Against work

Monday 20 Mar 2017

I've been thinking a lot lately on work and capitalism. Merriam-Webster defines capitalism as:

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

In values I lean pretty heavily left, and I have issues with the free market having so much power, the massive inequalities between those with the most wealth and those without, and major issues with our current system of work in general. I'm especially worried about automation of low-skilled jobs, and finding an alternative way to give everyone meaning in their lives and the means to live comfortably. But what are our other options?

Like most people I was vaguely aware of a few alternatives to this system, but without much more than a fuzzy understanding of what they meant. Communism is bad and definitely out, because that's the thing where the state exploits its citizens and everyone is poor. Socialism? Any time someone mentions socialism as a solution it seems to be an in-joke, a placeholder for "things are bad, better tear down the whole system." And "anarcho-syndicalism" is literally a joke from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What this boiled down to was that, while I knew there were problems with our current system, I had no way of articulating them and no real idea of where to look for solutions.

So it was really just chance that in my internet meanderings I came across this article, the first that seemed to coherently explain the issues I have with how we work. This great piece by L. Susan Brown, Does Work Really Work?, defines the problem thus:

In our society, then, work is defined as the act by which an employee contracts out her or his labour power as property in the person to an employer for fair monetary compensation. This way of describing work, of understanding it as a fair exchange between two equals, hides the real relationship between employer and employee: that of domination and subordination. [...] Whether machinist, dancer, teacher, secretary, or pharmacist, it is not only one’s skills that are being sold to an employer, it is also one’s very being. When employees contract out their labour power as property in the person to employers, what is really happening is that employees are selling their own self determination, their own wills, their own freedom. In short, they are, during their hours of employment, slaves.

That's exactly it. So what's the solution, L. Susan?

It would more resemble what we call play than work. That is not to say that it would be easy, as play can be difficult and challenging, like we often see in the sports we do for fun. It would be self-directed, self-desired, and freely chosen. This means that it would have to be disentangled from the wage system, for as soon as one is paid one becomes subservient to whoever is doing the paying. [...] Work would be done because it was desired, not because it was forced. Sound impossible? Not at all. This kind of work is done now, already, by most of us on a daily basis. It is the sort of activity we choose to do after our eight or ten hours of slaving for someone else in the paid workplace. It is experienced every time we do something worthwhile for no pay, every time we change a diaper, umpire a kid’s baseball game, run a race, give blood, volunteer to sit on a committee, counsel a friend, write a newsletter, bake a meal, or do a favour. [...] We must endeavor to enlarge these areas of free work to encompass more and more of our time, while simultaneously trying to change the structures of domination in the paid work-place as much as we possibly can.

Hmm, maybe. She goes on to explain that at the same time we can create "mini-revolutions" in our jobs to "undermine the hierarchical structure of decision-making in the workplace". It's not very concrete, but it's a start.

Energised by this finding and with somewhere to start, I went on to research other opinions on work and its alternatives.

Mark Slouka's Quitting the paint factory makes similar arguments:

It is this willingness to hand over our lives that fascinates and appalls me. There’s such a lovely perversity to it; it’s so wonderfully counterintuitive, so very Christian: You must empty your pockets, turn them inside out, and spill out your wife and your son, the pets you hardly knew, and the days you simply missed altogether watching the sunlight fade on the bricks across the way. You must hand over the rainy afternoons, the light on the grass, the moments of play and of simply being. You must give it up, all of it, and by your example teach your children to do the same, and then – because even this is not enough – you must train yourself to believe that this outsourcing of your life is both natural and good. But even so, your soul will not be saved.

The young, for a time, know better. They balk at the harness. They do not go easy. For a time they are able to see the utter sadness of subordinating all that matters to all that doesn’t. Eventually, of course, sitting in their cubicle lined with New Yorker cartoons, selling whatever it is they’ve been asked to sell, most come to see the advantage of enthusiasm. They join the choir and are duly forgiven for their illusions.

Unfortunately, the author wants to wax lyrical about the troubles with our system of work, but offer no solutions. Maybe that's okay. A lot of people need convincing that the system is flawed before we can truly work at changing it.

Evonomics' Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs examines the idea that many jobs, both low- and high-paid, are created just to keep people in work:

In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the "service" sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call "bullshit jobs."

It ventures a guess at why:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Aeon's essay Fuck work (excellent title) also looks at the issue of dwindling jobs, but then offers this vague idea:

How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?

We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’. Without this income supplement, half of the adults with full-time jobs would live below the poverty line, and most working Americans would be eligible for food stamps.

But are these transfer payments and ‘entitlements’ affordable, in either economic or moral terms? By continuing and enlarging them, do we subsidise sloth, or do we enrich a debate on the rudiments of the good life?

Transfer payments or ‘entitlements’, not to mention Wall Street bonuses (talk about getting something for nothing) have taught us how to detach the receipt of income from the production of goods, but now, in plain view of the end of work, the lesson needs rethinking. No matter how you calculate the federal budget, we can afford to be our brother’s keeper. The real question is not whether but how we choose to be.

This idea of "entitlements" sounds a lot like another that has been doing the rounds recently, Universal Basic Income (or UBI). In essence, rather than various discrete forms of welfare payment, these are consolidated into a set amount that is paid to every adult each month, whether they're working or not. The amount is generally agreed to be at least as much as the "dole" now, if not more — some of the experiments in progress pay enough to cover my rent each month. I really like this idea.

This Guardian article by Jason Hickel does a good job of making a case for UBI:

We already know, from existing experiments, that a basic income can yield impressive results — reducing extreme poverty and inequality, stimulating local economies, and freeing people from having to accept slave-like working conditions simply in order to stay alive. If implemented more broadly, it might help eliminate "bullshit jobs" and slash unnecessary production, granting much-needed relief to the planet. We would still work, of course, but our work would be more likely to be useful and meaningful, while any miserable but necessary jobs, like cleaning the streets, would pay more to attract willing workers, making menial work more dignified.

This seems like the current best solution for dealing with all the problems of work, the lack of jobs, and like it could potentially reduce income inequality along the way. It doesn't solve all the problems, but it has a lot of proponents already and, perhaps more importantly, it doesn't displace capitalism, making it significantly more palatable to existing powers.

But what would more radical solutions look like?

I found one answer kind of by mistake. I'm a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, who happens to have imagined, back in 1974, what an anarcho-syndicalist society might actually look like. I recently read the result, a book called The Dispossessed. Anarcho-syndicalism is a society where private property doesn't really exist, there's no concept of money, and various levels of "government" basically just exist to organise and find consensus among the levels below. Sure, it's set on another planet, but its society is still very human. Still, it's not a utopia — they have limited resources, make limited technological progress, and human politics still get in the way of achieving things.

It turns out that this system is the one espoused by Noam Chomsky, although somehow he's managed to talk it up for years without giving concrete examples of what such a society might look like in practice. This is rather frustrating.

Finally, one other proposal for an alternative economic system is something called "participatory economics" or "parecon". This interview with one of its creators, Michael Albert, briefly explains how it works:

Participatory economics proposes just a few key institutions for a new way of conducting economics. It starts with worker- and consumer-councils as decision-making bodies and elevates the idea that each participant in economic life should have a say over outcomes in proportion as they are affected by them -- which it calls "self-management."

It then proposes a new way to define jobs to generate a new division of labor, which is called "balanced job complexes." This combines tasks into jobs so that each person working in the economy does a mix of tasks in their daily labors such that the "empowerment effect" of each worker's situation is equal to that of every other worker's situation, which eliminates the basis for a coordinator-class/working-class division.

Next, participatory economics proposes a new equitable basis for earning income. Instead of our incomes being determined by property ownership, bargaining power or even the value of our product, it should derive only from how hard we work, how long we work and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work at socially useful production.

I find this an interesting idea, less radical (and thus more feasible) as it doesn't abolish money. However I have yet to see explained how it deals with the issue of dwindling jobs. It still proposes everyone has a job, even if it changes the nature of the workplace hierarchy and its economics. I'm not sure I'm into a solution so invested in the idea of one's worth coming from hard work when the hard work is drying up.

But enough of that. Although it's interesting to think about such radical diversions from our current society, I do think it's easier to start small by addressing the issues with work. So where does that leave us in terms of practical solutions? I think the next step, assuming the current experiments prove positive, is to push for UBI. Long-term we still need to change the nature of the work that remains, but as my first quoted article from L. Susan reminds us, there are ways to start changing that already. There's nothing stopping workplaces from abolishing hierarchies, introducting partipatory decision-making, or making other changes that empower workers.

So I hope you enjoyed this journey into work alternatives with me. However, I should note that, as they say, "I have no idea what I'm doing". I'm still exploring all the many different ideas that exist, so I may have missed many relevant or competing ideas (or mixed up some of the ideas quoted). You're welcome to argue with me on Twitter or via email if I need correcting.

About the Blog

I'm a developer in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Hello Code.

I am joshsharp on twitter.