By John Merrick
January 22 2021
We spend the majority of our waking lives at work. Yet we rarely speak about work itself—that is, the actual tasks we carry out—whether we’re making pizzas, cleaning hotel rooms, fixing cars, or even writing essays. Of course, we often hear talk of ‘work’; about the nature of employment, changes in the workplace, or who works and why. We have all heard stories about the coming age of automation, the rise of novel forms of service work and precarious labour, or the birth of the ‘new world of work’. But work itself—the things that we do when we arrive at the office, or the shop, or the bar, or the myriad other places in which we labour, what actually constitutes a job—is something that many of us try to forget as soon as the working day is done.
It’s difficult to blame people for this. Surely none of us, really, wants to be working. Why then, would we want to extend that into our free time? Being out of work is no relief either; to paraphrase the economist Joan Robinson, the only thing worse than having a job is not having one at all. If working is mainly about earning enough money to live, then not working is hardly a relief. When we finally get home, most people want nothing more than to forget about the hours just gone, the time that we’ve given to someone else filled with small victories and petty indignities. But work isn’t only drudgery, it’s also a form of meaningful activity that gives purpose to many people’s lives. There’s an obvious contradiction here, but it’s one that is rooted in material reality.
'Talking about what we do all day'
Perhaps if we were to talk about work more, things would be otherwise. Talking can be a form of critical reflection that allows us to go beyond our immediate individual impressions of work, filled as they are with contradictions, to something more: a richer, deeper understanding perhaps. It’s necessary for us to talk about work, not least because complex forms of labour require us to. Talking is so important because through the process of sharing our experiences of work, we can begin to form new collectivities in and beyond the workplace.
Despite this, attempts to get people to write about or share their working lives have often been few and far between. The most famous account of work from workers themselves is Studs Terkel’s pioneering oral history, Working. Published in 1974, the book contains interviews with 130 people, most of whom resided in and around the Chicago area where Terkel worked as a radio presenter. The interviewees, ranging from farmers to bin men, football coaches to jazz musicians, ad executives to valets, talk about their everyday experiences of work, what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, the meaning of it for them.
Soon after publication the book became a best-seller, and it’s not hard to see why. In Working, Terkel created a masterpiece of social reporting. He’s a dazzling interviewer, and he records people’s reflections on their life and work with a searing honesty. How he does this I’m not sure, but with Terkel we get people in all of their difficult, full, real, selves. We have the Lordstown spot-welder describing his work as a jail sentence, the school teacher with her excoriating attack on her pupils and their families, Lovin’ Al the valet bragging about his parking skills.
Observing the ordinary
Britain wasn’t free from mid-century oral histories either. Some of the first arrived through Mass Observation, initiated in the late 1930s by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. The project’s aim was to turn the anthropological gaze back onto ourselves, recording, with the help of ordinary people, the everyday lives of the British public. It wasn’t just working lives that Mass Observation recorded. It was the experience of war, the celebrations of the King’s coronation, the life of a northern pub, everyday loves and losses.
Thirty years later, and under the influence of the burgeoning field of ‘history from below’ typified by E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a less ambitious but no less revealing project began, aimed at rescuing the history of working class men and women (but mainly men) ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’. Starting in 1965 and finishing as the sixties came to an end, the British journal New Left Review published some 50 personal accounts of working life in Britain. Gathered together and edited by the oral historian of the Spanish Civil War, Ronald Fraser, the series carried none of the interviewing apparatus of Terkel’s collection. Instead, each is framed as a stand-alone essay (although there is little doubt that many of them carried as much editorialising as those in Working).
The best place to see these accounts is in the two collections published in 1968 and 1969, simply entitled Work and Work Volume 2. A concluding essay by Fraser stresses just what the editors saw as the stakes of the series:
The widespread interest in this series points to the lack of occasion under monopoly capitalism for serious individual expression of the meaning and purpose of work… To talk about work other than instrumentally is, however fragmentarily, to question its basic capitalist nature rather than solely its inequitable economic returns.
For Fraser then, talking about work was a potentially counter-hegemonic act. By illuminating and sharing people’s everyday struggles at the workplace, he hoped that new solidarities could be formed, new struggles begun. The essays are all illuminating studies of working, or in the case of Jock Keenan the unemployed miner, not working. His account is one of the richest, filled with his struggles to maintain his dignity and pride in the face of being ‘a fit object for little more than charity’.
‘Frankly I hate work’, Jock says. ‘Of course I could also say with equal truth that I love work; that it is a supremely interesting activity; that it is often fascinating…that I wish I didn’t have to do it’.
Once again, the contradictions of working life.
Digging where we stand
But perhaps the most interesting, if little known, example of ‘talking about work’ came later. In 1976, the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist published a book called Gräv där du står (Dig Where You Stand). Lindqvist, better known for pioneering works of historical excavation-cum-travelogues like Exterminate All the Brutes and A History of Bombing, starts with a simple proposition: that the people who know a workplace best are the workers themselves. It is they who should, in fact, be writing about their work; not the professional historians or journalists, or even the time-study man and the factory owner.
It’s not just because they are the experts when it comes to their work that he says this either. Behind Lindqvist’s project, there is a deeply democratic impulse. It’s a ‘project’ because Dig Where You Stand is no ordinary book of reflections. Different in both form and content from both Terkel and Fraser’s collection, Dig Where You Stand is not a work written from on high and handed down to the people. Nor is it a set of essays or interviews with people about their work. In fact, it’s hard to describe quite what it is—less a set of didactic prescriptions, than a handbook on how workers can investigate where they work for themselves.
Lindqvist begins with the example of the concrete industry, from which he goes on to guide the reader through 30 different ways of investigating where and how one works. In so doing, he tries to show how we too might also do the same. It starts on the global scale. Lindqvist asks: how do cement workers in other countries work? So he finds out. He travels to England, choosing a cement works at random from a directory of firms, and ends up near Tilbury on the Thames Estuary. But it turns out the factory he has come to see is shut, so he and a local former-cement worker he met by chance in a Post Office (with a small amount of breaking and entering) rummage through the recently shuttered factory themselves.
From there, Lindqvist leads us down through increasing levels of specificity, from general histories of a company, via its unions and its factory inspectorate reports detailing workplace injuries and deaths, to the way its workers talk, how they survive, what they earn and what they do. He guides his readers towards understanding how, and why, people have worked where they did, and what it meant for them. He instructs us to question authorities, who offer accounts of work skewed by their own vested interests, none of which show what work was actually like.
More so than Terkel or Fraser, Lindqvist doesn’t just want us to discuss and share our experiences of work. He wants workers to take on the task themselves — to have the knowledge and the confidence to run industry on the basis of their own capacities. As Lindqvist writes, ‘those who are to conquer the company must also conquer the picture of the company. A new picture must be created, a picture that puts the work and the workers at the centre’.
The book has had a long history. On its publication in 1976 in Sweden it spawned a movement of workers, ordinary women and men, who investigated and recorded their own experiences of work. The same happened wherever the book was published. France, Germany, Norway, all had similar movements. There has been no English language edition as yet, and we have thus been deprived of one of the great works of social and historical writing.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the “workers’ inquiry”, not least with initiatives like Notes From Below in the UK, and Viewpoint Magazine’s dossier on workers’ inquiry in the US. Both of these have a comparable political goal to Lindqvist’s work, forcing us to reconsider the changing nature of class, labour and forms of resistance available to us at the workplace. Yet, contrary to Lindqvist’s democratic vision, workers’ inquiries can as often as not be externally imposed, inadvertantly resuscitating the anthropological gaze. If we are to talk about work and its importance in our lives, then rescuing something of Lindqvist’s democratic priority will be a vital next step. After all, who is the expert on the work we do but us, the workers ourselves? We all have the power and the ability to wrestle back control of the workplace and to run it in our own interests. And perhaps, after all of this, we can still take power from Lindqvist’s injunction: Dig Where We Stand.
- Fraser, R. (1968) Work: Twenty Personal Accounts. Penguin Pelican: London.
- (1969) Work Volume 2: Twenty Personal Accounts. Penguin Pelican: London.
- Lindqvist, S. (1978) Gräv där du står. Bonniers: Stockholm.
- Terkel, S. (1974) Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Pantheon Books: New York, NY.
- Thompson, E. P. (2013)  The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Books: London.
John Merrick is a writer originally from Crewe, who now lives in London. He writes on culture, class, place, deindustrialisation, and British and Global history, and his work has appeared in TLS, New Statesman, Tribune, Jacobin, New Left Review, Boston Review and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about the experience of working class life in Britain.