What work matters?

Chris Carlsson on the futility of much work under capitalism.

Submitted by Steven. on December 26, 2010

The Labor Movement has stopped moving. Institutions, primarily AFL-CIO trade unions, long ago replaced workers as the "active'' part of the "movement.'' In the past two decades unions and organized workers have been completely outflanked by the widespread restructuring of work through automation and relocation. This institutional legacy of earlier struggles by average folks is incapable of reconceptualizing the nature of social opposition; to expect otherwise is naive.

What do we want and how do we get it? We want to take back our labor. It's ours, and we want to decide what society does! It is strategically disempowering--dare I say "stupid''--to begin from the premise that our revolutionary activity must rest on our subordinate positions. Trying to get improved wages or conditions within an absurd, toxic and wasteful division of labor over which no one has any meaningful control is to pursue a future of childlike dependence on either rulers or the abstraction known as The Economy. What is The Economy? It is all of us doing all this work--a lot of it a waste of time! But the media tells a different story: we are chided for lacking "consumer confidence'' and scolded for "hurting The Economy,'' or perhaps we are counseled that "it's bad right now,'' as though The Economy was suffering a transient medical problem that will pass just like a cold.

Government as we know it is a major part of the problem, not because it stands in the way of business and the market, but because it offers them the ultimate guarantee of force, and has proven its willingness to act. Unions are also part of this. They have clear legal responsibilities, primarily negotiating and upholding legal contracts with large companies, ensuring "labor peace''; they cling to the law, hoping that eventually the government will change the laws and then enforce them to allow a new wave of unionization. They imagine that they will someday be allowed back in the club and once again enjoy a piece of an expanding economic pie as they did during the post-war period, when they played an important role in crafting U.S. foreign and domestic policies by purging radicals and communists and becoming ardent cold warriors.

Labor-management cooperation succeeds when there is increasing wealth to divide up at the bargaining table, and workers are content to exchange control over their work for increased purchasing power. Those days are gone forever. The U.S.'s much-vaunted "high standard of living''--the trough at which trade unionism has fed its formerly fat face so voraciously--is sinking fast.

Falling living standards are no accident. The effect of expanding international trade is to gradually equalize wages and working conditions world-wide. The demise of union strength, attributable in part to the emergence of this world market with its billions of low-wage workers, is also in part a result of unions themselves. Union bureaucrats who have helped pursue the im-perialist policies of the U.S. through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and campaigns for "democratic unions,'' have contributed to a process which has already greatly increased "Third World'' conditions in U.S. cities.

The reduction of high-wage industrial work in favor of low-wage, part-time service and information work was in response to the equalizing forces of the world market. As capital flows to areas of optimal profitability, living conditions worsen in its wake, creating a two-tiered society that signals misery for the majority. It is a process that cannot be derailed by an "honest'' or even "progressive'' government enmeshed in the unforgiving world market. Union leaders who campaign for "jobs'' are either cynics or genuinely myopic. They know as well as anyone who reads the daily papers that the wave of restructuring that helped produce this "downturn in The Economy'' has permanently reduced the number of workers needed.

Today people band together as workers and take action when they are attacked and enraged, or desperately frightened (and not always then). By the time they are pushed to this extreme, a large team of lawyers and managers has already been planning for months or years on using management's strategic power to increase control and profits. Workers' actions under union (and legal) control invariably correspond closely to the script being written by the company lawyers.

Of course no one expects radical ideas from union leaders, whose primary concerns are personal survival, pensions, their kids' college tuitions, etc. As every wave of layoffs, automation and concessions hurls more people into the daily transience and uncertainty that increasingly characterize daily life in the U.S., union bureaucrats merely seek long-term guarantees for themselves as institutional players at the Table of Consensus. Any contract will do, as long as the dues keep getting checked off. Maybe they'll have to "tighten their belts,'' lay off a secretary or two.

For these reasons a new wave of social opposition must identify its strategic concerns as distinct from those of unions. Those that do the work should assume comprehensive control, through their own activity, of their (our) work, their purposes, and organization. Workers have to begin thinking beyond the logic of the system in which they find themselves entrapped.

Time at the paid job is akin to "jail'' versus the "freedom'' of time after work. Work is war. If it's only a game now, it's because i's so difficult to seriously challenge the power and designs of the owners and their representatives.

Many people already pursue activities and "work'' that they rarely, if ever, get paid for. In spite of the lack of "demand'' for this "work,'' they put serious committed energy into developing various talents, skills, or tendencies because their engagement with life demands it--the satisfaction of their full humanity depends on it! What if the passion that leads us to become musicians or artists, or to pursue "second careers,'' or "pay our dues'' in the fields we are interested in, were unleashed to redesign life itself?!

As the people who "have better things to do than work,'' we have to develop our sense of self-interest, in stark opposition to the consensus for a "strong economy.'' Tactics to expand our freedom RIGHT NOW will become clearer as we share what we already know about points of vulnerability, openings and spaces, creative obfuscation, unfettered self-expression, utopian fantasizing, and LIVING WELL NOW. Sometimes we'll find allies at work, other times the pursuit of our goals may need "outside help.''

Given the sweeping changes of the past two decades (computerization and just-in-time production to name but two examples), the fear of losing increasingly scarce jobs, and the thorough amnesia that afflicts U.S. workers, liberals, and even radicals, it seems unlikely that social movements that break with the logic of the marketplace will arise ON THE JOB. However, such movements will still face the question of work.

The French writer Andre Gorz has argued that the extreme socialization of modern industry and its reduction of human labor to completely controlled machine-like behavior has eliminated the once radical vision of true workers' control of industry and society. The way most work is structured in the global factory precludes the possibility of a collective appropriation of the means of production. In other words, "taking over'' this messed-up world and running it "democratically'' is neither truly possible, nor desirable. A more thoroughgoing transformation of human activity and society will be required. To look at institutional solutions at the state level or its opposite, is to gaze into the past. Those ideas were born embedded in a division of labor and social system that has consistently promoted extreme centralization, stratification, and hierarchy based on power, wealth, race and gender.

If it is hopelessly anachronistic to believe in the possibility of One Big Union, or even a good government, how do we democratically organize our lives? What does democratic organization really mean? How come when we "talk politics'' we don't talk about real issues like what do we do and why? How can we "freely participate'' in a system of highly socialized labor and creatively redesign the fabric of our lives at the same time?

The marketplace and wage-labor impose a fatal break between our inclinations and duties. We are objects cast about in the rough seas of the market, rather than thoughtful subjects considering the zillions of ways in which our lives could be better immediately, and organizing ourselves to help bring it about. We are locked into "careers,'' or perhaps vicious cycles of underemployment, unemployment and bad luck, instead of choosing from a smorgasbord of useful activities needing attention, from cooking, cleaning and caretaking, to planting and building, along with a variety of well-stocked workshops for easy "self-production'' of essential items.

Why isn't it a common discussion among people that life is so dismal when it could be so fine?

Perhaps we can get something from Gorz's concept of dualism at work. It's a dualism we already face, but relatively unconsciously. On the one hand, there are certain basic tasks that must be done "efficiently'' to accommodate basic human needs worldwide--clean water and sewage treatment, sustainable agriculture, adequate shelter and clothing, and so on. On the other, are the countless ways humans have developed to satisfy themselves and improve life, from culture and music to home improvements and do-it-yourself-ism. In today's society, this dualism is experienced as an unavoidable division between what we do to "make a living,'' and what we do when work is over and we are "free.'' Of course, that "free'' time is most often defined by the flipside of alienated work, i.e. shopping, or other forms of alienated consumption. Nevertheless, it is outside of work that most of us construct the identities that we really care about and that give us our sense of meaning.

Calling what we do as work now "necessary labor'' is a confusing misnomer in our society since millions of jobs are a waste of time at best. But if a social movement arises with enough strength to create new ways of social life, then the activities that belong on the list of "necessary labor'' could ultimately be decided upon by a new, radically democratic society. Once these tasks are identified and agreed upon, we can go about the business of reducing unpleasant work to a minimum, making it as enjoyable as possible, and sharing it as equally as possible.

Such a new society would eliminate billions of hours of useless work required by The Economy, from banking to advertising, from excessive packaging to unnecessarily wide distribution networks, from military hardware and software to durable goods built to break down within a few years or even months. Hundreds of areas of human activity can be drastically reduced, altered or simply eliminated.

Imagine how easy it would be to take care of medical problems if there were no money or insurance, merely the provision of services to those who needed them? There would still be medical record-keeping, but it would only track information needed for health needs, not information to be used for the pernicious ends of insurance disqualification, or other standard business crimes. Hospitals would take care of people, not process insurance forms, imagine! With the elimination of so much wasted effort and resources, real needs become much easier to meet. Material security is guaranteed to all. (There's plenty to go around already--but thanks to the market most of us can't afford much.)

With this kind of revolution the wrong-headed demand for "jobs'' vanishes into thin air. Instead we are overwhelmed (at least at first) by all the work we need to do to create this new free society--a great deal of it involving the development of many new forms of social decision-making and collective work.

When we get things more or less the way we like them our "necessary labor'' will fall to something like an easy five hours a week each. Our free time then stretches out before us with almost unlimited possibilities. Most of us will get involved in lots of different things. As people begin "working'' at all the things they like to do, under their own pace and control, society discovers the pleasant surprise that "necessary labor'' is shrinking since so much of what people are doing freely is having the effect of reducing the need for highly socialized, machine-like work. Juliet Schor has discovered some interesting statistics in her book, The Overworked American. A 1978 Dept. of Labor study showed that 84% of respondents would willingly exchange some or all of future wage increases for increased free time. Nearly half would trade ALL of a 10% pay increase for free time. Only 16% refuse free time in exchange for more money.

In spite of overwhelming sociological evidence of a widespread preference for less work and more fun, many people still fervently clutch the work ethic. For them the connection between working and getting paid, earning your own living, is deeply ingrained as a basic element of self-respect. This sense of self-respect is extremely vital knowledge for human happiness, but somehow capitalism managed to link it to WAGE-LABOR. They want us to express our self-respect through our ability to do THEIR WORK, ON THEIR TERMS. We deserve respect, from others and from ourselves, but not because we can do stupid jobs well. When that happens our self-respect has been bought and sold back to us as a self-defeating ideology.

Nobody ever does anything that is truly "theirs.'' Every part of human culture and daily life, especially work, is a product of millions of people interacting over generations. The fact that some individuals invent things or "have ideas'' that become influential, doesn't make those breakthroughs any less a social product. That inventor's consciousness is very much a product of the lives and work of all those around him or her, present and past.

If this is true, then what is the basis for enforcing the link between specific kinds of work and specific levels of access to goods? In other words, why do some people make so much more money than others? More interesting still, in a society freed from the mass psychosis known affectionately as The Economy, what relationship do we want to establish between work, skill, initiative, longevity, etc. and ACCESS TO GOODS?

Obviously I'm not arguing for comparable worth, or any strategy that gears itself to simple wage increases as a goal. In the exchange of wages for work we lose any say over what work is done and why; at this point in history we must redesign how we live, and we have to do it intelligently or we will surely not survive as a human civilization (it's barbaric enough already!).

A prosperous global society that is not dominated by a world government AND is fun to live in, AND doesn't require an abstract devotion to work for its own sake, is within our grasp. We have to think about the social power that still lies at work in spite of our desire to transform it into something quite different. If we are not organizing ourselves on the basis of our jobs, how do we begin to make real an alternative movement based on what we do value? How can this new "labor movement'' grow organically out of our efforts to subvert the current system?

The unions, from conservative to "radical,'' still believe in and insist on the centrality of the work ethic. They cannot conceive alternatives to the work-and-pay society because as institutions, unions are embedded within and defined by that society. Radicals clinging to the security blanket of "workers' organizing'' (especially in the hopeless direction of rank-and-file trade unionism) are embracing a dying society and its obsolete division of labor. Why pursue at this late date the stabilization and maintenance (let alone improvement!) of a deal with capitalism, when it's clearer than ever that we need deep, systemic change that goes beyond mere "economics''?

Never has it been more appropriate to place on the front burner the classic critiques of wage-labor and capitalist society. The work ethic is a perverse holdover from the worst extremes of the narrow puritanism that contributed greatly to the founding of this culture. The compulsion to work--for its own sake and as an ideological cattle prod--is the battery acid that keeps this society afloat even while it leads to widespread corrosion within our hearts, relationships, and neighborhoods.

Although I attack the work ethic, I do not attack hard work. Without doubt, a free society will be a great deal of work, involving both the free, creative and fun stuff, and a fair share of the grind-it-out rehabbing, reconstructing, and reinhabiting of our cities and countrysides. People are not afraid or incapable of hard, worthwhile work. Even the most onerous tasks can be made more enjoyable. Many, if not most, enjoy work, in reasonable and self-managed doses. But few are able or willing to give that passionate extra effort when they are being paid to do a job all their lives. Degradation accompanies being left out of basic decisions about how you spend your life, and perpetually being told what to do.

Most of us go through life without finding meaning or satisfaction at work, or if we're really lucky, we get some in small amounts now and then. The good things that happen at work in this society are almost invariably IN SPITE of the organization, its activities, and the way it's run. When real human connections are made and real needs fulfilled, that is the essence of what all work should be. Of course it will be difficult to feel that way about lots of important things, like tending toxic waste dumps. But society's goal, and the target of a new social opposition, should be a good life for everyone. An ecologically sound material abundance, based on non-mandatory but widely shared short work shifts at democratically determined "necessary labor,'' is possible right now.

The forms of our political activity and direct resistance must take seriously the basic questions of social power. It's pretty obvious who's got the guns and that they're comfortable using them. We'll never win a military conflict. Pleasure is our strongest weapon. Life could be so great! Symbolic efforts may be useful at first, but if we are serious about radical change we will eventually have to grasp the levers of power found at work.

--Chris Carlsson * Triple Mixed Metaphor Award for PW #30!