The dissolution of work

Image: Karunya Deepika Koganti


The human assignment to work in its capitalist framework makes no sense because it presents itself as an absence of sense.

Workers work because they have to, not because they like to. In other words, the centrality that work occupies in life is a requirement of capital and not a claim of workers. The human assignment to work in its capitalist framework makes no sense because it presents itself as an absence of sense.

There is a whole Marxist tradition based on the reading of Marxian texts that presents work as central to human life. Marx, of course, recognizes work as the essence of human activity, but criticizes what it has become with the arrival of the capitalist mode of production and, since the beginning of his studies in political economy, abandons work as an anthropological data and identifies it as a place of human misery.

Marxian literature is abundant in this sense. already us Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, the concepts of entäusserung (disposal) and alienation (estrangement) manifest the trap of work in capitalism. In the first case, in entäusserung the transfer of the work activity to the object of work is manifested, that is, the process of objectivation of subjectivation. In this case, the object is externalized by the person who produced it and the dead (the merchandise) starts to dominate the living (the worker). The concept alienation it condenses, in turn, the set of exteriorizations that are made mainly through work, but not only for it. The estrangement, in this case, concerns, above all, the inversion that capitalism promotes in society between people and things.

Capital(ism) in Marx is an “inverted world” in which social relations are relations between things, and these things are commodities. As Jan Spurk points out,[1] “Human beings create their objectified social relations and are dominated by things, namely, commodities”. Something similar says John Holloway [2] for whom “Marx condemns capitalism not only for the misery it causes, but above all for the inversion between things and people: in other words, for the fetishization of social relations”. This is what work produces. Work does not produce emancipation, it produces subordination, exploitation, alienation and estrangement.

We floorplans, Marx resumes the presentation of how capital materially appropriates work and subjectively the worker. The production process becomes prescribed, with no need for enrichment of the worker. This is what he called the elimination of living labor. The same theme is visited again in The capital in which he describes how the means of production cease to be means for carrying out work and become means for exploiting work. Marx's explanation of the consequences of the way work is organized under capitalism on workers' lives is extensive and dramatic, even causing irreparable damage to health.

The centrality of individual and collective life subordinated to work in its capitalist framework is, therefore, meaningless. Living to work and working to live impoverishes the human condition. In Marx, only the dissolution of work in its capitalist mode allows the return to subjective, autonomous, creative work that brings meaning to human life.

It is a mistake to defend the centrality of work in its return to the Fordist-productivist pattern in human life, on the contrary, it is necessary to dare its exodus, as André Gorz affirms.

Indeed, it is Marx himself in the floorplans who suggests this utopia by stating that collective human ingenuity – the “social brain”, the “general intellect” – by allowing the development of technique makes this condition possible. It so happens that human intelligence in its historical-civilizing process has come to be privately appropriated by capital. It is now a question of transforming the development of technology resulting from the “social brain”, objectified in machines, into a project at the service of life. The productivity achieved by general intellect allows reorganizing the social life of work.

The underlying idea here is not that of the disappearance of work, but rather that the productivity leveraged by machine-tools – today informational-tool machines – can distribute gains to all, eliminate subordinate work and give power to work emancipated from the tutelage of the capital. The conditions for entering this society are given.

*Cesar Sanson Professor of sociology of work at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN).



[1] SPURK, Jan. The notion of work in Karl Marx. In: MERCURE, D.; SPURK, J. (Eds.). Work in the history of Western thought. Petrópolis (RJ): Voices, 2005, pp. 189-212.

2 – HOLLOWAY, John. Change the world without taking power. São Paulo: Editora Viramundo, 2003.


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