Lebenskünstler

Hipsters on food stamps – Producerism -The work ethic must be killed – Universal Basic Income

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/04/2013

Resenting Hipsters – Peter Frase

…For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hard-working or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification. This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?

The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class

…Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other…it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.”…

Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political Left and Right is ambiguous. But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages. With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs—food and shelter—are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to—and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than—betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl. This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.

Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system…

In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work. And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.

If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself. The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like Food Stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic—whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the 90s or hipsters on food stamps today. Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked. Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.

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