ultimately lack the escape velocity to break free from the initial conditions that over time strip workers of their dignity in the first place. For if dignity is secured through work, then we are still trapped within the logic that the one who works harder has more dignity than the one who does not, and so the temptation remains to work as hard as one possibly can in order to maximise one’s dignity, with all the associated individual and social pathologies that can arise from overwork.

The fundamental flaw in Cruddas’s analysis appears to be his lack of engagement with the work of Catholic Theologian Josef Pieper and his concept of ‘total work’. In his seminal work, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, published in 1948, Pieper sets out his argument that through the evolution of the protestant work ethic in an increasingly secularised world, work has become our God today; the fount of our very identities to which we will sacrifice everything (Taggart, 2018a, 2018b). 

Cruddas’s apparent lack of engagement with Pieper is curious because Cruddas is himself a liberal Catholic, and he does draw on Catholic social teaching in his critique of modern working conditions. Indeed, in his book Cruddas reaches back to the Rerum Novarum (Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour), issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, which asserts the moral imperative to regulate capitalism and the preferential option for the poor. He also quotes Pope John Paul II from the Laborum Exercens, to state that work is not simply a commodity but ‘a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth’ (p.112). Cruddas notes that a repeating motif in Catholic thought is, ‘the recognition of dignity in others as a means of recognising it in ourselves’, and that therefore this ethic should also manifest in the duties that employer and worker have towards each other under capitalism (p.113). Yet what Cruddas is missing in his analysis that the addition of the total work critique could provide is that while work can help us cultivate important virtues – care, responsibility (Taggart, 2020b) – it cannot be the ultimate source of our dignity.

One practical manifestation of the lacuna that arises from the lack of an integration of total work into his advocacy of dignified work is Cruddas’s inability to explain the ‘puzzle’ of falling productivity in the UK labour market. For Cruddas, the question of why an ever-growing number of British workers are ‘working harder, faster and to tighter deadlines than they did in the past’, yet still experience ‘heightened insecurity’, remains a mystery (p.77). However, with the addition of total work as a critical lens in the analytical toolbox the contradiction becomes clear. The missing piece of the ‘puzzle’—its ‘surplus value’ so to speak—is the ideology of total work itself. It is not only that people are working harder, but that they believe they must always work harder. Their sense of self-worth is intimately bound up with their ability to work as hard as possible. The result is that people feel compelled to work so hard that they burn out, resulting in the corresponding fall in ‘labour productivity’.

Further problems can be found in Cruddas’s archaeology and rearticulation of the Victorian Arts and Craft movement centred around the socialist thought of artist John Ruskin and writer William Morris in which work, liberated from the utilitarian calculations of capitalist means of production, could become a form of creative expression in itself. Ruskin sought to separate what we value in life from mere political economy—‘there is no wealth but life,’ he wrote in Unto This Last—and instead asked ‘what kind of labour is good for men [sic], raising them, and making them happy’ (cited in Cruddas, 2021, p.142). For Morris, art represented a way of resisting commodification. ‘Give me love and work, these two only’, he says in The Hollow Land. Morris described ‘worthy work’ as that which creates utility, beauty and meaning (cited in Cruddas, 2021, p.143). And yet, lovely as these visions are, if they are ultimately underpinned by the idea that work liberates—even in a purely creative sense—then they are still prone to fall back into the clutches of total work logic.

Right Livelihood

So, then, having set out Cruddas’s vision of dignified Labour and then critiqued it through the application of total work, how can we synthesise the best of both worldviews and offer something constructive to build upon? Here, we might draw on the writing of Zen Buddhist and philosopher Andrew Taggart, who reminds us that the Buddhist response of ‘right livelihood’ to work is to seek to decouple one’s self-worth from how hard one works. Under right livelihood work becomes ‘Nothing more but also nothing less. Just a humble way of supporting life and of contributing to the perdurance of others’ sentient lives’ (Taggart, 2020a). An attitude of right livelihood towards work also does not deny that work itself cultivates certain important virtues such as care, responsibility, humility, and generosity (Taggart, 2020b); a sense of justice requires that we see the work we have been given through to the end (Taggart, 2021).

Work will not disappear, and sometimes it may be hard. As the old Zen kōan goes, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water’. The difference is that by adopting an attitude of right livelihood towards work we no longer feel obligated to do too much work. This is why Cruddas’s very practical policy recommendations are important and worth pursuing, as they are intended to protect from exploitation in the workplace. Under an attitude of right livelihood towards work, and coupled with workplace democracy, instead of feeling like asserting our boundaries around work was a sign of weakness, we would be able to speak constructively to managers when we feel that too much was being asked of us and to ask for different working arrangements. At the personal level, perhaps instead of seeing oneself as acting out the role of whatever professional label is attached to one’s work, be it ‘teacher’, ‘plumber’ or whatever one’s employment may happen to be, and thereby also acting out the associated professional burnout, one might instead cultivate a feeling of lovingkindness towards the person in front of us and simply seek to help them in the best way possible at that moment (Taggart, 2016). Under such circumstances, it might be said that a healthy attitude towards work would orient our sense of duty towards helping our colleagues and our customers, clients, patients, students, whatever the case may be, but not work itself. 


Cruddas, J. (2021) The Dignity of Labour

Pieper, J. (1948) Leisure, the Basis of Culture

Taggart, A. (2016) “We’re Supposed to be Fucking Professionals!”

Taggart, A. (2018a) Total Work Newsletter #6: The Three Societies

Taggart, A. (2018b) Total Work Newsletter #31: We Do Not See This As A Prison

Taggart, A. (2020a) Total Work Newsletter #50: Preaching, Endgames, And Secular Monks

Taggart, A. (2020b) Total Work #56: The New Aristocracy

Taggart, A. (2021) Total Work #58: Concluding Chapter: A New Aristocracy

James Simpkin is a high-school teacher, he recently submitted a book manuscript based on his PhD thesis on the relationship between the UK and US over ballistic missile defence to Routledge. He lives with his family in West Yorkshire, UK. You can follow his writing at https://www.microliberations.com and on twitter @microliberation, as well as his podcast on the intersection of military technology and strategy at https://anchor.fm/hypervelocity