Redefining Work

Before we can call work ‘noble,’ we have to agree on what it is.

Peter Frase February 13, 2014

Four ditch-diggers doing some meaningful—but likely not well-paid—labor on a Works Progress Administration project. (Louise Boyle / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Jacobin mag­a­ine.

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.

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).
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