Are Humans Labour?

Have you ever heard of an unemployed tiger? Probably not. An unemployed whale? No?

Unemployed animalWhy are the concepts of labour and employment so universal, and so evidently a part of human life, when they are completely unheard of to all of our Earthling kin? Either labour is a natural concept exclusively for humanity, or it’s a temporary attribute of the dominant economic system today. I assumed that the second was an obvious truth, and set out thinking about how we would be able to move towards a state when unemployment could be eliminated. But labour, employment and unemployment are huge parts of our modern socio-economies. And trying to solve the problem of unemployment based on conventional economic reasoning would, I knew, lead me to either incremental solutions designed to lower certain types of unemployment i.e. structural and cyclical; or it would lead me towards Milton Friedman’s conclusion that unemployment can’t be lowered beyond the ‘Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment’ without price and/or wage controls. Furthermore, the concept of unemployment is a very modern problem.

Prior to England’s Poor Law of 1601, and to some extent prior to the Industrial Revolution, the concept of unemployment simply wasn’t recognized. In 16th century England the jobless were called “sturdy beggars”; a term that included both those with non-socially accepted employment, and also those who didn’t want to work. The Poor Law of 1531 simply assumed that there were enough jobs for everyone, and perhaps understandably so, since the first Vagrancy Law was passed in 1349, when the death toll caused by Bubonic Plague spreading across England was at its peak. Yet throughout the globe, humanity’s population boom only commenced after the Industrial Revolution was under way, and most strongly in the latter part of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the technological advances which have been utilized since the eighteenth century have meant that production today is less labour intensive than ever before. All of this leads economists to conclude that unemployment is a very much a modern concern, and problem to be addressed within our present economic system. However, I wanted to explore the concept’s roots a little further; not as a sociological investigation into when it was first used, but more as an investigation into where and when the idea of humans as labour came from.

I was immediately surprised to find reference to the word labour in theories dating as far back as Confucius (about a hundred years pre-Socrates and Plato). But I thought, surely this is a poor translation, right? So next I looked at the etymology of the word labour. I found that it comes from the Latin word ‘laborem’/’laborate’, which seems to mean a great many things, just like our modern word: work, trouble, toil, exertion, hardship, pain, fatigue, and even labour in a fairly modern sense. Etymology of Labour Going back further proved difficult, with the best guesses that I found saying the word comes either from one which means “tottering under a burden”, or from one of the Ancient Greek words of lamvano/lavo (to undertake; Gr: λαμβάνω), or laepsiros (one who runs very fast, agile, speedy; la+aepsiros; Gr: λαιψηρός, λα+αιψηρός).

In other words as far back as we can go, the verb labour i.e. to labour at a task, seems to exist. However treating humans as labour in the sense of a noun i.e. labour meaning worker, does indeed seem to be quite modern. For example when Confucius used the word, as in the quote below, he was meaning work, and not worker: “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

My question therefore, is this: why did we start seeing humans as labour/workers? Is it natural among humans to treat ourselves as such? And if the modern adoption of concepts such as unemployment, and labour as a noun, are indicative of the modern socio-economic system, and temporary, then might it be possible to see a point in time when we see ourselves not as labour, but rather as thinkers, players, or even something else entirely?


  • Interesting topic, good introduction, and good accompanying picture!

    I don’t have any deep thoughts but perhaps the concept of labor came about with the advent of agriculture. Working the land was very hard but it could result in food surpluses, which at least conceptually allows for having one class of people dominating the others (and treating them like labor).

  • That’s a really good point! It would explain how the word labour has re-emerged throughout all of civilisation, and across all cultures. And it would also explain why, since the Industrial Revolution, the word labourer was exchanged more and more for worker. But this brings up two further questions:
    1. If I’m right to say that the word worker has been used as a substitute for labourer more and more since the late eighteenth century, then why has the word labour stuck at the collective level?
    2. If Richard Florida is correct about the growth of the ‘creative class’, will we see the usage of labour as a descriptive term diminish in importance as more and more people become self-employed in creative areas?

  • I like your concluding sentence proposal possible future replacements/evolutions. However, as to your main point, I think there is more to it.

    It is a good satire to talk about an unemployed tiger, but I would contend that social species have always had divisions of labour, and that in these communities the individuals are expected to pull their weight so to speak.

    Even prior to the development of agricultural, when humans were hunter-gatherers, I presume collecting the firewood or building the shelter wasn’t done without an eye to the equitability of the work.

    So I would say the idea of contributing your efforts, i.e. labour, has always been a part of social societies. Unfortunately as Marx points out, as societies developed and specialisations increased, the rewards of labour became unequal, and hence when we speak of labour now, we associate it with some of the less rewarding work.

  • Hi Sean,

    I take your point that civilisation requires cooperation in production, and thus that some form of labour must have been a requisite feature of all societies. However I think you missed my larger point about the de-humanisation of individuals due to the labelling of them as something which is in its natural usage a verb, and not a noun.

    There are societies, for example some of those which exist in the Amazon rainforest, where people do what work is necessary, and spend the rest of their time on leisure. I read about one such people, where the average working week is about 20 hours, or just under (can’t remember their name, sorry). When they work they do not think about themselves as labour. They might accept that they undergo labour, and therefore employ the word as a verb. But they call themselves humans, not labour. The word as a noun simply doesn’t exist.

    • Perhaps it makes sense to think that labeling people with a noun makes them less human. That thinking is reflected in the more PC terms that are emerging in various contexts. We are encouraged to talk about a person with autism (not just an autistic). Or a person who’s homosexual (not just a homosexual). Using adjectives or periphrases makes it clear that we are allowing the person to identify with more than one label.

      I remember hearing about the latest AP style guide reflecting some of this thinking as well.

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