My son tells me that this is a terrible title for a novel, but that’s what it’s about: the idea that work should be the most valuable thing a human being can do, yet for most of us it’s little more than an alienating nuisance we have to go through to get to payday.
There. I’ve lost most of you already. Because work is dull and you don’t want to read about dull things. Which is, of course, the point of the story. Through work we have re-created the world and ourselves. Compared to any previous society, the modern world is a titanic achievement – by many orders of magnitude the most powerful society and with the greatest potential to raise human beings to astonishing levels of wealth, development and happiness. But what are our highest achievements? Celebrity? Reality TV? And work itself? By and large, dull as ditchwater. And all the while, the vast economic systems through which the environment is rapidly being wrecked, the poorest are prostituted to making trainers and (even leaving aside the global crisis of 2008-9) at least 45 countries have suffered a major collapse since 1975 are all but ignored.
There, lost you again. So I don’t write about that sort of stuff. Instead, The Labour Theory of Value is about what happens when an ordinary man who has always thought that his work meant something – and indeed that work is what gives life meaning – discovers how far this is from the truth. For although the modern world is indeed transforming the planet – and humanity – as no previous society has done, the price he – like most of us – pays for this is an equally radical alienation from that world.
Nor is this alienation some vague malaise. It is a very precise process through which we are actively separated from the very things we have created, and presented with them again as things that are not – could not be – our own. But so ordinary is this experience that, for most of the people surrounding him, it is never questioned. It’s just the way things are.
So he experiences – suddenly and in middle age – the loss of meaning that the rest of us have taken for granted since the day we entered the workplace. Initially he seeks meaning elsewhere – in nature, in social life, and so on – but they will not do. Gradually he comes to the crisis.
And then is saved by the very process that has thrown him into crisis. A completely new world (though still of work) beckons, and in he plunges, taking the entire company with him. From derelict and adrift he becomes galvanised, and all but the most reluctant recognise that they are in the midst of something profoundly new, important and revolutionary.
But the same process that first threw him into crisis and then rescued him is still there in the background, and it can only be a matter of time before it returns.