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Friday, 19 December 2014

The world at work

Ethical economy: The world at work

When I was a boy I was fascinated by my parent’s copy of “The Family of Man”. The book, taken from a 1955 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was like a window into the big world. The beautiful images of people from many countries showed that the human condition was essentially the same everywhere: we all went through the same noble story of birth, love, struggle, religion and death. Much later I learned that the photographer Edward Steichen, who designed the show, wished to inspire exactly such sentiments. In the words of Carl Sandburg, taken from the book’s prologue, the human race was “one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being”.

My enthusiasm was typical. The exhibit was extraordinarily popular around the world, as was the book based on it. Tens of millions of people, from sophisticated New Yorkers to Guatemalan peasants, must have felt that the pictures - the French couple kissing, the circle of rapt South Africans listening to a teller of tales - expressed something fundamental and hopeful about the human condition.

Were we right? Was this an accurate representation of the unity and nobility of the human condition? The dawn of a new year is a good time to look back at this one-time cultural icon. The book’s depiction of work - about 10 percent of the 503 pictures, including a Pakistani construction site with elephants, an Iranian shepherd and Americans wearing suits in a boardroom - provides a good test-case.

My childish enthusiasm certainly needs to be tempered. The truths expressed are not really timeless. In fact, the depictions of working men were already old-fashioned in 1955. The hard manual labour which Steichen considered emblematic of masculine toil was on the decline. Bureaucrats and sedentary machine operators might not be as obviously photogenic as the man pictured standing on a girder suspended in mid-air, but would have been closer to the truth. As for women, in the section on work they are mostly shown engaged in domestic drudgery, such as cleaning and carrying water. Such predominantly feminine toil has not been eliminated, but over the last 60 years women have increasingly come to share workplaces - and the corresponding hopes and frustrations - with men.

The array of pictures is on the wrong side of an epochal shift in labour. The decline of farm and harsh factory toil and the rise of offices and services could be almost as important an historical transition as the industrial revolution. Of course, Steichen cannot be blamed for missing this development, but the limited perspective is a reminder that it is hard to be timeless.

The “Family of Man” is not only dated, it is also misleading, because the portrayal of work glosses over a disturbing truth. In the human condition, the gap between rich and poor is arguably as fundamental as is the unity of labour. “The Family of Man” shows unity well - men and women toil equally in Bolivia, Palestine and the United States - but the show ignores the division: America was basically a land of plenty while most other countries in the world suffered from the age-old scourge of widespread and persistent poverty. The omission makes “The Family of Man” look naive or even dishonest.

Steichen presumably thought that pictures of a divided world would have undercut his universal message. Perhaps he hoped that the economic gap was temporary. Whatever his reasons, time has not been kind to his choice. The United States may have lost its near-monopoly on plenty, and nearly all poor countries are now much richer than they were in 1955, but a great gulf still separates the desperately poor from the ridiculously rich. Unfortunately, the decision to gloss over economic bad news is typical of the book. While there are some tragic images, the view of mankind is uncomfortably upbeat. I would like a companion volume, “Mankind’s Broken Family”, filled with photos of war, cruelty and suffering.

Despite these significant weaknesses, I would still recommend “The Family of Man”, and not merely for the quality of the photography. The show’s message remains powerful and, dare I say it, inspirational. In Sandburg’s words, the human condition is “so alike, so inexorably alike”.

Economists can take a special comfort from this message: their globalisation rests on a solid foundation. People can work and trade together because they share needs, desires and humanity. Still, economists should also learn a humbling lesson from “The Family of Man”. They crave GDP growth, but economic progress has only a modest effect on life’s great themes. The pictures of work in a 2013 revival exhibition would be quite different, but the universal story would be identical: Sandburg’s “epic woven of fun, mystery and holiness”.

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