The Politics of Getting a Life

Work in a capitalist society is a conflicted and contradictory phenomenon.


Work in a capitalist society is a conflicted and contradictory phenomenon, never more so than in hard times. We simultaneously work not enough and too much; a labor famine for some means feast for others. The United States has allegedly been in economic “recovery” for over two years, and yet 15 million people cannot find work, or cannot find as much work as they say they would like. At the same time, up to two thirds of workers report in surveys that they would like to work fewer hours than they do now, even if doing so would require a loss of income. The pain of unemployment is well-documented, but the pain of the employed only occasionally sees the light, whether it’s Amazon warehouse employees working at a breakneck pace insweltering heat, or Foxconn workers risking injury and death to build hip electronics for Apple.

When work is scarce, political horizons tend to narrow, as critiques of the quality of work give way to the desperate search for work of any kind. And work, of any kind, seems to be all that politicians can offer; right and left differ only on who is to blame for the scarcity of it. Go to the web site of the Barack Obama campaign, and you will be told at the top of the “Issues” page that “The President is taking aggressive steps to put Americans back to work and create an economy where hard work pays and responsibility is rewarded.” Likewise the site of the AFL-CIO labor federation, where a man in overalls grins behind the words “work connects us all”. This is how the virtuous working class appears in the liberal imagination: hard-working, responsible, defined, and redeemed by work, but failed by an economy that cannot create the necessary wage labor into which this responsibility can be invested.

When the Right rejects this romanticism of workers as ascetic toilers, it is only to better shift the blame for a weak economy from capital to labor. University of Chicago economist and sometime New York Times contributor Casey Mulligan tried to define the recession out of existence by insisting that collapsing employment reflected only a diminished desire to work, rather than a shortfall in demand. Meanwhile, the more culturally-minded reactionaries fret about the waning of the work ethic as a herald of civilizational decline. Charles Murray, who made his name promoting pseudoscientific accounts of the shiftlessness and mental inferiority of African-Americans, has recently returned with dire warnings about the decay of the white working class. White men, he says, have lost their “industriousness,” as demonstrated by declining labor force participation rates and shorter average work weeks among the employed.

The practiced liberal response is that such statistics reflect an absence of opportunity rather than a lack of gumption. But this leads only to calls for job creation which emphasize the value of “hard work” without reflecting on the nature of that work. The grueling toil of the Amazon warehouse is certainly hard; so too, in a way, are the 80 hour weeks and intense stresses of a Goldman Sachs trader. Yet the former can hardly be said to be healthy or improving for the human spirit, while the latter only creates wealth for the few and economic chaos for the rest of us. Murray’s “industriousness” is the attitude ridiculed by the wayward Marxist Paul Lafargue in his 1883 pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, “a strange delusion” that afflicts the proletariat with “a furious passion for work.”

Lafargue is part of a dissident socialist tradition, which insists that a politics for the working class must be against work. This is the tradition picked up by political theorist Kathi Weeks in her recent book, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Weeks identifies advocates of more work and those who want better work, and finds each lacking. As an alternative, she holds up the straightforward and unapologetic demand for less work. In the process, she powerfully articulates the case for a politics that appeals to pleasure and desire, rather than to sacrifice and asceticism. It is, after all, the ideal of self-restraint and self-denial that ultimately legitimates the glorification of work, and especially the ideology of the work ethic.

Permutations of the Work Ethic

The furious passion for work is not a constant of human nature but rather something that must be constantly reinforced, and successive versions of the work ethic have been used to stoke that passion. At the dawn of capitalism, the call to work was a call to salvation, as Weeks explains in her reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. She recognizes that, far from providing an idealist alternative to Marx’s account of the rise of capitalism, Weber complements historical materialism by describing the construction of a working class ideology. The word is used in Althusser’s sense: “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The Protestant ethic allowed workers to imagine that when they worked for the profit of the boss, they were really working for their salvation, and for the glory of God.

By the twentieth century, however, the calling had become a material one: hard work would ensure broad-based prosperity. Each of the century’s twin projects of industrial modernity developed this calling in its own way. Soviet authorities promoted the Stakhanovite movement, which glorified exceptional contributions to the productivity of the socialist economy. In Detroit, meanwhile, the social democratic union leader Walter Reuther denounced advocates of shorter hours for undermining the US economy in the struggle against Communism. In neither case was the quality of industrial work called into question; it was simply a matter of who was in control and who reaped the spoils.

The industrial work ethic ran aground on the alienating nature of industrial labor. Workers who still remembered the Great Depression might have been willing to subordinate themselves to the assembly line in return for a steady paycheck, but their children were emboldened to ask for more. As Jefferson Cowie recounts in his history Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, the 1970s were characterized by pervasive labor unrest and what was popularly called the “blue collar blues,” as “workers were harnessed to union pay but longed to run free of the deadening nature of the work itself.” In the realm of left theory, this development was reflected in the vogue for “humanist” critiques of work, rooted in the young Marx’s theory of alienation. Weeks highlights the Freudian-Marxist Erich Fromm, who argued that “the self realization of man . . . is inextricably linked to the activity of work,” which will again become authentic and fulfilling once it is freed from capitalist control. In recognizing the limitations of demanding more work, the humanists instead called for better work.

But this critique proved to be doubly unsatisfying: it either points backwards to austere primitivism or forward to another iteration of capitalism. In the hands of feminists like Maria Mies, the critique of alienated work becomes a call to produce only for immediate use, rather than for exchange; this, Weeks notes, is “a prescription for worldy asceticism of the first order.” If the productivist form of Marxism trafficked in the illusion that capitalism’s forces of production could be upheld and preserved independent of the class-based relations of production, then the romantic call for a return to small-scale or craft labor attempts to split apart another of Marx’s dialectics, that between exchange value and use value. But use value, like productivity, is ultimately a category internal to capitalism; the demand that what we produce be “useful” is inseparable from the work ethic itself.

The most influential line of argument against industrial labor, however, has not been the ascetic one but instead what the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the “artistic critique.” Under this critique, industrial labor is condemned not because it separates exchange and use, but because it restricts the autonomy, freedom, and creativity of the worker. The solution is not to reconnect work to earthy craft labor, but to elevate workers into flexible, autonomous, self-fashioning individuals, truly able to realize themselves in their work.

But this position quickly curdled into apologia for the precarious world of post-1970s capitalism, in which individuals were encouraged to celebrate unstable jobs and uncertain income as forms of freedom rather than insecurity. Intangible benefits were offered as an alternative to a share in rising productivity, which became decoupled from wages. Thus we arrive at a third iteration of the work ethic in the post-industrial era, where work is now represented neither as a path to salvation nor as a road to riches, but as a source of personal identity and fulfillment. This ethic is exemplified by hip Silicon Valley firms like Apple, which reportedly told employees, in response to their wage demands, that “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.”

In these circumstances, Weeks argues, calls for “better work” are not only inadequate, they tend to reproduce and extend a form of capitalism that attempts to colonize the lives and personalities of its workers. Hence “worker empowerment can boost efficiency, flexibility can serve as a way to cut costs, and participation can produce commitment to the organization .&nbsp.&nbsp. quality becomes quantity as the call for better work is translated into a requirement for more work.” Any attempt to reconstruct the meaning of work in a non-alienating way must begin, then, by rejecting work altogether.

Yet the manipulative invocation of the autonomy of labor is only possible because the artistic critique did address real desires. Given the shortcomings of the old industrial labor paradigm, it hardly seems possible or desirable to return to an older proletarian ideal of long-term, protected employment with a single firm. Yet some are still attempting to resurrect the idea of better work. In The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, economist Guy Standing identifies the new mass of insecure workers as a “precariat” rather than a proletariat, one which desires “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism.”

Like Weeks, Standing is a proponent of an unconditional basic income — a regular payment provided to every individual regardless of whether or how much they work — as a way of providing income security without locking people into jobs. Yet he still grounds his appeal on the concept of work, now expanded beyond the boundaries of wage labor. “The fact that there is an aversion to the jobs on offer does not mean that .&nbsp.&nbsp. people do not want to work,” he argues, for in fact “almost everybody wants to work.” Subsequently, however, he speaks of “rescuing” work from its association with wage labor: “All forms of work should be treated with equal respect, and there should be no presumption that someone not in a job is not working or that someone not working today is an idle scrounger.” This evokes the notion of a social factory in which we contribute various kinds of productive activity that is not directly remunerated, ranging from raising children to coding open source software.

But no amount of redefinition can escape the association of work with the capitalist ethos of productivism and efficiency. The contrast between work and “idle scrounging” implies that we can measure whether any given activity is productive or useful, by translating it into a common measure. Capitalism has such a measure, monetary value: whatever has value in the market is, by definition, productive. If the critique of capitalism is to get beyond this, it must get beyond the idea that our activities can be subordinated to a single measure of value. Indeed, to demand that time outside of work be truly free is to reject the call to justify its usefulness. This is a central insight of Weeks’ consistent anti-asceticism, which resists any effort to replace the work ethic with some equally homogenizing code that externally validates the organization of our time. Time beyond work should not be for exchange or for use, but for itself. The point, as Weeks puts it, is to “get a life,” as we find ways “to sustain the social worlds necessary for, among other things, production.”

Politics of the Demand

What is the politics of getting a life? It is easier to reject the ideology of work in theory than it is to craft a political strategy that advances an anti-work agenda in practice. Neither side of twentieth century socialism’s reform-or-revolution dialectic is particularly helpful in this regard. Social democracy has managed to partially liberate workers from work, by providing public services and income supports that lessen the dependence on wage labor. Yet this decommodification of labor has been halting and uneasy, due to a preoccupation with maintaining full employment and conserving jobs. The insurrectionary seizure of state power, meanwhile, if it leaves the structure of capitalist labor relations intact, merely puts the workers in charge of their own exploitation — meet the new boss, same as the old.

Weeks attempts to transcend these limitations by elaborating a concept of the political demand that merges the reformist and revolutionary impulses. The demand is seen here as a call for a specific reform, but also as something more. The demand, and the way it is articulated, can be a tool for ideological demystification and for what Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive mapping,” charting the relationships between various spheres of production and reproduction. A demand can be something to organize around, a way to build collective capacity. Finally, a demand can set the stage for radical struggles and transformations in the future, even if it does not challenge the foundations of the system immediately.

This concept of the demand is evocative of André Gorz’s idea of the “non-reformist reform,” although Weeks shies away from the implication that a demand could have radical implications while still partaking in the reformist terrain of policy proposals and tactical compromises. In a move that is reminiscent of some of the anxiety about “demands” in the Occupy Wall Street milieu, it seems at times that Weeks wants to preserve her radical credentials by denying that the system could ever really accommodate the demands she puts forward.

Yet the two specific demands she discusses, though they are ambitious, are within the horizon of reformism: an unconditional basic income and a shortening of the work week. These are common enough proposals among leftists of an anti-work persuasion, but Weeks’ treatment is distinctive because it grounds both demands in the politics of feminism. Basic income is offered as a successor to “wages for housework”, a signature demand of the Marxist feminists who emerged from the Italian workerist scene. The objective, says Weeks, is to highlight “the arbitrariness with which contributions to social production are and are not rewarded with wages,” thus making visible the enormous amount of unwaged reproductive labor performed by women. Against those who reject basic income as an unearned handout, we can respond that it is capitalism which arbitrarily refuses to pay for a huge proportion of the labor that sustains it.

Shorter hours, too, is inherently a feminist demand. The proletarian of the Left’s romantic imagination has always been implicitly a male figure, the full time worker relying on the reproductive labor of a woman in the home. However, Weeks is careful to reject calls for work time reduction premised on making more time for the family. Such arguments may contest the work ethic, but they do so only by reinforcing an equally pernicious family ethic. Time in the home comes to be portrayed as inherently better or less alienated than time in the workplace, and the need for such time becomes naturalized. This ignores the alienating and oppressive qualities of the family, which led an earlier generation of feminists to seek the relative freedom and autonomy of wage labor. What’s more, the self-denying asceticism of the work ethic has not been overcome but merely displaced, from the workplace to the home. Shorter hours, asserts Weeks, should be offered not as a prop to the traditional family but as “a means of securing the time and space to forge alternatives to the present ideals and conditions of work and family life.”

Workers against Work

The rejection of work has a rich history in left theory, but a more intermittent presence in mass politics. It crops up sporadically, from the nineteenth century ten hour day movement to the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969. One great difficulty is that by jettisoning the work ethic, anti-work politics simultaneously takes up the cause of wage laborers while undermining their identity as wage laborers. It insists that their liberation must entail the simultaneous abolition of their self-conception as workers. This is in contrast to the more traditional Marxist vision, in which the working class first realizes itself in the metaphorical “dictatorship of the proletariat” before ultimately dissolving itself into a totally classless society. Yet even as orthodox a Marxist as Georg Lukacs observed in History and Class Consciousness that “the proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself.” Its ultimate destiny is to be not just a class for-itself but “against itself.”

This is not a problem unique to the struggle against capitalism, and it is perhaps inherent in any truly radical politics. It is always easier to pose demands on the terms of the enemy than it is to reject those terms altogether, whether that means racial minorities demanding assimilation to white society or gays and lesbians demanding admission to the institution of bourgeois marriage. By asking workers to give up not just their chains but their identities as workers, anti-work theorists relinquish the forms of working class pride and solidarity that have been the glue for many left movements. They dream of a workers’ movement against work. But this requires some new conception of who we are and what we are to become, if we are to throw off the label of “worker.”

Writers in the anti-work tradition have often sought these new identities in the outlooks and practices of figures who are marginal to the production process and outside the working class. Lafargue lapsed into noble savagery, comparing the deluded proletariat to “the Spaniard, in whom the primitive animal has not been atrophied,” and who therefore recognized that “work is the worst sort of slavery.” For Oscar Wilde, the artist showed us the future of life after our liberation from work and property, when everyone could finally develop a “true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.” Labor was, for him, not the source of a meaningful life but its antithesis, and the promise of modernity was that it could be overcome for the many as it was once overcome for the few:

The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else.

Lafargue and Wilde’s arguments have Nietzchean overtones, with the defense of work portrayed as a form of ressentiment and the work ethic as a detestable slave morality. Weeks makes this connection as well in her final chapter, joining Nietzsche to the iconoclastic Marxist Ernst Bloch as a theorist of utopian politics. To give up ressentiment, Weeks suggests, means to ask, “Can we want, and are we willing to create, a new world that would no longer be ‘our’ world’, a social form that would not produce subjects like us?” This brings about the difficulty raised above, as it pertains to the politics of rejecting work: “its mandate to embrace the present and affirm the self and, at the same time, to will their overcoming; its prescription for self-affirmation but not self-preservation or self-aggrandizement.”

Elsewhere, Weeks remarks that we should not underestimate just how much hesitation about anti-work positions is rooted in fear. Fear of idleness, fear of hedonism — or to borrow a phrase from Erich Fromm, fear of freedom. It is relatively easy to say that in the future I will be what I am now — a worker, just perhaps with more money or more job security or more control over my work. It is something else to imagine ourselves as different kinds of people altogether. That, perhaps, is the unappreciated value of Occupy Wall Street encampments and similar attempts to carve out alternative ways of living within the interstices of capitalist society. It may be, as critics often point out, that they cannot really build an alternative society so long as capitalism’s institutional impediments to such a society remain in place. But perhaps they can help remove the fear of what we might become if those impediments were lifted, and we were able to make our exodus from the world of work to the world of freedom.

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