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Laboring Under an Illusion

Anton Jäger

“Post-work” Marxism aims to liberate us from the coercion of wage labor. But without a program for reorganizing production, it can only return us to the tyranny of the market.

A barista helps a customer on September 6, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Andrew Burton / Getty

Interview by
Doug Henwood

In a recent article for Jacobin, Anton Jäger offered a critical analysis of the “post-work” tradition of Marxist thought, which flourished in the 1960s and remains prominent today among many advocates of a universal basic income. Jäger argued that any serious effort to grapple with the oppressive aspects of labor under capitalism requires “reorganizing and reinventing work beyond the market imperative.”

In a discussion on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News (which you can listen to when you subscribe to Jacobin Radio), Jäger elaborated on his critique. Reviewing the long history of anti-work politics on the Left, he concludes that, ultimately, “if you don’t control production, then you’ll never be able to fully seek freedom in the sphere of consumption.” Below is an edited version of his interview.


DH

Work has a complicated history on the Left — the Marxist and the non-Marxist left. We have people like the early Bolsheviks, who seem to want to make us all into over-workers. But you have also an anti-work tradition going way back, at least to Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue. Let’s talk about that a little bit, the anti-work tradition. What are the highlights of it? How does it figure in the history of the Left?

AJ

Historically, you can definitely find a kind of unifying thread, all these different figures that could count as anti-work Marxists, and Lafargue definitely plays a very prominent role in it. But I also think there’s always a danger of imposing a kind of teleology on the tradition, which is just way messier and way more complicated than we often presuppose. So, Lafargue’s book is hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, mainly with anarchists. Marxists do take it on. But as I also mentioned in that article, it for example has a really problematic reception history in the German labor movement, because that movement is so strongly wedded to the obligation to work. So they have this idea that everyone who’s capable of working should be working.

I think there’s really a qualitative jump in what you could call anti-work Marxism in the late 1960s, where, with the arrival of a fully-fledged consumer society there’s, first, this idea that the jump from the sphere of necessity to the sphere of freedom has finally become possible because of automation; and there’s also a new way in which mainly European and Western societies more globally, experience capitalist crises. And I think they don’t necessarily experience them as a dearth of labor, but now rather as a kind of check on the libidinal release which was made possible by consumption.

And I think this completely changes the way we conceive of anti-work on the Left, because work is now exclusively seen as a kind of suppression of spontaneity, which I don’t think it was previously in the tradition. So I think we need to look at the late 1960s and early 1970s to really see what is anti-work leftism or even anti-work Marxism today.

DH

Now, of course, there’s a reaction against that coming from the Right —not just the Right, part of the labor movement too, which just condemned all these lazy hippies who wanted to sit around and get high all day: “Get a job, hippie.” But also, Reagan’s story about the welfare queens collecting all these public assistance checks and driving around in pink Cadillacs. How does this fight over work figure on the Right?

AJ

I think there’s definitely a very powerful moment in the late 1970s when the Right manages to recuperate a certain workerism, which they think the Left has abandoned, and it also has a real electoral constituency, which you can draw on to support this program.

At the same time, I think there’s a deep ambiguity to the celebration of work. What you see in Thatcher and Reagan is that they actually have the same vision of work as what you’d call the sort of hippie generation, which is that it’s the suppression of spontaneity. But to the Right, they agreed descriptively that that’s a bad thing, because they think people are intrinsically — I wouldn’t say evil, but they’re intrinsically likely to engage in excess and they have to be kept in check by masters, where that’s the state or whether that’s a private government, an employer. They also say, like, “Okay, but we need to return to a form of work” — that it’s disciplining, that it’s self-disciplining.

But in a sense, this is a celebration of work in a linguistic sense — it doesn’t get to the heart of what is specific about work, I think, because it actually just confuses work with employment.

DH

Yeah, I wanted to get to that point. Because when we talk about work, do we mean a job? Do we mean being a sculptor? What do we mean by work?

AJ

Work is a tricky notion, because it lies linguistically very closely to something like employment and it’s completely enmeshed with it. When we talk about something like labor, I think labor is a way of organizing humanity’s relationship to nature. It’s just a way of exerting control over nature. So labor in that sense is the expression of a desire for independence. We need to distinguish that from all of these other concepts, which are often bandied about in this debate, such as effort, employment, work, jobs.

Work and labor, as such, to me, is simply the desire for humans to build their own environment, to humanize the environment, to make sure they have control of their own lives. And I think employment, or our current sort of capitalist labor market, offers certain ways of control. I mean, it certainly humanizes the environment, as we see with global warming. But at the same time, it does so in a highly unconscious and chaotic way. I think it’s this kind of confusion of these two overlapping human activities that really also explains the contemporary crisis of work in a very profound way.

DH

Fundamentally, if we don’t work, we will die. We will have nowhere to live, no roof over our head, no food to eat, no clothes to wear. I had Kathi Weeks on this show a few years ago when her book came out. I recalled that my first wife had a 1974 Fiat that was a real piece of crap. It was a horrible car. But that was built at the height of Italian operaismo, and the anti-work movement had spread pretty far into the labor in Italy. I kept bringing that car up. I said, “Well, who will make the stuff that keeps society moving?” I never really got a satisfactory answer out of her. She kept changing the story. She wanted to talk about how terrible so much work is, how terrible so many jobs are. But I don’t understand how this anti-work philosophy will put food on the table.

AJ

Yeah, I think that’s the big question I ask myself. Because they have this vision of work as a suppression of spontaneity, they think that a postcapitalist form of activity — because they always prefer the word “activity” rather than “work” — will have to be spontaneous and will be undone of all its coercive aspects. I think this is not only unrealistic, it’s also undesirable. Some feel like full automation is a really attractive slogan, but at the same time you really have to ask yourself the question of how this works out in practice.

The example I often give is that there’s loads of activity today which doesn’t count as work, because it doesn’t meet the sort of benchmark of solvency associated with the market. For example, if you really like handing out ice cream in the park, this is obviously a sort of activity which capitalist markets don’t cater to. If we live in a postcapitalist society, people should be able to just roam around the park and hand out ice cream, because that now counts as a sort of worthy, productive activity basically.

DH

But where’d that ice cream come from though?

AJ

Exactly. So the question is, “Where does the ice cream come from?” “Well, it comes from a factory.” “What do you do at the factory?” They say, “Oh, you automate the factory.” The thing is, “Well, who builds the machines for the automated factory? Who trains the engineers who build the machines for the automated factory?” At the same time, this gets you into inevitably political questions of, “What do we automate? How do we automate it? Who do we train for the automation?”

At the same time, there’s this kind of problematic regress which, in the end, implies an inevitable end to pure, spontaneous activity, because you have to coerce people into doing certain things. In the end, it’s a sort of coercive moment where you say, “Okay, now we’re actually going to force people to do this, because this is the activity we value as a society.” This problematic regress in the end also shows the sort of weakness of the notion of work that these post-workers have. Because work can be coercive but still fulfilling. This is the whole point about what Marx himself said when he came to postcapitalist laborers, that you need to find these kinds of procedures and you need to find these institutional mechanisms that actually allow coercion or the enforcing of a consensus to be procedurally consistent and transparent, so not arbitrary in that sense.

What we have now is just a labor market which, on a personal level is arbitrary, but also on an interpersonal level is arbitrary, because people just get allocated to these jobs, which they’re not necessarily suited for. It’s highly coercive, but arbitrary. But in the end, I don’t think you can think of labor as noncoercive. I think you need to think through that concept of labor coercion and actually think through how we will produce, even if we manage to free ourselves of the market imperative.

DH

The anti-work or post-work people make several arguments, which I think are empirically flimsy, but one is that jobs are disappearing, and since they are disappearing, we might as well just go with it and make that our program. I first noticed this in the late nineties among people like Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz, who were making this argument. But you see it now with Paul Mason and others: “The robots are taking over and there’s no more jobs anyways, so we might as well make the best of it.” What’s your reaction to that line of argument?

AJ

Well, I’m highly, highly skeptical. I mean, I’m not a trained economist myself, so I have to rely on secondary accounts here. But I think what we need to realize first, historically, is that these kind of automation panics are really a cyclical thing, even in the postwar period. So, they occur every fifteen years, where you have this outpouring of literature on how work’s disappearing. And, surprise, surprise, ten years later work still hasn’t disappeared, it’s become more brutal and more coercive. But at the same time, work itself, the employment relationship, has not disappeared.

There are two arguments to be made here. The first is a sort of descriptive refutation. The other is a normative refutation. Descriptively, what we are seeing is that the global workforce, or the proletarian workforce, has never been bigger in history. At the same time, there are now tricky arguments of whether there’s a growing surplus population or a permanent surplus population, which means that now we have a section of the planetary proletariat that’s pushed out of the wage relationship altogether.

But even if this descriptive statement holds true, the normative question of whether we can have postcapitalism without labor is just hugely improbable to me. Just think about something like decarbonizing an economy. If we need to actually save humanity from climate apocalypse, you will have to think about how you retrain and how you create all the kinds of industries that actually allow us to survive beyond our current carbon economy. If you want to do that without labor and without full automation, I think you’re going to run into huge logistical difficulties to even ensure survival for the human species. In that sense, I find it normatively quite irresponsible to just say, “Oh, we’re working for a post-work, post-coercive labor future.” Because, I mean, I think it really is quite threatening in the light of what’s actually come at us in the coming fifty years.

DH

The other argument they make, which I think is also empirically flimsy, is that people really hate their jobs. David Graeber of course has a book out with the title, Bullshit Jobs. But that’s a popular argument: that people find their work pointless and hate it. The survey data is much more mixed than that, isn’t it?

AJ

Yeah, a lot of these post-workers like to marshal out this evidence. So, this depends from country to country, but when you look closely at the evidence they use, the evidence itself just gives a way more ambiguous picture of how people relate to that work. I think, for example, Graeber’s thesis is pretty good for this, because he cites his statistics quite fervently. What you have is not bullshit jobs, but kind of bullshit in jobs. So what a lot of these statistics point out is that people are extremely attached to work, however sort of degrading it might be, but they are extremely annoyed at the kind of relationships and exploitation that run through their working lives.

The metaphor I always like to use is a sort of exploitative love relationship. You can imagine someone being in an amorous engagement with someone and seeing the promise of a certain freedom, seeing the promise of a certain pleasure. But at the same time, that promise is constantly denied or negated by the fact that they’re being exploited by the other person in the relationship.

I mean, I have friends who, for example, worked as baristas and in service jobs for a long time. And of course, as a sort of personal evidence, this doesn’t count, but it’s exemplary in the sense that they say, “Well, I really like the part of the work that’s sort of an expression of my independence, where I get to make good coffees for people, and even some of the customer interaction, which is more pleasant than mere emotional labor, I quite enjoy. But at the same time, there’s just constantly this tyrannical and despotic boss who is around and who is telling me to run or to do things in a certain way,” which is completely contradictory to that desire for autonomy.

I think when you look at the data itself, this is the core of the problem, that there’s a huge gap between what work is and what it could look like. People see the kind of utopian promise in work today. But at the same time, this is constantly being negated by the actual state of our labor market. So, again, there the sort of factual evidence used by post-workers is way more unstable than they often presuppose.

DH

Yeah, I once heard this argument about nurses — for example, they love their work, they love taking care of patients. But what they don’t like is the way the doctors treat them, the way their pay is stagnant, the way they’re always expected to do more and more work with fewer and fewer resources. They like the work, but the conditions under which they have to perform it are what’s oppressive, not the work itself.

AJ

Absolutely. I think there is a tricky thing in just calling for the defense of the dignity of labor. This is a critique of the article that is often leveled: “Oh, he’s just calling for the liberation of socially valued labor from capitalist labor.” The idea is that, “Oh, you can just liberate the concrete from the abstract and everything will be done with.” So the idea is, “If we just get rid of the doctors and the tyrannical hospital bosses, then the nurses can just run the hospitals for themselves.”

But that’s a tricky thing, because even that concrete form or socially valuable form of labor is completely conditioned by the employment relationship. I would just call for defense of the dignity of labor. But at the same time, there is this easy abolitionism which just says, “Oh, these nurses are just culturally wrong to believe that the work they’re doing is valuable.” I find that not only condescending, but I think it’s also untenable, because it just doesn’t speak to people’s real desire for independence in many ways.

DH

By making the argument against work itself, as you point out in the piece (and you’ve said other people have pointed out), you’re writing off all questions of the organization of production and the organization of labor. We’re not talking about how we should organize work, we’re not talking about how we should organize economic life. We’re just throwing up our hands and saying, “Just write me a check for a UBI.”

AJ

Yeah. And I think the skepticism I have for post-work extends into the skepticism I have for UBI. I think if you look at the long history of social policy in which these kinds of basic grants have been proposed, the UBI is, again, a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s, where there was, first, this idea that there is a sort of neutralization of production. You have an abundance of consumer goods, you have the idea that full-on automation is around the corner. So the sphere of production really gets abandoned by certain people on the Left. And the idea as well that the main battle will now be waged on the level of consumption.

But at the same time, it’s again an argument that’s not very tenable, because we have realized that consumption was still being determined by production. And if you want to seek emancipation of the sphere of consumption, you always have to ask the question, “Well, what is the sphere of consumption dependent on? Oh, it’s dependent on the sphere of production.” And if you don’t control production then you’ll never be able to fully seek freedom in the sphere of consumption.

What I think UBI does nowadays is it naturalizes a whole list of factors which are actually intrinsically political. It naturalizes unemployment, it naturalizes low growth, it naturalizes the retreat from the sphere of production, which is already going on, certainly in the labor movement itself.

I mean, there are technical objections to be made to the UBI. You can ask how much it costs. You can ask what it actually addresses with some of the real problems with our labor market. But at the same time, I think the real problem with the UBI is that it’s very, very unattractive politically, because the vision that underlies it —I don’t think it’s a vision hospitable to real notions of freedom, basically.

DH

What’s a better way to think about this then? We want meaningful work in some sense, right? Can we do that? I mean, somebody still has to collect the garbage.

AJ

Yeah. I think a lot of post-workers would acknowledge this. They don’t think that their post-work society is going to do away with all of these kinds of unpleasant forms of work. But I don’t think they think hard enough about how that’s actually going to happen.

I think the way we talk about work needs to be semantically clarified a bit. As I do in the piece, I think we need to distinguish certain notions which we shouldn’t simply collapse. I think we need to distinguish work from employment, from effort, for example. Then, secondly, I think we need to start talking about work itself, not simply as a source of an identity, which is such a classical trope in our identitarian zeitgeist, but as, again, the desire for freedom. It is an expression of humanity’s desire to control and change their environment. As long as we see work as a source of meaning, it risks just becoming a sort of status thing.

But I think it’s much more than simply status. I think it is a question of how humanity is able to change its own nature through work. As long as we don’t discuss it in those terms, I think we’ll never really get to the core of the question.

DH

Under capitalism we don’t really see this clearly, because of the alienation of the money relation, the commodity relation. But, you know, in fact, work is a deeply social thing. It’s how we get together and work as humans together to keep the wolf from the door. This post-work stuff kind of writes that out as well doesn’t it?

AJ

Yeah, I think it depoliticizes needs. This is also why they like the UBI, because this is very much a product of the Left’s anti-normative moment in the 1960s and 1970s where the model of the Fordist wage earner was contested by all these alternative social movements.

What they love about the UBI is that it’s purely a discretionary sum, which you get at the beginning of the month, and there is no sort of, to use a fancy Foucauldian term, there’s no kind of biopolitical imperative inherent in that sum of money. You just go to the market, and if you want to spend it on drugs, if you want to spend it on food, if you want to spend it on actually building something, you can do all of those things. There’s no prescriptive moment in that notion of the UBI.

But if you really want to be that anti-normative, at the same time you have to be highly individualist, so there’s no question of how needs can possibly be social. And at the same time, if you’re completely anti-normative and you still want to regulate social life, I don’t see how you have any institution left but the market, because the market is the primary or the ultimate anti-normative institution. It can cater to any need, as long as you’re structurally coerced into working.

There’s this fantastic book by Melinda Cooper called Family Values, which is also about this moment in the 1960s where you have the rise of the anti-normative left. And she says that there’s an anti-normative notion of welfare that comes about and she relates it to the UBI. But at the same time, I think, well, that’s just contradictory. An anti-normative notion of welfare doesn’t exist. Welfare is always an intrinsically normative notion. I think there’s a big difference between rejecting normativity and contesting certain existing forms of normativity and seeing them as exclusionary.

I think that’s the same thing with the UBI. I think the UBI sees a real problem, namely the sort of false forms of mediation, or false forms of normativity. But instead of seeking to broaden or universalize those norms, it just rejects them as such, and it has to flee to the market, because there is just no other institution that can actually populate regular social life except for the market if you’ve given up on norms.

DH

Yeah, I think we want better norms, we just can’t get rid of them.

AJ

Exactly.

DH

You conclude the piece with an amusing anecdote about the Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic. It almost fell apart, right?

AJ

Yeah, exactly. When I start the piece, I say that they founded it in 1982, which is a kind of watershed moment for the global labor movement as a whole. But then, as it continued through the 1980s, they almost worked themselves to death, because they realized it’s very, very fun to work together to abolish labor.

I think this is quite funny. It’s sort of an ironic anecdote I use mainly to wrap up the article. At the same time, I think there’s a darker side to this pseudo-anti-work notion within a certain new left, the celebration of these bohemian types of the late 1960s, such as the artist who has no regular working hours, or freewheeling academics, for example. What you see now is a labor market which is being reshaped in the light of these sociopolitical models. So everyone is now supposed to work as an artist does with the same amount of affective investment; the precarity of the academic labor market is now becoming a general feature of the capitalist labor market.

And there’s a darker side to the recuperation of this new left sensibility by neoliberalism, where the rejection of norms has been recuperated quite effectively. Now everyone has to become like a precarious artist, while the exploitative nature of their work cannot adequately be theorized anymore.

DH

Yeah, the “do what you love” argument. It really becomes a rationale for low pay and unpleasant working conditions.

AJ

Exactly. I think this is the dark side of that Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic, that, well, they want sort of spontaneous labor. So they say, that labor has to become this form of spontaneous order. But that is a phrase that was coined by Hayek. If you want to look for a vision of labor that’s spontaneous, then you have to look at Hayek. The only problem is that, structurally there’s one thing which will remain beyond contestation, and that’s the commodification of labor power.

So there’s this really sad and at the same time interesting convergence between Hayek and some new leftists, in that this vision of spontaneity just ends up with the market again.