Running out of work, are you kidding me?!? Reading this, you might think we have gone mad. In this society, labor is one of the most important things imaginable. Unemployment statistics are published regularly and people get excited when any drop is reported. When a planned new factory raises protest, perhaps for environmental reasons, the most common counter argument is usually „But come on, this creates jobs!“ It almost seems as though work is a value in itself. Apparently, many people don’t work to afford a more or less bearable life, but rather they live to work. This even goes as far as inventing new jobs just as busywork. In 2009 the German government introduced a car scrappage scheme in order to stimulate the economy: When exchanging their ‚old‘ car for a new one, people received a bonus of 2500€. Apart from stimulating the economy, the main line of argumentation was that this would be good for the environment. But destroying a small car in order to buy an SUV has certainly not helped the planet. So ironically, this caused many cars that were still fairly new to end up on the junk yard – so that car manufacturers would have enough work. What a crazy idea: The main aim was to simply produce more, and as an effect do away with perfectly fine cars. Another example: Sometimes tasks are invented just to make people who (have to) live off unemployment benefits „get used to work“. Others speak of work as if it ennobles and cultivates those doing it. And we are all supposed to work longer and longer, even though many people won’t make it to retirement because of job-related illness. At the same time, more and more young people are unemployed, unable to find work in the first place.
If toil is worshipped it is not my revolution
The idea that work ennobles is a misconception also widely found on the left. The degradation of the proletariat as „uncivilized drudges“ by the bourgeoisie led to a fetishisation of work in the Soviet Union and the other „socialist“ states just as scary as its capitalist version. The „hero of labor“ – an award given to exceptional workers in the GDR – doesn’t see his or her work as a means to an end either, but as an end in itself. But the reason why we want a communist society is to have a good life for all – and that means avoiding unnecessary work and instead the effective use of labor, so that there is more time for friends, art, parties, politics and whatever else one feels like.
However, many unions and other left forces are united with the majority of the population in rejecting a culture of indolence and hedonism. Oftentimes, this opinion is topped with the anti-intellectual remark that „a little bit of hard work never hurts anyone,“ or that all these students should drop their books and do some „real“ work instead. Not that hard labor in a factory cannot be an interesting experience, but this view is basically designed to make „slackers“ feel guilty for not wanting to do mindless toil.
But even in the self-declared hedonist left that critiques „work,“ one can find fetishization of labor. For example, when everyone talks about their „projects“, how depression is only socially accepted in the form of „burn-out“, or when people blabber about their stressful lives only to indicate how productive they are; these are moments when the totalitarian character of our society reveals itself. To just relax and do nothing is acceptable, maybe, only on the week-end. Even in the left we often think that true social approval can only be achieved by proving our productivity, in one way or another. Equating an individual’s value with their productivity has become second nature even to critics of labor fetishization.
„Work is half of life“ (German proverb)
Where does this idea that you are only worth something when you work come from? We think it has a lot to do with the reason why, and in what form, labor exists in this society. This may sound strange, because after all, hasn’t work existed as long as mankind? True, but labor today appears in a very specific form, at least in the industrialized countries: as wage labor. What are the consequences of this basic fact?
In our society, we are compelled to work in order to have an income. Most people can’t even afford to consider waiving part of their income in order to work on something they would enjoy.
Actually there aren’t too many enjoyable jobs on offer in the first place. And just as people must work in order to earn money, the goods that they produce are meant to yield a profit. In one aspect, production in our society is very egalitarian: the actual type of product is secondary as long as it can be sold on the market. The measure of value is not whether the product in question will produce happiness or if you enjoyed producing it. The only thing that matters is if it makes money. All of this is pretty abstract and far detached from you and your occupation. Some call this form of labor „alienated“, in that it is disconnected from either its use or the desires of the person who actually produced it.
In the end your actual occupation does not matter, your working hours only add up to a fixed amount of some product (be it screws, advertisement copy or school classes). Furthermore, the use of machines usually does not mean less work but only intensifies it. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there is endless competition to merely create „more“: More working hours, more products. This is not about you, as you matter only as a cog in the wheel since kindergarten days, and on the other hand all your social recognition as an individual depends on hard work, then this comes down to: „I work.
A lot.“ No joke. I can illustrate it with a common enough example: Whenever my dad calls his first question is: „So, lots of work?“ An affirmative answer is enough for him to be relieved. What is actually done is not something he cares about, as long as I don’t slack off. In this logic, work is the primary meaning of life, and this is not simply an old-fashioned concept. Even hip freelancers in advertisement agencies organize their private lives around the gym and speed dating, their free time increasingly mirroring their work routine until everything, including love and desire, has become work and productivity. There’s another aspect to this pride in one’s work: The pressure to work and the necessary suppression of needs and desires that accompany it find expression in a hatred against all those who (seemingly) do not work. This is clearly expressed in the many talk shows where people are invited to publicly denounce those who don’t see a reason to work. It is easily imaginable what the mob would do to these „asocial“ elements living on welfare once the cameras were turned off if they knew they could get away with it. The increased number of homeless people murdered in the last few years demonstrate this point clearly.
Would anybody work in a communist society?
Those who criticize the work fetish and the resulting hatred for all those ‚parasites‘ are usually confronted with the objection that if it weren’t for external pressure, nobody would do any work. When one asks those fans of coercion if they only work because they have to, they typically claim the contrary, namely that they find fulfillment and self-realization in their work. A peculiar contradiction, but in reality both are false. On the one hand, in this irrationally organized society where people produce for an abstract market under constant pressure and force, we are not surprised that many people are not keen to work. One reason for this is that our work itself is completely untransparent. Not because everything has become so complex, but rather because it is deemed unimportant that people understand what their labor is actually for. But even if people do know the function of their work, this doesn’t necessarly make it liberatory. And concerning the alleged self-fulfillment through work, one does not have to interview all the call center drones or workers in Asia forced to produce trainers under horrendous conditions (because machines would cost a few cents more than manual labor). The claim that some truly enjoy their job, or another makes a living from their hobby also often falls flat when faced with reality. In the end, either jobs are paid badly or the amount of enjoyment one gains is relatively small compared to what actually must be done.
Our alternative to all this is a society where production aims at actual human needs and not – like in capitalism – because these needs are a source of profit. We’re not interested in producing goods that are designed so poorly that one has to purchase a new something-or-other every few months. And we want a society where all human beings can collectively decide and plan what goods are produced, and how. Where a person is not a mere cog in the wheel but actually matters and is asked: What are their needs, how much do they want to work, how do they feel at the workplace? We want a society where the elimination of labor is the actual benchmark for production. When one looks at the advertising industry, or at all the people performing various tasks solely to shuffle money around, it is clear how much labor would be superfluous in a society based on producing what is needed. And one could further reduce the amount of human labor by effectively using technology instead, whereas in capitalism machines are used only if there aren’t enough able hands to do the task cheaper. And finally, we envision a society where some kind of jobs rotation system exists; and no, this doesn’t mean that a pilot has to perform a heart surgery. So why not think of ways of changing our current production processes, where people have to work in monotonous, boring or dangerous jobs? Clearly, we can’t afford to continue such a crazy sort of production: It’s finally time to organize a reasonable way of getting the things we need in life, both our basic as well as luxury goods!
For further reading:
Why the use of robots and machines in capitalism won’t lead to more spare time
[Karl Marx, in Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 13.]
Adorno: Sur l’eau (Aphorism No 100, scroll down the page)
In: Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life.