Work is (potentially) one good thing: A response to Livingston and other post-workists

14 Mar

In today’s post, TCM co-editor Alex Gourevitch replies to Jim Livingston and other anti-workists, a debate that heated up after Ross Douthat’s op-ed on the subject. For the earlier iterations of this discussion see our earlier post, along with Peter Frase, Evan Burger, and Jim Livingston’s – and some older posts by Seth Ackerman, Chris Maisano, and Kathi Weeks.

Leisure is one good thing, but work is another

Leisure is a good thing. But it is not everything. That is one problem with the post-workists. The other problem is that they have a very one-sided view of work, one that, ironically, comes from adopting rather than overcoming a distinction that the constraints of this society impose on us: the distinction between production and consumption.

Consider Jim Livingston’s most recent foray into the work debate, in which he argues that work is culturally obsolete. The “renunciation of desire,” which Jim sees as the hallmark of work, was once useful insofar as it led to massive increases in human productivity. Once it became possible for machines to do the work of humans, however, the historical mission of the work ethic was exhausted:

“What if the deferral of desire is no longer the condition of life because the socially necessary labor of the proletarian has receded?  What if the realization of desire (yes, the consumption rather than the production of values) has become the condition of life as such—of human development, as Hegel would say?  Then the morality of the slave, the Stoic, the worker—the repression of desire—becomes a constraint on human development, a fetter on the growth of the forces of production.”

The real possibility available to us, if we overcome our inner compulsion to work and free our desires, is that “man is able to step aside and install machines in his place (Hegel).”

Jim offered these thoughts in the name of “trying to slow us all down,” but he was far too quick. First, the identification of work with the “renunciation of desire” is just wrong. Second, discipline and desire are not opposites. And third there are many different kinds of discipline, some good some bad. If we get our thinking straight about this we’ll see that we should not be seeking to “abolish work” but to change it.

To begin with, to condemn work as the “renunciation of desire” is slipshod. After all, if the very renunciation of desire, whatever exactly that means, were the thing that was bad about work, work would not be the only bad thing. Many activities people engage in during their free time would be bad – like training for a sport or practicing music. It is hard to think of anything but purely non-instrumental activities – like playing games, hobby-painting, revelry, hanging out, and maybe religious worship – as having any value if all renunciation of desire is bad. All purposeful activities require some discipline. So one problem is that the abolish work position, by attacking “discipline” or the “renunciation of desire” isn’t really identifying something specific to work, at least as Livingston defines it. But there’s more.

Livingston wants to celebrate rather than renounce desires, forgetting that the development of many desires is only possible over the course of a life in which there is also discipline. Livingston’s delight in the razzle-dazzle of textual interpretation, his desire to synthesize Hegel-Marx, has required decades of disciplined study; indeed, mere reading itself requires years of discipline and development. It is only after we have developed an ability that we desire its skillful exercise and enjoy its realization.

One would think someone with a fondness for Hegel would be sensitive to this fact, but Livingston’s world is weirdly techno-primitivist. On the one hand, society is brimming with machines, which are a product of a very advanced stage of historical development that presumes a radical transformation and expansion in human needs and relationships. People in this modern society are not born into their occupations and, for that same reason, do not have a fixed or given set of needs defined by hereditary social roles. We define our needs, and have the relative freedom to do so both because our roles are not fixed and because of the massive increase in the technical ability to do so. Further, our way of organizing our desires is stamped by this historical development. The very conception of leisure as free time starkly opposed to productive activity, upon which post-workists lean so heavily, is not a natural one. It is the product of the capitalistic organization of work, in which daily work is radically separated from the satisfaction of needs. The average worker gains access to a wage on condition that she gives up control over her work to a boss – her free time is time spent consuming. Thus our very way of relating to work, leisure and desire is the unwitting and not immediately visible product of a long historical process and specific social constraints. Livingston’s celebration of machines would seem to require acknowledgement of this, and to develop an argument for consumption out of these historical facts.

Yet, on the other hand, though Livingston knows all this, his argument approaches desires as spontaneous and ‘natural,’ not impulses that we develop and refine over a lifetime and a history. Desires have an odd, childlike immediacy for Livingston – direct impulses that we either repress or satisfy. Somehow, in Livingston’s world, we at once heroically bestride the world, consuming with unreflexive gusto all of the amazing technological outputs, yet do so with the simplicity and innocence of a child, for whom any and all constraint is the “renunciation of desire,” the oppressive residue of a bygone era holding us back like a stern father. It is not even clear how Livingston suggests we will maintain just that level of know-how to keep machines running (they do break down!), let alone why this is a way of thinking about desire and consumption that is in any way appropriate for us modern creatures. Alternatively, we could acknowledge that we are reflexive about our desires, that we shape and define them – which involves a more complex dialectic between discipline and development than Livingston’s “renunciation of desire” allows.

Though Livingston pretends to a kind of romanticism, the actual Romantics suffered for their art.  They sometimes exercised quite intense discipline (and took exquisite, often perverse, pleasure in it). Balzac wrote every day for hours at a time, denying himself food and sleep, just to improve and develop his art, even if he then discarded that day’s labor. What he strived for, what he most desired, was the virtuosic display of his abilities, not just any old verbal expression. Nor is this just a point about artists and writers. All human skills, from engineering to teaching to cooking, require patience and discipline to develop. Once developed, they produce in us a host of new desires for their skillful exercise, and we take real pleasure in that. Surely a great part of the pleasure in exercising these abilities is the satisfaction of a job well done, of having achieved something that was difficult, which took foresight, effort and directed energy.

Though the examples so far have been individualistic, we can say the same for collective activity: achieving collective aims requires discipline, and the satisfaction and joy in achievement is related to that discipline. Post-workists frequently mention painting and other artistic activities as the truly creative, free activities, but why not also see, say, the design and execution of a mass transit system as an act of collective creativity? True, it will require certain restraints, like at least a temporary division of labor among participants, and thus a certain amount of individual discipline in order to achieve that long-term end. And there are many undesirable ways for that discipline to be organized (more on that below). But the very fact that discipline is required can’t be what’s bad about them. Surely, one of the things that people find satisfying about cooperative work is that each person restricts some personal desires to one side to participate in and realize a shared a project. If the aim of designing a mass transit system is a democratically defined purpose, and participants can exercise equal control in the design and execution of this work, why not see it as a collective work of art? A full expression of human creativity and productive powers? True, it may only be possible to find pleasure in such activities if we have developed certain ideas about the nature and necessity of social cooperation, about the value of creating and recreating the world around us, about recognition of others as a condition for the exercise of our own powers. But I can see nothing slave-like in any of that. Moreover, those ideas and values already exist in all kinds of work, even those kinds of work shot through with domination and injustice. And that enjoyment of collective endeavors is, among other things, the source of some of that solidarity that has formed the necessary basis of left wing movements.

That we train, refine and expand our impulses is evident even in those desires that Livingston favors: the non-productive or passive desires. I love watching soccer, but I most love watching good soccer. If nobody makes the effort to become a good soccer player, there will be little to appreciate. That desire simply goes unsatisfied. We can say the same thing about a movie, a meal, or anything else we passively consume. Further, when I used to play soccer, a wholly unproductive activity, I got the greatest pleasure from playing well. But to get there, I had to put in hours of training. It was not productive, and what I consumed was the activity of playing. But I could only get that full pleasure after a long period of training my body and mind. In fact, it was only through the process of training that I gained a full appreciation for and desire to play well. Once again, the relevant desire that seeks satisfaction depends upon prior discipline. Discipline is not necessarily or inherently the “renunciation of desire.” It is, or at least can be, the restriction and shaping of impulse, and one that can produce a whole new set of refined and novel desires.

There are many kinds of discipline

I can hear the post-workists sharpening their knives, ready to thrust all kinds of contemporary examples, from creepy workplace surveillance to inhuman working conditions, into the heart of my argument. How could I ignore all the oppression and coercion in so much actually existing work? What good is all that restriction of desire? Why put people in conditions where, in order to satisfy basic needs they have to take shitty jobs, thereby renouncing their deeper longings and desires. And they are right, those are terrible forms of discipline.

But they are right in a way that identifies a problem with Livingston’s post-workism, not my position. The forms of worker coercion and social discipline that are most objectionable are not eternal facts about work but specific to the organization of work under capitalism. It is Livingston who naturalizes many of the negative features of work under capitalism, thereby backhandedly displacing criticism from historically specific relations of political and economic power. Livingston turns a social problem into a problem with, in Livingston’s words, “the ontology of work.”

In fact, some of the absurdity of the position that identifies work with the “renunciation of desire” comes from this unwillingness  to differentiate among different kinds of discipline. The discipline that economic need exercises on a poor worker and the discipline that a boss exercises on an employee are not inherent features of work. Surely we can imagine a society in which people’s basic consumption needs are unconditionally satisfied, and in which all possess equal control over work. But this would not be a society that had “abolished work”; it would be a society that had abolished the class relationships that condemn people to a lifetime of economic need, crappy bosses, and stultifying work. The abolition of the ‘working class’ is not, as the post-workists believe, the abolition of work. It is the reorganization of control over work, and the machines and materials we use to work, so that everyone has the chance for self-developing, better work, should they want it. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine people needing high quality work to feel fulfilled; that it be a central desire in a highly productive society. That is not something a basic income and mechanization of thoroughly unpleasant work could satisfy. There is no obstacle to defending the value of work while still criticizing many forms of worker coercion and social discipline (see here for a piece that I co-authored on just that subject with Corey Robin and Chris Bertram).

Work will not set you free. It is not the only good thing in life. But opportunities for self-developing work are one good thing in life, just as unproductive free time is another good thing. Post-workists, however, tend to be single-minded and therefore one-sided in their conception of a free society. That is why they gravitate towards things like basic income and mechanization, but put less emphasis on the value of collectively controlling the aims and organization of work. Rather than give us a picture of the future, they just take one side of the present and use it beat up on the other side. That is what Livingston does when he argues for the “consumption rather than the production of values.” Surely there are many sides to a full and flourishing existence. In a future society we would not replace producers with consumers but would see the expansion and transformation of both in a way that would see a dissolving, or at least easing, of the contrast between the two things. Work would be something less instrumental and less frequently limiting, but rather freer and self-developing – a productive activity that we can consume. Leisure would be more experimental and wide-ranging, less dominated than it is now by the requirements of recharging for another day at a bad job.

This is not just an argument over utopian ethical ideals. As post-workists themselves have recognized, there is a political problem with the ‘abolition of work.’ As Peter Frase says, “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.” This problem is clearest in Livingston’s own position, which condemns the desire to work as a slave morality, and which sees discipline as the renunciation of desire, rather than also as the path to achievement and further self-development. If I am right, or even in the ballpark, then there is no reason to discard outright these important sources of solidarity. Nor is there reason to see the kinds of personality required to engage in sustained and organized political struggle as, at best, regrettable necessity, and at worst, slaves on the march. Unless, of course, the post-workists really believe that radical social change is mere child’s play.

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11 Responses to “Work is (potentially) one good thing: A response to Livingston and other post-workists”

  1. Mara March 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    My god, what a beautiful essay. Thanks.

  2. Josh Friesen March 22, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    Mara, this is not a “beautiful essay” – this is a towering, verbose monument to intellectual dishonesty.

    I consider myself a “post-workist” as the poster describes, insofar as I believe that the kind of productivity of which we’re now capable is going to displace workers faster than it can “create jobs” for them. Yes, the machines will “break down once in a while,” but the problem is that we can’t all be engineers. Productivity gains displace workers BY DEFINITION. That’s the whole point. But for whatever gains in productivity we might achieve (for example, one worker producing 11 widgets per hour in 2012 vs. 1,100 widgets per hour in 2041), there’s no sound reason to assume that demand will keep up with that: if toilet paper productivity doubles over the next 10 years, that’s fine, but we won’t be pooping twice as much. Demand stays the same.

    I know the next move in this chess game: “but those workers will then be freed up to do other things!” In other words, the free market fairy will wave her want and make it all better: we will all have to find new, different jobs in a futuristic “information economy.” The problem is that we can’t all be engineers and artists. And unless we want to facilitate some sort of Randian-Malthusian crisis, we can’t simply allow all of the non-engineers and non-artists (the lazy sods!) to starve and die off. This is (if you’ll forgive the colloquialism) simply a failure to think outside the box; this is a refusal to adapt to changing circumstances. This is also why capitalism tends towards overproduction, because the only tool with which we allow ourselves to distribute income is paid employment. Hence the absurdity of our current predicament: there is no society bountiful enough; no technological height high enough, for people like the poster to be comfortable with anything but a 40-hour work week for all “able-bodied” (a term often abused by “workists” to deny unemployment benefits to as many as possible) adults on threat of starvation. The argument invariably boils down to a bare assertion that “work is good, and that the sky will fall if we do away with the threat of starvation.”

    “Livingston and other post-workists” not arguing for some sort of childish utopia in which no one ever has to do that icky “work” again – simply admitting that a work ethic which may have been adaptive in the past is becoming maladaptive in contemporary society – that we have a mindset and an economic system which are structurally ill-equipped for abundance, and in which hard, honest work, for all its considerable virtue is nevertheless an end unto itself; a world in which people would rather the government employ people rather than resort to the “helicopter drop,” even if it’s were actually more expensive. It’s actually more inefficient to spend as much time as we do making sure that as many people as possible are working as much as possible – be honest: at its core, this is not an economic argument; it is a moral one; an anachronistic, medieval one at that.

    The ultimate ethical point of Basic Income is to abolish one simple (and unnecessary) injustice: that one’s right to live is contingent on the contemporary profitability of one’s skillset (and ultimately, there’s some luck involved, too – as Paul Krugman so brilliantly put it, “the economy is not a morality play” where virtue is always rewarded and vice always punished).

  3. jonnybutter March 26, 2013 at 2:20 am #

    I consider myself a “post-workist” as the poster describes, insofar as I believe that the kind of productivity of which we’re now capable is going to displace workers faster than it can “create jobs” for them.

    Who is it being intellectually dishonest? That’s a very big ‘insofar as’. Is Gourevitch necessarily talking about a ‘job’, i.e. labor? If the subject was only the ‘work ethic’ in capitalism, then there wouldn’t be much to argue about. I thought we were talking about work itself (not labor).

  4. deo March 28, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    I think Gourevitch’s aims are good but I am afraid he may be misunderstanding the meaning of ‘labour’ in Marx and in most post-workerist philosophy.

    It is obvious that when any post-workerist talks about the liberation from work he is talking about work in today’s global market – competitive, crisis-prone etc. Work is free activity – which obviously can also be highly cooperative, skilled, requiring self-discipline – once it is alienated and made to serve capital rather than man. You cannot confuse – as Gourevitch does – ‘good, self-developing work’ and ‘bad work’. The fact that some jobs are worse than others is rather obvious, the problem though is how to make all contemporary forms of labour a form of free activity, which will respond to human needs and desires.

    Marx himself, following Fourier, opposes the de-humanizing process of subjectification that takes the name of “labour” under capital to what he calls “travail attractif”, ie truly free activity, labour that is the self-realization of the individual. Travail attractif is not simply play, it is purposeful activity but it differs from labour because it has as its object the needs and the desires of the active subject and not the abstract needs and desires of capital. In the Grundisse Carletto suggests that technical progress, when not employed for the self-expansion of capital, may drastically reduce the time of necessary labour – the labour required to satisfy the basic reproductive needs of the individual. Most of the daily time would therefore be left for free activity and self-activity as a process of conscious self-improvement, collective subjectification and care of the self.

    If you take that vision out of the picture, what are you left with? Gourevitch here – without even realizing – is actually criticising the very foundations of marxism.

  5. jonnybutter March 28, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    I am afraid [Gourevitch] may be misunderstanding the meaning of ‘labour’ in Marx and in most post-workerist philosophy.

    But you don’t show us how he is doing that. If this whole essay was about ‘machines need to be repaired’, that would be different. But it’s not, is it?

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