The Work That Work Does

Monday, 5 May 2014 at 20:45
When discussing social, economic and political reform, the subject of work, or having work often comes up. It is a contentious subject, with much of the disagreement being about 'jobs', how to create them, how the employed can and should organize, and the relationship between the employed and unemployed. Around these issues are various perspectives or narratives that support the mainstream 'left' and 'right' political positions.

The mainstream political position

Starting with what those mainstream left and right positions have in common:
  • Jobs are good for people and the economy.
  • Exchanging work for money (or economic opportunity) is in principle a fair and effective mechanism for stimulating both essential and beneficial economic activity.
  • Because there is no better way, jobs are necessary.
Accompanying those shared beliefs are naturally some common rhetoric, or aims, such how important it is in a recession to 'get people back to work' and for the government and public/private sector to work together to create more jobs, or how the solution to unemployment or low wages is for capital to be invested in reinvigorating our industrial base, services or the technology sector. Offered in support of job creation are observations of how those out of work often suffer a reduction in self-esteem, social engagement and general health.

There is also a shared belief in and revering of a strong 'work ethic', which is seen as the root of a productive citizen and a productive economy. This connects with the common understanding that if we all pull together and coordinate our efforts then everyone is better off, but if some are lazy this makes it harder for the rest. (It is an understanding that would have been perfectly clear from our long history as nomadic hunter gatherers, where everyone doing their bit and looking after each other was the best way to survive and prosper.)

Where these two corners of the mainstream political ring differ on the subject of employment (and unemployment) is in their emphasis on public and private control of the enabling resources and thus opportunities for economic participation, and what kind of social safety net should be in place.

While the gap is narrowing, traditionally the 'left' favour more public (government) control over resources and thus employment, as well as a slightly more substantial social safety net for the unemployed. Similarly the 'right' favour more private control of resources and thus employment, and a more meagre social safety net. From this, then, the left appear to be more collectivist, while the right individualist. However, such a division is not so clear cut.

Both mainstream left and right are a product and advocate of hierarchical social order through the concept of private property and markets, including the wage labour market. Hence the larger public or state sector involvement of the left is subservient to those power and opportunity concentrating institutions (as well as the power concentration of political class). Similarly the right's common championing of freedom for all is undermined by the very same institutions, which inherently act to distribute freedom in an extremely uneven way.

In their own ways, the mainstream left and right political approaches are both authoritarian, since they both operate in and propagate established social hierarchies with strong concentrations of power. At the same time they function as a double act, with their back and forth serving to maintain conditions for the majority within a liveable band and so as not to undermine the established social order. For this reason, for all the improvements in living conditions that the left establishment have at times supported, unless thinking is taken beyond jobs and labour rights, people will remain subject to the same opportunity and power concentrating mechanisms of markets and the endless struggle to maintain living conditions in the face of it.

Between work and jobs

Coming back to jobs, as an exchange of work for money (wage labour) they are simply one component of the market economy paradigm. But work also serves a more immediate and corporeal purpose, of getting stuff that needs doing done.

This mixing of the two different functions or meanings of 'work' – wage labour, and getting useful stuff done – is how the elements of genuine productivity, utility and human development get mixed up with serving the capital eating machine.

A common defence of having work be stimulated by the institutionally created need to 'earn', is that it increases productivity and ultimately collective benefit from increased work. Of course in a world where the same economic and political institutions tirelessly concentrate the profits of work and the benefits of capital and where there has long been sufficient methods and technology to ensure everyone's basic needs are well taken care of without the drudgery or squalor that is currently prevalent, such a defence makes little real sense.

The incentives to do work need no helping hand from a social elite to move people to productive action. The perpetual human needs and drives for sustenance, meaning, understanding, connection, contribution and creativity push us to action all on their own. The extent to which a social elite stimulate and direct work, and thus serve to concentrate power and cement their position, is the extent to which the utility of work is shifted away from collective benefit to the perceived benefit of that elite (within the bounds of dependency of a parasitic relationship).

Another defence of the market economy paradigm is that money or the flow of capital is simply a liquid mediator for what is generally useful and desired, thus helping the most beneficial work to get done. The idea is that some needs or desires create demand, which stimulates supply, enabled by the flow of capital. But this is very far from an accurate picture, due to the element of profit, power and opportunity accumulation inherent in markets. Those with increasing power and opportunity increasingly get to judge what is useful and desired, and how best to exploit resources (including wage labour), while the rest are increasingly left in a position of having to get with that program. There is also a precariously positioned middle band who are kept on the rat race through status competition and the appeal of perpetually updated creature comforts. Those with less wealth can taste a little of that lifestyle through taking on more debt - another major component in the wealth concentrating machine.

With the more fundamental idea of what work is, exerting effort to achieve some aim and meet some needs, it's easy to understand the social and economic benefits of it, completely beside the current market economy paradigm. If not used and challenged regularly the mind and body atrophy, becoming weak and sick. Work, in the general sense is the primary means through which the mind and body are engaged. Work is also one of the primary ways through which social bonds and meaningful relationships are formed. Since fundamentally work is about doing something useful, it's hardly surprising that doing it has a big impact on our sense of being useful and making a contribution.

The gatekeepers of work and the impediment to synergistic collaboration

In this general sense, work is crucial to human survival and health and carries with it its own intrinsic motivators. The question then is how are people best enabled to work, in this general sense of the word? The obvious answer is through economic and social opportunity. Now, in a society hinged on wage labour, employers and capital holders are gatekeepers for that economic and social opportunity. It's well known that opportunity to start and resource a new business is far from equally distributed and for most people making ends meet necessarily means finding an employer willing to employ them. There's also the fact that many new or old businesses completely depend on having others in a position of needing employment and thus is a weak bargaining position for their wages.

Since a basic property of markets is to concentrate economic (and thus most other kinds of) power and opportunity, it, together with the most wealthy employers act as a choke on the ability of most people to do useful work, tightening or loosening according to whether some particular work or skill can be of profit to the employer. From this perspective, 'wealth gatekeepers' is a more accurate term than 'wealth creators' for those holding the choke. Untold opportunities for innovation, cultural development and joyful living are lost through the institutions of wage labour and a market economy. If we wanted to find those not only selfishly profiting from but significantly increasing the hard graft of others, in other words parasites, it should be clear where to look.

But naturally, identifying individuals in that elite position and blaming them for the ills of society is almost as irrational and counter-productive as blaming the poor for not working hard enough. Those at the top may often do their best to stay there, at the expense of others, and have much to answer for from a moral perspective, but they are also a product of the paradigm they are so successful in. If those particular people were not there, there is no shortage of others that would and are in a position to take their place in a heartbeat. And at any level of the pyramid there are many that hold the same faith, ready and willing to perpetuate its pathological culture.

Due to the concentration of power and opportunity, the effect of the wage labour, market economy paradigm is sadly an epic failure to harness the synergies of equipoised collaboration (our needs are equally important), and a shoehorning of society and economic activity into a threat-focused selfish (my needs are more important than yours, and we're in competition) mode of operation. Of course this is the aggregate outcome, it is not to say that everyone feels exploited by and miserable at work, because there are clearly many exceptions and we find ways of looking on the bright side. It is also not to say that some employers cannot be progressively minded, or that as an employee you cannot sometimes work to empower yourself and others - necessarily, many jobs are also useful work. It is simply a recognition of the general, systemically resulting case of our wage labour and market economy paradigm, which concentrates power and opportunity, a behaviour which our top heavy social and economic hierarchy completely depends on for its existence.

A better way

To more fully realize the synergistic potential of collaboration from enabling people's ability to work, the dominant emphasis would need to shift from accumulating profit to more evenly distributing economic opportunity and allocating surplus to sustainable, collective and shared gain, where it will yield the greatest multiplicative power, by enhancing everyone's ability and opportunity to do work. The process for determining that allocation of surplus would be in the same spirit as for enabling work – non-authoritarian, collaborative and equipoised.

There are various examples of such progressive decision making processes succeeding where they have been trialled, often in hostile environments, over the last century. Online there are countless examples of successfully allocating resources in large projects in the open source world, using far more fluid and collective decision making processes than typical in the corporate or government sectors. Offline, perhaps the biggest example of more egalitarian economic and political organization is the Spanish social revolution in Aragón and Catalonia, during the civil war of 1936-39.

More recently the concept of participatory democracy (distinct from 'representative' democracy) has taken root in many countries, such as Brazil, where in Porto Alagre over 50,000 people participated in forming the city budget between 1989-1999. The World Bank reported sustained high public engagement throughout the period, large improvements in public services and reduced inequality from the experiment, which has since been extended in other cities around the world. Notable in this experiment, as remarked by former British diplomat Carne Ross, was the drop in divisive partisan politics, and the rise in a more collaborative and inclusive attitude, as people were less boxed into party identification or political class.

In the UK the Transition Towns movement is spearheading the way to a more collaboratively and sustainably managed economy. The Occupy movement which began in 2011, for all the frustrations some people had with it, has opened up the conversation about such socially progressive decision making and economics, and spurred many people to go on and begin to put those things into practice in their communities. This is clearly not something that is beyond human will or ability to do at scale.

The divisiveness of wage labour and its supporting rhetoric

From both mainstream left and right, the rhetoric around wage labour often stirs tensions and conflicts between the most pressured parts of society, whether majorities or minorities. The virtue of having a strong work ethic, for instance, is one common source of divide and conquer rhetoric. Here wanting to apply yourself to useful work is conflated with being willing to compete for available wage labour and accept the going rate, regardless of how liveable it is. In this way those struggling economically are set against themselves, since those unwilling or reluctant to enter into the wealth concentrating market economy paradigm are labelled as having a bad work ethic, or being a drain on others.

From this divisive and narrow perspective, the victims of cultural and economic poverty traps are blamed for their plight by those either within or on the margins of it, not grasping the larger institutional reasons for their and others hardship. To fuel this self-defeating venting, the tabloids gleefully provide an ongoing parade of extreme outlier cases of where the social safety net leads to tragic excess or abuse, with the bilious invitation to grind your teach over how hard you're working for so little, while they have more without the toil.

This basic approach to leveraging the common respect for work ethic for the purposes of concentrating power or protecting privilege can be spun in numerous ways. For example, there is a narrative that suggests if you're concerned about added competition for your job from immigration, then you could be a xenophobe, your work ethic is lacking and you aught to just get more competitive. A related narrative is commonly found inciting tensions between native and immigrant workers: "You take a modest wage but you work hard to support your family, and now these foreign workers are coming to undercut you and take your jobs. Your miseries are their doing." This is the 'look over there!' approach, since of course both native and immigrant are in a similar boat, doing the best they can, and the downward pressure on wages is simply a result of market forces. In all cases, the problem of economic hardship ultimately has less to do with work ethic than with the institutionally created pressure to compete for wage labour.

The ascent of innovation and technology is another area of conflict with wage labour. With wage labour as the gatekeeper of economic opportunity, the more technology advances, the harder it becomes to create jobs that couldn't be better or more profitably automated. You don't have to be a Luddite to be concerned about being displaced, and your livelihood taken by a computer or robot. In this way technology becomes a tool for further power concentration, as much or more than one to better and more broadly empower people. But this is not a conflict between technology and work, because work always remains. It is purely an issue with the wage labour, market economy paradigm and the choke it holds on opportunity for participation and engagement.

Our relationship with and protection of our environment is a particularly tragic and catastrophic area of conflict with wage labour (but not work). Since our market economy, wage labour paradigm creates an insatiable hunger for extensive growth, and at least a political and social pressure for new jobs, we end up destroying our home to feed our cultural disease. How often do we hear the sickly refrain "Yes, it's sad about the [forest, park, river, mountain, wildlife and pollution, loss of community resource, your children and grandchildren's future] but this development will create jobs. People need jobs. It will be good for the economy. Vote for jobs!"

War, while not only a huge profit maker (perhaps the biggest) and provider of jobs, also serves to smother awareness of and action towards social reform (although the period immediately following a war can be more conducive to reform). In tandem with economic austerity measures, having an enemy or some desperate situation that needs coping with, keeps you in a state of short-term, threat-focused thinking, in which conflict, competition (for possessions, rather than between ideas) and just getting by, become all that matter. Again, this scenario is a fertile source of divide and conquer rhetoric: "How can you undermine our unity in facing this threat? While you're complaining and talking about vain hopes, the rest are working hard to keep us all secure and fed. The time for talk has passed. Your ideas are dangerous, and you'll keep quiet and get back to work if you know what's good for you." and such like. This is not a conflict with work, which through ongoing and open communication can better adapt and find the best solutions to problems, but with threat-focused social hierarchy which plugs into the idea of wage labour.


To conclude, the socially progressive stance is not to create jobs, but to create, or more broadly share, opportunity to do work. The distinction is crucial, because while a strong work ethic is surely a fine thing, to make that subject to employment is to severely constrain its individual and collective utility and to perpetuate the essentially master, servant relationship of the present social order.

The work that 'work' does, then, is to make work harder, and less rewarding for those doing it. Our independence, personal responsibly and liberty are all better taken care of without a gatekeeper of opportunity. By returning to the core meaning of work, we are liberated to ask, for a given aim, not how can we create some job(s) or private profit opportunity, but what is the best work to meet it? How can we work in the most effective, healthy, respectful and enjoyable way?

As a progressive alternative to the earlier list of uniting mainstream political assertions, the following is suggested:
  • It is work, distinct from jobs, or wage labour, that is good for people and the economy.
  • Exchanging work for money (or economic opportunity) is a primary mechanism for ensuring ongoing exploitation and wasted human potential, through the power concentrating property of a market economy.
  • Useful work provides its own intrinsic motivators, and without the leach of market based profit incentive, the collective and individual utility of work and cooperation can increase.
  • Because there are better ways, jobs will become unnecessary as those ways are explored and implemented.

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