The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

“Defamiliarizing the work ethic”: Weeks and Postwork Imaginaries

As stated in Part 1 of this essay, the purpose of Kathi Weeks’s study of Max Weber is to examine the historical development of the work ethic’s rationalising spread, with the intention of gesturing towards a reconfiguration of the status of work beyond the deep-rooted ethical validation presently firmly entrenched in mainstream societal views. Weeks concludes the first chapter of The Problem With Work – her identification of the five antinomies previously discussed – by highlighting the fractured and inconsistent qualities of the rationale behind work, claiming that it can and should be contested (77).[1] In the course of making such a statement, she draws on several other writers and thinkers who can be broadly grasped under the consciously-adopted label of postwork scholarship. Specifically, Weeks quotes from the work of Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, two of the authors of “The Post-Work Manifesto” (with Dawn Esposito and Margaret Yard, orig. 1998), one of the earliest adopters of this label (76-77).[2] This manifesto, first published in Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler’s Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (1998), proposes an “alternative direction” to the culture of downsizing and jobless futures of contemporary postindustrial modernity, with a new shared ambition of shorter working hours, higher wages, and additional free time (Aronowitz, et. al., 31-80; esp. 31-33). The “Post-Work Manifesto” helped to formalise a series of radical ideas concerning the end of a work-based economy, many of which found their way into Weeks’s book. For this section of the essay, we will examine some of the central themes of what Weeks names postwork imaginaries, and further assess the reception of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in relation to the emerging postwork school of sociological thought.

The first common feature of a postwork imaginary is a demand for fewer working hours, or, in the most radical of cases, a reconfiguration of the capitalist economy that would reduce the position of work in people’s lives to a minimum. Social action that rallies around the objective of a reduction of work is not a new phenomenon, however, it has been notably absent for quite a long time. For example, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx documents the struggle in England for a reduction of the working day for factory workers between the years 1833 and 1864 (Marx: 389-411). Partially as a result of protest and strike action, the legal working day was reduced from 15 to 12 hours for women and “young persons” (13 to 18 years), and a series of industry-specific legislation was brought in during this time which reduced (and in some cases eliminated) night-work for children and women (ibid.). The passing of the Factory Act of 1850 and subsequent legislation had a global influence; following the American Civil War, the General Congress of Labour in the US convened in Baltimore in 1866 to support the “eight hours’ agitation”, in an attempt to reduce the “normal working day” to eight hours for all workers (ibid.: 414). It was assumed by figures as significant as John Maynard Keynes that as society became more affluent, there would be an even greater desire to reduce working hours further. In 1931, he predicted that one hundred years hence the ideal amount of time spent working would be three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week.[3] That the critical space for resisting current working hours today appears so closed-off is for Weeks a sign of the continuing grip of the work ethic’s reification of the current standard of time allotted to work: we work for eight hours a day because we must, regardless of our economic standing (3). Only through resisting the work ethic, then, can a general reduction of working hours be achieved, and must be achieved as a response to the ongoing precarity and scarcity of sufficiently-paid and meaningful work.

The other key demand of postwork advocates is that of an increase in the general share of wealth; more specifically, a re-evaluation of the demand for wages in sectors of work that traditionally have not been waged, especially domestic labour. However, there is some reluctance from postwork thinkers, Weeks included, about returning to the approaches of 1970s feminism, and attempts to wage housework (113-118). “One would be hard-pressed to find a political vision within feminism that has less credibility today than wages for housework”, says Weeks, yet, with a number of caveats it is a subject (rather than a project) worth revisiting for the purposes of formulating new responses to the current inequalities of work (114). Weeks rejects these movements’ central demand, because, as demonstrated above in the discussion over the ethic’s simultaneous capacity to include and exclude new demographics into its fold, the approach of waging housework “threatened to resolidify this labor as women’s work performed in the family” (114, 148-149). It is not only the ethics of work, but waged work itself that, in its current incarnation, is a source of division and alienation (137). However, the advantage of such an approach to overcoming labour struggles was the public and political attention given to the movement as a whole, and texts such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (orig. 1973) in particular (148, 119).

Weeks’s real interest, however, is “in remaking wages for housework”, rather than in reviving failed approaches to applying the current wage system to the household (118, emphasis added). Recent interest in the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI or simply “basic income”) have inspired Weeks and other postwork advocates with alternative economic paradigms to those currently normalised by the dominant ethics of work. Weeks proposes that a UBI could offer a more pragmatic solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequality that is a consequence of the work ethic’s undervaluation of “feminised” forms of labour (147, 150). UBI would provide not only a better perspective on the crisis within work than the wages for housework demand, by offering “tangible benefits to a broader constituency”, but would also avoid further entrenching division across lines of gender (ibid.). This is because UBI, in the form Weeks advocates, would not function as a reward for distinct categories of workers, but would be granted to all citizens universally and unconditionally, “regardless of their family or household relationships, regardless of other incomes, and regardless of their past, present, or future employment status” (138). The purpose of UBI would be to provide a “floor” to individuals, a regular amount of money that would ensure a minimum standard of living without a dependence on waged work.[4] It is important to Weeks’s proposal, however, that the terms on which UBI is negotiated ensure that the current rights of individuals be protected: in order for it to pose a sufficient challenge to the problems of waged work, UBI would have to serve as a standalone income and not a means-tested welfare payment or a supplement to existing incomes (138-139). Presented in this way, “basic income not only recognizes but offers a response to the inability of both the wage system and the institution of the family to serve as reliable mechanisms of income distribution” (147).

For postwork writers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the shift towards an economy predicated on UBI is an increasing necessary solution to problems surrounding the increasing automation of jobs and the shrinking job market, as well as the reduction of workers’ rights and the commodification of labour (Srnicek & Williams: 85-127). In their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015),[5] they make the link between the importance of UBI and the work ethic as a cultural obstacle to its achievability, in a pair of chapters indebted to Weeks’s The Problem With Work (ibid.). As Srnicek and Williams understand it, the work ethic has become ingrained into “our very self-conception”, to the extent that many cannot appreciate a meaningful life outside of work (Srnicek & Williams: 124). Much work is also seen by them to be disempowering, and harmful on both physical and psychological levels (Srnicek & Williams: 121, 124). It is imperative therefore that the concept of work-in-itself as an “ultimate good” be re-evaluated (Srnicek & Williams: 122). The advantage of UBI is that it would have the potential to destabilise the current ethos of work: given a basic income, much “hazardous, boring and unattractive” work would fall out of favour, meaning that the wages for work of this nature would have to increase (ibid.). This would lead to a gradual change from a profitability-based system of value for work to a meritocracy based on the nature of the work itself, loosening the hold of the dominant work ethic through economic necessity (ibid.). Yet it must work both ways: in order for UBI to gain acceptance to a general public,[6] the values surrounding work also need to change (Srnicek & Williams: 125-126). Srnicek and Williams illustrate their hypothesis of a mutual relationship between UBI and the perceived values of work using the image of the positive feedback loop, borrowed from cybernetics, but they admit that in order for this loop to open, the change in work values would need to have happened first (Srnicek & Williams: 122, 125). They suggest that there already exists in the “real desires of people” a dissatisfaction for work that could be tapped into given a “counter-hegemonic” push against the conditions of work, and a widening of the “Overton Window”: the “bandwidth” of cultural acceptability of “realistic” ideas in mainstream public discourse (Srnicek & Williams: 126, 131, 134).

The combative strategies Weeks employs against the ethics of work differs somewhat from those proposed by Srnicek and Williams, in that hers are centred around actions of the refusal of work, rather than primarily on wider cultural reconfiguration (13-14). Refusal as a strategy against the inadequacies of work derives from the tradition of 1970s autonomist Marxism: some of the texts already cited contribute to this body of work, namely those of Baudrillard and Dalla Costa and James.[7] According to the autonomist tradition, it is the actions and insubordinations of collective workers, and not capital or labour power, that have served as the driving force of class history: it is the collective working-class that serves as the “locus of political agency” (93-94). Refusal thus serves the collectives as a vital tactic of regaining and exerting power over the conditions of their work, including the number of hours spent doing labour (96-101). Weeks believes that refusing work provides workers with an opportunity not only to regain control over their lives, but the means of overcoming the work ethic itself. At its core, this can be

a refusal of the ideology of work as highest calling and moral duty, a refusal of work as the necessary center of social life and means of access to the rights and claims of citizenship, and a refusal of the necessity of capitalist control of production. It is a refusal, finally, of the asceticism of those – even those on the Left – who privilege work over all other pursuits, including “carefree consumption.” Its immediate goals are presented as a reduction of work, in terms of both hours and social importance, and a replacement of capitalist forms of organization by new forms of cooperation. It is not only a matter of refusing exploited and alienated labor, but of refusing “work itself as the principle of reality and rationality”.[8]

Although not himself explicitly a postwork thinker, many of the foundational ideas surrounding Weeks’ and the other postwork theorists’ understanding of the necessary stages towards thinking beyond the work ethic align with Weber’s much earlier proposals in the Protestant Ethic. In particular, Weber’s suggestion that the ethic is irrational – “so little a matter of course” – and therefore unnecessary for the worker to try to follow or emulate, leads directly to Weeks’s proposal to defamiliarize the ethic, to “render strange” (Weber: 54; Weeks: 43). Yet there is an important distinction to be made here. Weber was a rationalist: although he appears to denounce the Puritan rationalization project of which the Protestant ethic is an element, he does not seek to supplant the idea of a rational society. Instead, Weber attempts to preserve rational thinking from what he considers to be the irrational ethos of work, by demonstrating the multiple nature of rationality; how it is possible to “rationalize life from fundamentally different basic points of view and in very different directions” (Weber: 78). From the very beginning of the Protestant Ethic, Weeks observes, Weber addresses the readers as “denizens of the rationalized world” (45). Yet, as we have seen, Weeks is interested instead in shoring up the antinomic nature of the work ethic – its complementary rationalist and irrationalist tendencies – stepping back from the necessity of a rationalized society, and providing a more nuanced response to the problem of the perception of work. To be precise, unlike Weber, Weeks does not feel the need to put rationality first in her critique of the work ethic. Her approach to defamiliarization is not to show how historical and current ideas surrounding work are irrational, but to move from a rationalist to a utopian discourse: a mode of discourse enabling “a relativizing of the present, to mark it as a contingent product of human history and, thereby, to open the possibility of a different future” (205).

Conclusion

Weber’s Protestant Ethic has been influential on the formulation of an identifiable concept of a work ethic by contemporary studies of the nature and value of employment. In the book, Weber demonstrates how a Protestant Ethic developed along lines of religious development in the seventeenth century, and the transformative impact this had not only on how work was organised and extracted by employers, but also how work was perceived across the whole of Puritan society. By focusing on the calling as the incentive by which worldly activity came to be arranged, Weber succeeds in his attempt to illustrate the irrational fervour by which work was, and still is, undertaken, accepted as part of the natural order, and allowed to develop under industrial capitalism after the system of belief which had borne it no longer dominated. Weber illustrates that the totalising effect of work on an individual’s life, or a belief in the inherent value of work, were not always common features of the attitudes towards work, and that these ideas emerged from a specific point in history and as the result of a specific religious doctrine that promoted individualism and proposed intangible rewards for those showing themselves to be the worthiest in the eyes of God. Later theorists on the sociological and cultural roles of work have been able to utilise the Protestant Ethic as a starting point for thinking about the new challenges posed by work, and how the (very) old spectres of the Protestant ethic have continued to haunt the current values of work. The ethic today, now a secularised but still religion-derived work ethic, often acts as a blockade to the new problems of work and the means of taking them on. Of the five antinomies Weeks uses to define the “new” work ethic, three are derived from the Protestant Ethic directly, and the other two (subordination and insubordination, exclusion and inclusion) can be found to some (albeit limited) extent in Weber’s later comments in that book about the persistence of asceticism in the industrial and modern work ethics.

Weeks’s responses to the current problems of work – normalisation of inequality, underemployment, the unsustainable necessity of wages for all – are organised around the idea of the refusal of work, as predicated by the autonomous Marxists of the 1970s. The current perceptions of work, which are often taken for granted as natural, need to be denaturalised, to be rendered strange, in order for their inconsistencies and undesirability to be exposed and ultimately rejected. UBI and the need for fewer working hours are some of the main innovations being put forward by Weeks, and postwork academics as a whole; their adoption would, Srnicek and Williams believe, help to invent new ways of perceiving the relationship between workers and employment at the same time as cultural shifts around attitudes to work would help to reconfigure these policies as desirable to the many. Radical changes to the work-based economy, such as full unemployment, do not serve necessarily as goals, but as provocations, part of a utopian way of thinking around which new movements rejecting the dominant conditions of employment can be contested. Weeks is one particular thinker who has analysed the negative formulations of the work ethic as illustrated by Weber, and identified the utopian possibilities for social change dormant within the Protestant Ethic’s historicist thesis.

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography).

[2] Aronowitz and DiFazio wrote in 1994: “the quality and the quantity of paid labor no longer justify – if they ever did – the underlying claim derived from religious sources that has become the basis of contemporary social theory and social policy: the view that paid work should be the core of personal identity”.

[3] In “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (Keynes 1931: 358-374).

[4] Weeks’s model for UBI is based on Phillipe van Parijs’s definition put forward in “Competing Justifications of Basic Income”. See van Parijs (1992: 3-43).

[5] See also my own “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams” (2016).

[6] Srnicek and Williams point to a number of early proposals and trials of various forms of basic income in the recent past, including in the US under Presidents Nixon and Carter, but chalk their failures up to perceived problems in funding by both opposing politicians and the general public (Srnicek & Williams: 118, 123). Regardless, the authors insist that “most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion” (Srnicek & Williams: 123). More recently, a vote in June 2016 on implementing basic income in Switzerland suggested that only 23% of the public actively supported the proposal (BBC News, “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”).

[7] Baudrillard: 141. “It is no longer then a question of an internal, dialectical negativity in the mode of production, but a refusal, pure and simple, of production as the general axiomatic of social relations.” (Emphasis added.) Dalla Costa & James: 10. “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.”

[8] Weeks: 99 (some emphasis added). The quotation in the last sentence is taken from Baudrillard: 141 (emphasis added).

Bibliography

Aronowitz, S. & Cutler, J. (eds.) (1998) Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, New York/London, Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

BBC News (2016) “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36454060.

Dalla Costa, M. & James, S. (1975) The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, third edition, Bristol, Falling Wall Press Ltd.

Keynes, J.M. (1931) Essays in Persuasion, London, Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso.

Van Parijs, P. (ed.) (1992) Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform, London, Verso.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

Advertisements

The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The Culture of Work and Its Problems

A work-based economy presents several problems to individuals and collectives, and whilst there is a strong historical precedence for challenges made against the conditions of work, rarely is the notion of work in its entirety contested. For those willing to confront it, such as Kathi Weeks, the problem of work exists on the cultural level, in the social mentality. The dominant ideals of work, put crudely, are as follows: work is an inherent good, regardless of what is being produced; work is a valuable, even honourable way of spending time; work is an economic necessity for all, regardless of personal wealth, whether a minimum-wage employee or investment banker; all should aspire to full-time employment whenever possible; work allows us to be creative and expressive, and is perhaps the primary means of defining ourselves. Yet the realities of work are often very different, often limiting or curtailing worker autonomy and imagination, often highly demanding to the body and mind, often precarious, and a means of disempowerment of the many and empowerment of the few. Many people derive no satisfaction from working; some work only because they feel they have no other choice, and accept the drudgery and suffering as the price for relative stability and security.

The leading beliefs about work, which are perhaps best examined in the United States and Western Europe, culminate in a work ethic, with historical and religious precedence. Max Weber, in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (orig. 1905) set out to identify the conditions under which the prevailing ideals of work were first established, locating a larval forbearer arising from the many Puritan sects of the seventeenth century, and establishing itself most firmly in the United States shortly thereafter through the likes of Benjamin Franklin. This Protestant ethic shares much with the work ethic of today: a focus on individual accumulation over collective responsibility, an inner righteousness to working activity (what Weber calls a “worldly asceticism”), and an implicit mistrust in (sometimes moral condemnation of) the lazy or workshy, to name a few examples. Weber’s task is to demonstrate the irrationality of the current work ethic, stripped of its spiritual qualifications, unable to justify its senseless espousals.

Weeks’s objective is more radical. As a prominent academic in the emergent discussions on postwork politics, her own investment is in the contestation of the value of work in all of its current forms. In her book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), she uses Weber’s analysis to springboard into late twentieth and twenty-first century issues relating to the conceptions about work; her goal being ultimately to expose the work ethic’s inconsistencies and demonstrate measures designed to reject them. In what follows, I will examine Weber’s groundwork on the Protestant Ethic and worldly asceticism, before turning to Weeks’s characterization of it, and its influence on her understanding of the contemporary work ethic. The essay will end with a look at the expanding field of postwork criticism and Weeks’s position in it: how the goals and strategies of postwork sociology contribute towards a defamiliarization and dissolution of the demanding conceptions of work.

Weber, the Protestant Ethic, and “Worldly Asceticism”

Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been firmly established as the primary source for tracing a genealogy of the work ethic, as well as of strong relevance for any study of labour more broadly. Central to its critique of the transformation of the nature of industrialised labour and its domineering position in workers’ lives is Weber’s characterisation and analysis of the ethical relationship between work and the worker; how work began to be valued differently in the United States and Europe following the Reformation, and how the varying influences of the major forms of Protestantism culminated in both a worldly asceticism and a Protestant ethic which continue to haunt us to this day. “Weber’s brilliant study”, Weeks remarks, “introduces the essential components, fundamental dynamics, and key purposes of the new ethic of work that developed in conjunction with capitalism in Western Europe and North America” (Weeks 2011: 39).

Before we investigate the heritage of the work ethic as identified by Weber in Protestant developments following the Reformation, let us briefly identify the ambit of the book; more specifically, the notion of a spirit of capitalism, and its role in generating and maintaining the Protestant ethic. “The most fateful force in our modern life,” capitalism is for Weber “identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” (17).[1] A capitalistic economic action, therefore, is “one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit” (ibid.). With capitalism defined thus, it is the book’s central conceit “to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that [capitalistic] spirit over the world.” (91). However, Weber is persistent with his refutations that the capitalist spirit emerged directly and necessarily out of a Protestant ethos. Firstly, the “impulse to acquisition”, which does not form part of Weber’s definition of capitalism, clearly predates the Reformation; perhaps, Weber suggests, “it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth” (17). Conversely, the thought that “it is possible to deduce the Reformation, as a historically necessary result, from certain economic changes” must also be resisted (90-91). This is because “certain important forms of capitalistic business organization” can be traced throughout all cultures and all times (ibid.). However, Weber’s intention is to show that the global industrialised capitalism of the early twentieth century did in fact emerge out of a series of doctrinal and profit-driven changes within a developing American society.

Weber identifies Benjamin Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” (orig. 1748) as containing the beginnings of the age of the capitalist spirit “in almost classical purity”, and is also the starting point for his chapter in the Protestant Ethic intended to derive this spirit (48). Franklin’s advice is this: “Remember, that time is money”; “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse”; “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded”; “Be aware of thinking all your own that you possess, and of living accordingly”; “For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds”.[2] The tone of these words suggest to Weber not merely an imparting of valuable knowledge, but an ethos, in which “[t]he infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty” (51). Here Weber has identified the Protestant ethic, in which the activities of work are to be undertaken for a higher moral purpose than individual or familial subsistence: the acquisition of capital becomes the end in itself to which the worker ought to submit (53-4).

Weber’s concern is with the “irrational element” of an ethos in which the injunction to work is identified as a calling; as “an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions (as capital)” (78; 54). There is nothing natural about the worker’s submission to the work ethic, or to the belief in work as an act of moral fortitude, nor is there anything necessary about such beliefs to all denominations of Christianity. Yet they are essential to the productivist demands of the capitalist society, which must overcome the traditionalism of the life lived under religion (63). Furthermore they seem obviously unnecessary to the secular individual, once exposed to Weber’s historicist logic. The dominant position Weber offers is that a worker “does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose” (60). There was, he concludes, a conceited effort to motivate the working class into producing more capital than was necessary for the means to their individual consumption.

The spirit of capitalism, Weber shows, had a number of “traditionalist” obstacles which it had to overcome. Perhaps the most significant of these was the incentivization of the worker to produce more than was in their immediate interests. As an increase in wages would only result in a reduction of hours invested by the individual worker, the replacement of piece-rates by time-rates was a necessary development for capitalism, as identified by Marx (Weber: 59-60, Marx: 686). In addition, a powerful new incentive needed to emerge, one that would resonate on both personal and spiritual levels. The formulation of new Puritan forms of Christianity, and a new country, the United States of America, provided this incentive with a fertile opportunity. Weber argues this incentive takes the form of the calling, which arose out of the development of Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects (54, 95). Their common achievement was the foundation of a worldly asceticism which became the character of the set of morals that industrial labour functioned within, eventually outliving their religious origins.

Weber goes on to detail the changes to the dominant moral worldview brought about by Calvinism in particular. The most influential Calvinistic import brought to the developing ethics of work was in the form of the doctrine of predestination, which also continued to be the case to varying extents for the later Puritanical religious sects immediately following it (98). The belief that an indistinguishable few were for eternity already elected by God for eternal grace may be considered Calvin’s defining innovation to the Christian religion (ibid., 102-103). Weber untangles a series of consequences which the normalisation of predestination had on both religious belief and the world of work. Firstly, the doctrine of predestination was intended to minimalize the influence of the Church on the individual worshipper’s bond with the means of his (possible) salvation; it was not possible for the Church to in any way influence or mediate this divine relationship (104-106). As a result, a worshipper’s only confidant was God: the confession booth was stripped out of the churches, denying the congregation “[t]he means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin” (106). Secondly, the lifting of the emphasis on the burden of sin reduced the significance of inward reflection in the religious life. What was deemed necessary for God was “social achievement of the Christian”, the building of society on the foundations of Christian law (108). “The source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics” lies in the nature of a work directed “in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment”; consequently, this work takes on “a peculiarly objective and impersonal character”, which colours the nature both of fraternal relations and the relations between labour and labourer (108-109).

As a result, Calvinism was able to transform the Christian faith from an emotional commitment to an “intense worldly activity”, in which true belief was shown through righteousness of duty rather than dubious sentiment (112, 114). And this new worldly activity was the concern of all, despite the belief that only the actions of the elect were significant when it came to salvation. Since the predestined are indistinguishable from the rest of humanity and known only to God, it was necessary for society to become a “unified system” of rationalizing activity (117). The religious individual had to believe in their membership of the elect, for “implicit trust in Christ” – a trust which must be shown outwardly – was the only means to certainty of grace (110). The Calvinist therefore aspired to the saintly life. Religious activity evolved under Calvinism from a sole element, represented by the individual good deed, into the entire mode of a worshipper’s life, determined by a distinct ethical conduct rooted in a lifetime of good works (124-5).

The final chapter of the Protestant Ethic is given to the naturalization of the accumulation of wealth within the Puritan purview. Here too it is possible to gain insight into Weber’s genealogy of a Protestant ethics of work adapting into a worldly, modern capitalist sensibility. Using Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory – “the most complete compendium of Puritan ethics” – as a primary source of evidence, Weber charts the changing opinions concerning the moral value of wealth, and the shifting permissibility of spending and accumulation (155-157). This is done by marking a crucial distinction between the dangers of wealth in itself as a source of temptation away from the path towards God’s grace and the acquisition of wealth through the toil of “God’s work”, which was not only seen as acceptable, but morally righteous (156-157, 163, 172). The needless or frivolous spending of money on the distractions given by culture, the arts, sports, or any other “indulgent” recreational pursuits were strongly discouraged by Puritan codes of conduct, as man was believed to be “only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace” (167-168, 170). There was a tendency therefore under Puritanism for “accumulation of capital through [the] ascetic compulsion to save” (172). This, combined with the “psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods” brought about by both the Calvinist reduction of sin and the prominence of bookkeeping as a measurement of the bounty of God’s grace (as a result of labouring in His calling), had a dramatic and profound effect on the transition of the status of wealth from being the property of State and Church to an aspirational object of an individualistic moral pursuit (170-172).

Thus, the Puritan ideal became that of a kind of wealthy middle-class, for whom the fruits of their labour were able to be seen without ostentation or frivolity, but with a “sober simplicity” which allowed the “thankfulness for one’s own perfection by the grace of God” to shine through (171, 166). The emphasis Weber places on performance is significant, for reasons already apparent from the Calvinist influence on the elimination of Catholic redemption and confession. Yet in the context the ascetic movement which Baxter belonged to, the signs of spiritual righteousness became calcified into both an accumulation of wealth and, more importantly, “the development of a rational bourgeois economic life” (174). This, for Weber, is the modern work ethic’s primary mode and inheritance from worldly asceticism. For it was only as the centrality of religion began to release its grip over Western civilization that the accumulation of wealth increased its prominence over daily life (176). “Then the intensity for the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness” (ibid., emphasis added). The ideal Puritan was now a worldly figure, rooted in his belief of a good conscience; however this conscience “simply became one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life” (ibid.). With the blessing of God behind his back, he was able to “follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so”, especially when, beneath him, he could be confident of the presence of a force of “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God” (177, emphasis added).

The aim of the Protestant Ethic is to provide a study of the development of a certain mode of thinking about the relation between the individual Christian during the flourishing of the manifold Protestant sects, and their submission to work, and the influence on this mode of thinking on later secularised workers of the modern era. Beginning with an unfolding of the spirit of capitalism, identified in Franklin’s sagely “Advice to a Young Tradesman” as “time is money”, Weber gradually pieces together over the course of the book the precise developments brought on by Calvinism and the later Puritan sects which established a worldly asceticism; in which the compulsion to work, and to exploit the working activity of others, gained a powerful new theological justification (178). Finally, with the transformation in the way in which the acquisition of wealth was perceived, from an unintentional side effect of the moral limitations of spending to an accounting of God’s bounty entrusted to his predestined people, the ethics of industrial labour which have endured to the modern era were set in motion. With the approaching of the secular age, the modern economic order emerged out of a shrinking ascetic one; its sense of mission, of utilitarian rationalisation outliving its distinctly Christian carapace. “Victorious capitalism”, says Weber “rests on mechanical foundations”, the foundations of an objective, emotionless work ethic towards an abstract and indefinable goal; it needs the support of religious asceticism no longer (181-182).

Thus, the story the Protestant Ethic tells is in one sense that of how under Protestantism, working people came to be trapped within these mechanised cycles of labour by their own incentives to work, and how their descendants in the modern era continued to maintain this ethic, despite its contradictions. For the Puritan of the seventeenth century, work was absolutely necessary not only as a means of economic survival, but as a guarantor of Divine blessing and prosperous afterlife; for the modern worker, such prevailing confidence in the Almighty is no longer present. Weber’s book, therefore, is a useful starting point for understanding the paradox of the work ethic in modern capitalist society; however, to be able to account for its peculiar developments since, newer sources need to be introduced.

Weeks Reads Weber: The Antimonies of the Work Ethic

In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Weeks identifies a conundrum central to the social conventions surrounding work. The very worst qualities of a work-based economy include issues surrounding unemployment and precarity, and, to varying extents across sectors, the physical and psychological tolls that come with the monopoly work has and is expected to have on the lives of individuals (1).[3] Why, then, is there not more active resistance to work; why is it rare that the notion of work itself, and not only the conditions of work, is a site of contention? (ibid.). Weeks’s immediate answer relates to the interrelationship of work (waged work in particular) and the individual identities of workers, or what she calls “work’s privatization” (3). The workplace has been reconfigured as a private space, a place where workers often spend a significant portion of their time, and where they “often experience the most immediate, unambiguous, and tangible relations of power that most of [them] will encounter on a daily basis” (2-3). As the relations between workers and their employers has begun to be acknowledged as contractual, so has the “tethering of work to the figure of the individual” become normalized (4). Today, work is often considered a necessity by individual workers to personal economic stability, to the extent that this idea of a necessity of waged labour prevents any suggestion of an alternative to a wage-based economy from taking hold (3-7, 36). Weeks’s ambition with The Problem with Work is to rehabilitate “certain strands of 1970s feminism” and Marxism, and by doing so gesture towards “developing a feminist political theory of work that could pose work itself […] as a political problem of freedom” (21, 23). Beyond even this challenge is lies the horizon of “postwork imaginaries”: novel ideas of trajectories positing future societal possibilities that not only eliminate the current moral dimension of labour, but even more radical suggestions of an economy that does not depend on waged labour as an ideal for all persons (30, 36).

The first stage of the project underlying Weeks’s The Problem with Work is the requirement to identify the emergence and construction of the (perceived) ethics of work. For this endeavour, Weeks enlists the help of Weber’s critique in the Protestant Ethic. The aim of the analysis in Chapter 1 of her book is to show the gradual transformation of the Protestant ethic, as already identified by Weber, into an industrial and postindustrial one, and attempt “to account not only for the ethic’s longevity and power, but also its points of instability and vulnerability” (31). From here, the future of the work ethic can be posited and contested (ibid.). Weeks intends to do this by reviving the notion of the refusal of work from the tradition of autonomous Marxism, rallying behind two demands which would lead in the direction towards postwork: those of a basic income and fewer working hours (13, 32-33). What Weeks explains as her interest in these two demands is in “their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance” (33). Starting with a rereading of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, therefore, Weeks intends to repossess the imaginative space surrounding the ethics of work with a postwork politics, allowing the current domination of the belief in an economy of necessary waged labour for all to subside (227-8).

Weeks identifies in Weber’s original analysis a set of five antinomies derivative of the work ethic, which continue to persist across its many incarnations (42). Three of these stem from the ethic’s own prescriptions (ibid.). In the first case, the ethic motivates both rational and irrational behaviours, as Weber repeatedly alludes to (ibid.). “[T]he work ethic is irrational at its origins and to its core,” Weeks says, “and yet it is prescriptive of what is taken to be the most rational forms of practical economic conduct” (ibid.). This is seen in Weber’s invitation to think of the Protestant ethic as a carrier for the belief in work as a response to the calling; it is here for Weber that an “unlikely confluence of the rational and irrational can be found” (ibid.). However, for Weeks, the very irrationality of work-as-calling is clearly “abstract” and an idea that Weber “may have struggled […] to bring into focus” (43). To understand it, the very idea of the rationalization of working values “must first be rendered strange”, or defamiliarized (ibid.). Weber has a twofold approach to defamiliarizing the work ethic: by shoring up its irrational character from both the (historical) traditionalist perspective which predated it, and the (modern) secularist perspective which can no longer qualify it (ibid.). Regarding the latter, in moving the analysis ahead to the industrialist and postindustrialist periods of production, Weeks notes the shift in focus for the work ethic from “the question of mobility in the afterlife”, towards “its achievement in this life” (46; see also Weber: 176). A further development in the twentieth century came in the repurposing of work in the creative imagination, as a means to self-expression and self-satisfaction, as also suggested by Michael Rose (ibid.; Rose: 77-92). Rose draws on a number of studies, including one from the Aspen Institute conducted in 1983 which suggested that approximately one in seven workers listed “expressive work values” as being part of the “core motives” for working; and furthermore, that there is a positive correlation between workers motivated by the expressive potentialities of work and a “strong work ethic” (Rose: 90-91).

The second antinomic pair Weeks derives from Weber’s analysis is the simultaneous productivist and consumerist values promoted by the dominant varieties of the work ethic (42, 47-51). In the Protestant Ethic, this opposition is enunciated in the idea of the worldly asceticism, itself for Weeks a somewhat contrarian phrase that combines the worthiness of methodological production over the gratification of consumption found in the ascetic mentality on the one hand, with the status of individual goods as “rewards” for a lifetime of dedication to labour for the grace of God on the other (47-49). In all iterations of the work ethic, in fact, the phrase “functions not despite, but because of, the pairing of terms” (49). As the notion of a work ethic develops further in a direction away from its Puritan roots, furthermore, the awkward relationship between productivism and consumerism is shown to weaken more still. The Fordist model of mass production brought with it a perceived equivalence between productive work and “leisure time”; workers now “were expected to do double duty as ascetically indulgent consumers” (ibid.). Finally, in post-Fordist production, a mode which places greater emphasis on “immaterial” labour, such as in the services sector, the relationship between employment and income (what is “produced” and its implicit monetary value) becomes more difficult to determine, therefore likely more precarious (50-51). As a result of these developments, the Protestant ethic of Weber’s analysis is reconfigured under the Fordist and post-Fordist models; the “mandate for savings” gives way to “the prescription for the rationalization of mass consumption” (50).

Thirdly, Weeks identifies in Weber the antinomy of a drive within the work ethos as a means towards individualistic independence, at odds with an implicit social dependence at the heart of capitalistic work relations (42, 51-55). An analysis of wage relations demonstrates this dichotomy between a subordination of the worker to the source of income, and the status of the accumulation of money as “the sine qua non of self-reliance” – a view developed during the industrial period, once the Puritan stigma surrounding public displays of individual wealth had been shed (51-52). The work ethic provides an “individualizing discourse”: as the Protestant sects reduced the sense of communal responsibility through the doctrine of predestination, individual moral responsibility became rationalized (52). The social permissibility of judging one’s neighbour, and the false equivalence of the impoverished with immorality are therefore borne out of a worldly reconfiguration of moral goodness on the actions and intentions of the individual (rather than the community) (53). Beyond even this, the individualistic paradigm exemplified by the ethos of Fordist labour serves as “a disciplinary mechanism that constructs subjects as productive individuals” (53-54). This is because the effects of a perceived individual autonomy are only internal to the worker: the work ethic constructs “docile subjects” from within, by promoting “the individual’s constitution in relation to and identification with productivist norms” (ibid.). The worker, therefore, finds themselves striving towards individualistic and personal goals available through waged labour, yet must submit to a hierarchical chain of command and give up a degree of autonomy in order to attain this wage (55-57).

Weeks supplants the three antinomies drawn out of Weber’s Protestant Ethic with a further two, that can be evidenced by the work ethic’s historical development and application beyond the period that concerns Weber’s study; in particular, with reference to “the dynamics of class struggle, antiracism, and feminism” that gained momentum in the industrial era onwards (42, 57). This section of Weeks’s study also marks a transition from a Weberian to a Marxist focus, from a religious and doctrinal mediation to one centred around the historical role of state violence (57). Weeks finds Weber lacking a certain recognition: that while the Protestant Ethic frequently demonstrates the work ethic’s deployment as a means of workers’ subordination, it does not examine this movement’s antithesis, that workers have also been able to exploit the capacity for insubordination offered by the concreteness of normalising employment legislation (57-61). The unwitting effect of the work ethic’s disciplinary force is that the goals of higher wages and greater social mobility can “serve as ideals around which workers can struggle for reforms”, in the form of union action and demands, for example (59). Weeks posits an “alternative work ethic from below” emerging, based on similar principles to that derived from institutionalized Protestantism, however taking the “idle rich”, and not the “shiftless poor”, as its object of scorn (59). Weeks cites Jean Baudrillard, whose book The Mirror of Production (orig. 1973) demonstrates the emergence of a “working class” as a direct result of insubordination to the dominant work ethic and “appealing as a collective identity” (ibid.).[4]

One last antinomic pair Weeks identifies in her definition of the work ethic concerns its dualistic tendencies towards systematic inclusion and exclusion, as has been charted by the multiple drives towards gender and racial equality within the employment sector (42, 61-69). Weber’s Protestant Ethic has no such focus; however Weeks believes that a careful study of each of these liberatory movements, and the successful changes that have been implemented as a result of their influence, can provide strong models for postwork imaginaries (68). Of particular importance to Weeks is how the work ethic extended its reach towards women and people of colour, and at the same time denied them identification with the bourgeois class for whom the ethic was primarily (in both senses) intended (61). She notes how in the early industrial period, some white men in the United States could identify their status as waged industrial workers with qualities of personal freedom, wielding an influence partially through “the energies of racism, ethnicity, and nationalism” (61-62). Thus, “the norm’s exclusions based on race, nation, and ethnicity fueled its inclusiveness in terms of class” (62). The moral righteousness of work continues to haunt the industrialist and postindustrialist eras, and the lingering questionability of the working commitments and habits of non-US nationalists served as an opportunity to “legitimate one’s economic privilege” over these groups (ibid.). A similar effect can be seen through the treatment of women based on the wagelessness of domestic labor being “reconceived as nonproductive women’s work” (63). As illustrative as attempts to gain recognition for female and non-white workers can be in imagining a postwork future, these struggles have also demonstrated a strange counter-effect; in that they have unintentionally provided the work ethic the opportunity to further mutate and spread its influence onto these additional demographics, to access “new forms of labor, and to reaffirm its power” (68).

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weber (see Bibliography). This rule applies to the current section of the essay only.

[2] Franklin (48-50). The last of these quotations is taken from “Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich” (orig. 1736). Some italics from the original have been removed.

[3] All bracketed numbers in this and the immediately following sections of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography). This rule applies to these sections of the essay only.

[4] Baudrillard 1975: 155. “The ethic of rational labor, which is of bourgeois origin and which served historically to define the bourgeoisie as a class, is found renewed with fantastic amplitude at the level of the working class, also contributing to define it as a class, that is to circumscribe it in a status of historical representability.”

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Rose, M. (1985) Re-working the Work Ethic, London, Batsford Academic and Educational.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.