Fifth Column – Issue A5

Work, what is it, good for nothing.

I was in a communal shower the other week and someone shouted, “that’s not going to work, it’s too small.” Well, I could have died, but I didn’t. My initial horror meant I almost replied by saying, ‘yes, I don’t need you to tell me, but it’s not because it’s small’. Luckily, I thought first and kept silent. I don’t need any more humiliation in my days.

However, this funny incident did cause me to ponder, and ask the question, “What do we mean by ‘work’?”

I have a conundrum I’d like you to consider: “When I say ‘I work’ even though I know ‘I don’t work’, and when the employer says ‘I know you work’ even though they know (from figures they’ve created as a measurement), that in (their) fact, ‘I don’t work’, then what exactly is it to work?

I first thought efficacy, but I didn’t want to swear, so I thought again. Value, hmm, there’s an interesting notion. To work is a very evaluative term, given it’s magnificent semantic ambiguity. A chocolate fireguard doesn’t work as a fire retardant cum protector, yet to a person partial to a bit of the old sweet stuff, a chocolate fireguard would be just the job. We accept our chocolate in so many different shapes and sizes that I’m surprised the marketing people haven’t thought of a fireguard-shaped confectionery. Although, the health and safety brigade would be on their cases in no time, saying it would encourage carelessness with and around fire. Given that there are so few real fires in the hearths of Britain, this argument doesn’t hold water. Also, even in their sugar-induced torpor, they would still know not to go too close to a fire, suspecting through clear experience and theory that they would be severely burnt, and not in a state of pain-free pleasure.

When you think of something as small as a printed circuit, a solid-state memory in a computer, then we can consider the size issue redundant as this miniscule thing does indeed work brilliantly, usually. Even a bullet can effectively kill something as magnificently large as a human being, so small is certainly not an issue in the debate over the term work.

Even in words, small usually works better than large; just imagine the word ‘sex’ and how in some contexts it can assemble a lynch-mob in seconds, whereas the word ‘ideology’ is a much bigger word, both in terms of syllables and thought engagement, and all but obsolete these days. Although, ideology does work, it just isn’t mentioned as much or as readily as sex. So, we can all but dismiss the idea of size in terms of work, especially if we are using the word in a context of efficacy.

Reluctantly but inevitably my thoughts turn to work as in labour and toil, where, I suspect you already guessed, my opening led to.

To work can simply mean be effective, but also it can be something referring to effort, the attempt to effect something, to try to make something work.

On the other hand there are times when efficacy can involve no real work; in investment and speculation for instance. When capital works, the capitalists rarely do, yet the labour force most certainly does work. This is an instance when money works for the capitalist, but it is the worker that works. The strategy of investment capital sees the efficacy of the labourer effectively create more wealth capital for the capitalist, thus working on a number of levels.

When I say, I work, I humbly mean I toil, labour to do what is onerously necessary for someone else to profit from. When I quote the employer, and my own assessment, in saying I don’t work, it means I am not effective, I do not achieve the given standards they want. I am small they are large. This is merely because I (mostly) work as a fallible human being, but don’t work as a mere mechanism. This is no plug, this is my small, ineffective tail.


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