Here I thought Alex Gourevitch and I were in a conversation about the ontology of work. It turns out that he’s fighting a battle on the terms set a generation ago by “labor republicanism,” and I’m trying to change the rules of engagement. We’re out of phase. I wish I could trot out that trusty cliché and say we’re talking past each other. But it’s worse than that. He’s talking to himself.
Gourevitch thinks that he’s the sober realist in this room, and that I’m the wayward innocent—the utopian—who thinks that “radical social change is mere child’s play.” Clearly he aspires to the role of “stern father,” the figure he mentions on his way to calling me a romantic.
So I’ll start with the family romance he invokes, where I’m the child and he’s the responsible adult, then work my way toward what he thinks is the substance of his critique. “Desires have an odd, childlike immediacy for Livingston—direct impulses that we either repress or satisfy.” I don’t know how Gourevitch can deduce this, either from my behavior (we’ve never met) or from what I have written, here or anywhere else. My understanding of desire as such is determined by my appropriation of psychoanalysis; in the case at hand, my usage is derived from Hegel, whose notion of the “cunning of reason” bears an uncanny resemblance to Freud’s category of the unconscious. In any event, I didn’t think I had to include a gloss on the master-slave dialectic or a back story for that primal scene when I belabored the obvious fact that work requires, or just is, the renunciation of desire. Next time I’ll include footnotes, so that Alex doesn’t need to be so inventive.
“Somehow,” Gourevitch continues, lowering the intellectual stakes by eschewing explanation or understanding, “in Livingston’s world, we at once heroically bestride the world, consuming with unreflexive gusto all of the amazing technological outputs, yet [we] do so with the simplicity and innocence of a child, for whom any and all constraint is the ‘renunciation of desire,’ the oppressive residue of a bygone era holding us back like a stern father.”
Heroically? Gusto? Technological outputs? Any and all constraint? Are we filming a beer commercial or debating the labor metaphysic at the heart of Gourevitch’s worship of the work ethic? Did he bother to read what I wrote?
I’m pretty sure I was enlisting Hegel, Marx, and Freud to talk about the renunciations most adults experience at work. Not many of them get to read and write books for a living. Not many of them want to take control of their workplaces, not even the ones who read and write for a living (not me, anyway). Most adults don’t want or need to be fulfilled by work, as per Gourevitch’s achingly earnest agenda—they want to enjoy the rest of their lives. They sure as hell don’t want to be defined by what they do for a living unless they’re lucky enough to get paid for making music or writing books.
But let’s take the metaphor seriously. Without conscious intent, I hope, Gourevitch has happily made himself the scold, the stern father, that “oppressive residue of a bygone era.” He’s cast himself as the modern Luther—the preacher who told his followers to “stay in your callings, there the Devil will lay cross enough upon you.” He’s the new shill for an old order, because all he has to offer is more work, better work, real work, honest work; in these exhortative precincts, even play is supposed to be productive, the time you spend practicing.
At any rate Gourevitch clearly thinks everybody needs more discipline. The word itself—discipline—appears nineteen times in a four-page, 2000-word essay. This unlikely ratio strikes me as symptomatic of a Protestant urge to tame the unruly desires of people who don’t believe their identities reside in their occupations, or in work construed as the active production of real value. Sorry, Alex, I’m with Kenneth Burke on this: I don’t want to be categorized as a worker. Who would, who can?
Here is Burke at the American Writers Congress of 1935: “There are few people who really want to work, let us say, as a human cog in an automobile factory, or as gatherers of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions. Our ideal is as far as possible to eliminate such kinds of work, or to reduce its strenuousness to a minimum.”
Why is work so important, so ontologically significant? Does it really discipline our desires, make us get all grown up, so that we might go about the serious business of “radical social change,” which obviously entails the very deep thinking only sober, suffering academics can do? Why is work the first and last redoubt in this battle? What do you believe it produces, Alex? Character? Knowledge? Class solidarity? Since when? Because you said so, Dad?
Half a century ago, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Bell, Norman O. Brown, David Riesman, and Richard Hofstadter, among many others on the Left and the Right, thought it was time to rethink the meanings of work because it could no longer produce either character or income commensurate with effort. Marcuse went further than the others in writing Eros and Civilization (1955), but not because he was more steeped in Marx and Freud—they were all matriculating in the Frankfurt School.
Listen to Daniel Bell in 1956, writing the kind of crisp sentences he perfected at Forbes: “In western civilization, work, whether seen as curse or as blessing, has always stood at the center of moral consciousness. . . .What will happen, then, when not only the worker but work itself is displaced by the machine?”
Then listen to Richard Hofstadter in 1955, trying, unsuccessfully, to organize his ungainly thoughts on the matter: “[William Graham] Sumner expressed an inherited conception of economic life, even today fairly widespread among conservatives in the U.S., under which economic activity was considered to be above all a field for the development and encouragement of personal character. . . . Today we have passed out of the economic framework in which that [work] ethic was formed.”
This momentous historical passage was rendered in a syntactical mode that would make Henry James himself wince: “And anyone who today imagines he is altogether out of sympathy with that ethic should ask himself whether he has never, in contemplating a nearly workless economic order, powered by atomic energy and managed by automation, had at least a moment of misgiving about the fate of man in society bereft of the moral discipline of work.”
Bell and Hofstadter were on the verge of the moral panic that animates Gourevitch’s response to my slogan, Fuck Work. But, like Marcuse, and unlike Gourevitch, they were curious enough to ask what the end of work could mean rather than denounce the possibility—they were willing to treat it as an empirical proposition, as the measurable contraction of socially necessary labor, and they were willing to imagine a moral universe in which the discipline of work could no longer serve as the source of individual character or the regulative principle of social relations. They took Marx seriously, in this sense, by locating the realm of true freedom where he did, beyond necessity. (In my view, Bell and Hofstadter were two of Marx’s best readers in the mid- 20th century; but don’t take my word for it, see The Coming of Post-Industrial Society  and The Progressive Historians )
Again, Marcuse went further, but he was traveling the same road Bell and Hofstadter were on. In Eros and Civilization, he argued that the “ultimate form of freedom” would require release from compulsion in its most familiar human shape, necessary labor: “It is the sphere outside labor which defines freedom and fulfillment, and it is the [re]definition of human existence in terms of this sphere which constitutes the negation of the performance principle.”
He insisted, moreover, that this release from necessary labor was clearly legible, already impending, in the actual social conditions of his time. “The utopian claims of imagination have become saturated with historical reality,” as he put it. Consequently, the bourgeois “notion of productivity”—the idea that human beings must be “evaluated according to [their] ability to make, augment, and improve useful things”—could be interrogated, and perhaps even replaced, by a less anal-compulsive standard.
Here is how Marcuse emphasized the historical character of his argument: “Rationalization and mechanization of labor tend to reduce the quantum of instinctual energy channeled into toil, thus freeing energy for the attainment of objectives set by the free play of individual faculties. Technology operates against the repressive utilization of energy insofar as it minimizes the time necessary for the production of the necessities of life, thus saving time for the development of needs beyond the realm of necessity and of necessary waste.”
Like Bell and Hofstadter, Marcuse suggested that “automation”—shorthand for the extrication of human labor from goods production—had laid the economic groundwork for a passage beyond necessary labor as the determinant of social relations and individual character. Were they in the grip of a utopian fever, entranced and traduced, like today’s Panglossian technophiles—me included, according to Gourevitch—by the very machines that would enslave millions? Or were they making a plausible empirical case?
I think they were onto something more measurable than metaphysical, and so I can’t understand why contemporary social and political theorists like Alex Gourevitch and Matthew Crawford want to reduce an argument about the waning significance of work to a philosophical defense of its disciplinary effects. And yes, I intend the Foucauldian connotation.
Until the 20th century, the world was “too poor for the satisfaction of human needs without constant restraint, renunciation, and delay,” as Marcuse observed—without constant toil. Indeed the domain of social necessary labor had expanded since 1750 to the point where goods production, commodity exchange, and the “cash nexus” seemed to describe or exhaust the content of social relations as such. But then around 1910, as per Virginia Woolf’s oracular sentence on the future, everything changed.
By the 1920s, the new economic realities had became observable. For the first time in human history, growth happened in the absence of net additions to the goods-producing labor force or to the capital stock. Until then, growth had required “additional labor,” either more living labor, more people at work in the present, or more past labor, work already completed and congealed in the form of tools, plant, and other capital equipment. No longer.
The expansion of productivity and output now proceeded as a function of declining quantities of labor time, past or present. The labor theory of value could begin to look quaint. And so the centrality of work in the moral consciousness of western civilization could become a problem, a question—and the possibility of a world unmoored from the safe harbor of socially necessary labor could become a moral promise.
Why, then, can’t we accredit the ethical principle that resides in our historical circumstance—the principle that true freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity? More to the point, why does Alex Gourevitch want to ignore the evidence and put us back to work?
And just out of curiosity, why does he have to be so fucking condescending and paternalistic about it?