Lebenskünstler

Artists should focus on “getting a life” rather than getting recognition as “workers” – Peter Frase on Kathi Weeks

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/08/2013

The Politics of Getting a Life – Peter Frase

 

This is how the virtuous working class appears in the liberal imagination: hard-working, responsible, defined, and redeemed by work, but failed by an economy that cannot create the necessary wage labor into which this responsibility can be invested.

When the Right rejects this romanticism of workers as ascetic toilers, it is only to better shift the blame for a weak economy from capital to labor…

…This evokes the notion of a social factory in which we contribute various kinds of productive activity that is not directly remunerated, ranging from raising children to coding open source software.

But no amount of redefinition can escape the association of work with the capitalist ethos of productivism and efficiency. The contrast between work and “idle scrounging” implies that we can measure whether any given activity is productive or useful, by translating it into a common measure. Capitalism has such a measure, monetary value: whatever has value in the market is, by definition, productive. If the critique of capitalism is to get beyond this, it must get beyond the idea that our activities can be subordinated to a single measure of value. Indeed, to demand that time outside of work be truly free is to reject the call to justify its usefulness. This is a central insight of Weeks’ consistent anti-asceticism, which resists any effort to replace the work ethic with some equally homogenizing code that externally validates the organization of our time. Time beyond work should not be for exchange or for use, but for itself. The point, as Weeks puts it, is to “get a life,” as we find ways “to sustain the social worlds necessary for, among other things, production.”

…Basic income is offered as a successor to “wages for housework”, a signature demand of the Marxist feminists who emerged from the Italian workerist scene. The objective, says Weeks, is to highlight “the arbitrariness with which contributions to social production are and are not rewarded with wages,” thus making visible the enormous amount of unwaged reproductive labor performed by women. Against those who reject basic income as an unearned handout, we can respond that it is capitalism which arbitrarily refuses to pay for a huge proportion of the labor that sustains it.

…One great difficulty is that by jettisoning the work ethic, anti-work politics simultaneously takes up the cause of wage laborers while undermining their identity as wage laborers. It insists that their liberation must entail the simultaneous abolition of their self-conception as workers…

This is not a problem unique to the struggle against capitalism, and it is perhaps inherent in any truly radical politics. It is always easier to pose demands on the terms of the enemy than it is to reject those terms altogether, whether that means racial minorities demanding assimilation to white society or gays and lesbians demanding admission to the institution of bourgeois marriage. By asking workers to give up not just their chains but their identities as workers, anti-work theorists relinquish the forms of working class pride and solidarity that have been the glue for many left movements. They dream of a workers’ movement against work. But this requires some new conception of who we are and what we are to become, if we are to throw off the label of “worker.”

It is relatively easy to say that in the future I will be what I am now—a worker, just perhaps with more money or more job security or more control over my work. It is something else to imagine ourselves as different kinds of people altogether. That, perhaps, is the unappreciated value of Occupy Wall Street encampments and similar attempts to carve out alternative ways of living within the interstices of capitalist society. It may be, as critics often point out, that they cannot really build an alternative society so long as capitalism’s institutional impediments to such a society remain in place. But perhaps they can help remove the fear of what we might become if those impediments were lifted, and we were able to make our exodus from the world of work to the world of freedom.

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