libcom.org's brief introduction to work, what we think is wrong with it and what we, as workers, can do about it.
Work: an introduction
What is wrong with work?
For the majority of us, most of our lives are dominated by work. Even when we are not actually at work, we are travelling to or from work, worrying about work, trying to recover from work in order to get back to work the next day, or just trying to forget about work.
For many of us, we don't care about the work we do, we just need the money to get by. And at the end of the month, our bank balances are barely any different from the month before. We spend our days checking our watches, counting down the minutes til we can go home, the days til the weekend, the months til our next holiday…
Even for those of us who have jobs in areas we actually enjoy, we do not control our work. Our work controls us, we experience it as an alien force. Most of us do not control what time we get to work or what time we leave. Nor do we control the pace or volume of our work, what products we make or what services we provide, or how we do it.
For example, nurses may love caring for their patients but still be frustrated by bed shortages, insufficient staffing, punishing shift patterns and arbitrary management targets. And designers may enjoy being creative, but find their creativity is restrained: they are not given free rein to innovate in the way they may want, often having to effectively copy existing products which bosses know will sell.
Paradoxically, while millions of people are overworked, barely able to cope with high workloads and long working hours, millions of other people are jobless and desperate to work.
And then much work, which may be extremely difficult, boring and/or dangerous for workers and destructive for the environment, is not even socially useful. Like in manufacturing, where built-in obsolescence causes products to break down making people buy new ones, or entire industries like sales and advertising which exist only to persuade people to buy more products and work more to buy them.
Lots of other useful work is squandered in supporting socially useless industries, like energy generation being used to power telemarketing call centres, the manufacture of bogus cosmetic and medical products, or the arms industry whose only product is death.
While automation, mechanisation and productivity continually increases, working hours and working years don't fall. In fact, in most places they are rising, as retirement ages are put up and working hours are increased.
Why is work like this?
So if there are so many problems with work, why is it like this?
The reason is pretty simple: we live in a capitalist economy. Therefore it is this system which determines how work is organised.
As outlined in our introduction to capitalism, the primary essence of the capitalist economy is accumulation.
Money - capital - is invested to become more money. And this happens because of our work. Our work is the basis of the economy.
This is because our work adds value to the initial capital, and the value we add comes to more than our wages. This surplus value results in the growth of the initial capital, which funds profits and expansion.
The lower our wages, the harder we work and the longer our hours the bigger this surplus value is. Which is why employers in the private, public and even cooperative sector continually attempt to make us work harder and longer for less pay.
Similarly, our jobs are made dull and monotonous, so unskilled workers can do it cheaper. The products we produce or the services we provide are also often substandard to keep costs low.
Mass unemployment functions to keep wages of overworked employed workers down as workers who are not afraid of being replaced by the unemployed can demand higher wages, better conditions and shorter working hours. (This is why governments don't just end unemployment by reducing the length of the maximum working week.)
Enterprises which extract the most surplus value - and so profit and expand the most - succeed. Those which don't, fail.
So if a company or an industry is profitable, it grows. This is regardless of whether it is socially necessary, destroys the environment or kills its workers.
This growth also relies on unwaged work, such as housework or domestic labour. This includes the reproduction of workers in the form of producing and raising children - the next generation of workers - and servicing the current workforce: physically, emotionally, and sexually. This unpaid labour is predominantly carried out by women.
What can we do about it?
Even though the nature of work is determined overall by the economic system we live under, there are things we can - and do - do as workers here and now to improve our situation.
If our work is the basis of the economy, and the basis of growth and profits, then ultimately we possess the power to disrupt it, not to mention ultimately take it over for ourselves.
Every day we resist the imposition of work. Often in small, individualised and invisible ways. We sometimes get in late, leave early, steal moments to talk to colleagues and friends, take our time, pull sickies…
And sometimes we resist in bigger, collective and more confrontational ways.
By taking direct action like stopping work - striking - we stop the gears of production, and prevent profits from being made. In this way we can defend our conditions and leverage improvements from our bosses.
In the 1800s in Western countries, working hours averaged 12-14 hours per day, six or seven days a week under appalling conditions with no holidays or pensions.
Facing off massive repression from employers and governments, workers organised themselves and struggled for decades, using strikes, occupations, go slows and even armed uprisings and attempted revolutions. And eventually won the far better conditions most of us have today: the weekend, paid holiday, shorter working hours…
Of course outside of the West many workers still experience these Victorian conditions today, and are currently fighting against them.
If we organise to assert our needs on the economy, we can improve our conditions further. And if we do not they will be eroded back to the level of the 1800s.
By organising together we do not only improve our lives now but we can lay the foundations for a new type of society.
A society where we don't just work for the sake of making profits we will never see or building a 'healthy' economy but to fulfil human needs. Where we organise ourselves collectively to produce necessary goods and services - as workers did albeit briefly in Russia in 1917, Italy in 1920, Spain 1936 and elsewhere. Where we get rid of unnecessary work and make all necessary tasks as easy, enjoyable and interesting as possible. A libertarian communist society.
- Work - reading guide - libcom.org's reading guide about work, wage labour and the struggle against it.
- Workplace organising guide - libcom.org's guide to organising in your workplace.
- Workplace activity - libcom.org's archive of accounts of people organising in the workplace.
- Work and the free society - Anarchist Federation - A more detailed pamphlet from the AF analysing work in capitalist society, explaining its history and suggesting how work could be organised in a free society.
- Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do - Studs Terkel - Landmark work by Studs Terkel speaking to people working in a multitude of jobs and their feelings on them.
- Wages against housework - Silvia Federici - Autonomist Marxist feminist Silvia Federici on wages and housework.
- The right to be lazy - Paul Lafargue - In this text, Lafargue argues for the working class's right to be lazy, and says that productivity is the bosses' problem, not ours.