Features » February 13, 2014
Before we can call work ‘noble,’ we have to agree on what it is.
What we need is not just less work—though we do need that—but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor.
Reprinted with permission from Jacobin magaine.
I’m pleased to see that a silly partisan dispute over an obscure finding in a Congressional Budget Office report has gotten people talking about the merits of working less. Alex Pareene has a good reaction to the finding that the Affordable Act will lead some people to quit their jobs: good! As he says, “People should be free from shitty jobs.” Even Paul Krugman is in on the act, pointing out the dishonesty of right-wingers who praise the dignity of work even as they attempt to make actual work as undignified as possible.
But in a more selfish way, I’m also glad that Kevin Drum is on hand to warn liberals against denigrating the dignity of work. He notes and approves of the fact that “Most people want to work, and most people also want to believe that their fellow citizens are working. It’s part of the social contract.”
This isn’t a view confined to liberals, and it crops up in some exchanges I’ve had with Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman. In a response to me, Ackerman makes a similar argument: “there is … an impulse to resent those with ‘undeserved’ advantages in the distribution of work,” and therefore “there will always be this social demand for the equal liability of all to work.” Thus he insists that “emancipation from wage-work should happen through the reduction of working-time along the intensive margin,” i.e., through a reduction in working hours among the employed. Alex Gourevitch, meanwhile, makes a somewhat different case, celebrating the value of “discipline” and the “renunciation of desire” against what he perceives as the embrace of pure hedonism and immediacy by anti-work writers.
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
These three meanings tend to get conflated all the time, even though they all appear separately in reality. This is the point I’ve tried to make going back to my earliest writing on this topic. “Work” manifests itself in all eight possible permutations of its three meanings.
There are, most of us agree, some things that are socially necessary, that are undertaken for money and that require discipline and self-sacrifice. Teaching is the first that comes to mind, in light of the struggles around that profession.
It is hard, at first, to think of something that’s necessary and paid but that doesn’t require some sort of self-discipline or renunciation of desire. But perhaps a pure form of rentier capitalist can be thought to engage in such activity. Simply enjoying a stream of investment income and blowing it on whatever you please is the opposite of self-sacrifice and discipline. And yet the drive to make investments profitable and to satisfy the consumption whims of those with money is the motor that drives a capitalist economy, so it is “necessary” within the context of that system.
By now, the Left is pretty conscious of the huge amount of difficult and necessary work that isn’t paid, whether it’s women raising their children or the labor of social media. Hence the demand for Wages for Housework and, now, Wages for Facebook.
Some things are necessary for the reproduction of society even though people often do them for free and don’t perceive them as disciplined or self-sacrificing. Sex, to take the most obvious example. Of course, sex can also be a disciplined performance undertaken for money. But, as Melissa Gira Grant explores in her upcoming book, the existence of sex work can be very discomfiting for people who are emotionally invested in the idea of sex as a space of pure non-work. But that, I’d argue, is itself a symptom of our confused and fetishistic conception of what work is.
Meanwhile, some of the things people do work very hard to get paid for are of dubious social utility. The people who design high frequency trading algorithms are undoubtedly hard-working and ingenious. But it’s hard to justify what they do even within the parameters of a capitalist economy, which is why calls for a financial transactions tax are so appealing. And the things in this category aren’t necessarily bad things—professional sports aren’t necessary for social reproduction either, even though they’re well paid and are acknowledged to be “hard work” in the third sense of work given above.
At the same time, there can and does exist lots of activity that satisfies Gourevitch’s criteria of discipline and diligence, even though it’s unpaid and it’s hard to claim the status of social necessity for it. The world is full of amateur photographers and recreational hunters who have no particular ambition to get paid for what they do. And we can also add all those competitive endeavors that don’t sustain paid professional careers, like Scrabble or video gaming outside of a handful of e-sports.
What of the work that isn’t work in its first (necessary) or third (renunciation of desire) sense, but still keeps the “getting paid for it” part? Certain kinds of celebrities who are “famous for being famous” come to mind. This is tricky, however, since often the appearance of effortlessness conceals a disciplined and carefully managed performance. But the difficulty of conceiving of this kind of work indicates the problem with certain work-obsessed solutions to economic deprivation, such as the so-called “job guarantee.” Proponents of such schemes seem to think that people should only get paid if they have “jobs,” and yet they are indifferent to what the content of those jobs is, leading some of us to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just give out the money without the jobs.
Finally, we come to the triple negative, things that aren’t considered work in any of the three senses I’ve given. The paradigmatic example of something that is useless, unpaid and completely hedonistic would, of course, be masturbation. And it’s not surprising that, in a culture suffused with the work ethic, “masturbatory” is a common term of denigration. But there’s nothing wrong with masturbation provided you don’t impose yours on others—although as Dr. Jocelyn Elders discovered, you have to be careful about saying that in public.
All of which is a long-winded way of making the point that if we’re going to debate the meaning, importance, dignity and existence of work, we should be a lot more careful with what we mean by the concept. When I talk about reducing or eliminating work, I almost always mean work in my second sense: wage labor. Getting rid of the necessary work of social reproduction—say, by automating it—may be desirable, but maybe not, depending on the situation; I know not everyone is down with Shulamith Firestone’s proposal to grow babies in tanks. And I certainly agree with Gourevitch that disciplined commitment to seeing a project through is an important aspect of, as he puts it, the “full expression of human creativity and productive powers.”
It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them—whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”
So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.
I like the way Drum puts it: “people want to believe that their fellow citizens are working.” The word believe suggests that it’s the ideology of what counts as work that’s doing the work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name of social solidarity.
Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work—though we do need that—but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.
Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.
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Peter Frase is the vice chair of the Hudson Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a member of the editorial board at Jacobin magazine. He is the author of Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Verso, 2016).