The kinky fetish of art “workers” – Peter Frase on whether work needs to exist at all

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/06/2014

Work It – Peter Frase

The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.

It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them — whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”

So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.

Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work — though we do need that — but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.

Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.

Q. Who will do the work? A. Who cares? – Full employment is a nightmare – Peter Frase

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/22/2013

Do They Owe Us a Living? – Peter Frase

Which brings me to one thing I found quite unappealing about the vision David Schweickart presents. His description of economic life seems to assume that the ideal way to live is to have some job that you go off to for 40 hours a week for the rest of your life. If labor is unpleasant, the solution is to give workers more control, rather than giving them the option of opting out of work–”voice” rather than “exit”, to use Albert Hirschman’s lovely phrase. Now maybe this makes sense to people who grew up in the mid-20th century, when the labor market was less volatile and careers were more stable. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if full employment is possible, why would it be desirable? If there’s not enough work to go around, why would you go and create more? And maybe it’s true that if we make the workplace democratic, then work will be fulfilling and people won’t mind it. But in that case, why force them?

More importantly, I don’t think it’s necessary to go down this road at all. Rather than starting with these complicated issues of economic planning, we should start with the thing that’s actually most desirable: making people less dependent on wage labor. Social Democracy has already gone part of the way in this direction, by removing things like health care and education from the market. But to really attack wage labor at its root, you need something like the guaranteed minimum income–perhaps in combination with reductions in the length of the work-week.

Which isn’t to say that basic income is a one-shot magic solution to all the problems of capitalism (although for the argument that it could be, check out a weird and provocative article called “The Capitalist Road to Communism”). Indeed, he best thing about a guaranteed income is that it stands a pretty good chance of provoking major economic disruption and social crisis–that’s what makes it a “non-reformist reform.” In a world with a guaranteed income, it could very well turn out that there are some things that just aren’t getting done. It’s not clear that you’d be able to find enough people to clean office bathrooms or work the night shift at 7-11 if they had access to a basic income, no matter what you paid them.

Some people invoke the above scenario as an argument against the basic income, but let me emphasize that this is a problem I would love to have. Once it becomes clear what kind of work is both desired and undersupplied, we can have a political struggle about how that work will get done. By offering special rewards (i.e. “material incentives”)? By creating some kind of national service requirement in exchange for the basic income (you have to go clean toilets or work the night shift once a month, say)? By finding clever new ways to automate these jobs? Or by deciding we can really do without some things we thought we “needed”?

I can’t predict in advance what the solution would be. And I don’t have to. That’s really the most important point I want to make here. I think the lesson of history is that momentous social change never happens because someone came up with a detailed plan for the future, won people over to it, and then implemented it. The chaos of real people making their own history always overwhelms such neat plans.

And I want to suggest that socialists, armed with an analysis of capitalism and a set of basic principles for the future, shouldn’t be afraid of a politics that aims to provoke a crisis without knowing exactly where it will lead. The idea of a basic income that breaks our dependence on wage labor is a proposal for pushing toward that productive crisis, and for that reason I find it far more compelling than all the sterile blueprints for economic democracies and democratic plans and Parecons and what have you.

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.

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.