Miroslav Volf observes, during the time of manual production, a craftsman “could clearly see the effect of his own handiwork” in Work in the Spirit.
Then we entered the time of machine production “characterized by the combined operations of many orders of working people.” “A craftsperson could work at his pace” but the machines instead imposed its own “mechanically controlled work-pace,” and “work became fragmentized into minute operations and the worker was robbed of understanding how her work related to the finished product.” The result is “stupefyingly simple actions done with monotonous regularity,” and “such work is an assault on human creativity and dehumanizing.”
That’s true not just of material production, I submit. Nowadays, more and more people become “information workers,” and “human work is… increasingly becoming mental activity.” And this type of “mental production” — if you will — is also becoming increasingly “fragmentized” in my view.
Here is an example from my own field. In order to develop and finance a large scale power plant in a developing country, you need multiple teams — e.g., engineering, environmental regulation, financial analysis, legal contracting and the like. In turn, each team has specialists. A good legal team in a deal of this sort has specialists in construction contracts, power sales contracts, energy regulation, cross-border tax structuring, loan documentation, and environmental compliance. The tax specialist might in fact be multiple tax specialists — one in US federal income tax, one in cross-border tax rules and one in state and local tax. For the state and local tax expert, her task may not be “stupefyingly simple,” but it can feel monotonous. The relentless pace often does seem outside her control. And she sometimes does feel “robbed of understanding how her work” relates to the finished product.
All of these lead to “many people…deeply dissatisfied with the kind of work they are doing.” (I think I find vegetable gardening so satisfying because I work on it from seed to fruit all by myself, and there is no fragmentation!)
Volf says he is proposing a theology of work that provides “a theological framework within which responsible and creative thinking about solutions to these problems is both required and possible.”
A bold promise.