The Problem with Work

Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work deserves an exhaustive review. Finally, a well-reasoned and critical treatise on the nature of work has appeared that grapples with the work ethic and wrestles it into submission. In any case, this is not that review; at this point I can only offer a brief introduction.

The Problem with Work easily divides into three sections. The first is Weeks close reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where she picks apart the essence of the work ethic to reveal the subtleties lost in the term’s common usage. The middle portion discusses two policy approaches meant to diminish the domination of work in our daily lives – first, the guaranteed annual stipend, known in the US as the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) and the other, a reduced workweek of six hour days.

In the last section – on utopianism – Weeks approaches the subject by suggesting an unorthodox taxonomy. She begins her classification, predictably, with the literary/philosophical texts that we all know as Utopian Literature. These range from the classic speculations following on from More to science fiction. Next Weeks defines the manifesto as a utopian genre and draws upon the work of Mary Ann Caws, the surrealist scholar, though surrealist manifestoes, unfortunately are never mentioned by Weeks. The surrealists were certainly against work. The only reference in this section is to The Communist Manifesto as the epitome of this type of utopian writing.

The final class of utopian text – the demand – ends Weeks provocative codification. The political demand, Weeks contends, draws upon the past and present to propel us into a changed future common to all utopianism, but with more determination. Further, by using a criteria based on the effective use of the utopian trope we can create demands that compel us to, in fact, realize a utopian promise. A weak demand, for instance, would be “Tax the Rich” in that it is realizable within the current set up, while “People before Profit” would be a strong demand in that it is open-ended, undetermined by current calculations and political premises.

On the basis of Weeks own criteria, I was a little surprised that she spent so much time advocating for a shorter workweek instead of flat-out supporting BIG. There is a feminist precedent for the hourly approach, as Weeks notes, with the Wages for Housework organization in the 1970s, that questioned the premise of the traditional, gendered definition of work. And there is a Marxist precedent – Marx was in favor of reducing the workday to eight hours. Marx, unlike many of his historic followers, recognized the quotidian horrors of industrialization.

And, to extend the historic dimension, the Wobblies better Weeks’ six hour days with their call for “Four Hours, for Four Days” and Paul Lafargue in The Right to be Lazy (which Weeks eloquently defends against traditional Marxist defamations) trumps – by decades – the IWW with his suggestion that all the work we need to do could be done in three hours!

Though, from the inception of industrialization, the labor movement battled to shorten the workweek, the notion somehow grew that as capitalism developed technologically it would respond to worker demands and continue to cut the hours of toil. Keynes, for instance, expected the workweek to be fifteen hours by the 21st Century. And this expectation continues to the present. Recently the BBC hosted a debate on the merits of the proposal by the new economic foundation, a left-leaning British policy group, for a twenty-one hour week.

There is an obvious calculus here in that the shorter the workday the more provocative the demand. However, the connection between income and work is maintained with these demands. (The assumption is that capitalist productivity gains would be transferred to the workers’ pay check – a major assumption!) Often the excuse for shorter hours is to spread around the work (or misery) and so get the unemployed and disaffiliated “productive,” which is, at best, simply a euphemism for a specious form of civic engagement and at its worst, a system of obedience training.

The more provocative and utopian demand is to divorce jobs from income and give everyone, old and young, disabled or not, and all those challenged by the work ethic (an growing proportion of the population as jobs everywhere become increasingly banal) an income to live on. As Weeks says, if this were the case those jobs that drain the creativity and exuberance from us would either disappear or be pegged at a high wage. My opinion, however, based on personal experience, is that work which is vital for the common good and which can be performed with a cadre of folks in a self-managed form would get done anyway, especially if the task had a limited duration. My best example of hard work done with gusto refers back to the collectives that maintained the forests in the Northwest several decades ago. Look up the Hoedads.