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.

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