Sunday, April 16, 2017

Idlers of the world unite

Monotonous, manual work can be done by machines, freeing humans up to do creative, activities. So we’re told. The truth is there has been an explosion in what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. 

And, as individuals come under pressure to stand out from the crowd, there emerges what sociologist David Frayne calls a “culture of gratitude” where labour is given without charge in return for “profile” or imagined networking benefits. “In this hyper-competitive context,” he writes, “it has almost become a matter of bad taste to fuss about issues like contracts, payment, and working conditions. You should just be grateful to have an opportunity in the first place.”

He says, "Society is presently organised so that work is people’s main source of income, social contact, and recognition. Living without work means somehow reinventing the ways to access these things, and that is no easy task. Depending on how far people want to go, resisting work means overcoming some significant barriers. The most obvious one is our reliance on work as a source of income. If you do not have the luxury of inherited wealth or a contingent source of money, this might be overcome to some degree by consuming less. A person can spend more carefully, repair and self-produce things, privilege more inexpensive pleasures, and perhaps even discover new and alternative forms of enjoyment in the process. All of these things are also easier to do when you work less and have more free-time, but spending less is still no easy feat in a society where so many of our needs are conventionally met via commercial transactions."

He continues,  "We must refashion society so that people can remain connected, active, and valued, even when their labour is not required by the formal economy. As automated technologies continue to replace the need for human workers, the need to do this refashioning will become increasingly urgent.”

The issue of work is one that socialists have addressed for well over a century. Karl Marx's son-in-law wrote a pamphlet called the "Right to be Lazy."

The majority of the population is not engaged in productive work. The greater part of the non-producers is employed in the buying and selling plus all the related occupations. Any system by which the buying and selling system is retained means the employment of vast sections of the population in unproductive work. It leaves the productive work to be done by one portion of the people whilst the other portion is spending its energies in keeping shop, banking, and all the other various developments of commerce which employ probably more than two-thirds of the people today. It is the elimination of such activities and institutions, essential though they may be to a functioning market economy but unproductive in themselves from the standpoint of producing use values or meeting human needs, that constitutes perhaps the most important productive advantage that a socialist economy would have over a capitalist economy. The elimination of this structural waste intrinsic to capitalism will free up a vast amount of labour and materials for socially useful production in socialism.
 In socialist society, productive activity would take the form of freely chosen activity undertaken by human beings with a view to producing the things they needed to live and enjoy life. The necessary productive work of society would not be done by a class of hired wage workers but by all members of society, each according to their particular skills and abilities, cooperating to produce the things required to satisfy their needs both as individuals and as communities. Work i a socialist society could only be voluntary since there would be no group or organ in a position to force people to work against their will.

“… in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” - Karl Marx 

And it was Marx who said in communism it will be society’s free (disposable) time and no longer labour time that becomes the true measure of society’s wealth.

Work should not really be equated with employment. Employment is wage labour.  William Morris regarded work as a basic, natural human need. His main criticism of capitalism was that it denied the vast majority of humans satisfying and enjoyable work. Under capitalism work, instead of being the enjoyable activity of creating or doing something useful, became a boring and often unhealthy and dangerous burden imposed on those who were forced to get a living by selling their mental and physical energies for a wage Morris’s concept of “art”. Which he defined, not as some specialised activity engaged in by some fringe group of “artists”, but as ”the expression of a person’s joy in their work”; people who enjoyed their work would produce beautiful things. And when he realised that the nature of capitalism meant that most producers were denied any enjoyment in their work – or, put another way, that it meant the “death of art”.

In a socialist society, the distinction between work and leisure will diminish—perhaps even disappear. People will have an opportunity to use their hobbies and enthusiasms for the social good: to enjoy being useful.

Most of us want to work. What we hate is employment. We want to work for ourselves, our families and friends, our community, not for some thieving parasite employer!



Mike Ballard said...

"The greater part of the non-producers is employed in the buying and selling plus all the related occupations. Any system by which the buying and selling system is retained means the employment of vast sections of the population in unproductive work."

non-producers ARE....

What are producers producing?

They are producing goods and services which can be sold and they are doing this in exchange for the price of their labour power. Non-productive workers are hired to provide a service to a consumer e.g. a butler, a personal trainer who is not already hired for wages by an employer, a State bureaucrat and so on. You're turning "unproductive work" into a moral category.

ajohnstone said...

Point taken, Mike, and it is well that you explained that.

Certain types of occupation are very useful and productive for the capitalist class...and, in fact, necessary for the capitalist system to function efficiently...the jobbers on the stock exchange floor. Perhaps the sentence should have read "socially unnecessary..."

But to be perfectly honest personally i find it difficult not to express moral indignation about various jobs under capitalism...from the State appointed hangmen to hospital managers deciding healthcare on a profit and loss basis rather than medical needs.

It might be a case that socialists have already taken a moral stance on the choice of work we do.