How we perceive work

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius is reputed to have once said ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.’ Though there is considerable doubt that he ever said such a thing, it is quite an apt expression. It neatly encapsulates a fairly widely held view of work as a something that, for the most part, we do not love and an activity that we would not choose to engage in unless compelled to do so.

In similar vein, the anarchist Bob Black begins his 1985 essay, The Abolition of Work, with the rousing statement ‘No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world.’ Black, like Confucius, is obviously equating work here with coerced labour – waged employment – and counter-poses to this the idea of ‘play’ by which he means free creative activity.

It’s a question of semantics really but, clearly, you don’t need to define ‘work’ as coercive per se; you can distinguish between cases where this is true and cases where it is not – where the latter might very well also entail ‘free creative activity’. Dictionaries to some extent reflect this ambiguity. Thus, we find in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘working’ being defined asto perform work or fulfil duties regularly for wages or salary’ but ‘work’ as applying to ‘any purposeful activity whether remunerative or not’ or even something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort : artistic production.’

Adam Smith started out from the basic premise that human beings were inherently lazy. Work was really a form of self-sacrifice rather than of self-expression. As he put it, ‘What everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.’ That also articulates, in a nutshell, his labour theory of value. The worker´s reward for sacrificing ‘his tranquillity, his freedom, and his happiness’ was his wage.

Smith´s negative attitude towards work was mirrored in the writings of others such as the Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham opined that our love of ease stemmed from our aversion to labour. Labour was painful and human beings had a natural disposition to avoid pain and seek pleasure – or, in this instance, leisure.

Neoclassical economists, like Jevons and Alfred Marshall in the late 19th century, built on Bentham’s utilitarian arguments but substituted the more technical sounding term, ‘disutility’, for ‘pain’. To ensure that work gets done, without which society would collapse, requires ‘compensating’ workers with a wage for the disutility their work entails.

This idea of ‘compensation’ was not new – in fact, it goes back to antiquity but was then more commonly associated with some form of redress for harm or negligence caused. The specific sense used here – the payment of wages or salaries for doing work – became more common only when the experience of wage labour itself became more commonplace with the rise of capitalism.

Of course, the notion that work is, by its very nature, a disutility is little more than a transparently self-serving sleight of hand that seeks to justify the existence of a system of wage labour – and by extension, capitalism – as being indispensable to the performance of work upon which our collective survival depends. Wage labour may be a disutility, but it does not follow at all that work, as such, needs to be.

Though Marx adapted Smith´s labour theory of value to fit his own narrative, he was quite scathing about Smith´s equating of work with toil:

In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou labour! was Jehovah’s curse on Adam. And this is labour for Smith, a curse. “Tranquillity” appears as the adequate state, as identical with “freedom” and “happiness”. It seems quite far from Smith’s mind that the individual, “in his normal state of health, strength, activity, skill, facility”, also needs a normal portion of work, and of the suspension of tranquillity. Certainly, labour obtains its measure from the outside, through the aim to be attained and the obstacles to be overcome in attaining it. But Smith has no inkling whatever that the overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity and that, further, the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits hence as self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labour. He is right, of course, that, in its historic forms as slave-labour, serf-labour, and wage-labour, labour always appears as repulsive, always as external forced labour; and not-labour , by contrast, as “freedom and happiness”’(Grundrisse, Chapter 12).

Free creative activity
If there is a disinclination to work on the part of the great majority there is nothing ‘natural’ about it. It is simply a gut reaction to the particular form that work takes in a society that is fundamentally orientated to serve the interests of the few who don’t need to work and not the many who do.

Of course, in these circumstances people will be disposed to view work negatively. That´s perfectly understandable. It is always going to be difficult to overcome this ingrained prejudice when the basic relationship between employers and employees is essentially a coercive one and when that key institution of a capitalist economy – the business firm – is itself a fundamentally authoritarian arrangement.

Who particularly enjoys being bossed around and economically forced into engaging in an activity that is not primarily done for their benefit, anyway?

But what of work after the abolition of the wages system in a post-capitalist society? Could it become the free creative activity that Black envisaged? A transformation of work into free creative activity would, in a sense, abolish the very concept of a ‘working day’ by effectively eliminating the distinction between what we call ‘leisure’ and what we call ‘work’.

Work would still be work, not quite leisure, in that case, even if the difference between them – for example in terms of the sense of fulfilment and pleasure each activity afforded the individual – would narrow considerably. The difference perhaps might be that work is something more purposeful or linked to the satisfaction of other needs, than is true of leisure.


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