When I brought up the Protestant work ethic in my previous post about National Narratives, I glossed over important details and context. The Protestant work ethic is more than “hard work brings rewards,” and it important to know where it came from and what else it’s informed. Its past continues to shape our naturalized beliefs today.
Before I dive in further, I have to define what I mean by “naturalized” (see ‘naturalization’).
First off, in this case ‘naturalize’ is a verb used in semiotics, and has little to do with immigration.
Naturalize (a sign): to make a sign or a set interpretation of signs (a code) appear natural or inherent truth; a naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangement will seem common-sense, normal, or self-evident.
These naturalized arbitrary cultural arrangements can range from deeply held ideological beliefs to surface level impressions. The degree to which codes are naturalized can vary as well, as can the degree to which a code is naturalized across a population. These codes can vary in their complexity and in their interpretation or justification. The important part, for our purposes, is that these codes are held as self-evident, normal, or common sense. Inherent, and natural.
Here are six concrete examples of arbitrary cultural arrangements in the US: “Irish people are drunks,” “WASPs are uptight,” “black people are lazy,” “people have a right to own firearms,” “there should be freedom of speech,” “all people are created equal.”
So let’s look at “hard work brings rewards” as it relates to the Protestant work ethic.
When you trace its roots, the Protestant work ethic is founded on specific beliefs about the possibility of reaching Heaven, and the difficulty of knowing who could or would reach Heaven. It relies on the belief that having true (Christian) faith is the only way to go to Heaven, and the assumption that good people want to go to Heaven. Furthermore, it is founded in the concept of good works, and the idea that true faith in God can only exist if faith is present in conjunction with those good works (provided there’s an opportunity for good works—there’s some disagreement among Christian sects about the necessity of good works for salvation, and about what defines “good works”).
In summary, this belief combines “true faith brings the reward of Heaven,” and “true faith requires good works,” into “good works bring the reward of Heaven.”
Not only that, but because possessing true faith in order to go to Heaven is presumably the ultimate goal of any good Christian (remember: “good people want to go to Heaven,” and “Christianity is the only way to Heaven”), therefore good Christians must perform good works.
Notice all the value statements here, all those ‘goods.’ We’ll come back to them later.
Let’s examine this belief from the inside—the naturalized belief that “good works bring the reward of Heaven.” What if we follow its internal logic when thinking about people in society?
True faith isn’t reliably visible. But a person’s actions are. If someone performs good works, we may reason that they may have true faith and may thus go to Heaven. Good works bring the reward of Heaven (we’ll assume that this person has faith).
Conversely, by this reasoning someone who does no good works lacks true faith. If they lack true faith, they are damned. While the arguments about this are long and varied, the usual answer is that their damnation is probably their own fault.
Thus, if “good works bring the reward of Heaven” is a naturalized belief—if we think it’s inherently true—then it should also be true that someone’s lack of good works means they won’t go to Heaven. It allows us to make a moral judgement about them: they’re not good enough. They might even be a bad person.
That’s a value statement which can be inferred from this naturalized belief.
But what if society reapplies this code, “good works bring the reward of Heaven,” in a secular context? It could be simplified to “work brings rewards.” Or perhaps “hard work brings rewards.”
But it still carries many of the same implications when thinking about members of society.
Again, let’s follow this belief’s internal logic.
If “hard work brings rewards” is inherently true, and someone works, we’d expect that they would be rewarded. If they’re not rewarded, they must not have worked hard enough—and their lack of rewards can’t be bad luck or adversity, because we know that “hard work brings rewards” is true. As with true faith, good works, and going to Heaven, if someone works hard enough they’ll be rewarded enough to overcome any amount of trouble. Like damnation from the exploration above, someone’s lack of prosperity is their own fault.
Moreover, if “hard work brings rewards” is true and someone isn’t rewarded, they must not be a hard worker. It isn’t difficult to make the leap from someone not being a hard worker to not being a good person. That’s especially true when your beliefs about the rewards of hard work are founded on moral beliefs about good works and going to Heaven. According to this belief, people who aren’t hard enough workers may be bad people. That’s another value statement—more on that in a moment.
There’s an important difference between the religious and the secular forms of these beliefs. It isn’t possible to see someone go to Heaven. But we can see people rewarded, or not rewarded.
According to the strictest form of these beliefs, when someone’s good works are lacking we can guess that they’re not a good person. But when someone lacks rewards, we know that they’re not working hard enough. We know that they’re not good enough to enjoy prosperity.
This is long, but hold on: because of the strong associations between rewards and goodness—and between lack-of-rewards and not-goodness—if someone is rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a good person. And if they’re not rewarded, wealthy, or prosperous it’s easy to believe that they’re a bad person.
And all that reasoning is based on arbitrary cultural arrangements, codified interpretations of a series of signs that we think have specific meaning that is somehow inherently true… even when there’s nothing inherently true about any of it.
It’s easy see the legacies of these lines of thought. They’re deeply ingrained in American society, especially in the secular form. The belief that “hard work brings rewards” is often referred to as Achievement Ideology, and both are integrally linked to the American Dream.
The belief that people who haven’t been rewarded with prosperity may be moral failures or are otherwise to blame has been part of British and American legislation around poverty and welfare for centuries. The moral failing involved varies, depending on who makes the judgement, but it is often laziness, or sin, or some other behavior disliked by the person who believes “hard work brings rewards.” Drunkenness and addiction are often held up as examples, despite research suggesting that these are correlated with environmental stress, and may be reduced through reducing environmental stress.
Yet those moral failings are often taken as signs that people do not deserve aid or succor.
Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth, a basis for modern day philanthropy, very explicitly warns against giving charity to the “unworthy” (p.16, 18) and valorizes the “industrious workman [who says] to his incompetent and lazy fellow, ‘if thou dost not sow, thou shalt not reap,’” (p.6). Modern American welfare, with its work requirements and restrictions, is similarly caught up in the idea that giving to people who don’t deserve it is perilous. And Britain’s New Poor Laws in the Victorian Era intentionally made the support they offered no better than living in abject poverty, out of concern that people would rather claim support than work. These are the same laws which gave rise to Charles Dickens’ famous novels about impoverished people in Victorian England.
Yet it’s entirely possible to work hard and receive no reward. American slavery is an obvious counterargument to the naturalization of the idea that “hard work brings reward.” Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed delves into the experience of the low wage labor market in the 1990’s after the US’ 1996 welfare reform act, and how little reward hard labor brought.
The few existing experiments involving unconditional financial giving and support to members of communities (often called Universal Basic Income) suggest that the fear of laziness the New Poor Laws were based on, and which Carnegie articulated, was largely baseless. The Canadian experiments of the 1970s showed little decline in employment after the introduction of Basic Income, and Namibia’s experiments from 2008 to 2009 were successful on multiple fronts, including “facilitat[ing] an increase in employment and income” (BIG Assessment Report, p.68).
“Hard work brings rewards” is a naturalized code. It’s an arbitrary cultural arrangement, a belief that is not inherently true. Plenty of people work hard and get nowhere, while others work little and yet prosper.
I don’t write this to demean hard work, or to claim that people should not work hard. I am too much a product of our society to not value hard work, especially for a good cause.
But what might our world look like if we recognized that those who’ve prospered aren’t necessarily good, and those who’ve suffered aren’t bad? How much better might we treat each other? How much more willing might we be to make ways for us to support each other?
Last time, it took the Great Depression for us to have this epiphany—and we may be on track for another Great Depression. Last time, because of Southern Democrats (and others) clinging to racism, we only helped some of our fellows.
What if we did better this time?