Friday, March 17, 2023

Between Micro-Politics and Mute Compulsion: Reflections on a Problem


Detail of Rapture by Jon Read

Since it was published I have taught Kathi Weeks' book The Problem with Work in my Politics and Philosophy of work class. When I introduce the book, stressing that it is written by a political theorist and not, as in the case of many of our readings, by a philosopher, sociologist or historian, I ask the two questions that Weeks asks: namely, why should a political theory consider work? why does work seem to be outside of politics? What I am trying to provoke with these questions is a particular aporia in which work is for many people the central experience of power, authority, control and subjection, but because it is seen as private and natural it is seen as outside of politics, as apolitical. I remember very well a student responding to the second part of the question by saying that work was not political because "no one made you do it." At first I found this formulation strange given all of the ramifications and consequences of not working from homelessness to starvation, but the more I thought about his response the more it made its own particular sense. The compulsion to work, to sell one's labor power, was in some sense mute, unspoken, there was no particular agency or institution in society demanding it, and there was no particular institution or agency in society enforcing it--in part because it is diffuse spread throughout society.