Physiotherapy is inextricably linked to work; to returning people back to productive labour or meaningful activities.  As an important cog in the health services of many countries around the world, physical therapies have proven a powerful and effective way to rehabilitate people who have been ill and injured and maintain their function as productive citizens.

Three recent books (reviewed here) have explored the history of work, and although none speak directly about the use of physical therapy and rehabilitation, they all question the role that work has played in shaping us as people.

I can’t claim to know the books by Graeber (Bullshit jobs) and Bloodworth (Hired), but I have read Andrea Komlosy’s extensive history of work, and it presents a fascinating history of a social phenomenon that promises to change dramatically in the years to come.

Karl Marx argued that the development of modern transport systems during the Industrial Revolution had made it possible to leave the indentured farming labour of the European feudal system and ‘sell’ their labour to the highest bidder.  Unfortunately, the result was wage slavery, where people competed with each other to do the work at the lowest cost in order to survive.  Thus modern work, and capitalism, were born.

Komlosy’s argument has a longer timeline and a broader sociological canvas, but her conclusions are broadly the same:

Capitalism’s unsung genius, Komlosy writes, is for making labour – the socially necessary but unexalted form of work – invisible and unremunerated (Moran 2018 link).

It’s hard to imagine a future in which physiotherapy works to rehabilitate people for work that is merely pleasurable, as Graeber argues.

The problem is that we’re stuck in a circular argument that says that we work to live and live to work.

If we could only venture outside that box, we might discover that not everything that makes life worth living – play, pleasure, art, friendship, curiosity, love – shows up in growth figures (ibid) .


Bloodworth, J. (2018). Hired: Six months undercover in low-wage Britain. London: Atlantic Books.

Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit jobs: A theory. London: Allen Lane.

Komlosy, A. (2018). Work: The last 1,000 years. Translated by Jacob K. Watson with Loren Balhorn. Brooklyn; Verso.

Moran, J. (2018). The curse of work.  Times Literary Supplement. Link.  Accessed 6th August 2018

Posted by Dave Nicholls

Dr. Nicholls is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies, AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand. He is a physiotherapist, lecturer, researcher and writer, with a passion for critical thinking in and around the physical therapies. David is the founder of the Critical Physiotherapy Network, an organisation that promotes the use of cultural studies, education, history, philosophy, sociology, and a range of other disciplines in the study of the profession’s past, present and future. David’s own research work focuses on the critical history of physiotherapy and considers how physiotherapy might need to adapt to the changing economy of health care in the 21st century. He has published 35 peer-reviewed articles and 17 book chapters, many as first author. He is also very active on social media, writing more than 500 blogposts for in the last three years. David has taught in physiotherapy programmes in the UK and New Zealand for over 25 years and has presented his work all around the world. The End of Physiotherapy – the first book-length critical history of physiotherapy, and written by David – was published by Routledge in mid-2017.

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