This essay is adapted from a paper given at Science, Religion, and Culture’s 2015 conference, Ways of Knowing. You can find other contributions on theological approaches to the crisis economy here in our spring issue, and here and here in our winter issue.

On 8 September 2009, President Obama delivered his back-to-school message at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. At the start of the new school year, the President charged each student to realize themselves and their potential through hard work and by taking responsibility for their actions and circumstances:

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

The President acknowledged an uneven starting line but claimed that the disadvantaged “circumstances” of life didn’t determine whether students can achieve their goals. He exhorted the students, as they returned to school that day, to consider the weight of education in their self-realization and futures. “Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”

What we should notice in Obama’s speech is the way in which the students’ “selves” are wrapped into their productive value to the State. Obama told them, “when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country” and “what you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country.” His language and imagery of the future, of goals, destiny, gifts, opportunity, and self-realization were all subsumed in the imperative of national labor.


It is something universal in our recent political history: the self is realized through education in so far as that the self becomes a productive laborer within the State.


What I am troubled by in this speech is something that is not unique to the Obama administration. In fact, it is what remains unspoken and taken for granted in Obama’s performance that concerns me, because it reflects something universal in our recent political history: the self is realized through education in so far as that the self becomes a productive laborer within the State. In other words, the self receives its recognition or is given an identity within economies of labor and values assigned by the State. The brilliance of this ideology is this: if we were to speak it out loud, few would agree with it. And yet this logic of labor—this compulsion—inhabits our everyday lives, who we are, and what we can be. What do you do? What does your partner do? What do you want to be when you grow up? What are you studying [for]? If you could do anything, what would that be? Where do you see yourself in five years? When do you plan to retire? These everyday interactions reflect the rhythms enforced by all those invisible expectations and assumptions that our lives are made real in and through our work.

How we talk about work tells us a great deal about how our society is organized. The language we use to describe labor relationships enforces current power structures in our world, even as it reveals their presence. Kathi Weeks, a feminist writer and political scientist at Duke, has written extensively on the way that “work” creates and maintains social domination. Weeks argues it is not the visible forces of society—not police nor a visible master with his cracking whip—which trap us within forced labor conditions, “but rather a social system that ensures that working is the only way that most of us can meet our basic needs.” (p. 161) Labor is accepted in our everyday life to the point that it has become invisible to us. Recent outcries and social movements that work to improve labor conditions, as helpful and necessary as they may be, do not overturn the fundamental fact that our economy enforces labor and work upon us all.

When Marx wrote about the bonds of labor, he envisioned freedom coming from a future in which the working classes rose up and claimed power from their bourgeoisie overlords. In the 1970s, American feminists took inspiration from Marx’s vision to argue that women’s liberation would come hand-in-hand with the rise of the oppressed labor classes. Recently, feminists such as Weeks, have moved beyond this paradigm in order to argue that there must be an outright liberation from a work society. They envision a new kind of freedom that comes not from class struggle but a refusal to base self-worth and identity in our ability to produce value for our national economy.

Within this forced economy, we are presented with imperatives such as “take your whole selves to work,” find your “vocation,” and “discover meaning from 9–5.” Marx’s golden chains and the heavenly pearly gates have melted together to create an alloy of contemporary fulfillment that we call holism, integration, happiness, and even calling. Work has become so normalized in our modern world that “productivity” and “happiness” are not only almost synonyms, but the latter is found and discovered and realized in the former. This is troublesome. As Frédéric Lordon has pointed out, “…making the dominated happy so that they forget their domination is one of the oldest and most effective ruses of the art of ruling” (p. xii). And Weeks and others have warned, this naturalized form of work “is a social convention and disciplinary apparatus” that goes beyond economic necessity. Labor has become a social force that dictates how we value others—and ourselves. It is what makes “disciplined individuals, governable subjects, worthy citizens, and responsible family members” (p.8).

A critical moment in the history of labor and identity is the making of Western monasticism. In particular, one of its primary builders, Augustine and his relatively obscure tract De opere monachorum (400/01 CE), commissioned by Aurelius, the bishop of Carthage. At the time, Aurelius had to contend with social unrest in the monasteries under his bishopric. Augustine later explained these social pressures, which gave rise to his penning De opere monachorum as a part of his 427 retrospective, titled the Retractationes. In it, Augustine gives us five key details. First, he notes how at the turn of the fifth century, forms of monasticism in Carthage were still only beginning. Second, there were clear and pointed differences in the makeup and financial support of these fledgling monasteries. Third, various recourses were made to the scriptures in support and justification of monastic decisions regarding constitutional governance and financial policy. Though such differences may appear as clerical squabbles in scriptural interpretation, these distinct readings reflect an emerging divergence in valuations and legitimations of authority and social structuration. Fourth, the social effects of these disputes among the monasteries in Carthage reflected wider social unrest as well as local factions within the “laity” and patrons regarding claims over religious offerings (oblationibus religiosorum). And, fifth, an allusion to what appears to be a kind of profile of Augustine’s opponents accords with a wider Mediterranean profile of personae non gratae around this time: that is, those who refused manual labor, wore their hair long, and competed for patrons.

A casual read of De opere monachorum reflects what appears to be merely a dispute over scriptural interpretation: how does one bring into harmony the apparent worldly renunciation of Jesus and the materialism of the Apostle? What must not be lost in this exchange, however, is the close relationship between Augustine’s scriptural exegesis and his social views. Augustine’s discussions of scriptural revolve around the possession of the apostolic right to receive the support of the laity. Augustine clearly recognizes that “Jesus had given his apostles the right to be supported by the faithful.” What he denies, however, is that “the monks in question can claim this apostolic right for themselves” (p.118). As Marx might say, Augustine donned “the mask of the Apostle Paul,” while refusing to the wandering monks the mask of Christ.

The preaching of the Gospel is considered a labor and those who engage in such apostolic labor are deserving of a living from such labor (Matt 10:7-11). This is for Augustine the apostolic right. And yet it is this “right,” this “privilege of exemption from manual labor and of being supported in recompense for preaching the Gospel” (Matt 10:7-8), which was forgone by the Apostle Paul.

Both Augustine and Aurelius (and indeed, all ascetics, including those monks Augustine wished to criticize), however, depended upon the gifts of the laity and of wealthy patrons. In explaining Paul’s refusal of the apostolic right, then, Augustine is careful not to disavow the right itself. This would have been the clearest criticism of the wandering monks’ appeal; that is, to negate the apostolic right on the grounds that Paul himself refused the right. After all, Paul’s own forgoing of rights of access to the goods of early Christian collectives had introduced a new economy of Christian living (2 Thess 3:8-10). In his life and work, Paul established a new economy that set aside the apostolic right to material support by the laity but also demanded that those who preached the gospel joyfully surrender of these goods.

All of this leaves both Augustine and Aurelius in a potentially vulnerable position to claim this apostolic right for themselves if they also want to deny the right to the wandering monks. Augustine does not solve this problem, but judges the wandering monks’ claim to apostolic privilege and “having authority of this kind” as “unwarranted” (21.24). He characterized their teaching and claims of the apostolic right as both a “perversion” (corruptisque) and an “infectious contagion” (pestifera contagione) (22.26) of the wider mystical body. Augustine “viewed his congregation as an absolute democracy of hearts, leveled beneath the gaze of God.” (p. 350) The monastery was the microcosm of these wider democracies in which unity and shared “inner states of mind” would prove “central to his ethical thought” (p. 27-31). It was a focalized form of the wider mystical body. But Augustine’s fledgling discussions of this mystical body occurred mid other “bodies” in the crowded ascetic world of the early fifth century.


The social survival of ascetic movements depended on the delimiting, surveillance, and protection of an economy of gift-giving networks.


Responding to these “other bodies” shaped Augustine’s developing social teachings and political economy of the Mystical Body. The point of rivalry introduced by these wandering monks who wore their hair long and refused manual labor went beyond scriptural exegesis, right beliefs, and divergent practices. It centered on claims of apostolic privileges and securing of rights. The social survival of ascetic movements depended on the delimiting, surveillance, and protection of an economy of gift-giving networks. Monastic directives on manual labor—either for or against—then, must be understood within a complex matrix of competing symbolic economies. In other words, labor was never only about labor. It was about the contours of particular social orders. It was about the order of things. And in the case of Augustine, it was the formation and protection of his social body from the “contagion” of rival bodies.

The monastery stood at the end of a series of social representations between “earthly republics” and an “eternal City,” and set to undertake what the philosopher and social theorist Max Weber called a remodeling of the world. The monastery brought into focus forms of life, in order to enact for the church what it was to enact for the wider world. Labor, for Augustine and late antiquity, was about this series of significations and representations. It also reflected commitments to distinct dispositions of harmony, concord, and willful (and joyful) submission to those in authority. Discourse on labor was thus a kind of applied social theory regarding the order of things.

Thus, divergent opinions on labor reflect fundamental disputes with rival bodies. The wandering, begging monks to which occasioned the writing of De opere monachorum were classified as lazy and foreign bodies, a threatening contagion, a poison, a sickness to the mystical body promoted and defended by Augustine (22.6). It is certainly worth considering the ways in which medical knowledge of this time would have understood such charges, but as in the case with Letoïus, the burning of monasteries to the ground suspected of such a “disease” demonstrate the lengths some were willing to go to protect the “purity” of the body.

De opere monachorum cannot be reduced to clerical disputes over hermeneutics and right readings of texts. It centers on claims of apostolic privileges and the securing of economic authority. The uncomfortable tension for Augustine is that he had to establish the apostolic right to live off the gifts and labor of others as well as the model of economic self-sufficiency brought about by manual labor. Paul established the right only to forgo it. Augustine reaffirmed the right and cashed in. He referred to De opere monachorum as his opus, his labor. Nilus, Jerome, Evagrius, and other early Church writers similarly referred to their writing and overseeing as “work.” But they refused such claims for the inoperative monks. At least formally, then, there are not clear breaks with respect to social structuration: those with spiritual authority receive the material goods of those to whom they ministered within their enclosure. And rival bodies outside of Augustine’s framework are censured. De opere monachorum is thus about more than scriptural exegesis, right beliefs, and divergent practices. It centers on claims of apostolic privileges and securing of rights, and is an early landmark for Western theorization of what counts as “labor” and “life.”

I began with a proposal that talking about labor is to talk about a social order. Thus, labor not only provides an intriguing point from which to engage in broad, comparative historical work, but also invites a fair measure of restraint, and indeed suspicion, when it comes to speaking of labor for others. In this regard, though hardly the same, there are intriguing similarities between the labor disputes of late fourth and early fifth centuries and critics of the forced economy from the mid-twentieth century. Herbert Marcuse wrote in Reason and Revolution that “Labor in its true form is a medium for [humanity’s] true self-fulfillment, for the full development of [their] potentialities” (p. 277). But labor’s “true form” has always been understood across a remarkable register. Amid the radical unrest around the globe in the late 60s and early 70s, for example, the Italian Workerists, used their journal, Classe operaia, to mobilize mass refusals to work. In the United States, reports on labor unrest began to surface such as the “Rosow Report” (1970), the “President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (1970), and the “Work in America” report (1973). Labor and its contested forms were viewed as a significant “social problem,” verging on crisis, and became highly politicized. “Work” might be fundamental to what we do as humans and a distinct aspect of who we are. Over-determination of what “it” entails, however, risks alienating and acquisition of subjectivities of different social orders.

The study of labor and how it is construed as meaningful within varying social orders opens up fresh ways to view broad sweeps of history. In Augustine, for example, we see how he not only attempted to establish a field of authority and submission to that authority. He also set about the formation of a disposition (animo). An “affect,” a “meaning.” Not only were the Carthage monks to submit to the authority of Aurelius and Augustine, they were to submit in a particular way. Discourse on labor is about many things—it is never simply about “labor.” And if language about labor is language about particular social orders, discourse on the “meaning of labor” reveals an order’s governing ideologies. This provides an exciting analytic from which to engage in broad historical work. But it should also give us caution whenever we encounter discourses of “labor” and “meaning” being made for others.

Michael J. Thate is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. His research interests revolve around the formation and reception of discourses, particularly religious and scientific. His first book, Remembrance of Things Past? (Mohr Siebeck, 2013), is a social history of Leben-Jesu-Forschung during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Image of Augustinian cloister from Flickr via Dennis Jarvis.


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