- Work—The Last 1,000 Years by Andrea Komlosy
Andrea Komlosy, translated by Jacob K. Watson and Loren Balhorn
London: Verso, 2018
iii + 265 pp., $26.95 (cloth); $9.99 (e-book)
This is an ambitious book. In it, Andrea Komlosy (professor in the Department of Economics and Social History and coordinator of the Global History and Global Studies programs at the University of Vienna) seeks to explore the changing nature of work over the past millennium. Drawing upon examples from myriad locations across the globe, she provides an encyclopedic look into the topic. The writing style is generally straightforward, and the translation seems a good one (the book was first published in German in 2014).
In terms of the content itself, the book is made up of seven chapters. It takes us through several issues of concern. After a brief introduction in which Komlosy outlines the book's goal—that it "is a comparative, intercultural, global history of working conditions and labour relations in human society"—the remaining chapters can roughly be divided into two parts. In the first part, she outlines various aspects of her focus on work. These include examining how work has been considered historically, how it has been categorized, and how the categories of work that emerged in one cultural and historical context (e.g., Europe) do not necessarily "work" in others (e.g., China). This first portion of the book, then, essentially explores how the categories we use for analysis shape what we understand work to be and, likewise, what we understand not-work to be. For instance, if work is deemed to be that for which someone is paid money as a wage, then much of the unpaid activity upon which the modern economy is based would not be considered work, even though it is essential to the economy's functioning—it was upon this basis that English economist William Nassau Senior (1790–1864), the first professor of political economy at a British university and Drummond Professor at Oxford, dismissed women's unpaid toils in the home as non-work. For me, as someone who works a lot on labor questions from a comparative perspective, one of the more interesting aspects of this part of the book is its exploration of how different languages have developed diverse types of words/expressions for the same kinds of activities and how labor relations in different parts of the world are thus understood and described differently, making it difficult to draw comparisons. One example that Komlosy gives in this regard is the distinction in Chinese between dagong (workers employed in capitalist enterprises) and gongren (workers employed in state enterprises). To be gongren after the Chinese Communist Party seized power meant to be officially free from alienation and to belong to the socialist proletariat (that is to say, to be wuchan jieji—part of the "no-property class"), whereas to be dagong did not. These terms come out of specific sets of social relations and the distinction is not so easily made with such force in European languages, which can make exact understandings of Chinese labor relations by Westerners trickier. At the same time, using illustrations from several languages, she also shows how different types of work have frequently had different kinds of words associated with them. In particular, productive [End Page 117] labor and burdensome types of labor have often been categorized quite differently (the Hellenistic Greeks saw toilsome work as pónos and creative work as érgon, whereas the French distinguish between travail and oeuvre, the Germans between Arbeit and Werk, the Poles between robota and dzieło, etc.). (There is a handy appendix at the back of the book regarding this.)
The second part of the book (chapters 6 and 7) then changes gears a little to explore how labor relations and work developed across the globe at several historical moments—1250, 1500, 1700, 1800, 1900, and today. This is from a broadly Wallersteinian/ Braudelian perspective. Chapter 6 takes up approximately half of the book, whereas chapter 7 is very short. For me, perhaps because I teach a course on the development of the...