Tag Archives: etymology

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?