Here’s my belated interruption of the conversation on work being conducted at Jacobin and Facebook by Peter Frase, Seth Ackerman, and Alex Gourevitch.
I’m an interested bystander, but I don’t yet understand the differences between Peter Frase, Seth Ackerman, and Alex Gourevitch on the primal and the political meanings of work. Or, if I do, I wonder how these differences matter, pragmatically speaking.
All three agree that the decline of work is a problem, whether construed as a measurable sociological datum or an indispensable theoretical premise. “The loss of work isn’t exactly something to celebrate,” as Frase puts it in criticizing Ross Douthat. He goes on to propose full employment and a universal basic income. Or, as Gourevitch puts it in criticizing Frase, Andre Gorz, and Kathi Weeks, work is more and less than necessary labor—conceived as a disciplined, collective human activity, it’s a site of struggle and a source of liberation: “work can be an expression of human freedom.”
Frase, Ackerman, and Gourevitch agree, in this sense, that (1) work is central to the human experience regardless of the scope of socially necessary labor, and that (2) the working class accordingly remains as the crucial agent of political innovation in the name of democracy. In the same sense, then, they (3) validate the Hegelian specification of human nature—“He grasps labour as the essence of Man,” Marx explained in 1844—and (4) reaffirm the ontology of work that has since determined the Left’s approach to almost every political question raised by the advent of modern market societies.
Gourevitch goes farther down this four-lane highway than Frase or Ackerman, who are content to assume that their comrades understand the labor process as both the scene of oppression and the setting of self-realization—an everyday theater of absurd extremes. For example, Gourevitch criticizes Gorz, and by implication Weeks, on the grounds that a Left committed to the end of work, not merely alienated labor, has no obvious constituency, no social basis, because it has no organic connection to the traditional concerns of left-wing politics: “One of the oddities of post-workism is that it has trouble identifying just who it is for, and thus whose needs, really, it is universalizing.” In giving up on the conventional working class as the self-evident source of social and political progress, he claims, this new faction of the Left is building castles in the air.
Gourevitch makes that large claim not because he thinks Douthat is right about an impending world without work—he tacitly agrees with Frase on the unmeasured and unpaid expansion of necessary labor—but because, like Hegel and Marx (not to mention Luther and Freud), he defines work as the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence, a condition to be grasped as a fortunate fall into the social space where productivity and creativity become synonymous. It’s the “exercise of human powers” as such. A world without work would, then, be a world drained of humanity.
Apart from its imperial reach—in these terms, work can mean almost anything—I have no major objections to this definition, although I would favor Freud over Hegel and Marx in explaining “the compulsion to work” as the sublime function of the neurosis that is human nature. And to his credit, Gourevitch insists that the kind of work he has in mind “is a necessarily collective and cooperative activity of producing useful things.” He clarifies as follows: “It is not isolated craft production nor pure art.” With these gestures, he has at least interrogated Hannah Arendt’s invidious distinction between work and labor in The Human Condition; by the same token, he has also challenged poeisis as the classical, unitary standard by which the alienation of labor is to be historically assessed—the standard Arendt and every left-wing intellectual with some glancing acquaintance with Marx uses to mourn the passing of “real,” meaningful work. In doing so, he has borne us back, boats against the current, to the ambiguities and the consequences of paragraph 67 in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the great fork in the road of modern political philosophy.
Still, how does work acquire this ultimate credential, as the essence of human existence, except as the psychological residue of the Protestant work ethic and its social armature, all those disciplinary attendants from every place on the intellectual spectrum? Sure, let’s discuss the ethics of work, but let’s first ask why work deserves this priority. Does every metabolic exchange with Nature produce useful things, thus qualify as work? Gourevitch nimbly evades Frase’s crucial observation on this very issue, so I’ll try another tack.
Why not accredit the destruction or, to be less polemical about it, the consumption of useful things, as the essence of human existence? Why not give Georges Bataille his due? Why not think of the bourgeois epoch as a deviation from the norm of human nature, as an ugly interregnum on the ruins of which we might build a less repressive civilization?
To be more polemical about it, why not say, Fuck Work? Just as a first approximation of what is possible and necessary in view of the historical circumstances—not as a flamboyantly utopian posture and not as a pragmatic acknowledgment of an intractable unemployment crisis? Why do we want full employment when more work for all means less income and less enjoyment for everybody? In plain sight of the simple fact that we can increase output without increasing inputs of either capital or labor—when socially necessary labor is disappearing—why do we seek out the deferral of desire that work requires, regardless of how collective and cooperative, or how lonely and artful, it must be?
Why are we bound to this slave morality? Because it provides us the grounds for a “left-egalitarian critique of idle rentiers and capitalists, living off the efforts of others,” as Gourevitch suggests? Because we have to work and they won’t? The ancient Christian and the modern socialist causes were informed by the criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”)—once upon a time, the goal was the detachment of income (thus social standing) from work, not more work. The end of socially necessary labor was a promise to be kept in the future, not a reason to mourn the past.
So, now that there is neither a transparent nor a legible relation between effort and reward because work on Main Street can’t provide a living wage—also because theft on Wall Street can create a fortune—why not acknowledge the intellectual and political possibilities that result?