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US @ Work, Europe @ Play?
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Edited by Pat Kane (email)


:: The European Play Ethic? ::

Polemical UK historian Niall Ferguson writes in the International Herald Tribune about the historic decline of the Protestant work ethic, marking the centenary of the publication of Max Weber's great thesis.

Ferguson claims to have found the reason why Europeans work so much less frenetically than Americans:
The countries where the least work is done in Europe turn out to be those that were once predominantly Protestant. While the overwhelmingly Catholic French and Italians work about 15 to 20 percent fewer hours a year than Americans, the more Protestant Germans and Dutch and the wholly Protestant Norwegians work 25 to 30 percent less.

What clinches the Weber thesis is that Northern Europe's declines in working hours coincide almost exactly with steep declines in religious observance. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than 10 percent of the population now attend church at least once a month, a dramatic decline since the 1960s. In the recent Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, 49 percent of Danes, 52 percent of Norwegians and 55 percent of Swedes said God did not matter to them. In North America, by comparison, 82 percent of respondents said God was "very important."

So the decline of work in Northern Europe has occurred more or less simultaneously with the decline of Protestantism. Quod erat demonstrandum!
Ferguson laments what this Euro-sloth will do to the "New European" countries coming into the EU. They might be desperate to use their lower wage rates as a competitive advantage - but they'll find that advantage cancelled by these holiday-hungry post-Protestant sybarites, who'll imposing all manner of mandatory holidays and regulatory conditions on them.

Humph. In its details, Ferguson's thesis is wrong: in its general vision, it's pernicious.

I don't doubt the OECD's figures on the difference in working hours between "Catholic" countries like France and Italy, and post-Protestant countries like Germany and the Scandinavians. But hold on a minute. Wasn't France the first country to institute a 35-hour week in the European Union - which, infuriatingly for many American and British commentators, actually improved productivity and gained mass support (see this report [pdf])?

Italy's labouring statistics may be one thing. But the country is also home to a variety of time-conscious, "quality-of-life" movements - from the Slow Food Movement (which McDonald's recently took objection to), to the radical slackerism of the Centri Sociale - which can't be disconnected from the country's autonomist political traditions. (Even Miuccia Prada, head of the country's hippest upscale fashion house, nurses her anti-capitalist urges).

From the Greek leisure state and the carnivals of medieval Europe; through the playful Romantic politics of Schiller, Fourier and Lafargue; up to the May 68'ers and other late 20th century defenders of the "ars de vivre"... Surely the history of European attitudes to work and play are more textured and complex, past and present, than Ferguson's crude (and self-consciously Anglo-American) version?

(For that matter, who says that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is easily containable within the Puritan legacy?)

But is America so completely in thrall to the work ethic? In the bookshops, at the very least, there is principled dissent. Joe Robinson's
Work To Live is a book and a campaign to "reclaim your life, health, family and sanity". Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Commercialization of Intimate Life urges that
We really need a revolution in our society and in our thinking, one that rewards care as much as market success, one that strengthens a non-market public sphere (quoted in the FT review).
It might be worth recalling exactly what Weber imagined would be the terminus of a work-ethical society:
No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achievedí.
And if you don't find a description of mendacious pop historians like Niall Ferguson in that paragraph, you're not looking hard enough.


:: Newsflash! Dominant World Language Has Untoward Fun ::

One of my favourite news events is the dictionary update - both for the words themselves, and for the ritualistic objections by Plain English recessives. There's 5,500 buzzing new words in this year's Collins dictionary. Glad to see that "crapola", "treeware", "bi-curious","aesthetic labour", "heterosocial", and "bootylicious" have made it. "Idea hamster" (someone employed to create ideas for those upstairs) is nice, but personally painful. And as a Scot, delighted to see that "bogging" (filthy) and "geggie" (mouth) are also now gracing the lexicon.

The Shakespearian dynamic, thank god, rages on. (Incidentally, Word Spy keeps a daily record of neologisms.)


:: Play Times ::

Slick on the draw Graphic novels are not "literary fiction's halfwit cousins, but the mutant sister who can often do everything fiction can", says Dave Eggars, cueing up an ICA conference in London.

Subvert society & sell beer How guerrila tv was used to revive Heineken's fortunes. (Well, it works for Beck's). I guess they must be trying to sell to Generation "I" (as limned by the Getty Institute).

Jim Carrey Plays God - and ...the results are predictably goofball. Inhumane and individualistic, compared to Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, says Hannah McGill.

Guardian G2, June 26th, 2003. Sometimes, you just have to stand back, and let the Farringdon Road ludologists get on with it... From the link above: Why books are getting thicker; the conceptual artists The Chapman Brothers and their love of chess; the battle over the domain name Sex.com; a column from a prisoner-turned-poet. Also in the same issue: the life-transforming powers of skateboarding; and a photo-feature on the the "beautiful and unsettling images" that don't make it past the newsdesk. Never forgetting, of course, that its sister paper was the first to go big on The Play Ethic.

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