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books Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back

This history of neoliberalism focuses on how this school of thought and governance repurposed the Protestant work ethic to serve the wealthiest one percent.

How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back

Elizabeth Anderson
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-13: ? 978-1009275439

Elizabeth Anderson’s excellent 2023 book Hijacked was published the same month Australian multi-millionaire Tim Gurner said:

“Unemployment has to jump … we need to see pain … Employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them … We’ve gotta kill that attitude…”

America’s Senator Bernie Sanders rebuked Gurner’s diatribe as “disgusting. It’s hard to believe that you have that kind of mentality among the ruling class in the year 2023.”

Ironically, Gurner’s comments favouring employees’ objectification and employer coercive control show just what Hijacked says is: [T]he ascendance of the conservative work ethic… (which) tells workers … they owe their employers relentless toil and unquestioning obedience under whatever harsh conditions their employer chooses …”(xii).

Indeed, “neoliberalism is the descendant of this harsh version of the work ethic … [i]t entrenches the commodification of labor … people have no alternative but to submit to the arbitrary government of employers to survive.” (xii).

Anderson defines neoliberalism as an ideology favouring market orderings over state regulation (xii) to maximise the wealth and power of capital relative to labour (272) where the so-called “de-regulation” of labour and other markets doesn’t liberate ordinary people from the state; it transfers state regulatory authority to the most powerful, dominant firms in each market (xii).

Hijacked follows Anderson’s prior writing on neoliberalism’s replacement of democratically elected public government by the state, with unelected private government by employers. Like other work ethic critiques, Hijacked explains how Puritan theologians behind the work ethic dismissed feelings with contempt for emotional styles of faith worship (3).

The original work ethic proselytised utilitarianism (19) but with inherent contradictions between progressive and conservative ideals (14). Early conservative work ethic advocates included Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus and Edmund Burke (Chapters 2 and 3) who aligned with the new capitalist, manager entrepreneur classes and “lazy landlords, speculators and predatory capitalists” (65) who claimed they exemplified the work ethic (127).

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The work ethic split into conservative and progressive versions which Anderson distinguishes by class-based power relations, rather than competitive markets, as conservatives “favour government by and for property owners, assign different duties to employers and employees, rich and poor” (while expecting) “workers to submit to despotic employer authority” (and) “regard poverty as a sign of bad character … poor workers as morally inferior” (xv).

Progressives like Adam Smith (130-135) supported “democracy and worker self-government. They oppose class-based duties … and reject stigmatization of poverty” (xvi). Anderson traces this “progressive” work ethic to classical liberals like John Locke (Chapter 2), Adam Smith (132-135), John Stuart Mill (Chapter 6) and progressive, socialist thinkers like Karl Marx (Chapter 7) who stressed how paid work should not alienate workers “from their essence or species-being…” (209) but express their individuality, as “[t]he distinctively human essence is to freely shape oneself…” (209).

Furthermore, Locke “condemned the idle predatory rich as well as able-bodied beggars” (65). Marx applied Mill’s emphasis on the importance of individuality, which Anderson links to the Puritan idea that our vocation must match our individual talents and interests (206) whatever our economic class.

Yet our worthiness now had to be proved (to God) by ‘work’ that entailed: disciplining drudgery (9), slavery (10, 259), racism (97-99), exploitative maltreatment of poor people (106) and industrious productivity (52) which became conspicuously competitive, luxury consumption (170).

Conservatives (Chapters 3, 4) secularised these ideas so the “upper-class targets of the Puritan critique hijacked the work ethic … into an instrument of class warfare against workers. Now only workers were held to its demands … the busy schemers who … extract value from others cast themselves as heroes of the work ethic, the poor as the only scoundrels” (65).

Anderson doesn’t idolise Locke, Smith, J. S. Mill and other early progressive work ethic advocates like Ricardo (Chapter 5) by highlighting harsh contradictions in their views. For example, within Locke’s pro-worker agenda were draconian measures for poor children (61) such that Anderson says Locke’s harsh policies for those he called the idle poor, contain “the seeds of the ultimate hijacking of the work ethic by capital owners” (25).

Anderson criticises the perversion and reversal of the work ethic’s originally progressive, classical liberal aspirations “and successor traditions on the left” (xviii). Her scrutiny of both left and right-wing support of the neoliberal conservative work ethic complements other critiques of the left-wing origins of neoliberal markets. Anderson also says the conservative work ethic arose in a period of rapidly rising productivity and stagnant wages, “when market discipline was reserved for workers, not the rich” (108).

Yet it was the progressive work ethic that culminated in social democracy throughout Western Europe by promoting the “freedom, dignity and welfare of each” (242). Marx was so influenced by the progressive work ethic espoused by classical liberals, his most developed work on economic theory apparently quotes Adam Smith copiously and admiringly (226). Anderson thus contends that criticism of social democracy as a radical break from classical liberalism – is a myth, as ideas like social insurance “developed within the classical liberal tradition” (227).

However, “Cold War ideology represented social democracy as … a slippery slope to totalitarianism … the title of Friederich Hayek’s … Road to Serfdom, says it all” (226).

Social democracy declined worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s when neoliberalism arose and the conservative work ethic returned with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (Chapter 9). Social democratic centre-left parties like the US Democrats and the UK’s Labour Party (293) didn’t counter neoliberalism’s conservative work ethic, as “the demographics of these parties shifted… from the working class to the professional managerial class” (257), seduced by meritocracy ideology in a competitive race for (their own) superior status (257). Anderson’s observation complements Elizabeth Humphry’s research on how Australia’s Labor Party and labour union movement introduced vanguard neoliberalism to Australia against workers, in the 1980s.

Anderson recognises the success of some neoliberal policies in the US’s economic stagnation in the 1970s, like trucking deregulation, emissions reduction trade schemes and international trade liberalisation (285-287). However, she argues the focus on efficiency and aggregate growth neglected workers’ conditions and plight as neoliberal work (for welfare) policies degrade people’s autonomy and capabilities because “the most important product of our economic system is ourselves” (288).

Hijacked’s last chapter recommends social democracy renewal and updating the progressive work ethic “to ensure … every person … has the resources and opportunities to develop … their talents …  engage with others on terms of trust, sympathy and genuine cooperation” (298). Employees could be empowered through worker cooperatives (297).

A gap in Hijacked’s analysis is a lack of clear definition of “work.” Anderson doesn’t  distinguish between “employment” in a “job,” and rich elites’ voluntary, symbolic “duties,” like those of Britain’s “working royals” who call their activities “work”.

Another dilemma is whether economic class power struggles can change peacefully, noting Peter Turchin says we’re facing ‘end times’ of war and political disintegration because competing elites won’t relinquish power.

Nevertheless, Hijacked is compelling reading for everyone on the left and the right who needs employment in a paid job to survive, so today’s neoliberal conservative work ethic no longer gaslights us to believe our dignity demands our exploitation.

This post gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.

Magdalene L. D’Silva BA/LLB (Tas), GCLP (Tas), LLM (Syd), MA (Lond), is a former university law academic and insurance defence solicitor in Australia. Her current writing interests are: the legal profession, neoliberal political-economy and critical psychiatry.