Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Struggle for Meaningful Work

Lisi Krall

I am grateful to Kent Klitgaard for highlighting the degradation of work and environment under industrial capitalism. Klitaard is correct: we are mostly on a vicious treadmill—exchanging degraded labor and employment for more stuff. He is also correct in his claim that “fundamental change” will be necessary to change course. Perhaps it would be beneficial to parse this matter of fundamental change more carefully, especially in light of capital accumulation.

I have a few additional thoughts that came to mind after reading Kent’s thoughtful piece.

It might be beneficial to contemplate the crisis of degraded labor and degraded Earth in deep historical time (though Klitgaard is correct in his assessment of degraded labor under industrial capitalism). Clearly, the degradation of labor did not begin with industrial capitalism; it began with the agricultural revolution. All our idealizing about the agrarian ideal aside, in the 5,000 years after the beginning of agriculture, those humans practicing agriculture orchestrated ecological decay, and 40–80% of the human population came to live in slavery. It is quite possible that industrial capitalism is the most recent variant of an altered social and economic trajectory that began 10,000 years ago. Perhaps we should look for a more expansive notion of the loss of meaningful labor; one that moves beyond the imperative of industrial capitalism to undermine the uniting of head, heart, and hands, to one that includes an incisive exploration of the structure of human labor and its relationship to the non-human world.

Industrial capitalism aside, there is a lot of onerous labor that needs to be done. No one expects that we will eliminate this work with a utopian vision of “decent, meaningful work for all.” Let us use caring labor as an example. While it is true that there exists a degradation of caring labor under a profit system, we must recognize that much of this work is intrinsically onerous and undesirable. Klitgaard clearly understands this. Staying up with colicky infants for months on end, caring for demented parents for years on end, and dealing with addiction of loved ones not only require an invisible heart, but also sometimes require that we reside in an unnatural place of the human heart—merely to survive them. This is the type of work that should be shared because it is so taxing and onerous, but we generally do not share it. Why is that? I intend this as an expansive question, requiring exploration of innate and idiosyncratic expressions of human labor and its organization. No matter how we answer this question, though, Klitgaard is right: “One of the important goals of a Great Transition will be to figure out how to create a new set of social and economic arrangements that reduce hierarchy and reward selfless and caring behavior.”

Lisi Krall
Lisi Krall is Professor of Economics at the State University of New York, Cortland and author of Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History.

Cite as Lisi Krall, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work," Great Transition Initiative (February 2017),

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