The Politics of Getting a Life

This article is adapted from a longer version in Jacobin magazine.  Part 1

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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 in sweltering 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.

Parts 2 and 3 of this post will follow this week.

To read the entire piece, go to Jacobin.

Peter Frase is an editor of Jacobin magazine and a Ph.D. student in sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
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Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
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If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.