The cult of work



A work-free society would not necessarily be condemned to do nothing. It would define what is really necessary for a “good life”

Is laziness a form of resistance?

In one of the Brothers Grimm's tales, a group of farmers rival the grotesque when describing their laziness: not bending their legs when a cart passes over them, not reaching out for bread despite their hunger... And, above all, not complying the orders. In an exaggerated way, this story testifies to popular resistance to work imposed by bosses.

In fact, the concepts of laziness and work only make sense if we relate them to each other. In pre-modern conditions, we find rhythms of life in which moments of intense activity, sometimes experienced as a challenge or pleasant excitement, alternate with long intervals in which individuals consume little energy, even immobilization. This way of life is easily reconstituted when conditions are favorable, as if it corresponded to human nature. But it was infamously labeled as “laziness” by the holders of a mode of production based on constant work – which for a long time was the lot of slaves.

How did we get here?

From the end of the Middle Ages onwards, work increased greatly on a social scale: in quantity, with peaks in the XNUMXth century, but also in density, at the same time that its meaning diminished as a result of the growing division of industrial labor – the line of montage was the most extreme form of this. Individuals, social groups and cultures that did not submit themselves to work for life were stigmatized as “lazy”, “parasites”, “useless”, subject to vices and crimes. Everything was permitted in relation to them: “re-education”, forced labor, even extermination – the gypsies, for example.

Exalted in science, arts, ideology and the mentality of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, the cult of work was almost unanimous, even among workers – the “labor movement” –, who reproached the “bourgeois” for being idle. The universal imposition of work produced, in turn, in more restricted circles, a “praise of laziness”, of which Paul Lafargue's pamphlet is the best known expression – it is still a pleasant read today and constitutes a useful provocation , especially within Marxism, even if its theoretical reach is a little overestimated. But its limits do not lie in the supposed fact that one should “work anyway”…

What's the problem then?

This approach only recognizes non-activity and absolute rest as alternatives to capitalist work. If we live like Diogenes in his barrel, we will be led to the idea that machines will work in our place. This hope for automation was born during the “thirty glorious years” under the name of “leisure society”, which consisted of reducing nominal working time with the utopia of being able to do without it almost completely one day. In recent decades, advances in computing and robotics have renewed the idea that technologies would reduce working time to a minimum... but the fact is that work's dominance over life is stronger than ever!

In a world of permanent precarity and mandatory flexibility, all lives bear the mark of work: whether we have it, whether we are looking for it or training for it. In the recent past, it was still possible to forget about work when leaving the factory or office. The hope that we can enjoy capitalist consumption without capitalist labor, because robots will be our workers and servants, is outdated: in addition, technologies increasingly represent a threat, but we are proposed to rely on them even for our intellectual or social activities. our biological reproduction. A fully automated world seems like too high a price to pay to escape work.

Still, should the horizon be to overcome work?

Is the division really between “laziness” and “work”? Or perhaps between sensible activity and foolish activity? Even tiring activities can be enjoyable when they are chosen freely and contain their purposes in themselves: anyone who likes to cultivate a vegetable garden would not like to receive their tomatoes in a click. It is the permanent obligation to work for a living that gives rise to the opposite desire to do nothing. Laziness is not the only alternative to work. As Alastair Hemmens explains in Never work!, the criticism of work over the last two centuries – minority, often limited to artistic and bohemian circles, with Guy Debord's “never work” as its high point – did not truly take into account what Karl Marx called “the double nature of work”: abstract and concrete.

In capitalist society, each job has a specific side that differentiates it from others and satisfies any need. At the same time, all labor is equal due to its “abstract” dimension: in this case, it is labor time that counts – the purely quantitative dimension that creates the “value” of commodities and that ultimately becomes visible in a price. The same work has these two sides. But, in capitalist production, it is the abstract dimension that is on top. And this is indifferent to the content, aiming only at its quantitative growth.

What counts is neither the usefulness, nor the quality of the product, nor the satisfaction of the producer. The most unpleasant aspects of work, such as exploitation, frenetic rhythms, extreme specialization and, often, the loss of meaning – you work for a salary or income, not for a visible result, as happened with the peasant or the artisan – are the consequences of this role of work in modern society. This is why the vast majority of professions do not offer any satisfaction, instead making you dream of laziness.

We could even argue that there are jobs that are not pleasant, but someone must do them anyway; in reality, the vast majority of contemporary jobs are not objectively necessary, and humanity would lose nothing if they were abolished. At the same time, the labor society often prevents activities that are not profitable, condemning individuals to unwanted inactivity, for example, expelling peasants from their land, which they can no longer live on, or preventing people who want to be active to access resources or residences, under the pretext that they are private properties.

We are witnessing the creation of ever-increasing masses of “superfluous” people, people who are often condemned to involuntary laziness. Furthermore, even the most harmful activities, such as the manufacture and sale of weapons or pesticides, are considered work, while a large proportion of domestic activities, generally carried out by women, such as caring for children or the elderly, are not considered work. are, regardless of their usefulness.

So the “work” category is ambiguous?

It is necessary to remember that the category “work” is a modern invention: in previous societies, productive activities, domestic reproduction, games, rituals and social life formed a continuum. The capitalist bourgeoisie, especially from the XNUMXth century onwards, attributed a particular nobility to the activities we call “work”. The word “work” does not originally mean useful activity, but comes from Low Latin tripalium, an instrument of torture used to punish recalcitrant servants. The Latin labor refers to the weight under which we stagger, that is, to physical pain; the German work refers to pain and fatigue.

In almost all cultures, work was considered suffering that should be limited to what is strictly necessary to satisfy needs and desires; Only in capitalist modernity, in which the amount of work (one's own or that of others, which one appropriates) determines the individual's social role, did it assert itself as a pillar of economic and social life. With this moral appreciation of effort, we put an end to the question of the purpose of work.

What would a society free from this work dogma look like?

A work-free society would not necessarily be condemned to do nothing. It would define what is really necessary for a “good life”, before distributing the activities essential to its achievement. The amount of work needed would then be greatly reduced, which is only a problem when work is a condition for being able to live. In a somewhat reasonable society, which no longer identifies social happiness with the “creation of jobs”, this would mean overcoming the alternative between laziness and useless fatigue.

Guaranteed universal income is problematic for several reasons. However, by opening up the possibility of escaping the blackmail of work at all costs, it could help break with the ideology that “if a person doesn't want to work, he won't eat” and thus help reverse the secular glorification of work. Not in the name of laziness itself, but in the name of activities that have meaning in themselves and that are consciously chosen.

*Anselm Jappe He is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts at l’Accademia di belle arti di Roma, in Italy. Author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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