Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 22 Jan 2022, 12:05 PM


Against work

Author:   |    Publish date:

The FT has a nice piece on the rise of the anti-work movement in the US, which encourages people to cut down on their paid employment: although different, this movement has something in common with the "financial independence, retire early" community.

All this contrasts with the Labour party since the 1990s, most of whose leaders - Sir Kier Starmer included - have valorized "hard-working families"*. Warh

By this, they don't mean people who work hard tending their allotments, practicing guitar or painting Warhammer figures. Instead, what Labour values - and the FIRE and anti-work movements do not - is paid employment.

There is, of course, a very long tradition on the anti-work side. Ancient Greek intellectuals despised manual workers because they could not devote their time to cultivating the mind - a tradition that inspired the ideal of the gentleman amateur in England.

Adam Smith had this in mind when he described the debilitating effects of the division of labour:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging.

It's not just manual work that has such effects. John Malesic describes how it leads to burnout. And John Danaher complains that employment "colonizes" our lives by dominating our mental space. Those contestants on Christmas University Challenge illustrate his point: "distinguished careers" (a malefaction I have been spared) can lead to an ignorance of everything outside one's work.

Which aren't the only problems. As Danaher says, "work is a source of freedom-undermining domination". This isn't only true in the many cases of egregious tyranny. As Martin Hagglund describes in his superlative This Life, even benign work steals that important scarce resource, time.

There is nothing "natural" about any of this. In his Stone Age Economics Marshall Sahlins shows how stone age men typically worked only a few hours a day. "Work as we know it is a modern invention" wrote Andre Gorz in his Critique of Economic Reason. The ethic of hard work, he wrote, "was a revolution, a subversion of the way of life" of pre-industrial times - a revolution, as Stephen Marglin showed, imposed by capitalist hierarchy. E.P Thompson has described (pdf) how it arose - over generations - from "the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; [and] the suppression of fairs and sports."

Hard work, then, is at best like physical courage - a virtue only in unpleasant circumstances.

Which has led to ideas such as Aaron Bastani's fully automated luxury communism, a society in which commonly-owned technologies free us from drudge work.

Bastani's terminology and inspiration might be Marxist, but you certainly don't need to be a Marxist to buy into this ideal. In fact, historically, the great Liberals have espoused it too. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1848:

I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress....It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object

In this tradition, Bertrand Russell wrote In Praise of Idleness, in which he looked forward to a short working week encouraging arts and science and "simple happiness". And Keynes famously thought (pdf) that a 15-hour working week would be "quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!"

All of which poses the question. If the case against work is so strong, why has the Labour party for years valorized hard work so much?

There is a good reason. The transition from a world of hard work and accumulation to one of degrowth is difficult enough for individuals - which is why so many of us postpone retirement - and harder still for societies: it requires enormous social and cultural change.

But there are also bad ones. One is Labour's fear of being seen to be on the side of benefit recipients. (There's actually no evidence that it is, but evidence rarely plays a big role in party politics). Another is that politicians tend to be monomanic dullards, and they are sublimating that vision of life onto the rest of us. Also, social democratic politics requires economic activity to finance a big state: valorizing hard work and economic growth are alternatives to demanding massive redistribution.

And then, I fear, there is capitalist realism. It is too easy to see capitalist jobs - with their alienation, unfreedom, burnout and thwarting of our potential - as unavoidable. But in fact they might be, as Mill thought, merely "disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress".

* Ironically, the one leader least prone to use that cliché - Jeremy Corbyn - was the one who more than the others actually won the votes of working people. Which might be a neat example of John Kay's obliquity.

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