New Works and Anti-Works

May 4th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion, Work  |  4 Comments

I’ll blame my recent silence on the fact that I was moving again—as of Tuesday, I’m back in the Grand Duchy. Clearly either the spirits of the Haymarket martyrs or the exploited employees of British Airways were punishing me for traveling on Mayday, because I ended up spending the better part of 24 hours waiting in lines, being redirected to unexpected cities, and having my luggage lost. Consider that lesson learned.

I’ve once again managed to return to Europe just as things are getting interesting in the U.S., with Occupy-aligned activists pulling off some impressive Mayday actions. But you can get plenty of reporting and analysis on that from Jacobin honcho Bhaskar Sunkara, from his new perch at the In These Times “Uprising” blog.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new things appear recently that I haven’t mentioned here. I neglected to plug the latest issue of Jacobin, which is full of great stuff as usual. It also includes my essay on post-work politics, centered around Kathi Weeks’ book The Problem With Work, which I’ve mentioned here before. See also Mike Beggs on “Keynes’ Jetpack” and Tim Barker reviewing James Livington’s Against Thrift, which cover closely related themes.

In addition, I’ve had a couple of other things appear. There’s an essay for the most recent New Inquiry on intellectual property, which covers familiar blog themes but hopefully in some new ways. And a radio interview with Doug Henwood, where we discussed sex, work, and related topics. What these all have in common is that someone edited them, so they’re bound to surpass my usual output in clarity and precision.

Something relevant to the anti-work themes of the Jacobin and Henwood links is this recent post from John Quiggin about “housework in utopia”. He makes the point that if some kinds of drudgery can’t be automated out of existence, we can still promote “social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work.” This gets to one of the core points of Weeks’ book, and of my review: when it comes to perpetuating the work-based society, the ideological power of the work ethic is at least as important as the technical possibilities of production.

I was happy to see Quiggin point out that “Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.” I look forward to the day when “a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch”. Of course, there’s a danger in taking the stereotypically male position of being cavalier about contemporary standards of neatness, since it leaves one open to the critique Belle Waring mounts here. Maybe I’m just reproducing a patriarchal fantasy in which somebody else does the dishes.

But I’ll take the risk—defending the right to be a slob is just another aspect of defending the right to be lazy. As I note in the Jacobin essay, the argument Lafargue makes in the linked essay is that the glorification of unnecessary work has often been an ideology produced and perpetuated by elements of the working class itself. He was talking specifically about wage work, but the same point applies to unwaged work. As Weeks points out in her book, the modern work ethic combines an injunction to compulsory wage labor with a “family ethic” of compulsory household labor.

Historically, it has been men who have done most of the wage labor (though this is less and less the case), and women most of the household labor (depressingly, still mostly the case). So it isn’t surprising that we see more defenses of the inherent worth and dignity of wage work from men, and more defenses of the necessity of unwaged work from women. We shouldn’t take either case at face value. Both waged and unwaged work contain much that is truly necessary for the reproduction of society and the maintenance of a decent standard of living. But they are also forms that sustain huge amounts of senseless or destructive labor, which exists only to reproduce capitalism, patriarchy, and the work ethic itself.

Quiggin makes a general point that I think bears on all discussions of the social and economic meaning of work:

For any of the tasks we think of as housework, there are four possibilities I can think of,

(1) we can do it ourselves, as a crappy chore

(2) we can do it ourselves, as an enjoyable and fulfilling avocation

(3) we can do it using a technological solution that involves little or no labour

(4) we can contract it out to a specialist worker, who may in turn either (a) enjoy the work or (b) find it just as crappy as we do

This applies not only to “housework” but to all work, waged and unwaged. Quiggin contends that the only objectionable possibilities are (1) and (4b), and I tend to agree. Those two bad options basically correspond to two inseparable aspects of degrading and alienated labor in capitalism: unpaid household labor and involuntary wage labor. Options (2), (3), and (4a) correspond roughly to the communism in which “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want”, the slavery of the machine” on which “the future of the world depends”, and capitalism between consenting adults. Somewhere in the intermingling of those three, you’ve pretty much got my utopia.


  1. Joe says:

    May 4th, 2012 at 3:35 pm (#)

    I think there’s a middle option between option 1 and 2 that comes so close to an ideal of work-discipline that I am wary to propose it until I work out the kinks, but I will anyway so I don’t lose the thought.

    Basically, we can go about certain tasks in our domestic realms without finding them either immediately “fulfilling” nor mere drudgery. I am a genderless but male-bodied person who takes care to keep the apartment I share with my partner. Basically, I like to see dishes get done the same day they are made, that the most commonly used spaces aren’t landing pads for stuff that has other places it can “live”, that the toilet isn’t caked with crud, and that the floors aren’t covered with all sorts of loose particles.

    My partner is in some ways, compared to me, a slob or slovenly inclined. I usually don’t get a whole lot of immediate enjoyment out of doing the dishes though. Sometimes I do like an artist mindlessly manipulating their medium. It never occurs to me that this is drudgery though, because for me it’s a moment in something bigger that I do consider something I enjoy. It’s not deferred enjoyment, but a more capacious way of enjoying what I’m doing. Against this, in the counter-culture, is posed an image of the upright house-wife whose clean house “is a sign of a wasted life”, which apart from having some misogynistic baggage equivocates what people care about with what “society” cares about.

    I think of this work in terms of Heideggerrian “care” and world-building though. Of course, the world the work-ethic compels us to build is in many ways a bunch of bullshit, but I’m wary to throw out the baby with the bathwater. David Graeber argues that debt is a perverted promise, and asks somewhat rhetorically what kind of promises people will make to one another in a postdebt society. Similarly, I wonder is how we understand our continuing care for the world (our ethical commitment to it) in a postwork society.

  2. Sandwichman says:

    May 4th, 2012 at 6:38 pm (#)

    A variation on the same theme: I was recently in collective bargaining and coincidentally reading David Spencer’s Political Economy of Work in the evenings. David summarizes the contrasting views of work of such writers as Adam Smith, Bentham, Marx, Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, Veblen, Marshall, the Austrian opportunity cost notion and the current “economics of happiness” crowd (e.g. Richard Layard).

    What came through to me in the negotiating sessions is that management very clearly held a neoclassical opportunity cost view of the work. Or perhaps it is the other way around, that the neoclassical view reflects the standard management perspective.

    Whether work is painful, pleasurable, ennobling or alienating depends very much on whether it is coerced or free, whether it is integrating or isolating, whether it is creative or drudgery. The same distinctions apply to “leisure.” Leisure is not the opposite of work, it is a complement to it.

    Time for a nap.

  3. Ralph Haygood says:

    May 6th, 2012 at 10:08 pm (#)

    “[W]hen it comes to perpetuating the work-based society, the ideological power of the work ethic is at least as important as the technical possibilities of production.” Indeed, far more so, I suspect.

  4. Bernard Marszalek says:

    July 25th, 2012 at 12:08 pm (#)

    I just came across your writings on work. You may be interested in my introduction to a collection of Paul Lafargue’s literary essays published by AK/Kerr 2011. I am less concerned with worker-loss-of-identity than you – it may be that the capitalists have trashed that concern. We all carry many roles and the point is to avoid emphasizing the one that simply pays the bills. As you mention – there is an unrealized desire to work less (and do what with the time?). This is no place to delve into theoretical musings, so let me simply end by saying that I imagine a future with ludicians practicing the art of the Ludique. Chris Carlsson’s “After the Deluge” comes close to describing that future.

    And welcome to the “Left Coast Lazy Faction”

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