“Wrong to work! Two perspectives on the abolition of work” by Joseph Kay

January 18, 2013

ALL MUST WORK! declares the cabinet of millionaires. ‘Workers not shirkers!’, they implore. ‘Strivers not skivers!’ The divide-and-rule rhetoric trying to pit those in work against those without is as relentless as it is transparent. But what’s so good about work anyway?
Junge Linke’s short piece nicely skewers how attempts to mobilise resentment of claimants and the unemployed undermine even those in work who aren’t claiming benefits. What I’d like to focus on is two perspectives on what an explicitly anti-work politics might look like.
Traditionally, anti-work politics has been bound up with rising productivity and technological development. A famous passage from Karl Marx’s notebooks, the ‘fragment on machines’, envisages a day when living labour moves to the side of a highly automated production process. Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, authored a polemic titled ‘the right to be lazy’, which proclaimed:
…not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.
At the dawn of the 20th century, sociologist Max Weber suggested the protestant, and particularly Calvinist, work ethic was a significant factor in the rise of capitalism. Weber’s thesis is considered unproven, but the glorification of work is certainly still with us, as the demonisation of claimants and the unemployed shows. Indeed, the introduction of workfare, Universal Credit and Universal Job Match threatens to transform unemployment into constant unpaid, supervised, psuedo-work – updating CVs, searching and applying for jobs, stacking shelves in Poundland… all subject to managerial discipline without even the sweetener of a wage.
Yet this is happening despite a big resurgence in the ‘tech debate’ from across the political spectrum – from neoliberals like Jeffrey Sachs, to Keynesians like Paul Krugman and comment pieces in the Financial Times, as well as the more usual anarchist and communist figures. Could it be that the renewed attempts to impose work on everyone masks a crisis of what Kathi Weeks calls ‘the work society’?
The thrust of the argument here is that technology-driven productivity rises are driving ever-greater output with ever-lower requirements for labour. Foxconn’s infamous iPhone manufacturing plant – the one with the suicide nets where workers have rioted and fought for better conditions – is facing automation by one million robots by 2013. When even intolerable sweatshop conditions are cheaper to automate, what future for work? There’s even developing technology which can replace traditionally labour-intensive sectors such as fast food andfruit-picking. Add in bittorrent distribution of digital media and literature, 3D printing technology… and work starts to look quite quaint.
Under capitalism, this means rising unemployment, and intensified work at lower wages for those ‘lucky’ enough to keep their jobs (due to the competition from the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed). Historically, the service industries have absorbed some of this surplus labour, but as they automate too, potential abundance and increased leisure for all instead translates into generalised misery.1 But only so long as we put up with capitalism.
This kind of techno-utopianism promises a quantitative abolition of work, down to Lafargue’s maximum three hours a day and beyond. Just think how much labour-intensive work – like call centre cold-calling – is basically pointless except from the point of view of private profit. Abolishing capitalism – private ownership of the means of production, with consumption rationed by the market – promises to harness productivity improvements to reduce toil for everyone in a context of unprecedented abundance.
Rethinking ‘work’
The technological optimism of the above account has been criticised from some quarters. Maria Mies, in her book ‘Patriarchy and accumulation on a world scale’, suggests ‘the abolition of work’ only makes sense if it takes the typically boring, repetitive – and male – production line work as its archetype.2 Mies suggests a redefinition of ‘production’ as ‘the production of human beings’ as opposed to ‘the production of surplus value for capital’, and suggests a radical rethink of work by replacing the archetypal figure of the production line worker with that of the mother.
A feminist concept of labour has to be oriented towards the production of life as the goal of work and not the production of things and wealth, of which the production of life is then a secondary derivative. The production of immediate life in all its aspects must be the core concept for the development of a feminist concept of work. (…) A feminist concept of labour has, therefore, to be oriented towards a different concept of time, in which time is not segregated into portions of burdensome labour and portions of supposed pleasure and leisure, but in which times of work and times of rest are alternating and interspersed. If such a concept and such an organisation of time prevail, the length of the working day is no longer very relevant.
Mies’ account is not unproblematic, and is bound up with a somewhat romantic advocacy of a return to the subsistence agriculture of her childhood, and more than a hint of gender essentialism. For this reason, it would be good to read her alongside an explicitly anti-work feminist text such as Kathi Weeks’ recent ‘The problem with work’. However, I think Mies’ reconception of work points towards a sort of ‘qualitative abolition’, that is, a breakdown between the separate spheres of ‘work’ and ‘life’, production and meaning.
Here, ‘work’ is understood as off the clock, variously affective, arduous, meaningful, frustrating, rewarding. Childcare not line assembly. (Re)producing life not value. It’s undertaken not because of a need to earn money to survive, but because it directly contributes to the reproduction of people, whether by raising children, growing food, cultural activities and so on. As it’s not production for the market, capitalist notions of efficiency fall by the wayside, and instead the focus is on making necessary toil tolerable through sharing the burden.
Mies views technology as embodying an instrumental relation to nature, which reflects a patriarchal logic of the domination of (male) culture over (female) nature. Hence she rejects the abolition of work through technology and instead advocates low-tech subsistence as an ecological, feminist alternative to both capitalism and state socialism. Her argument is well made, but I think a more emancipatory view of technology, informed by the feminist critique of the invisible domestic labour on which such utopias often rest, could see these two perspectives combined to good effect.
A critical application of technology could abolish, or at least dramatically reduce, repetitive toil, while rethinking production as the reproduction of life could abolish both the gendered division of housework and the capitalist production of care, in favour of something produced in common and distributed according to needs. Work, as a separate sphere of life would be abolished. In place of the pursuit of profit, ecological limits and human needs, including the abolition of boredom, would guide the production of things. Productive activity would consist in the reproduction of human beings in place of the relentless production of value. Do the conditions of this movement follow from premises now in existence?
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