The Politics of Getting a Life – Part 2

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

                                Permutations of the Work Ethic

liesure.jpgThe furious passion for work is not a constant of human nature but rather something that must be constantly reinforced, and successive versions of the work ethic have been used to stoke that passion. At the dawn of capitalism, the call to work was a call to salvation, as Kathi Weeks explains in her reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in her recent book, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.. She recognizes that, far from providing an idealist alternative to Marx’s account of the rise of capitalism, Weber complements historical materialism by describing the construction of a working class ideology. The word is used in Althusser’s sense: “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The Protestant ethic allowed workers to imagine that when they worked for the profit of the boss, they were really working for their salvation, and for the glory of God.


By the twentieth century, however, the calling had become a material one: hard work would ensure broad-based prosperity. Each of the century’s twin projects of industrial modernity developed this calling in its own way. Soviet authorities promoted the Stakhanovite movement, which glorified exceptional contributions to the productivity of the socialist economy. In Detroit, meanwhile, the social democratic union leader Walter Reuther denounced advocates of shorter hours for undermining the U.S. economy in the struggle against Communism. In neither case was the quality of industrial work called into question; it was simply a matter of who was in control and who reaped the spoils.

The industrial work ethic ran aground on the alienating nature of industrial labor. Workers who still remembered the Great Depression might have been willing to subordinate themselves to the assembly line in return for a steady paycheck, but their children were emboldened to ask for more.

 As Jefferson Cowie recounts in his history Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, the 1970s were characterized by pervasive labor unrest and what was popularly called the “blue collar blues,” as “workers were harnessed to union pay but longed to run free of the deadening nature of the work itself.” In the realm of left theory, this development was reflected in the vogue for “humanist” critiques of work, rooted in the young Marx’s theory of alienation. Weeks highlights the Freudian-Marxist Erich Fromm, who argued that “the self-realization of man . . . is inextricably linked to the activity of work,” which will again become authentic and fulfilling once it is freed from capitalist control. In recognizing the limitations of demanding more work, the humanists instead called for better work.

 But this critique proved to be doubly unsatisfying: it either points backwards to austere primitivism or forward to another iteration of capitalism. In the hands of feminists like Maria Mies, the critique of alienated work becomes a call to produce only for immediate use, rather than for exchange; this, Weeks notes, is “a prescription for worldly asceticism of the first order.” If the productivist form of Marxism trafficked in the illusion that capitalism’s forces of production could be upheld and preserved independent of the class-based relations of production, then the romantic call for a return to small-scale or craft labor attempts to split apart another of Marx’s dialectics, that between exchange value and use value. But use value, like productivity, is ultimately a category internal to capitalism; the demand that what we produce be “useful” is inseparable from the work ethic itself.

 The most influential line of argument against industrial labor, however, has not been the ascetic one but instead what the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the “artistic critique.” Under this critique, industrial labor is condemned not because it separates exchange and use, but because it restricts the autonomy, freedom, and creativity of the worker. The solution is not to reconnect work to earthy craft labor, but to elevate workers into flexible, autonomous, self-fashioning individuals, truly able to realize themselves in their work.

 But this position quickly curdled into apologia for the precarious world of post-1970s capitalism, in which individuals were encouraged to celebrate unstable jobs and uncertain income as forms of freedom rather than insecurity. Intangible benefits were offered as an alternative to a share in rising productivity, which became decoupled from wages. Thus we arrive at a third iteration of the work ethic in the post-industrial era, where work is now represented neither as a path to salvation nor as a road to riches, but as a source of personal identity and fulfillment. This ethic is exemplified by hip Silicon Valley firms like Apple, which reportedly told employees, in response to their wage demands, that “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.”

 In these circumstances, Weeks argues, calls for “better work” are not only inadequate, they tend to reproduce and extend a form of capitalism that attempts to colonize the lives and personalities of its workers. Hence “worker empowerment can boost efficiency, flexibility can serve as a way to cut costs, and participation can produce commitment to the organization . . . quality becomes quantity as the call for better work is translated into a requirement for more work.” Any attempt to reconstruct the meaning of work in a non-alienating way must begin, then, by rejecting work altogether.

 Yet the manipulative invocation of the autonomy of labor is only possible because the artistic critique did address real desires. Given the shortcomings of the old industrial labor paradigm, it hardly seems possible or desirable to return to an older proletarian ideal of long-term, protected employment with a single firm. Yet some are still attempting to resurrect the idea of better work. In The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, economist Guy Standing identifies the new mass of insecure workers as a “precariat” rather than a proletariat, one which desires “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism.”

 Like Weeks, Standing is a proponent of an unconditional basic income — a regular payment provided to every individual regardless of whether or how much they work — as a way of providing income security without locking people into jobs. Yet he still grounds his appeal on the concept of work, now expanded beyond the boundaries of wage labor. “The fact that there is an aversion to the jobs on offer does not mean that . . . people do not want to work,” he argues, for in fact “almost everybody wants to work.”

 Subsequently, however, he speaks of “rescuing” work from its association with wage labor: “All forms of work should be treated with equal respect, and there should be no presumption that someone not in a job is not working or that someone not working today is an idle scrounger.” This evokes the notion of a social factory in which we contribute various kinds of productive activity that is not directly remunerated, ranging from raising children to coding open-source software.

 But no amount of redefinition can escape the association of work with the capitalist ethos of productivism and efficiency. The contrast between work and “idle scrounging” implies that we can measure whether any given activity is productive or useful, by translating it into a common measure. Capitalism has such a measure, monetary value: whatever has value in the market is, by definition, productive. If the critique of capitalism is to get beyond this, it must get beyond the idea that our activities can be subordinated to a single measure of value. Indeed, to demand that time outside of work be truly free is to reject the call to justify its usefulness. This is a central insight of Weeks’ consistent anti-asceticism, which resists any effort to replace the work ethic with some equally homogenizing code that externally validates the organization of our time. Time beyond work should not be for exchange or for use, but for itself. The point, as Weeks puts it, is to “get a life,” as we find ways “to sustain the social worlds necessary for, among other things, production.”

 Part 3 of this post will follow shortly.

To see the original version, go here.

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