On April 30, 1983, a group of Dutch radicals based in Amsterdam’s Pijp-quarter undertook preparations for their country’s yearly May Day — or Labor Day, as it’s called in the Netherlands. As the Pentecost of the global workers’ movement, the date is the only bank holiday without pagan or Christian precedents, standing out as the proud achievement of a century of hard-won class struggle. In 1884, Samuel Gompers’ Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a demonstration for an eight-hour working day on May 1, 1886; four years later, after a violent day of strikebreaking that killed five , Gompers urged the founding congress of the Second International in Paris to adopt the first of May as its “official” holiday.
In 1983, however, the group in question thought the name “Labor Day” rather obsolete. Although the Dutch government had never accepted the validity of the day — mainly due to its overlap with the earlier Queen’s Day (April 27) – it remained a landmark for left-wing parties, with large demonstrations and fairs held in Dutch cities. The group proposed rebaptizing May 1 as the “Day Against the Work Ethic” (Dag tegen het arbeidsethos), celebrating the advent of a world in which humanity would be exempt from the “duty to labor” altogether. Earlier that year, members had gathered in the Amsterdam cinema Rialto to found a consortium representing the “conscientiously unemployed” (bewust werklozen) under the name “Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic” (Nederlandse Bond Tegen het Arbeidsethos). Soon, journalists showed interest, while “angry” members of the Dutch Labor Party (the PvdA) and trade unions voiced their discontent. Although the organization was officially a union of the “jobless,” figures within the mainstream labor movement expressed disagreement with the group’s intention to halt the re-integration of the Dutch army of unemployed into the labor market. Work was to remain central, the laborites claimed, and the Council was playing a dangerous game.
Opposition from the established Left, however, did little to temper the Council’s ambitions. Over the course of the 1980s, the organization grew up to be one of the most vocal components of the anti-work Left, with its monthly magazine Luie Donder (Lazybones), joining a growing chorus of leftists who believed that “the society of work” had reached its endpoint.
From Post-Capitalism To Post-Work
In many ways, the stand-off between Council and the Dutch Labor Party prefigured many of our current debates on “post-work.” In the last ten years, a distinctly new form of anti-capitalist theorizing has emerged under the heading of so-called “anti-work” politics: from Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism (2015) to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (2015) to Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (forthcoming, 2019). In contrast to an older, outmoded form of workerism, this “new” New Left has sought to distance itself from the “cult of labor” of previous socialist parties, and instead provide an unpretentious apology for idleness – much as the Council did before them.
Empirically, post-workerists claim to have marshaled enough evidence to underpin their project. “For the vast majority of people,” Srnicek and Williams write, “work offers no meaning, fulfillment or redemption” and is “simply something to pay the bills.” Since there is “already a widespread hatred for jobs” (coupled with the growing threat of a mass wipe-out of current jobs), socialists ought to respond to the “widespread demand that others adopt the work ethic… only by the disdain we feel for our own jobs. ” Like Bastani and Mason, both authors see the solution in active support for automation and a massive expansion of free time, taking “full unemployment” rather than “full employment” as the ultimate horizon. “In the end,” they state, “our choice is between glorifying work and the working class, or abolishing them both.”
To be sure, the authors’ brand of anti-work agitation is hardly a historical novelty on the Left. Late nineteenth-century anarchists already celebrated the “refusal of work” as the ultimate anti-capitalist tactic, while Dutch communists in the 1930s castigated their country’s “work ethic” as the “biggest disease of the century.” Most famously, Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue wrote the famed pamphlet The Right To Be Lazy in 1880, to wide acclaim in socialist circles – although it was later silenced by workerists in the German SPD.
Almost a century later, the French May 1968 and the Italian “hot autumn” of 1969 were fresh high points for European anti-work politics. Situationists, Maoists, and devotees of Operaismo cast the tumultuous May Days as a general revolt against the “imperative to produce” in industrial society; as the Belgian communist Raoul Vaneigem put it in his 1967 The Revolution of Everyday Life, “from the Nazi Arbeit macht frei to Henry Ford to Mao,” the “cult of labor” was now a universal fact in the communist and capitalist worlds.
This cult could not last, however. The late 1960s, Vaneigem insisted, would witness “automation and cybernetics” cause “mass replacement of workers by mechanical slaves.” The rise of computerized production would reveal the increasing superfluity of human labor, and show “its adherence to the barbarous procedures of the established order.” “The trickery of work has been exhausted,” Vaneigem postulated in 1967, “and there is nothing left to lose, not even the illusion of work.”
Vaneigem’s plea is surprisingly similar to that of Srnicek and Williams for “full automation” – replace “cybernetics” with “mass automation,” “mechanical slaves” with “robots,” and one quickly gets the impression that there is nothing new under the post-workerist sun.
Yet there is some new about this latest wave of anti-work agitation, and there are several ways of gauging its newness. The fate of Paul Lafargue’s tract in socialist circles, for instance, testifies to the fraught reception anti-work writing had within the labor movement in its early stage. When Friedrich Engels tasked his SPD-colleague Eduard Bernstein with a translation of the work, Bernstein cut out several passages and framed the book as a “caricature” and a “joke” – Lafargue’s book being nothing more than a “polemic against bourgeois morality,” not applicable to the workers’ movement itself. Characteristically, Bernstein delivered a “revisionist” take on Lafargue and took the sting out of his subversive piece. But the same can be said of Bernstein’s enemies as well. Soviet panegyrists of “work,” like Lenin and Trotsky – who proposed nothing less than the “full militarization of labor” and a frantic acceleration of the work ethic – hardly qualify as post-work either.
Perhaps the novelty of the latest wave of anti-work writing is best explained, then, through the fact that post-workerists take their cue specifically from a new critique of capitalism – a critique which simply did not exist in Lafargue or Bernstein’s time. In this new mode, the problem with capitalism is not that it is economically irrational or exploitative, or that it ushered in a world of spiritual desiccation. Rather, theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault castigated capitalism precisely it was unable to fulfill the libidinal demands of a society already geared to ceaseless consumption. Instead of unleashing productive forces which it cannot control, capitalism had awakened an insatiable desire which it could only satisfy periodically during periods of boom – merely to return to the moralistic mantras of austerity management once that boom turned into a bust. As the German philosopher Bini Adamczak describes this new “consumptionist” critique:
When the postwar capitalist regime of renewed accumulation went into crisis, so did the Protestant, Prussian-style social frugality that defined it. A cultural revolution spawned in its wake, opening up fresh avenues of expansion for both capital and its critics. The lifting of taboos surrounding sexuality and hedonism generated new markets, marketing strategies, and circuits of accumulation. An unprecedented focus on reproduction opened up new territories for political struggle in the home, in the party, and in the streets.
The step-motherly treatment of Lafargue also tells us something fundamental about our current post-work moment. Rather than the rallying cry of a victorious working class, the demand to “abolish work!” is being made in a time of nearly universal defeat. From André Gorz’s “farewell to the proletariat” (1983) to Jeremy Rifkin’s “the end of work” (1995), post-work writers have tailored their proposals to a generation accustomed to losing. In this sense, the current strives for a comfortable “post-utopian utopia,” offering everything to those who have nothing. The turn toward reproduction, as Adamczak notes, was undoubtedly “the historical effect of defeat within the factory.” Yet defeat rarely inspires good thinking – and it tends to lead to conceptual muddiness. There are a variety of ways in which this despondence skews the post-workerist vision. But what are they?
Work Versus Employment
The first concerns a persistent inability on the part of post-work writers to make meaningful distinctions between “work,” “effort,” and “employment.” Of course, it is immensely difficult to disentangle these terms in our current society – one cannot “work” without being “employed,” and “effort” is strongly associated with the habits of punctuality and organization imposed on us in the modern workplace. Yet the fact that all of these three qualities are so strongly enmeshed in our own social universe (or, the fact that the capitalist economy only rewards “employed work”) does not mean that we ought to simply equate them in our own thinking.
First, we need to disentangle “employment” – which denotes a specific relationship of exploitation, in which a group of people without access to means of reproduction sell a good (i.e., their labor-power) to an employer – from mere “work.” When such service is monetized and the laborer is paid for it, the substance becomes “abstract labor”: one person’s labor can be qualitatively equated with another’s, and all labor becomes “social labor.”
“Work,” in contrast, denotes something rather different. Although not a historically generalizable notion – societies have hugely divergent ways of interacting with their environment, whether natural or social – humanity’s interaction with nature (and, therefore, “his reproduction of nature as a whole”) can take myriad forms. Some of these can be highly exploitative, as in slave societies, while others are more spontaneous and free (think of the shared games of hunter-gatherers).
This does not mean that all documents of human civilization show a similar tendency for work to be glorified. In the writings of the earliest “post-work” prophets, the ancient philosophers Socrates and Plato, work was castigated as the province of servile slaves and housewives, “the amusement of the rabble.” Living off their own stakes in slave labor, Socrates and his pupils were able to roam the Athenian agora and philosophize at will without ever worrying about sustenance.
From André Gorz to Hannah Arendt, this “Socratic” post-work ideal has often been invoked as one of the prime counterpoints to our current work-crazed world. Obviously, this ideal holds a lot of contemporary appeal as well: since we presumably live in a society in which robots are on the brink of becoming our perfect personal slaves – replacing Aristotle’s “human tools” – humanity can finally morph into a race of full-time philosopher-kings, where everyone can write their own Phaedo and Laws strolling around the town assembly, joyously ruminating and exploring sensual pleasures.
Even here, however, the evidence mustered by post-workerists quickly betrays its biases. As noted by historians such as Perry Anderson, ancient Greece was hardly a slave economy. A large chunk of citizens came from the class of small farmers, who also had most to gain from a participatory political regime. Hence, the view of Athens as “a community of leisured citizens whose slaves greatly outnumbered the free is against the evidence.”
This does not mean that Socrates and his followers were humble journeymen. As members of a slave-owning aristocracy, Socrates and Plato were fiercely anti-democratic thinkers, seeing democracy as a system in which the “rabble” could dethrone all that was high and the holy in Greek culture. Unsurprisingly, this was also something that made them fundamentally hostile to “work,” associating it with female servitude or subhuman toil. But it also put them at odds with those parts of the Athenian population that had most to win from a democratic regime rooted in the dignity of labor, consisting of small artisans, tradesmen and yeomen. The Platonic hatred for democracy and for work are thus intrinsically connected. As the historian Ellen Meiksins Wood notes:
There can be no doubt that Greek opponents of democracy like Plato, Xenophon, and even Aristotle showed a profound contempt for labor and those who were compelled to engage in it.…The difficulty arises when this aristocratic contempt is made to represent the ethos of the Athenian people as a whole, ascribed even to the laborers who were the prime targets of anti-democratic attitudes. The tendency to generalize from these aristocratic attitudes has travelled freely across ideological boundaries and has… played an important role in conservative histories.
This view of “democracy” as undergirded by a strong “work ethic,” in which the economic independence of the artisan worker buttressed their political independence, continued to inform radical visions throughout the early modern period, ranging from James Harrington’s paean to “agrarian law” in Oceana (1656) to Thomas Paine’s eulogy of the “producer” in his Agrarian Justice (1797). The “work ethic” has been a cornerstone of radical thought since the Levellers and the Diggers, rallying popular classes against aristocratic rentiers, helpless bourgeois, and usurious landlords. Even nineteenth-century socialism was, in its turn, heavily indebted to this plebeian workerism, casting the proletariat as the “making class” which would be as “all-sided in its production as its consumption” (Marx). And although Marx did see the proletariat as the “class that would abolish all classes,” it is unclear whether this implied a wholesale end to the need for ennobling work. Labor, Marx claimed, was nothing less than “the universal human capacity for purposeful action in transforming nature to address our material needs.” Historically, at least, this thus puts the anti-work agitators at odds with an imposing strand of popular radicalism.
Overthrowing the Culture of Work
But why bother? Post-workerists might well reply that such an attachment to the “work ethic” is simply an instance of false consciousness, and claim that we need nothing less than a “cultural revolution” to rid ourselves of it. Yet there are several problems with this view. The first is simply philosophical: there is no such thing as “false consciousness.” People’s contemporary attachment to work, however irrational, should always be explained in light of capitalism’s chronic capacity to create needs which it cannot fulfill – it shifts the blame, so to speak, from the systemic level to the level of individual attitudes. Moreover, it provides no account of why it is that people come to have the particular “false” beliefs that they do. Rather than seeing people’s desires as directed toward goals which our world cannot fulfill, it tends towards a mere dismissal of the objective longing for “work.” It also fails to explain why the clamor for more “work” has been so persistent in recent decades, in contrast to simple demands for licensed laziness.
Post-workerists thereby put themselves at a massive strategic disadvantage by seeking to overturn of “work ethic.” Since the absence of work in our society is so heavily associated with unemployment (a position that carries a deep cultural stigma, and often evokes a sense of unjustly distributed work), it remains immensely difficult to convince people that “being on the dole” carries an emancipatory promise. This, of course, was exactly the purpose of the “conscientiously unemployed” in the Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic: to lift the blemish off of unemployment, and see it as prefiguring a life outside of the wage-relation.
This was easier said than done, however. In the course of the 1980s, conservative politicians such as Thatcher, Le Pen and Reagan successfully remodeled themselves as defenders of a “work ethic” abandoned by the New Left, and took on the language of “workerism.” Perversely, they even managed to attract a sizeable number of the unemployed with this tactic, who came to despise their own status as surplus to a booming economy. As noted by the sociologist Richard Hyman, these unemployed did not “customarily turn against work”; instead, they “experienced guilt and psychic deprivation” while still clinging to the belief “that possession of even an oppressive and damaging job was an essential part of their social identity and self-esteem.” Instead of clearing space, post-workerism here might simply cede the terrain of production to the Right, and passively assent to the idea that it is impossible to collectively determine needs except through market mediation.
Anti-workerists have been quick to reply, of course, that all such evidence negates a simple statistical fact: people do not like work. Or, more strongly: they hate it. In a 2015 poll conducted by the British agency YouGov, for instance, a staggering 37 percent said their job didn’t “make a meaningful contribution to the world,” and was consequently pointless. versus an astonishing 87% of people with so-called “work fatigue.” The conclusion seems clear-cut: judging from these data, most respondents would rather spend their time at home with their kids and friends instead of plodding away amid the sweat of their brow (while housewives want a life free from the home).
Yet there are two persistent problems with this view. The first is that post-workerists have a tendency to cook the books when examining their evidence. Take the mentioned YouGov poll. As noted by Harry Pitts and Paul Thompson, the statistics put out by the agency hardly allow for the conclusion that the majority of respondents thought “their job was senseless.” The same poll, for instance, found that 63% of participants found their job “very or fairly personally fulfilling”, while 33% “did not think so.” Additionally, figures from the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey show that job satisfaction increased between 2004 and 2011, and that no less 72 percent “were satisfied or very satisfied with work itself” (about three-thirds spoke of a “sense of achievement” when discussing their work).
Likewise, the 13 percent number marshaled by Srnicek and Williams, from a 2013 Gallup Poll, only points to people’s “active engagement at work.” According to the pollsters, 18.8 percent of the sample saw themselves as “actively disengaged” – hardly an anti-work surge (a figure that fell to 17.5 in 2014). And the criterion of “engagement,” much like that of “satisfaction,” is a slippery one: seeking “engagement” in work is not the same as slaving away for a boss without due compensation. In the shadow of a global recession, and the concomitant compulsion to cut costs, it is unsurprising that most workers would simply refuse to “engage.”
Post-workerists’ own data thus paint a much more ambiguous picture of the contemporary workforce’s exact relationship to their “work.” Instead of desiring a mere trade-off of work for free time, research “indicates a complex mixture of positive attachments to work and work identity” coupled with “increasing concerns about issues such as insecurity, recognition, underemployment, work pressures and unfair rewards.” As Paul Thompson concludes, more than a desire for work abolitionism, there appears to a “growing divergence between what work demands from us and what we demand from work” – or, between the objective and subjective side of the wage-relation.
Finally, the statistical argument also begs the question as to why precisely people are so enamored of the prospect of more “free time.” As early as 1840, the American labor republican Orestes Brownson remarked that the opposition between toilsome “work” and enjoyable “play” set up by modern society presented nothing less than an unacceptable act of blackmail. “The laziest man among us,” Brownson notes, “will angle or hunt all day”; “gentlemen, fond of field sports, often exert themselves more than the common day laborer”; and “boys, wholly averse to hard work, will yet delight in still harder play.” “If one could strip labor of the degrading ideas now associated with it,” he concluded, “and render it as honorable, as much in keeping with the character of the gentleman, as fox-hunting is in England, nobody would shun it.”
Thompson’s distinction between what work demands “of” us and what we demand “from” work – a distinction loosely analogous to that between “abstract” and “concrete” labor – hints at the paradox identified by Brownson. Precisely because we find it so hard to reconcile what we want from work with the tasks employers impose on us, a disjunction between an “is” and a “what could be” comes about. Rather than engendering a mere desire to escape, people’s relationship to work symbolizes something closer to an abusive love relationship. Although the person in question might detect traces of a satisfying bond in their attachment to the person, the promise of that satisfaction is constantly undermined by the exploitative logic that undergirds the relationship.
Predictably, the post-workerist response to the horrors of work tends to resemble the affected lover’s attempt to retreat from the sphere of amorous engagement altogether, preferring a safe indifference in its place. Instead of building a world in which the conditions for abuse no longer survive, they propose to do away with the rotten edifice of “work” in one go.
It is more than likely, however, that such a radical exodus-strategy harbors its own bittersweet disappointments. Already in the 1960s, thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Christopher Lasch castigated the New Left for its contention that the horrors of work could simply be offset by increased rates of consumption. Referring to American partisans of “cybernetic socialism,” Lasch thought that the attempt to not only “enlarge the domain of leisure” but “to abolish the very distinction between work and leisure” could easily lend itself to “new forms of domination.” Since the task confronting the counter-culturalists was not simply “to set aside more opportunities for erotic indulgence,” but instead “to eroticize work itself” – or to make work into play – the very oppressiveness of employed work would become obfuscated in a cloud of confusion.
The imaginary of the counter-culture, Lasch claimed, pictured “utopia as generalized leisure, thereby reaffirming, instead of contradicting, the vision of industrial society itself.” Utopia, in such an optic, was merely portrayed as “democratized laziness,” while Lasch insisted that “centuries of experience have taught us… that work is one of man’s deepest drives.” And since leisure was a dialectical counterpart of modern employed work under capitalism, it also was utterly conditioned by it – as was already visible in capitalism’s invasion of leisure through the holiday industry.
Unsurprisingly, Lasch associated the post-work sensibility with a specific sociological profile. Plucked mainly from the entrails of the student milieu, post-war radicals tended extrapolate from their own experience as unsettled academics to a full blueprint for a post-capitalist society. “More the ideology of the hipster classes than Marx,” Philip Cunliffe notes, anti-work writing gives us “the future as dreamt of by under-employed work-shy graduate students who imagine that all of life could be spent battering away on a laptop in an over-priced café in East London.” As such, this crowd is likely to “mistake emancipation for mechanization” since “it ignores the crucial question of the control, construction, and programming of machines.”
But what about the claim that the majority of today’s jobs are headed for extinction anyway? Codified in the language of “bullshit jobs,” a vast mountain of literature has sought to prove that we are already living in a society in which most jobs are on the brink of disappearing. As noted by Aaron Benanav, with neither industry nor agriculture “soaking up much of the labor that is entering the labor market,” employment growth has been “increasingly immiserating” in the last ten years, involving stagnant wages and horrifying working conditions. And unlike nineteenth-century workers, the safety-valve of settler expansion is not available to the new global proletariat, many of whom have become nothing more but “onlookers to the spectacle of accumulation.” Soon, we will look on today’s jobs with the same exotic amazement as when we hear of such bygone occupations as Why try and stem the tide?
Without claiming to resolve the entire automation debate here, one thing ought to be clear: the “working class” has not disappeared. From 1980 to 2018, the number of employed workers grew from 44 percent of the global population to approximately 58.6 percent (from 2.3 billion to 3.4 billion, judging from World Bank data), even with an increasing chunk of workers stuck in the so-called informal” sector. Even in America – where the 2008 crash is supposed to have created a sprawling “permanent surplus population” – 89 percent of the workforce now has a “traditional job” rather than “a precarious one,” down by 0.2 percent since 1995. As noted by Loren Goldner, “despite the appearances of ‘post-industrial’ capitalism in the West, and the clouds of ideology that have ‘disappeared’ the working class, there are more wage-labor proletarians in the world today than ever before.”
Goldner also insists that facile equations between “working class” and “proletariat” simply won’t do here. As is clear, the working class is the class that “works” – it produces the products to which it has no access, baking a piece of bread for an employer to receive a wage with which she can buy her own loaf of bread. Yet even Marx and Engels were clear that the proletariat is not always at work – rather, it is always searching for work, from temporary to more permanent contracts. The proletarian condition is one of intrinsic precarity – something the interlude of the post-war welfare state can no longer conceal.
It was for this reason, also, that late nineteenth-century unions in Belgium did not simply see themselves as representing the “working” part of the population. Instead, they were formed as alliances between workers sporadically employed, under-employed and unemployed, ensuring that the effects of unemployment on one section of the membership could easily be absorbed by others.
In Belgium and Scandinavian countries, the so-called “Ghent system” (in which unions share partial control over the state’s unemployment benefit budget) indicates the tenacity of this heritage. Standing somewhere between the individual and society, such unions see themselves as representing that part of the population that is shut out from its reproduction altogether. Yet, in doing so, they also play a crucial role in keeping employers accountable, making sure that the workforce can be re-skilled in response to technological trends. As one would expect, like the Dutch unions in the 1980s, they remain intensely wary of the language “post-work,” and see the defense of “labor” as one of their primary tasks.
Yet this does not mean that these unions’ plans share no potential overlap with the post-work program. A general reduction in working hours, for instance, coupled with maintenance of pay rates and longer weekends, have already been the subject of exploration by several such unions. But even this rapprochement hardly qualifies as a desire to “abolish work,” Rather, it represents an attempt to ensure that the potentially pleasurable aspects of work are not hollowed out by their inscription into relations of exploitation – that “abstract” labor might come to completely eviscerate “concrete” labor, so to speak.
Furthermore, unions can still play a decisive role in making sure that people of all genders have equal access to well-paying and fulfilling jobs. They do so through an advocacy of socialized child care and generous maternity/paternity leave. In this sense, nominally “regular” unions can play a key role in minimizing and eradicating exploitative domestic labor, ensuring that women don’t need to choose between paying governesses or turning into permanent care-takers.
It is true, of course, that defenses of “work” can easily slide into reaction. One need only look at French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s celebration of a “France that gets up early” in 2008, David Cameron’s distasteful defense of “working families,” or the obscene “right to work” laws that have swept Republican legislatures in the last decade.
In no way is this a new addition to the right-wing arsenal. The 1940 slogan of Vichy France – “Work, Family, Homeland” (Travail, famille, patrie) – indicates a long-standing willingness on the part of conservatives to mobilize the “dignity of work” to stigmatize socialist forces as somehow promoting profligacy. The most perverse instance of this right-wing workerism is the Nazi distinction between “shaping” (schaffendes) and “taking” capital (raffendes), itself only a pale derivative of Henry Ford’s dichotomy between the “takers” and “getters” – the former identified with “international Jewry,” the latter equated with Ford’s WASPish “captains of industry.” The depraved metastasis of this workerism was the slogan emblazoned on the Auschwitz-concentration camp– Arbeit Macht Frei. In the Nazi death factory, “producerism” was nothing but a pretext for extermination.
Yet it is unclear whether such Red Tory defenses of the value of work should really be understood as pro-work at all. As noted by the Italian writer Primo Levi (himself a Holocaust survivor), the real meaning of the slogan “work makes free’ had always remained “somewhat less clear to him.” As he noted in 1962:
In reality, and despite appearances to the contrary, denial of and contempt for the moral value of work is fundamental to the Fascist myth in all its forms. Under each form of militarism, colonialism and corporatism lies the precise desire of one class to exploit the work of others, and at the same time to deny that class any human value. This desire was already clear in the anti-worker position adopted by Italian Fascism right from its early years, and became increasingly refined in the evolution of the German version of Fascism, reaching the point of the wide-scale deportation to Germany of workers from all the occupied countries. But it is in the universe of the camps that it finds both its crowning glory and its reductio ad absurdum.
As Levi argues, the practical effect of the Nazis’ celebration of work was rather that “work is humiliation and suffering, and is fit not for us, the Herrenvolk, the people of masters and heroes.”
Though it deals with utterly extreme examples, Levi’s criticism does help in understanding the ambivalence at the heart the right-wing celebration of work. As Robert Ley, leader of Hitler’s German Labor Front, put it in 1935, “Work is not harmful as long as the spirit of the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) pulses through it.”
What attracts conservatives to work, therefore, is not the possibility of self-determination. Rather, conservatives value work because of the deference to authority it breeds. In theory, right-wing workerists might celebrate the creative virtues of the artisan and yeoman, who is able to “provide” for his own family (while still experiencing impersonal market pressure). Yet, in practice, conservatives were at the forefront of the degradation of work inaugurated by capitalism. Similarly, their stance on Taylorization always remained one of nostalgia, not head-on critique. The consequences of this nostalgia can be found in many conservatives’ laments about industrial workers’ lack of “docility” and propensity to strike.
A similar duplicity can be found in contemporary right-workerist discourse. Getting out of bed early in the morning, as Sarkozy typifies it, might be a necessity for the most frenetic of artists (Proust got up at five every morning). Yet getting up early hardly sums up what is potentially fulfilling about work. What appeals to Sarkozy in work, then, is not so much the capacity to make great things collectively or find meaning in labor. Rather, his penchant for work is due to its inscription in unequal relationships of power, and its conditioning of hierarchies. In this sense, Sarkozy merely commits the same fallacy as post-workerists: equating “work” with “employment.” But as the American historian James D. Steakley put it: “Work that comes with the blow of a whistle is not real work.”
Even here, however, some vexatious questions are bound to remain. Suppose, for instance, that society has completely freed itself from the market motive, and people no longer have to sell their labor-power to survive. In that situation, we might still wonder whether it is possible (let alone desirable) to imagine that all activity can be carried out with pure spontaneity, with machines doing all the dirty work? The disgust with which academic post-workerists regard the automation of their own profession, for instance – exemplified in the rise of “online courses” – doesn’t simply betray a technophobic nostalgia. It also shows that there are jobs which we prefer not to be carried out by machines because they require a degree of character formation which machines simply don’t possess – however spectacularly they might perform on Turing Tests.
Yet even in a world beyond the market economy, key tasks will still be subject to societal demands. Many of those tasks will have to be socially decreed. And, whether we like it or not, even a post-capitalist society would have to find a mechanism to impose tasks on the population to carry out “socially necessary” labor (childrearing, education, sanitation). In doing so, it would inevitably inject a degree of heteronomy into some forms of labor.
This need not necessarily pose a problem for Marxists, however. Although socialism might indeed insist that some work has to be done (a process we witness each and every day in capitalism), it would have to do this through accountable procedures, open to participation and responsive to needs. Undoubtedly, some form of coercion would be required for this task; a coercion that is definitely abstract – not based on personal power based in specific individuals – but also not arbitrary, with workers’ organizations’ actions predicated on the fact that they exist through consistent processes of deliberation (as noted by William Clare Roberts, since there cannot be “noncoercive common decisions that avoid both markets and the impossible demand of consensus,” decision-making will always demand “some recourse to either markets or coercive force” – something Marx himself duly acknowledged.
If we reject the false-consciousness view of work then we have to think seriously about what human need work arises in response to. It should, then, be the task of a socialist society to recognize these relations of inter-dependence and attempt to create a world in which the structures that help us to facilitate the needs of others are open to accountability and contestation.
Undoubtedly this hints at one of the weakest spots in the current post-work literature. Thoroughly conditioned by the age of liberal atomization, most post-workerists have come to accept a highly individualist notion of “needs,” in many ways compatible with the “consumer sovereignty” trumpeted by neoliberals. Since previous forms of welfare always imply telling the poor what to consume and what to produce, post-workerists prefer to shed such prescriptive thinking altogether.
Clearly, this anti-normative instinct lies at the core of a lot of anti-work writing today. It also explains the post-workerist penchant for one of the most contested social measures of our age – the so-called “basic income” (BI). As early as 1979, Michel Foucault could characterize Milton Friedman’s proposal for a Negative Income Tax (NIT, a conceptual cousin of the UBI) as a “less disciplinary and authoritarian” form of welfare. As Foucault himself noted, with such an income guarantee it would be “up to people to work if they want or not work if they don’t,” including “the possibility of not forcing them to work if there is no interest in doing so.” As such, Friedman could assist the Left in moving Western welfare from a “disciplinarian” to a “libertarian” model.
Yet this embrace also came at a cost. Not only would Friedman’s proposal shore up the market. It would also (as the English historian James Heartfield noted about the basic income-movement) imply a complete “retreat from the sphere of production.” This certainly was a daring move: in capitalism, the control of production always sets up the first step to the control of the public sphere; the desire for mastery over the institutions of a democratic society was intrinsically linked to the mechanisms that allow these institutions to run in the first place. “In years gone”, Heartfield noted in 1998,
the realm of production was a highly contested one. Organized workers challenged the division of the production, campaigning for higher wages and shorter hours… With that kind of contest in society, the question of material production was always at the forefront of political life.
For Heartfield, Friedman and Foucault’s proposal simply removed the “question of basic needs from any kind of social contestation,” and presented unemployment as “inevitable.”
All of this does not mean that the Left ought to make an uncritical return to pre-war workerism. Neither should it revive an easy producerism which opposes “productive” industry to “unproductive” finance (while obscuring their intrinsic interdependence), or fall into Lasch’s naturalist trap, which asserts that labor has always been among “humanity’s deepest drives.”
It would be a grave error, however, to simply throw out the baby with the workerist bathwater. If we are serious, as socialists, about creating a human subject with “an individuality as all-sided in its production and its consumption” (Marx), we need to ask ourselves the question how we can go about reorganizing and re-inventing work beyond the market imperative.
This is no easy task. As argued by Bini Adamczak, it requires nothing less than “the collective transformation of all social spheres so that the need to escape – into ‘leisure’ time, the mall, or television – is overwhelmingly minimized.” It also means we need to insure that the most dispiriting of things – employed work disguised as “leisure” – does not become a permanent feature of our society.
Ironically, the Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic later became the best example of this problem. Founded in 1982, the group came close to disbanding after no more than two years of existence. The reasons for the group’s near-dissolution were awkward. The Council, as one former member claimed, simply found the whole endeavor “way too much toil.” In their attempt to abolish “labor,” the post-workerists had almost worked themselves to death.