Elizabeth Anderson is always an interesting author for me to read because as much as we are both concerned with the same issues, namely, the politics of work, and the domination of the work ethic over our lives, we approach these issues from fundamentally different philosophical perspectives. Anderson is for the most part working on these issues from within the liberal tradition, construed broadly, while my approach is framed in large part by the traditions of Marxism and Marxist Spinozism. Determination is negation, as Marx cited Spinoza as saying, and it is through reading Anderson that I get a deeper sense of my own philosophical commitments and perspective.
Anderson's latest book is, as the title and subtitle make clear, about the work ethic and how it has been reworked by neoliberalism. Her critique is in some sense an immanent one, demarcating a division between a progressive and conservative work ethic. In some sense this division draws a line of demarcation that can be traced back to such thinkers as John Locke. It is a question of asking who or what was being referred to when Locke argued that, “God gave the world to men in common…He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” Where the quarrelsome and contentious that Locke was arguing against the lower classes, the rabble, who begged rather than worked, or were they the landed gentry and aristocratic classes, that lived off of their inheritance rather than laboring? Anderson makes the claim that it is as much the latter than the form, that the central line of demarcation in Locke's writing is between idle and industrious and this line of demarcation cuts against the wealthy as much as the poor. As much as Locke can be understood as arguing for inequality and the accumulation of a few, it is only because those few are proven to be more industrious. Anderson rejects the interpretation put forward by C.B. Macpherson and others that Locke is developing the philosophical foundations for capitalism. For her the line "turfs my servant has cut" is less a symptom of an emergence of wage labor than a residue of the disappearing world of indentured servitude.
Locke is positioned as a starting point of a division between the progressive and conservative work ethic, a disagreement "within economic liberalism," as Anderson puts it. As she argues, "The progressive work ethic includes the virtues of industry, saving for investment, and prudential planning. As a secularized ideal, it aims to bring the rewards of following the work ethic from the next life into this one." In contrast to this the conservative work ethic focuses on work itself as a source of discipline primarily for the poor and working classes.
The meaning of the work ethic does not end or begin with Locke. After Locke it continually vacillates between its progressive meaning, critical of the idle rich as much as the unemployed, and its conservative meaning, focused on the idleness of the poor. Caught between these two interpretations is the question of how unemployment is understood, is it structural, an effect of the capitalist division of labor, or is it an individual issue, a failure of resolve, dedication, and industriousness? As Anderson writes,
"Poor law reforms at turn of the seventeenth century had been drafted partially in response to the discovery of a large class of poor who were neither the impotent deserving poor (unable to work) nor the able-bodied underserving poor (unwilling to work). This third class of poor--the "laboring poor" for whom Adam smith had great sympathy, and Burke such contempt--consisted of the involuntary under- and unemployed."
In other words, namely Hegel's (cited above) the problem of capitalism is that of the rabble. By and large the response to the rabble, to those able to work but unable to find work, has been to double down on the "ideology of the conservative work ethic." Anderson defines ideology as follows,
"By 'ideology' I refer in part to a set of explicit beliefs that rationalize some social or political ideal and its associated institutions and policies. I also refer to a system of representations, cognitive biases, attitudes, emotional and epistemic dispositions, and values embodied in the social practices associated with those ideologies."
In the conservative work ethic it is work itself that becomes the central ideology. Work, wage labor, is ideological when it is in excess of its economic function. As Anderson writes,
"British welfare reform and famine-relief policies in the nineteenth century reflected the key features of poverty policies informed by the conservative work ethic. They offer extremely stinting levels of relief, typically insufficient to enable recipients to escape poverty, and sometimes even to survive. They observe the principle of "less eligibility," insuring that recipients, even if blamelessly unable to work, are worse off than the lowest paid worker. They prefer to condition relief on the performance of wage labor, even if the recipient's activities would better promote social welfare directed to education, self-employment, or dependent care. Work requirements are often imposed without regard to their interference with recipient's ability to fulfill duties provide direct care for dependents."
Following Anderson's understanding of ideology, it is possible to say that the conservative work ethic is attached to the idea of work as discipline and virtue, what Hegel understood as the ethical and formative dimension of work. In some sense this ideological dimension is at tension with the economics of work, as workhouses and even modern work programs prove to be more costly than just giving people what they need to survive. It is not always in tension, however, and the overall emphasis on work as discipline and virtue has proven to be a beneficial tool of discipline and control--this is part of what Anderson means by neoliberalism.
As with her earlier book on the corporation, one is left wondering where Marx fits into this divide between progressive and conservative work ethics. In some sense Anderson sees Marx as the most radical of the advocates of the progressive work ethics, "from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs" can be understood as a statement of a general imperative of productivity and industriousness. Marx went further than Mill and other advocates of the progressive work ethic in that he thought that a realization of this ideal would mean eliminating private property and markets. Anderson generally interprets Marx through the lens of Lenin and even Stalin rereading the young Marx discussion of labor as a human activity as a testament to productivity as an ideal. Her exclusion of any other aspect of Marx, of an anti-work Marx gets the strangest dismissal. As Anderson writes,
"This view draws inspiration from nascent attempts of revolutionary workers to spontaneously organize society, as in the Paris Commune of 1871, and the soviets (workers' councils) of Russia's February Revolution. However, these attempts were rapidly crushed wherever they appeared. For this reason I shall set it aside."
It is a strange formulation, and if I wanted to follow through with the symptomatic reading of Locke linked to above (and expanded upon here), one could argue that she takes repression, a historical and political process, to be a refutation, a philosophical argument. It is a confusion of defeat and failure, to draw on a distinction made by Michael Hardt in his latest book. When it comes to all of the other positions considered, from Adam Smith to the Levellers and Diggers, Anderson considers their argument, how they understand work, its value, and its ethic. When it comes to Marx, or at least a strain of Marxism understood as a radical critique of work, another factor is introduced, how they were defeated. There arguments and positions are refuted not in theory but in the practice of history. Of course one could argue that such a dismissal of the revolutionary tradition is almost required to be discussed in the circles of the New York Times, NPR, etc. Lest that seems too harsh I should add that I appreciate Anderson's attempt to revive the reputation of Eduard Bernstein, to at least be open on her commitment to Marx as part of liberal project of reform even if, at the moment she makes that choice, she sets aside the radical tradition of Marxism for the odd reason of its repression.
More could be said about this, much more, but in closing I would like to say that she misses perhaps the most important aspect of Marx's critique of capitalism and his most important point about ideology. The true "highjacking" of the work ethic is the idea of capitalist productivity itself in that it identifies as productive, as valuable, primarily that which produces surplus value, and not that which is aimed or oriented towards human needs. What Anderson calls the "progressive work ethic" is predicated on the idea, often unstated, that work, wage labor, always fulfills some social need. Capitalism refutes this daily, not just in dismissing the important work of care, as Anderson acknowledges, but in elevating pernicious and harmful work to value creating activity. A work ethic presupposes a connection between work as an activity and some social good as a result, and that does not exist under capitalism.