The Politics of Getting a Life – Part 3

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

Politics of the Demand

What is the politics of getting a life? It is easier to reject the ideology of work in theory than it is to craft a political strategy that advances an anti-work agenda in practice. Neither side of twentieth century socialism’s reform-or-revolution dialectic is particularly helpful in this regard. Social democracy has managed to partially liberate workers from work, by providing public services and income supports that lessen the dependence on wage labor. Yet this de-commodification of labor has been halting and uneasy, due to a preoccupation with maintaining full employment and conserving jobs. The insurrectionary seizure of state power, meanwhile, if it leaves the structure of capitalist labor relations intact, merely puts the workers in charge of their own exploitation — meet the new boss, same as the old.

Kathi Weeks attempts to transcend these limitations by elaborating a concept of the political demand that merges the reformist and revolutionary impulses. The demand is seen here as a call for a specific reform, but also as something more. The demand, and the way it is articulated, can be a tool for ideological demystification and for what Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive mapping,” charting the relationships between various spheres of production and reproduction. A demand can be something to organize around, a way to build collective capacity. Finally, a demand can set the stage for radical struggles and transformations in the future, even if it does not challenge the foundations of the system immediately.

This concept of the demand is evocative of André Gorz’s idea of the “non-reformist reform,” although Weeks shies away from the implication that a demand could have radical implications while still partaking in the reformist terrain of policy proposals and tactical compromises. In a move that is reminiscent of some of the anxiety about “demands” in the Occupy Wall Street milieu, it seems at times that Weeks wants to preserve her radical credentials by denying that the system could ever really accommodate the demands she puts forward.

 Yet the two specific demands she discusses, though they are ambitious, are within the horizon of reformism: an unconditional basic income and a shortening of the work week. These are common enough proposals among leftists of an anti-work persuasion, but Weeks’ treatment is distinctive because it grounds both demands in the politics of feminism. Basic income is offered as a successor to “wages for housework,” a signature demand of the Marxist feminists who emerged from the Italian workerist scene. The objective, says Weeks, is to highlight “the arbitrariness with which contributions to social production are and are not rewarded with wages,” thus making visible the enormous amount of unwaged reproductive labor performed by women. Against those who reject basic income as an unearned handout, we can respond that it is capitalism which arbitrarily refuses to pay for a huge proportion of the labor that sustains it.

 Shorter hours, too, is inherently a feminist demand. The proletarian of the Left’s romantic imagination has always been implicitly a male figure, the full time worker relying on the reproductive labor of a woman in the home. However, Weeks is careful to reject calls for work time reduction premised on making more time for the family. Such arguments may contest the work ethic, but they do so only by reinforcing an equally pernicious family ethic. Time in the home comes to be portrayed as inherently better or less alienated than time in the workplace, and the need for such time becomes naturalized. This ignores the alienating and oppressive qualities of the family, which led an earlier generation of feminists to seek the relative freedom and autonomy of wage labor. What’s more, the self-denying asceticism of the work ethic has not been overcome but merely displaced, from the workplace to the home. Shorter hours, asserts Weeks, should be offered not as a prop to the traditional family but as “a means of securing the time and space to forge alternatives to the present ideals and conditions of work and family life.”

 Workers Against Work

The rejection of work has a rich history in left theory, but a more intermittent presence in mass politics. It crops up sporadically, from the nineteenth century 10-hour day movement to the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969. One great difficulty is that by jettisoning the work ethic, anti-work politics simultaneously takes up the cause of wage laborers while undermining their identity as wage laborers. It insists that their liberation must entail the simultaneous abolition of their self-conception as workers. This is in contrast to the more traditional Marxist vision, in which the working class first realizes itself in the metaphorical “dictatorship of the proletariat” before ultimately dissolving itself into a totally classless society. Yet even as orthodox a Marxist as Georg Lukacs observed in History and Class Consciousness that “the proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself.” Its ultimate destiny is to be not just a class for itself but “against itself.”

 This is not a problem unique to the struggle against capitalism, and it is perhaps inherent in any truly radical politics. It is always easier to pose demands on the terms of the enemy than it is to reject those terms altogether, whether that means racial minorities demanding assimilation to white society or gays and lesbians demanding admission to the institution of bourgeois marriage. By asking workers to give up not just their chains but their identities as workers, anti-work theorists relinquish the forms of working class pride and solidarity that have been the glue for many left movements. They dream of a workers’ movement against work. But this requires some new conception of who we are and what we are to become, if we are to throw off the label of “worker.”

 Writers in the anti-work tradition have often sought these new identities in the outlooks and practices of figures who are marginal to the production process and outside the working class. Lafargue lapsed into noble savagery, comparing the deluded proletariat to “the Spaniard, in whom the primitive animal has not been atrophied,” and who therefore recognized that “work is the worst sort of slavery.” For Oscar Wilde, the artist showed us the future of life after our liberation from work and property, when everyone could finally develop a “true, beautiful, healthy Individualism.” Labor was, for him, not the source of a meaningful life but its antithesis, and the promise of modernity was that it could be overcome for the many as it was once overcome for the few:

 The fact is, that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvelous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else.

 Lafargue and Wilde’s arguments have Nietzchean overtones, with the defense of work portrayed as a form of ressentiment and the work ethic as a detestable slave morality. Weeks makes this connection as well in her final chapter, joining Nietzsche to the iconoclastic Marxist Ernst Bloch as a theorist of utopian politics. To give up ressentiment, Weeks suggests, means to ask, “Can we want, and are we willing to create, a new world that would no longer be ‘our’ world’, a social form that would not produce subjects like us?” This brings about the difficulty raised above, as it pertains to the politics of rejecting work: “its mandate to embrace the present and affirm the self and, at the same time, to will their overcoming; its prescription for self-affirmation but not self-preservation or self-aggrandizement.”

 Elsewhere, Weeks remarks that we should not underestimate just how much hesitation about anti-work positions is rooted in fear. Fear of idleness, fear of hedonism — or to borrow a phrase from Erich Fromm, fear of freedom. It is relatively easy to say that in the future I will be what I am now — a worker, just perhaps with more money or more job security or more control over my work. It is something else to imagine ourselves as different kinds of people altogether. That, perhaps, is the unappreciated value of Occupy Wall Street encampments and similar attempts to carve out alternative ways of living within the interstices of capitalist society. It may be, as critics often point out, that they cannot really build an alternative society so long as capitalism’s institutional impediments to such a society remain in place. But perhaps they can help remove the fear of what we might become if those impediments were lifted, and we were able to make our exodus from the world of work to the world of freedom.

 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 Graduate Center.