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Is the Job You're Fighting for Really Worth the Struggle?

Most of us are confronted with scant opportunities to consolidate our ambitions in the world of paid employment—a world whose signature features are often drudgery, subordination and exhaustion.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Refusal of Work by David Frayne (Zed Books, 2015): 

"It’s eight o’clock in the morning.

When you come out it will be dark.

The sun will not shine for you today."

The above quotation is taken from Elio Petri’s 1971 film La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven). The film gives a fictionalised account of the struggles of the Italian Autonomist movement: a loose coalition of students, workers, feminists and unemployed people who protested in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. The quote is a slogan, shouted through a megaphone at eight o’clock in the morning and intended for the ears of the hundreds of workers who at that time were filing through the factory gates for another day of repetitive and hazardous labour. I quote it here as a perfect illustration of what the Autonomists were fighting for. Their cause went beyond the traditional union demands for fairer pay and better working conditions. They acknowledged the need for greater freedom and equality within work, but also fought for the right of workers to lead richer lives outside of work. The Autonomists protested at the wasted time, lack of variety, and excessive administration of life in capitalist society. They fought for the right of workers to feel the sun on their skin, to play with their children, to develop interests and skills outside the factory, and to rest peacefully at night. We might say that the appeal of the Autonomists was not just to the injustices of exploitation, but also to the worker’s diminished sensory experience of the world.

Mirroring these concerns, a range of social critics (from the authors of the Frankfurt School to related critics such as André Gorz) have set out to question work from an emancipatory standpoint, supporting a vision of social progress based on a reduction of work and an expansion of free-time. These critics did not deny the importance of work, nor did they dismiss the many pleasures to be found in productive activity, but they did propose that a reduction of work might leave people with more time and energy for their own self-development. These critiques of work have provoked their readers by highlighting the casualties of a work-centred society: the time for politics, contemplation, conviviality and spontaneous enjoyment, which have been displaced by capitalism’s narrow focus on commercial production and consumption. For today’s students, who find themselves pushed through an education system focused largely on socialising the young for a future job role, to read these critiques is to receive an education in desire, and a reminder that time could be spent differently. The radical nature of these theories, however, has earned them a marginal position in academic and public debates. Whilst important issues like pay inequalities and poor working conditions are still discussed, it is rarer for social commentators to question the ethical status of work itself.

Whilst this is certainly true, the alternative vision of social development implied in calls for a less work-centered future has seen a modest resurgence in recent times. Go to any high-street bookshop and alongside those books promising to instruct readers on how to influence others, accumulate fortunes and achieve career success, one can also find a shelf of books telling readers to slow down, find a better ‘work–life balance’, and seek happiness by consuming less. In the context of contemporary capitalist societies, narrowly fixated as they are on the activities of working and spending, the ultimate message of these books is a valuable one, tapping into a rippling disquiet about the ways in which work has crept into and colonised our lives. If these popular critiques have ultimately had a limited influence on society’s priorities, however, it is perhaps because they have tended to stray too far into the genre of self-help. Their mistake has been to approach the domination of work as primarily a problem of individual habits, and it is fair to say that these books have been rather more conservative when it comes to discussing those systemic economic and political changes which might offer people a more genuine range of lifestyle choices.

More promising than the stagnant discussion of ‘work–life balance’ is the emergence of a braver critique of the paradigm of economic growth. Conventionally, governments have treated economic growth and life satisfaction as one and the same thing, measuring both of these via the metric of gross domestic product (or GDP) per capita. GDP is an indicator which quantifies a country’s overall economic activity. It accounts for the total amount of earning and spending that took place in a given year, and it is tacitly accepted that a rising level of GDP indicates an overall improvement in national prosperity. Whilst economic growth is undoubtedly crucial for less developed countries, in which subsistence needs remain unmet, a range of commentators in more affluent societies have questioned the value of GDP growth as a social goal and an index of progress. A report commissioned in 2008 by the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy argues that ‘the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being’ (Stiglitz et al., 2010). The report stresses, among other things, the important role for human flourishing of health, education, relationships and the environment, and represents just one entry in a growing base of evidence to suggest that happiness, security and human progress will no longer flow in an unproblematic fashion from a growth in GDP (see Jackson, 2009).

This developing uneasiness about the equation of economic growth with life satisfaction has seen sociologists and even some economists returning to the fundamental philosophical question of what it means to live a good life. Critical commentators and the new sociologists of happiness are once again talking about the ars vitae or ‘art of living’, and this has inevitably led them to question whether our well-being is best served by capitalism’s single-minded commitment to economic growth. Some have relied (not always convincingly, it must be said) on statistical measures of people’s subjective well-being, whereas others have drawn inspiration from more philosophical sources. Aristotle’s vision of the good life is a common reference point. Aristotle suggested that humans flourish when they live wisely, justly, and in harmony with the world. According to his notion of eudaemonia, a sense of well-being is achieved not simply through sensory pleasure, but also through things like good health, security, companionship, autonomy, a sense of being respected and socially recognised, and a feeling of connection with the community and environment. All these things are important because humans are ethical, social and creative beings, as well as sensing bodies. If the ongoing drive to boost economic growth has become troubling for many, this is partly because of its decidedly anti-Aristotelian fixation on material gain as the route to prosperity.

In an age of material abundance, it seems that there is a troubling disparity between our desire for the good life and capitalism’s narrower focus on the constant expansion of production and consumption. What most people crave is more free-time and a greater investment in the social aspects of life, but a growing awareness of this fact has done very little to upset the mainstream political agenda. In the UK (the context in which I am writing), apart from the Labour Party’s cursory interest in work–life balance in the mid 2000s, the question of working hours has generally disappeared from the agenda, replaced by a focus on employability and the cultivation of a workforce that will ensure the country’s competitiveness in a global economy. The stripping back of the welfare state, which in recent times has seen a phased introduction of increasingly stringent penalties for the non-worker, has also significantly reduced the latitude for resistance to work. The ethical superiority of work seems almost untouchable. Paid jobs continue to be promoted as a vital source of good health and character, the media continues obsessively to demonise the non-working ‘scrounger’, and an old-fashioned work ethic maintains its anchorage in policies designed to force people off welfare and into employment.

Within this political context, my central goal is to argue that the time has come to challenge the work-centered nature of modern society. As it stands, work represents a highly naturalised and taken-for-granted feature of everyday life. The dogmatic nature of work is revealed when we consider the uncanny resilience of its ethical status, even in the face of some very troubling realities. Consider the woeful failure of today’s labour market to keep pace with the desire for jobs that allow for self-expression and creativity. Gratifying work is a fantasy that we have all been trained to invest in, ever since our teachers and parents asked us what we wanted to ‘be’ when we grew up, yet most of us are confronted with scant opportunities to consolidate our ambitions in the world of paid employment—a world whose signature features are often drudgery, subordination and exhaustion. What is also baffling is the fact that the ethical status of work has still not been significantly destabilised by our disintegrating labour market. Mass unemployment, job insecurity, and low-wage work are making employment an increasingly unreliable source of income, rights and belonging. The orthodox political solution to this situation is ‘job creation’: the invention of work by increasing output and expanding the economy into new sectors. However, as a range of concerned scientists and economists are now pointing out, constant growth is not only unlikely to solve the problem, but also brings with it a disturbing set of environmental and social implications. Finally, the dogmatic status of work is also graspable when we consider the extent to which we have unconsciously accommodated work’s escalating dominance in our everyday lives. Work has increasingly spilled its demands into our homes, drawing upon our emotions and personalities to an extent never before seen or tolerated. As the ethic of hard work tightens its grip once again, employability becomes the motivating force of our ambitions, interactions and education system. A side effect of this is that we, as a society, may be losing our grip on the criteria that judge an activity to be worthwhile and meaningful, even if it does not contribute to employability or the needs of the economy. Those activities and relationships that cannot be defended in terms of an economic contribution are being devalued and neglected.

It is puzzling that none of these troubling realities has led to a significant public discussion of why we work, and of how work should be socially distributed. The pressing issues—from dubious job quality to social insecurity, to the escalating dominance of work in our everyday lives—have failed to destabilise the central place of work in mainstream political visions of the future. The storm may be rising, but the work dogma still huddles safely in its bunker. Within this troubling context, there is an urgent need to contemplate some of the taken-for-granted realities of today’s work-centered society, to consider alternative ways of meeting the needs conventionally sought in work, and to think about whether there might be more equitable and liberating ways of distributing work and free time.

Reprinted with permission from The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work by David Frayne published by Zed Books.© David Frayne 2015. All rights reserved.
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