Attitudes About Work
In the April Socialist Standard the question of work was considered especially in relation to the objection frequently voiced at Socialist meetings that in view of man’s natural laziness, the demand for a society free from the economic compulsion of wage labour, is impractical. This is a mere prejudice about human behaviour. Even so, it is necessary to see this attitude in perspective and to account for the reasons why in capitalist society, work is brought into disrepute and often held to be repugnant.
Socialists argue that work and attitudes to work must be understood in relation to the social conditions in which it is carried on. Under capitalism work cannot be separated from employment and employment as a word is only a polite substitute for economic exploitation. Wage work inevitably reduces a man to the indignity of subservience and exploitation. As well as this, the kind of functions into which workers are channelled does not spring spontaneously from their requirements as individuals but is prescribed for them by the division of labour in a commercial society, so that the worker’s role becomes something imposed on him by forces external to himself. Both these factors assist in forming the view that man by nature finds work distasteful, but as well as these factors, all the attitudes and values of modern propertied society are hostile to work.
Although the government, employers and other interested parties continually exhort the working class to work harder, their interest in the matter is their concern for the employers’ material interests. The most immediate effect of workers working harder is that they are exploited more and their employers realise more profit. Beyond the hypocrisy of social parasites finding virtue in hard work so long as it does not refer to them, esteem and respectability in modern propertied society is still accorded to the individual in direct proportion to the amount of property that he or she owns. In our commercial society, it is money that generally speaking still provides the most immediate indication of the individual’s status. Under capitalism, personality, money and status are all interrelated in giving the character of man in a commercial society. In a propertied society, individuality expresses itself through the command of property and the ownership of things and to this end, money fulfils the magical function of enhancing the personality of an individual within the community.
Social aspirations and standards of respectability are towards ownership and consumption. Against this background, the real attitude towards the work involved in the creation of wealth is too often that it is distasteful, socially lowering and militating against the ideal of decent uselessness. The scale of values that is known vulgarly as “keeping up with the Joneses’’ is really a pale proletarian emulation of what the top social élite have taken for granted for centuries. Nevertheless, it does sum up a complex and subtly graduated yardstick against which an individual’s reputability can be swiftly measured.
Shrewd advertisers are able to use these attitudes in order to sell their consumer goods. The tragedy here is that the individual can be seeking some personal fulfillment through the ownership of things, an ambition that can lead to inexhaustible anti-climax.
The dominating drives and motives of life under capitalism are given by profit, property and money values. Human activity is swamped by the activity of society the world over about production for profit and the further accumulation of property. Under capitalism, it is commercialism and the commodity that gives the possibilities and sets the limits to human activities. Commodity production characterises his social values, his aspirations, his morality, his sense of the ideal. Capitalism organises production not primarily about community requirements but about anti-human economic objectives—that is profit. Where property and money form the desirable values of society, these values are bound to be hostile to work since the process of work forms the antithesis of these social ends and is associated with exploitation, social inferiority, poverty and underprivilege.
In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American sociologist Thornstein Veblen, described with cool irony the social mores of the leisure class at about the turn of the century. For example, he writes “ Property now becomes the most easily recognised evidence of a reputable degree of success. It therefore becomes the conventional basis for esteem. Its possession in some amount becomes necessary in order to have any reputable standing in the community.” “The gentleman of leisure consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, idols or divinities. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific, and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.” Veblen talks about the honour and esteem that attaches to “industrial exemption,” or in more straightforward talk, the privilege of idleness. It is to Velben that we owe such phrases as “conspicuous consumption” and “pecuniary emulation ”, and although he was writing more than 50 years ago, his book still applies basically as a description of properly values.
Although there is some evidence that these attitudes are weakening or at least are under attack, it is still fairly commonplace for a member of the audience at a Socialist meeting to daydream about the possession of two Rolls Royce motor cars, 500 suits and a life lived lying on the beach at Cannes. Such fantasies can never be taken seriously as an expression of man’s “nature” that prevents the establishment of a free society where distribution of goods is by free access. They are prejudices that arise directly from the envy and dissatisfactions of poverty and underpriviledge in a capitalist society. Anybody who is sick and tired of the frustrations of trying to make ends meet and is burdened by obligations to wage employment that consume his entire life may well dream about limitless ownership and endless leisure in the sun .The consequences of these aspirations in a worker only confirm his poverty position and make his continued drudgery inevitable, for in the working class, these become the values of self-denial.