Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Not Everyone Must Work

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Everyone must work. So they say.

Here’s André Gorz, in Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society:

The imperative need for a sufficient, regular income is one thing. The need to act, to strive, to test oneself against others and be appreciated by others is quite another. Capitalism systemically links the two, conflates them, and upon that conflation establishes capital’s power and its ideological hold on people’s minds. It admits no activity which is not ‘work’, done to order and paid for by those ordering it. It admits no regular income that is not earned from ‘work’. The imperative need for a regular income is used to persuade people of their ‘imperative need to work’. The need to act, to strive, to be appreciated is used to persuade people that they need to be paid for whatever they do.

And here is Kathi Weeks, in The Problem With Work:

Why do we work so long and so hard? The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of a√airs. The problems with work today—my focus will be on the United States—have to do with both its quantity and its quality and are not limited to the travails of any one group. Those problems include the low wages in most sectors of the economy; the unemployment, underemployment, and precarious employment suffered by many workers; and the overwork that often characterizes even the most privileged forms of employment—after all, even the best job is a problem when it monopolizes so much of life. To be sure, if we were only resigned to such conditions, there would be no puzzle. What is perplexing is less the acceptance of the present reality that one must work to live than the willingness to live for work. By the same token, it is easy to appreciate why work is held in such high esteem, but considerably less obvious why it seems to be valued more than other pastimes and practices.

Yet there is an obvious class of people from whom there is no expectation that they must work, from left, right or center: those who get returns from owning things. In fact, not only is there no expectation that they must work, but lots of things that we might otherwise designate as ‘work’ are not seen as such, precisely because they do not enrich someone via returns on capital.

Now, certainly both of these authors know this, as does pretty much everyone. While we might discount how common it is, or the amount of money we are talking about, or (wrongly) assume that at some point, someone in the past saved up their wages to build up their initial pool of wealth, we all know this. And yet the claim that ‘everyone must work’ is still a pretty common one.

And this is not to mention the young, the old, the sick and disabled, and those caring for these people, which are all groups that most people at some level accept should not be required to work. Conservatives tend to think some or all of these people should be working. Liberals tend to think a larger portion of these people should be exempt from working, although they are often unenthused by efforts to ensure they get money that would allow this. They also are susceptible to express sympathy with the worry that some of these people might be capable of being employed.

Part of Weeks’ project is to note that many people do ‘work’ even if it is not classified as such, and often that work is as important if not more important than many things that are so classified. She also insists, rightly, that designating work as ‘not work’ denigrates the work of many people, and therefore denigrates those people. Her insistence on a broader concept of work is designed to allow for a broader political project among all who work, to ensure that all people get adequate income regardless of work, and that work is more evenly distributed and therefore becomes less of a priority in our lives. I am largely convinced by this.

What I am not convinced by is that we can ignore the other side of the coin–the people we are enriching when we “work.” You simply cannot understand what is going on without this being front and center. And given that this is simultaneously known yet hidden, given that the capitalist mode of production obscures the exploitation inherent in their relation, our language ought to avoid obscuring this. It ought, instead, to highlight it.


Written by David Kaib

July 26, 2016 at 10:01 pm

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