The Work Ethic v. the Ethics of Work: A friendly reply to Frase

1 Mar

Over at Jacobin, Peter Frase has some excellent commentary on Douthat’s ‘World Without Work’ column, about which we recently posted. Not only is work not disappearing, but according to Frase, the class distribution of work is also not what Douthat says it is. Not only were “reported average hours among men were above 40 hours per week across all educational categories” but “working time is characterized by pervasive mismatches between hours and preferences.” The poor are either overworked, precariously employed, or underemployed. In various ways, their time is not under their control in nearly the way Douthat implies. Despite the factual mistakes, Frase notes, “It’s something of a victory that a New York Times columnist is even acknowledging the post-work perspective on labor politics.”

Frase sees this as an opportunity to remind us of the actual contours of post-work utopianism. On his account, a real post-work economy would have to be radically different than the “scant public benefits, charity, and hustling” that characterizes the present soft labor market, weak welfare state US economy. He reminds us why he and others at Jacobin (here and here) argue that a real post-work economy includes full employment: tight labor markets “give workers the bargaining power to demand shorter hours even without cuts in pay.” And, more radically, a post-work economy requires “a Universal Basic Income, which would make it possible to survive outside of paid labor for a much larger segment of the population.”

Frase offers his thoughts as a “guide to the perplexed.” However, while clearer about the contours of the post-work idea we are still unsure about the politics of post-work. As we noted in our previous post, the reason the actual facts about labor force participation, overwork and forced leisure matter is because they remind us that society is not naturally trending towards more leisure and higher quality work. A different society will require political struggle. But it is here that post-work, at least as Frase, and Andre Gorz before him, articulate it, seems to face serious limits. Post-workists are too quick to dismiss the thought that work can be an expression of human freedom. In the process, they give up on a major source of the appeal of left-wing politics, and thus the social basis of political struggle.

Any struggle has to articulate the inner needs and desires that political agents cannot satisfy within the contours of the existing order. Yet one of the oddities of post-workism is that it has trouble identifying just who it is for, and thus whose needs, really, it is universalizing. For instance, in Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz identifies the “non-class of non-workers” as “the stratum that experiences its work as an externally imposed obligation in which ‘you waste your life to earn your living.’” It is this group, and not the conventional working class, for whom post-politics is a living project.

But it is unclear why the the conventional working class won’t also see externally imposed obligations at work. Presumably AT&T workers who are not allowed to read on their lunch break, hotel maids tracked by an electronic dog, or Amazon workers in warehouses so hot that Amazon parks ambulances outside, all experience daily reminders that, when at work, their lives are not fully their own. Not to mention the wider population forced to accept mediocre terms of employment and suboptimal hours. One explanation for this puzzle is that Gorz was working with the same empirical fallacy as Ross Douthat: he seemed to think the working class itself was in secular decline, and that the “non-class of non-workers” was on the rise. More problematically, Gorz seems to have thought the “non-class” was not incorporated into the capitalist work ethic in the way the traditional working class was. That, it appears, is why he seems to have looked to the sociologically ambiguous non-class, rather than a class. That non-class, which does not take any pride in work, and sees it as pure, irredeemable necessity, has the privileged vantage point on labor and leisure.

Unlike Gorz, Frase is well aware of the actual empirical trends. But at the level of idea, Frase is still in Gorz’s world. For Frase the work ethic remains the problem. This ethic, he says,

“simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hard-working or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification.”

This, says Frase, is not an ethic but an ideology that “assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent.” What is needed is a culture war at the level of the economy, in which the new culture warriors overthrow the work ethic. As Kathi Weeks, another post-workist, puts it, true radicals should not “confine their critique of capitalism to the exploitation and alienation of work without attending to its overvaluation,” which is why the object of critique is “the ideal itself.” Frase recognizes that attacking the value of work poses a political problem. He 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.” But if emancipation is about giving up not just ‘chains’ but ‘identities,’ and thus inconsistent with important sources of human solidarity, to whom and how is post-work addressed? How, indeed, can it prove its attractiveness?

It is here that Frase and other post-workists miss a major opportunity, unnecessarily constraining themselves. There is more than one source for the value of work. In the name of criticizing a mindless productivism they walk past other ways of thinking about work, productivity and human creativity. Insodoing, they cancel an important way of making sense of widely shared aspirations and how they are organically connected to left-wing politics. There is, in fact, no reason to abandon giving work a value, and we suspect that freedom in and through work is a condition for freedom from undesirable work. Instead of rejecting work better to celebrate it but reject its alienated form.

Frase’s fellow Jacobin, Seth Ackerman, takes us part of the way there when he notes that the work ethic has multiple sources, not just in capitalist ideology. It comes not just from some stale, Protestant hangover or soulless subordination to the wage-form and consumer society, but also from the egalitarian idea that nobody should be exploited:

That’s why, in the ten-point program laid out by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, one of the points — along with demands for progressive taxation and abolition of inheritance – was the “equal liability of all to work.” Marx was hardly a proponent of the work ethic as such: the key word there was not “liability,” but “equal.” So long as social reproduction requires alienated work, there will always be this social demand for the equal liability of all to work,

This is the source of the left-egalitarian critique of idle rentiers and capitalists, living off the efforts of others who themselves are forced to work. Frase has a reasonable reply to this. There are vast number of non-remunerated ways in which “we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself,” while there are many wage-paying jobs that seem to have less to do with useful human activity and more to do with social control or destruction. But that hardly settles the matter.

What is going on between Frase and Ackerman here is a debate not so much about an ethics of work as it is about the morality of work. It is a debate about what we owe to each other and what we deserve in return, not what is good or what we aspire to. Here, at least, Douthat asked something like the right question in his original NYTimes column: what is the connection between work and human flourishing? It is on this point that post-workism is least persuasive, at the level of idea and as a political project.

What is missing is the left-humanist celebration of human powers and creativity. For instance, when Marx writes, in Critique of the Gotha Programme, that the communist horizon is reached when work becomes “life’s prime want,” he is not defending the empty, Stakhanovite sacrifice of the self for community in hours of mindless toil, nor is he celebrating the current work ethic. He is speaking about a condition in which each has a real opportunity to develop and exercise his human powers – as a scientist, engineer, writer, brewer, etc… In most areas of work, this exercise of human powers is a necessarily collective and cooperative activity of producing useful things. It is not isolated craft production nor pure art. If we understand our creative powers to be made possible by, and most fully exercised in, joint efforts, then even large-scale projects, like an intercontinental mass transit system, the design and construction of a fleet of airplanes, or even colonizing and terra-forming Mars, are not inherently expressions of the will to dominate nor capitalist ‘productivism.’ They are also remarkable instances of human capacity, of our ability to transcend limits through cooperative effort. These acts of creation do not have to be grand in size, (though there is no reason to exclude the grand) but at whatever scale they will be cooperative and effortful.

Moreover, due to their cooperative nature and complexity of purpose these work activities will require some discipline. We can separate discipline from capitalist domination. It is not pure ideology to say that to achieve many of our most important aims also requires placing limits on ourselves – following schedules, submitting to shared norms, even accepting a certain amount of tedium. And, by the by, it’s hard to imagine how any sustained political struggle to transform society would be possible without just that kind of discipline and solidarity. Discipline is not the opposite of human creativity. Most, and many of the highest, expressions of cooperative effort require acceptance of and subjection to shared norms. If they are truly cooperative efforts, organized on the basis of equal control rather than exploitation, then there is every reason to see these activities as the realization of human freedom.

Put another way, minimizing thoroughly unpleasant work and supplying everyone a universal basic income leaves unresolved – and unsatisfied – the question of that other human need, that Marxian ‘prime-want’: life-activity. That is a need satisfied not by having a basic income but through access to and use of the means of production to achieve social purposes.

Of course, none of this is at odds with recognizing many kinds of work are sheer drudgery, nor with seeking to reduce the hours of necessary labor to a minimum. But it is at odds with the idea that the concerted development and exercise of our productive powers is unnecessary, or, even worse, pointless. The ethics of work takes the celebration of human creativity to be, in most instances, not a matter of spontaneous, individual ‘autonomous’ production but a collective process and thus a question of who owns and controls those collectively used means of production – from science labs to performance halls. Here, then, is at least the start of a third position on work, which we can call an ethics of work in contrast to ideological forms of the work ethic.

If we recover aspects of this left-humanism, then we are not so crippled with respect to to whom we can appeal and how we can appeal to them. That is because the ethics of work separates the argument for finding work valuable from any residual Protestant asceticism, empty productivism, or the moral imperative not to be a free rider in a society where stultifying work remains. Even if they appear in a distorted form under capitalist wage-labor, the socializing and disciplining aspects of wage-labor are not irredeemably and one-sidedly bad. There is no reason to “relinquish the forms of working class pride and solidarity that have been the glue for many left movements” because they are not mere ideology. The value placed on work, the familiar pride and solidarity, can be linked to the romance of human powers emancipated from the constraints of nature and the contradictions of class exploitation. To say the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” is to already say that freedom requires solidarity because most of those individually developing activities presuppose the mutual participation of others. This amounts not to abolishing work but seizing control of it together. That is a message more likely to have wide resonance, and for good reason.

A further advantage of this ethics of work is that it overcomes some of the ascetic strains that have leaked into post-workism itself. After all, when Gorz argues in Farewell to the Working Class and in Paths to Paradise that the end of work is only possible if we limit our desires, agree to consume less for the sake of working less and having more leisure, his emancipatory vision starts to look rather austere. It seems to us that Frase is at least tempted in this direction when arguing “the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat;” that, in fact, only “after years of struggle, discipline was imposed on pre-capitalist people who rejected regimented ‘clock time.’” This is a true statement about primitive accumulation but Frase states it in a way meant to suggest that the pre-capitalist condition, of limited and more flexible hours of work because of limited desires, was the natural one. To escape our unnatural work ethic and recover free time we are implicitly told to rein in the ‘artificial’ growth of desire to some ‘natural’ level of need and consumption – an instruction not far off from that of present-day austerians. This is a different approach to free time than the one that says, given the extraordinary potential of technology – from nuclear power to 3-D printing and pens, we can have both more leisure and more consumption. Why not say there are no natural needs, and that our freedom is partially expressed in the increasing sophistication, development and refinement of consumption? The nineteenth century labor movement used to say ‘a reduction in hours is an increase in wages.’ This was a way of demanding both more free time and higher levels of consumption. The demand was based on the view that the major constraint on consumption was the rules of ownership and control over the surplus, not with the trade-off between working less and consuming more.

Some of the difference between an ethics of work and post-workism is a matter of principle and some is a matter of emphasis. At either level, the ethics of work is able to capture not just which kinds of work we would want to minimize and eliminate, but also what aspects are worthy of celebration and universalization. The ethics of work stands on its own, as an attractive ideal, and as one that can appeal to the needs and aspirations of that majority screwed by the labor market – whether they are overworked, precariously situated, or underemployed. A possible and desirable left-alternative should not so quickly discard the virtues of work.

12 Responses to “The Work Ethic v. the Ethics of Work: A friendly reply to Frase”

  1. Joe March 1, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    This is speaks to my ambivalence about antiwork too, and the potentially kneejerk kind of response it encourages to any appeals to work.

    I think that what has been missing from the writing on antiwork politics I’ve found, with the exception of Jeff Shantz’s “Green Syndicalism” that frames the antiwork perspective in ecological terms, is the way that reducing work is not just a matter of reducing labor-time extracted from humans, but the through-put of resources extracted from the environment in general. Unalienating labor, eliminating exploitation of *humans*, seems like it can distract us from the fundamental exploitation of nature that at this point threatens all life on the planet. This has led to the conflict between deep ecologists and unionists, which Shantz explores in that book. The refinement of consumption you bring up seems a nod in that direction, as are a couple of the potential projects you suggest. We need more of that. This is why I WORK (i.e. volunteer) at a neighborhood tool library, to emphasize that this kind of collectivization is really the golden ticket to a sustainable relationship to technology, but it’s just a small experiment.

    Also, one often hears about how much workers would have now if all the surplus they’ve created in the last few decades went to them rather than the 1%, but the fact that so much surplus was produced is unexamined as a result of that political economy rather than something that would’ve happened anyway. Maybe it would and the course of global economic development would have been more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable, maybe it wouldn’t, or what is more likely is maybe it would have been a lot more restrained with nonetheless some modicum of material comfort.

    This is at any rate an excellent intervention in that whole conversation. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Freddie deBoer March 2, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    I think that the case against even the limited, minimal, and fulfilling work that post-work skeptics advocate for– and the devil, obviously, is in those details– is that for some, even minimal work will be an imposition on their freedom and a cause of their unhappiness. Ackerman wants to preserve the liability to work, albeit in a profoundly different form than we have now. But liability is precisely what I want to discard. That liability itself is the cause of a portion of the alienation and degradation of labor. For any individual, the number of hours of work that he or she must work that I am willing to accept is zero.

    That only leads to a failed state if you believe that everyone would choose to not work if that were in their power. I don’t think that’s the case. And more, if you believe that everyone would drop out entirely if given the opportunity, it suggests quite powerfully that work is the necessarily alienating and unhappy condition you suggest it isn’t or shouldn’t be. In other words, if it’s true that everyone would stop working if there was no liability to work, then it proves that no such liability should exist.

    • thecurrentmoment March 2, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      Freddie, the devil is definitely in the details. Here the detail is in what you mean by “must work.” If you mean compelled by economic necessity – work or die – then I agree, ideally, it would be best if nobody had to face that choice. But if the ‘must’ comes from the fact that there is a distinct need that can only be satisfied in and through the development and exercise of powers that serve a social purpose, then I disagree. To work in that sense is an independent human need – a need that can only be satisfied in some kind of life-activity. If we accept that work is a need in that sense then people “must” work, and no amount of basic income and provision of public goods will solve that problem. After all, one can in principle imagine a society in which there is still monopoly of ownership of means of production (ie work) but radical progressive taxation to supply consumer goods. There nobody would face the economic necessity to work, but I would still say a need is unsatisfied.

      Now I didn’t quite follow your second paragraph, but I take it that you were saying if, given a generous basic income and so on, people did not choose to work, that would disprove my claim. But I don’t see why, since the provision of consumer goods in no way settles who will have control over the ownership of means of production – ie, means to work. If you kept the private ownership, so that most people could still legally be excluded from those means, and just supplied basic welfare provision, the withdrawal from work could just as much be a rejection of the fact that work would still not be free as it would be proof that there is no need to work.

      • Joe March 2, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

        The assumption Freddie seems to be laying bare is that if consumer goods are provided by, say, a UBI that they would not be inclined to organize the seizure of the means of production for the richer life-activity you rightly locate there. If we’re saying UBI and no more, then you have a point, but who is really saying that?

      • Freddie deBoer March 3, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

        First paragraph is well taken, and I largely agree.

        Sorry if my point was too arch or too inarticulate. My point is this: I object to a liability to work. A liability, after all, is something you do because you are forced. I think that such a liability can be avoided, because I think people will willingly be productive when they no longer are operating under the conditions of wage labor. Many people disagree with that. But if it’s true that people will only work under the threat of an actual liability, then work is something that must be particularly unhappy even outside of the conditions of wage labor– which is why I oppose a liability to do it.

        In other words, if it’s true that work makes people unhappy enough that you have to force them to do it even outside of the conditions of wage labor and its attendant alienation, then that in and of itself is against creating a liability to work. The avoidance or resistance to work even outside of capitalism is reason enough to oppose work as currently understood.

  3. thecurrentmoment March 2, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    Joe, on re-reading Freddie, I don’t think that is quite what he is saying actually. Seems like he is saying there are some people who just won’t want to work and they shouldn’t have to. It’s possibly true but I don’t quite understand where that gets us. As for what you ask, it might be that the post-workists mean to be arguing for something for than a UBI, but it’s never quite clear what they are arguing for, then. And at least part of that really seems to be connected to the view that wanting to work and be productive is just an ideology. Once you have committed yourself to that position, then it’s not clear what is really being argued for beyond unconditional universal welfare provision.

    • Joe March 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

      I appreciate what you’re saying and just have a marginal view toward the ideology of work and post-work. Frase has an excellent blog-post from a few years ago that I think speaks to the potential for the redemption of an ethics of work, but I agree that the usual post-work credo is knee-jerky in its rejection of work.

      It can get really silly, if you ask me, because I see the rejection of work as the kind of imposition it is under capitalism to make no sense as a rejection of necessary labor tout-court.

      I’m much more like William Morris in this regard. Kathi Weeks makes similar caveats in her recent book on ‘the problem with work’. The bottom-line is that, whatever the post-workists are arguing, I think we can see how the rejection of work they make in the first instance lends itself to higher claims on the worthwhileness of work in some sense otherwise obscured by the artificial exigencies of capitalist production.

  4. danny March 2, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

    It seems that the “right to be lazy” is rubbing some people the wrong way, so why not just rebrand basically the same position with the “right to pursue your passions”.

    Generally I like my job, but my big complaint is that I am expected to work too many hours. So the right to be lazy actually resonates pretty well with me, but I can understand how it could be misinterpreted.

    I pursued my job in part because of the job security, but in a world with full employment and UBI. I definitively would have been more daring and pursued some of my passions more vigorously. Of course, I probably would have slept in more, and had more nights spent in a drunken daze hanging out with friends. But I think the idea that once people are freed from work they will just lay around smoking pot all day and watching TV pretty laughable.

    Instead people would have more time to think about what they really are passionate about and pursue it, and a whole lot of those pursuits would have a lot of social benefit.

    So if this argument is just about the right framing of the debate. I propose framing it as the right to discover and pursue your passions.

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