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Against the work ethic

Against the work ethic

Stock Photo of a man looking frustrated as he works. Apparently.

"Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. [...] But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself." 

Engels, Unfinished Introduction to Die drei Grundformen der Knechtschaft 

We live in a culture that values paid labour over any other kind of activity. Work, or paid work, has become the sole means by which most people define their existence, their place in society, their view of themselves and the means by which they evaluate their own existence as a success or a failure - it has become the sole means by which many of us relate to the world beyond ourselves.

But given that automation will in the near future make most jobs, from menial to technical and managerial, obsolete, is it not time to re-appraise this position and ask - was this attitude ever worth holding onto anyway?

I am not the first to observe that the question most commonly asked by a stranger to another stranger upon their meeting one another is - "What do you do?". I am also not the first to observe that what is meant by this is - "What job do you perform?".

This question acts as a place-holder for meaningful engagement with the corollary of allowing those who ask it to assess the social position of the other. To evaluate them and to judge their worth against an idea of prestige that forms part of our collective consciousness. The idea that one can judge the worth of oneself and others by what job they perform is intimately woven into the social fabric.

It is a notion that it is extremely difficult to free oneself of - even if one recognises how damaging it is.  In an era of precarity, shit jobs and no jobs - it has gone from being a benign to a malignant ideology.

To begin a phrase needs to be introduced and evaluated, not because it is unfamiliar - but because of how familiar it is. The phrase is - the work ethic.

In everyday speech when someone attributes a work ethic to another person, we can assume they are praising that other person. Similarly, when someones work ethic is questioned - it is safe to assume that they are being denigrated or criticised. Therefore, we can see that the work ethic is in these kind of speech acts, a normative standard to which the person to whom we refer can fall short. The subjects lack of work ethic is a lack of something that should be valued. Furthermore lack of it can be considered to be a moral failing.

It is this view that needs to be challenged.

To illustrate what's being talked about, take a look at this job description;

"Your duties might include:
  • checking products on the production line for quality
  • keeping machines supplied with packaging materials and labels
  • reporting machine faults
  • adjusting machine settings

You’ll keep machines and production areas clean during your shift. You might also move packaged items around the warehouse using pallet trolleys or a forklift truck."

Sounds fucking thrilling doesn't it?

No, maybe not. Maybe an office job would be more suited to you?

"Your day-to-day tasks may include:
  • entering personal details of customers into a database
  • entering information for classified adverts in a newspaper
  • transferring paper-based market research results
  • updating patients' medical records
  • processing invoices"
The best thing about that one is that a lot of those kinds of jobs require a degree, and are often quite difficult to get. I shit you not, a degree - for what is essentially reading and typing.

Where does your intricate knowledge of the works of Proust or the sub-atomic structure of an atom, or your command of syntactic structures or human biology get you? Reading and typing. Anything else? Processing the odd invoice, but mostly reading and typing.

Work ethic, something to be praised, right?

Clearly the lack of desire to perform jobs of the type listed above is not a moral failure so much as a rational reaction to circumstances as they prevail. Labour that is repetitive, degrading, demeaning or an insult to our social autonomy- as in the case of much service work, may be necessary for survival but this does not mean that we ought to desire it. To praise those that do desire it would be absurd.

But we do.

It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't also unnecessary.

We long ago passed the point where we need to work this hard to satisfy our needs. Productivity per hour worked is over double what it was at the beginning of the 1970's(1) - the UK's GDP measured in dollars is now measured in the trillions - where it was at the beginning of the same period measured in the billions. I doubt very much that human satisfaction has gone up by the same ratio over the period.

Given that this is the case, I feel we can safely assume it has not;

"Anxiety disorders are very common. In a survey covering Great Britain, 1 in 6 adults had experienced some form of ‘neurotic health problem’ in the previous week. The most common neurotic disorders were anxiety and depressive disorders. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life. An estimated 13% of the adult population will develop a specific form of anxiety known as a phobia at some point in their life. Large scale studies have suggested that around 2.5% of people are likely to experience OCD at some point in their life."

Source: FAQ's - Anxiety UK, Link: Here(2)

Our current social security system, employment arrangements and societal narrative all push the work ethic - which would be irrational even if it weren't damaging. The tragedy of late capitalism is that the intensity of the demand to work ever harder seems to be increasing, not decreasing, as work is just about to become a lot harder to come by.

Returning at this point to the quote that opened this post, if labour created man - it seems like it might also be the thing that destroys him.

So let's ask ourselves again - work ethic, good thing?

So what then is the solution?

Well socialism of course. Even putting aside the coming wave of automation, it has been possible to drastically reduce the average working week since at least the beginning of the 20th Century if not a long time before that.

At the beginning of the 20th Century in fact, it was almost taken for granted that productivity gains and ever increasing mechanisation would see people working fewer and fewer hours. Not even by thinkers one may consider particularly radical. It was a favourite subject of Bertrand Russell, who wrote;

"In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity."

-Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1932

Or if you'd prefer an economists view on the matter take John Maynard Keynes;

"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease." 

Keynes, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, 1930

The reader can judge for themselves whether we have passed that point. The reader should also judge for themselves whether they want to live in a world, as we do now, where eight- hours of their day is spent engaged in alienating labour of the kind beautifully described below.

"I think his [Man's] work is to a large extent, meaningless. Because he is not related to it. He is increasingly part of a large machinery, governed by a large bureaucracy - and I think man, perhaps unconsciously, hates his work very often. Because he feels trapped by it. He feels imprisoned by it - because he spends most of his energy on something that has no meaning in itself." 

-Erich Fromm, Interview with Mike Wallace, 1958(5)

Capitalism is nothing if not adept at taking radical criticism, emptying it of content and flogging it back to people. Thus, we have the 'work life balance' discourse that occasionally pops up. It is generally sold as a genre of self help - but has, however briefly, occasionally been on the political agenda.

David Frayne, in his brilliant The Refusal of Work - which this article is heavily indebted to, and I would encourage you to buy if you're interested in reading further into this topic - observes that the failing of the discourse around work life balance is that it leaves unquestioned the centrality of work to our lives, it only asks that we may be able to work a little less. Effectively constraining us, essentially accepting the work ethic and  not asking for something radically better than what we have now.

What Frayne calls for, echoing the late Marxist theorist André Gorz, is the development of a 'politics of time'.

Which is to say an;

"Open minded discussion about the quantity and distribution of working time within society, with a view to allowing everybody more freedom for their own autonomous self development." 

-Frayne, The Refusal of Work, Zed, 2015, London



(§2) 130.672 Billion USD in 1970 compared to 2.858 Trillion USD in 2015 - if you'd like to quibble figures or check if it's adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) (I'm sure it is) then the link to the data is here.

(§3)They reference their figures at the bottom of the page.

(§4) Whilst researching this piece I also found out that -   If you look at recipients of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) - two thirds, that's 66% report common mental health issues, 43.2% have attempted suicide and 33.5% are self harming. It wasn't relevant to my point so I can't use it - but fuck me. (Figures are in the Forward, pp.6)

(§5) Paraphrased slightly to remove references to "American Man" as opposed to "Man"


This article is heavily indebted to David Fraynes "Refusal of Work"

In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistic (ONS) according to the latest figures available(1) the average full time worker is working 37.7 hours per week. -
Figures correct for November to the start of January 2016 - As of March 2017


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