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