How did workism conquer the world?

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KNOW_MAIN_01When I was younger, it was the robots we feared. The future seemed to be going in an obvious direction: as long as we managed to dodge the threat of nuclear destruction, we’d get to watch as automation drove the world towards utopia. Machines would take over all the routine work – and pretty much all work would be routine work – leaving us free to spend our time on more useful pursuits, and utilising revolutionary new communications technology to access information from around the world and keep in touch with friends, wherever they may be. Maybe we had some doubts about the possibility of holidays in space and hotels on the moon, but all we really had to worry about was the rise of the robots. What if we became too dependent on them and sank into a lotus-eating torpor, or what if they developed their own sentience and overthrew their tyrannical human masters?

The real message was clear. If we weren’t particles of fallout or soldiers in the Great Robot War, we’d be freeing ourselves from the drudgery of having to work every day, giving everyone time to what they really loved, and that would make the world a better place. By the early twenty-first century, we’d be working four-hour days or fifteen-hour weeks as work withered away and a better society would be starting to take form.

And yet somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that dream. Now, we almost make a fetish of work, denounce sloth and idleness with all the fervour of a Calvinist preacher and no longer dream of a world where the amount of work we all do is reduced. Rather than freeing us from work, we let technology bind us closer to us, enabling us to check our emails at all hours of the day, to video-conference in from holiday just to ensure we’re not missed. We mock the French for their 35-hour week – how can anyone serious only work seven hours a day? – and the Germans for the idea that work emails should be banned from the home.

An idea I’ve had floating around in my head for a while is the concept of ‘workism’ as one of the true dominant ideologies of the current age. I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times before, and it was given a nudge by David Graeber’s article ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which summarises and presents the issues a lot better than I can.

I was struck by the idea of workism as a dominant ideology, subsuming others inside it, by some of my reading this week. After finishing Race Plan, I went on to Britannia Unchained“>Britannia Unchained (quick summary: Tory MPs with safe seats and backgrounds in think tanks reckon everyone else should work harder) both of which unconsciously parrot the tenets of workism. In a staggering passage, Britannia Unchained compares the working life of a tube driver (well paid, protected, 35-hour working week and plenty of holiday time) with a minicab driver (poorly paid, working 60-hour weeks with no job protection and no other benefits) and holds up the minicab driver as the example we should all be striving to emulate.

This is the triumph of workism over our dreams of leisure: we do not envy those who have managed to work less, but pillory them instead, insisting that there’s something wrong with them having plenty of time to themselves when that time could be offered up to meaningless productivity instead. Education is made subordinate to work too – schools, colleges and universities are no longer about creating well-rounded and educated individuals, but are judged solely on how well they equip people for the workplace.

The question to be asked, then, is how and when did workism came to prominence and how did it manage it without anyone noticing? There are no explicit manifestos to workism, no grand statement of ideological principles and denunciation of leisure, yet it sits at the heart of so much contemporary debate as an unchallenged assumption. We make a fetish out of work and if people can’t find it, we insist they participate in crude facsimiles of it to justify themselves.

Or is the problem that we got too lost in our dreams of the future to work out how to make it real?Did we spend too much time worrying about the problems of a leisure society – just how are we going to deal with the robot rebellion? – to realise that it wasn’t inevitable? Workism didn’t promise any utopias in the future, so had no need to challenge those dreams, but in the present there was no one to stop its rise or even consider it a threat. The clear challenge, then, for those of us who want to see the future of leisure we dreamt off is how do we challenge workism now and plot the path to that better future?

One way I would suggest is through the basic income, which appears to be coming back into prominence as an idea and is a simple idea to explain: everyone, regardless of circumstance receives a basic income that helps them meet their needs. This means people are free to work as they choose, rather than as they are compelled to. It changes the nature of the argument away from the idea that we should find fulfilment through our work, regardless of what it is, but that we can find our own way of fulfilment doing the work we choose. It also accepts that there are many valid ways to live that we do not currently classify as work.

I think there’s a lot more to be talked, thought and written about on workism before I come to any definite conclusions, but I think it’s something we need to acknowledge. Things have changed in my lifetime, and I want to know if we’re stuck on this course that will end with us all pledging to work as hard as we can, or if there’s another way we can go.

2 thoughts on “How did workism conquer the world?”

  1. For the political origins of what you describe (so: not Calvinism, which is religious), you’d want I think to look at the eighteenth century, and at two related developments.

    One is the shift in republican arguments. Earlier republican theories had tended to rest on property. Those who had a stake in the protection of property were the right people to particpate the affairs of the state, and they had the leisure (because of their property) to deliberate on political questions seriously. But over the course of the eighteenth century, this kind of republicanism looks increasingly like an apology for what we might call a fairly repulsive commercial oligarchy, and republicans get more interested in the idea of founding citizenship or the right of participation on labour: what the political society is, in a fairly fundamental way, is based on the social division of labour, and those who work — not those who own — are the building block of the republic.

    See, e.g., Rousseau’s Social Contract, where he explains why liberty flourishes in a cool climate (because the state needs taxation revenue to function, and in cool countries you have to work hard to generate a taxable surplus, so the state will draw a small amount of revenue from a lot of hard-working citizens). See, also, the Abbé Sieyès “What is the Third Estate?”, the crucial political pamphlet of the opening stages of French Revolution, where he identifies the social division of labour with the “Third Estate” with “the nation” itself (thus implying that aristocrats and priests don’t really belong to the nation at all, being economically unproductive).

    The second development (not unrelated) concerns the debt crisis of the eighteenth century monarchies. The two superpowers, Britain and France, were running up huge debts over the course of the century, and it wasn’t at all clear how they could be paid off. What they needed to do was squeeze more tax revenue out of their populations, and ideally what they wanted were ways of making the existing population work harder (so that the state could remain solvent and ordinary material living standards could remain constant). The big books of eighteenth century political economy, like Sir James Steuart’s 1867 volumes, discuss this point in detail. And the political consequence (which from a certain point of view is what the French Revolution is all about) is that on the whole ordinary people don’t like being taxed more, unless they get some kind of say in political affairs, and so this need for increased tax revenues stands at the origin of the long, slow path away from political absolutism in European politics.

    Often when we think about the centrality of work, we think about the socialists. (For Marx, labour was ‘life’s prime want’, for example.) But these older arguments are, in a way, more interesting and important, insofar as they are about how work became central to democratic politics as it developed through time. (Marx, by contrast, wanted to blow up that kind of politics.)

    1. Thanks for that Chris – I hadn’t thought about the effect of Rousseau and the revolutionaries on the ideas. I was looking at some figures on the estimated amount of work (in terms of hours per year) people have done over the years, and it’s interesting that that figure peaked around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and those trends were obviously connected with that.

      On the Marxist/socialist side there do appear to be lots of contrasting trends on the subject, as much due to external influences as they are to anything that comes from Marx. (And that statement is so generic it could apply to a lot of subjects…)

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