As the author of a book called “Fuck Work,” soon to be published by UNC Press, I feel the need to reply to Barry Schwartz, whose op-ed in today’s Times is called “Rethinking Work.” Maybe, come Fall, we’ll be competing for air time at NPR. He’s written a book called “Why We Work.”
Let me explain that compulsion to work by quoting from my own forthcoming book, before moving on to the details of Professor Schwartz’s ever-so-earnest argument.
What is the point of “full employment” or a higher minimum wage, then, except to prove that you have a work ethic?
Excuse me, that’s another rhetorical question. There’s no good reason to increase wages by legislative fiat if the labor market is broken. But there’s a good reason to replace that market. So what is to be done, for now, is intellectual work. Our question is, how to imagine a moral universe that isn’t anchored to or limited by socially necessary labor. To hell with full employment. How about full enjoyment? Fuck work.
Love and work—the two things we all want, according to Freud and every other student of human nature—have pretty much the same function in our lives. Like good teachers, they take us out of ourselves, into the world. Here’s how.
Love and work commit us to purposes that we didn’t invent, and so they teach us to devise and evaluate our own. When we’re in love, what we most want is that the person we love can become what he or she wants to be, partly because we know that this urgent desire includes us. When we’re at work, what we most want is to get the assigned task completed, because we know that this is what our co-workers need—we know that this completion will free us from the commands of the past, and so let us experience the present, enter the future.
In love or at work, commitment is a condition, but also a boundary and a limit. It requires certain behaviors, and it precludes others. But commitment in either emotional venue doesn’t necessarily mean a cancellation of your own purposes, although of course it can. The thing about love and work is that you typically feel commitment as both the limitation and the liberation of your own volition—as the realization rather than the negation of your self, of your natural talents, past effort, and learned skills.
Think about it as a musical proposition. You can’t play the blues without mastering the genre, which is pretty simple—without memorizing the chords and the changes and the lyrics. But you can’t improvise, make it new, become yourself as a player or a singer, without that preparation, that commitment. “Piety is not only honorable,” as G. L. S. Shackle put it in explaining the Keynesian Revolution, “it is indispensable. Innovation is helpless without tradition.”
Love forces us to acknowledge antecedents—the physical actuality and the moral capacity of other people. You can have sex with anyone without this doubled acknowledgment, but you can’t love someone without it. Broaden that dictum and you find that poor old Immanuel Kant was right, after all, in rendering the Golden Rule as a philosophical principle. To love your neighbor as yourself, he must appear to you as an end in himself, not a means to your ends, whether they’re sexual, economic, or political.
To love someone is to treat him as a person who must be different from you, and who must, by the same token, be your equal. Otherwise you could rightfully decide his purposes for him, which would mean treating his moral capacity as absent or insufficient. Everyone would then appear to you as a slave or a child in need of your tutelage. The obvious limits of this supervisory vantage, by the way, are arguments against the idea that parental love (or God’s love for all his children) is the paradigm of love as such.
To love your neighbor, to be your brother’s keeper, is, then, to care for yourself, and vice versa. That is what we have yet to learn.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” That’s how Abraham Lincoln put it in an unpublished note to himself. Harry Frankfurt puts it differently, but no less usefully, in a book called The Reasons of Love: “There must be something else that a person loves—something that cannot reasonably, or even intelligibly, be identified as his ‘self’— in order for there to be anything at all to which his self-love is actually devoted. . . . A person cannot love himself except insofar as he loves other things.”
Work seems much different than love in such perspective. TV series like “The Office” and movies like “Office Space” or “Horrible Bosses” exist and succeed precisely because the people in charge quite realistically violate this Kantian principle, the Golden Rule. But that is why the heroes of these fictions say No, I would prefer not to. They’re Bartleby the Scrivener all over again because they don’t stand up to anybody, they don’t even leave the office, no, they subvert the system by hanging around or doing something stupid.
But what these fools—our fools—keep demonstrating is their moral capacity, however bumbling it may seem to their bosses, and to us the audience, at first, anyway. They insist that they must be acknowledged as agents in their own right, as moral personalities who can and should steer this business, and their own lives, as well as anyone in charge. They reject what Hegel, also Nietzsche, called slave morality, the idea that self-mastery is an interior to which no exterior corresponds. (The fascination with manual labor on reality TV, as in “Dirty Jobs” or “Ice Truckers,” has the same political valence, it’s a way of saying that every man, every woman, can decide for himself or herself, without guidance from the well-groomed and the well-educated.)
Finally, love and work similarly remind us that the material artifacts of this world, whether natural or man-made, can be indifferent, even resistant, to our efforts. Here the rules of love begin to look like the laws of science—you can’t make the beloved do what he won’t, or can’t, not anymore than you can bend the earth to your will. And here again that knowledge is a form of self-consciousness, a way of learning the limits of what we can ask of others, of the world. It’s a way of asking ourselves, given this situation, what can I do about it?
Still, what becomes of love when work disappears?
OK, that’s me. Professor Schwartz believes that Adam Smith and Frederick Winslow Taylor—the pioneer of scientific management—are his principal opponents, because they assumed that wage work was mere drudgery, and drained it of any extra-monetary significance. They thought we work for wages, and wages only. We know better—we need meaningful work, and so we turn even shitty jobs into social labor, activity that propels us into the world of others, where we might make a difference.
Fuck that. Why do we have to work to create meanings? Is there no other core of human being than productivity? Why does socially necessary labor now cost so little that you can acquire information—the most basic commodity in a post-industrial society—for free? Why does socially beneficial labor still bear the stigma of women’s work? Why can’t journalists, educators, social and health care workers make a living wage?
Why does everybody have to be employed? Because the job market allocates opportunities and incomes rationally, or at least transparently? Sure, that’s why the fucking gangsters on Wall Street get bonuses. Or because people like Professor Schwartz—the mental laborers among us—believe that work is good for us? Because, like Luther, Hegel, and Marx, they grasp labor as the essence of human nature? (See the master-slave section of The Phenomenology and the preface to The Philosophy of Right for Hegel’s Lutheran references, then see Marx’s exclamation in the 1844 Paris Manuscripts, p. 333 in the International ed. of the Collected Works, vol. 3).