Thursday, February 23, 2012

Owls at Dawn: Hegel, Weeks, and the Problem with Work

Hegel famously proclaimed that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, that an age could only be comprehended in thought as it fades. Any attempt to extract predictions or descriptions of the present from his writing seems doomed from the beginning. However, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right offers an account of the contradiction of work that would seem to contain a kernel of the present. This contradiction comes to light in any attempt to resolve the problem of the rabble, of those who have lost their jobs to the perfection of the division of labor.  The rabble have not only lost their income but their social standing. As Hegel writes: 

If the direct burden [of support] were to fall on the wealthier class, or if direct means were available in other public institutions (such as wealthy hospitals, foundations, or monasteries) to maintain the increasingly impoverished mass as it normal standard of living, the livelihood of the needy would be ensured without the mediation of work; this would be contrary to the principle of civil society and the feeling of self-sufficiency and honor among its individual members. 

To provide resources without work, is to overlook its fundamental ethical role, creating individuals who have their all of their needs met except their need for recognition and belonging. The opposite solution is just as one-sided, just as flawed. Providing the rabble with work, with discipline and belonging, overlooks its economic aspect, overproducing goods and putting out of work those who have jobs (and places in the estates). Work’s status as simultaneously economic and ethical, providing for needs both material and spiritual, means that any attempt to focus on one side of the relation has disastrous effects for the other dimension. It is impossible to have work as an ethical task of discipline without effects on the economy just as it is impossible to provide needs without undermining the ethical dimension of work. Thus, Hegel concludes “…despite an excess of wealth, civil society is not wealthy enough.” 

Historians such as Robert Castels have documented this dialectic, as the demand to provide some basic social welfare contradicts the ideal of work as an ethical ideal or disciplinary function, has it has come to define the modern state. States have confronted the economic crisis of unemployment by creating various institutions from poorhouses to unemployment insurance, but these fundamental social rights confront the imperative and ideal of work, its role in guaranteeing order and discipline. One could understand the two sides as being alternately emphasized according to the dominant political forces and conflicts; sometimes the emphasis is on the economic dimension of work, in which case the unemployed must be seen as a social problem produced by the economy, and other times the emphasis is on the ethical dimension,  the unemployed are seen as a moral failure, a moral epidemic of laziness or culture or poverty. If this is the case, then the pendulum has currently swung to the ethical pole, unemployment is thoroughly individualized and moralized. The dominant response to the current crisis of employment has been an emphasis on discipline: drug testing, mandatory training, and stricter surveillance of the unemployed. This is perhaps the lasting legacy of Reagan’s “welfare queen”: there are no longer economic crises, crises of unemployment, but only moral ones, crises of laziness, of drug use, ultimately of discipline. 

It is for this reason that Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and Postwork Imaginaries is a bold book. Well, actually, it is bold for several reasons. Not the least of which is for its fundamental argument that work should be understood as a concern of political theory, that work is a matter of power and domination as much as it is productivity and economics. This academic provocation aside, Weeks’ book is bold in taking up the critique of work, in claiming anti-work politics. In doing so it breaks both with the dominant ideology that makes work a testament to one’s moral worth and with the center-left contestation of this ideology that demands more aggressive jobs programs to put people to work. PoliticallyWeeks takes her orientation from not just the anti-work politics of autonomia and the strategy of refusal, but the practical proposals associated with the Marxist-Feminism: wages for housework and the demand for basic income. While the first challenges the basic division between production and reproduction, between the work (done by men) for a wage and the unwaged work done in the home (by women), it is the second demand that exceeds not only the boundaries of wage and family but the ethic of work itself. As Weeks writes: 

But perhaps the most provocative aspect of the demand for basic income today is its anti-asceticism. Indeed, it is worth noting that in debates about basic income, cost is not necessarily the primary point of contention. Rather, it is the ethics of the demand that often seems to generate the most discomfort—specifically, over the way the demand is seen to denigrate the work ethic and challenge the ideals of social reciprocity that have been so firmly attached to the ideal of the labor contract. 

Weeks goes on to argue that this discomfort maybe the merit of the demand for basic income. “Precisely where the demand fails to pass muster with a model of political calculation sutured to the present may be where it can succeed in sparking the political imagination of, and desire for, a different future.” It is for this reason that Weeks’ book concludes with a revalorization of utopian thinking and manifesto writing, projects meant to spark the political imagination. Weeks' book is unabashedly utopian, but not in the negative sense of the word: it rebels against the reactionary and reformist tendencies of the present to imagine a new future. Its utopian desire deserves to be celebrated and emulated. However, I believe that its real strength is in untying the knot that links the economics of capitalism with the ethics of work, the way that work, of the merits of work, functions as an ideology from below, taking hold in even the oppositions to capital. As Weeks argues in her discussion of Weber, this work ethic becomes even more persistent as work becomes even more precarious.

Perhaps it is time to revive the critique of work, to be anti-work again, we have nothing to lose but our (internalized) chains. 


Rebellon said...

I'm glad you bring up. the issue of how work is linked to ethics. That was the sense of my comment on your Oct 9, 2011 post, The Politics of Composition: A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, when I wrote: "To break capitalism you need to break what is opposed to it, i.e. labor. That means you need to break what ties them together, i.e. work as a source of income coming from capital. We need to talk about the right to income, not the right to work. And income can come from other sources, like a redistribution of funds representing the use of the common resources. In short, social mechanisms like the basic income guarantee can truly change society, making work really free - and hence people free to chose the life they want to live." The link between work and ethics is something that hides the power holding force of capital, something that, as we see in China - see the Foxconn - but also in the US - see this recent article on Mother Jones (see, clearly amounts to slavery.

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, I agree, and I would also add that the disciplinary dimension of work is only increased in times of crisis. Although this is something that I am still trying to explore, Weeks book has really helped me in this respect.

Joe Clement said...

I just finished the introduction and need to skim it again to take notes, but I like it. I hope to see a conversation develop between this book and the history of antiwork politics that Weeks doesn't seem address, especially vis-a-vis Gorz (she quotes him just a couple times and cites him once) and the wage-abolition goals of many anarcho-syndicalists.

Another point of interest that I wonder if it will or could come up is tying together Graeber's genealogy of debt-morality with the work-ethic as Weeks unfolds it. Is this something, by you reading of it, that you see her getting into or approaching, or is it yet another project for someone else to instigate?

unemployed negativity said...

I tried to tie the two together in the latest Occupy piece. I think that one could make the case that the current rightward turn, neoliberal and neoconservative, is defined by generalized moralism and individuation. Work, debt, and other social circumstances such as citizenship status, drug use, etc. are all made into individual moral issues. However, as the citation of Hegel suggests the history of this goes way back.

seymourblogger said...

The genealogy of debt morality goes back to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals in his refutation of God.

I loved this posting. Actually all of them I've read so far.

Being on disqus would certainly help here to get rid of the cumbersome commenting clicking.

Harry said...

Related reading buy Guy Standing. He is a labour economist who advocates a basic income guarantee.

Presentation by the author:

violetcaesars said...

Your post on Weeks and Hegel is my first time reading your blog and I'm glad to have chanced upon it (via a google search for Weeks' book). I'm writing a PhD about work in British novels (post 1973) and would be interested to know if you've come across any material about how work is treated in British fiction. In any event I'll enjoy reading your blog.