The end of the centrality of work?

24 September, 2021

Shift change in a Cambodian factory
Shift change in a Cambodian factory

After the pandemic confinements and the sharp rise in unemployment throughout 2020, the rebound in U.S. hires was accompanied for workers by inflation above wage hikes and reductions in working hours. Meanwhile, the corporate petty bourgeoisie was reluctant to move back to the office and less than 20% of the corporate bourgeoisie was considering a return to business as usual. Now they are dumping on us a “new” moral discourse on work: they tell us that the former discourse wasn’t so important after all, that the centrality of work was a reactionary illusion.

Table of Contents

A frontal attack on the centrality of work

Striking workers' assembly at a company in Thailand.
Striking workers’ assembly at a company in Thailand.

What we are seeing in an increasing number of articles in the U.S. press is a full-blown calling into question of the centrality of labor.

The New York Times claimed for example that, despite conventional morality, the experience of lockdown had shown that work did not generate “meaning and purpose”. According to interviewees, pandemic aids were a recognition of people’s “dignity” that would help to normalize staying out of the labor market as a “life choice.”

The discourse seeking to end the centrality of labor is only “new” in its fusion of terminology from social Catholicism (“personal dignity”) and conservative Anglo-Saxon Protestantism (“compassion for workers”) in order to reassert the capitalist commodity religion (labor as a “free and individual choice”).

“Dignity”, “freedom” and the centrality of consumption

The ritual of shopping: exchange of money earned by selling your labor power for goods produced by the social worker.
The ritual of shopping: exchange of money earned by selling your labor power for goods produced by the social worker.

Actually the first obvious fact is that the majority of society – that which forms the working class – lacks its own means to ensure its subsistence, so it has no “freedom” to choose whether or not to sell its labor power. It can only do so or face marginalization and starvation, but bourgeois morality abstracts away from that.

It calls the absence of personal coercion by the employer “freedom” and infers from it that since the exchange of labor time for a wage is “free,” the result is a fair exchange of “things equal in value.” The individualistic perspective and the denial of social conditions allows it to deny the existence of exploitation and to reduce society to a great web of mercantile exchanges.

In that web of exchanges, what would define the individual -whatever that concept is intended to describe- would be his or her consumption rather than his or her sales. At the end of the day, the vast majority of us sell the same thing: our labor power. Consumption patterns – “lifestyles” or “identities”- would be the true purpose of individual existence. Collective existence and activity are ignored. The centrality of work is not even considered.

This alienating moral discourse is pervasive among many workers precisely because wage labor itself is alienated work. The wage-laborer is separated from the use of his work and thus from the result of his work. Like any class exploited throughout history, she or he is hardly going to find “meaning and purpose” in her or his exploitation. To fill the gap, capitalism has maintained the old feudal and ancient religious apparatuses and created a “political religion” of its own, nationalism, in a thousand versions.

What’s new this time? The old Catholic concept of the “dignity of labor”, which originally meant little more than the exaltation of the “vulnerability” of workers and a lukewarm right not to be too badly treated, becomes a tenuous claim for a certain universal participation in consumption, whether one works or not, as a form of “purpose” and belonging to society.

On the other hand, articles like the one in the Times, “in light of the power of work to deform their bodies, minds and souls,” recapture the Protestant idea of “compassion” with workers as “vulnerable” and violated in their integrity. The centrality of work would turn into special attention for the “weakest.”

The centrality of work in every society, capitalist wage labor and social belonging

Detail of a mural by Diego de Rivera. The centrality of work is a constant in the "Trotskyist" stage of the muralist's work.
Detail of a mural by Diego de Rivera. The centrality of work is a constant in the “Trotskyist” stage of the muralist’s work.

In reality work is the conscious and deliberate transformation of the medium by our species. The human species transforms the environment to produce its subsistence. That is why belonging to any human society has always been determined by work. The centrality of work has always been there

The point is that each society organizes social work in its own way. Both primitive communism and future communism organize social work for the direct satisfaction of human needs.

Class-divided societies, on the other hand, subordinate the organization of work to the generation of a labor surplus to be appropriated by the ruling classes. In capitalism the institution which organizes social work is capital, the primary goal of social work is the accumulation of capital and the concrete historical form under which social work is subordinated to capital is wage labor.

That is, “belonging to society” for someone who is not a member of the ruling class can only mean, in the present system, to contribute to the accumulation of capital, to be exploited. That is the “meaning and purpose” of the whole system. There is no further mystery.

What is fueling this ideological attack on the centrality of work?

Workers at Nissan Barcelona.
Nissan workers in Barcelona

It is sadly coherent for messages devaluing the role of work to appear now, when capital has lost, by the very decadence of its system, the ability to exploit a good part of the working class; when it faces another decade of difficulties and crisis of accumulation and the only way out is to organize massive transfers of income from labor to capital such as the Green Deal or the workday reductions while lowering wages.

There can be no greater cynicism than to posit wage labor as a “choice.” But it is no less cynical to acknowledge that increasingly precarized work environments have become true meat grinders and then to posit “dignity” as consumption and preach “compassion” for workers.

But, when the very crisis of the system makes it difficult for capital to extract value, i.e. the profitable exploitation of wage labor, it is par for the course for the system’s ideology to morally devalue labor and deny any recognition of the centrality of work.

Another shower of individualism to feed the social meat grinder

Workers on strike in Italy in order to shut down production during pandemic lockdowns.
Workers on strike in Italy in order to shut down production during pandemic lockdowns.

What’s perhaps worse is that this whole argument involves yet another dousing of individualism, the main fuel of the system’s moral grinder.

In all these approaches, at most there are workers, and if one speaks of the working class it is understood as a collection of salaried individuals. If they assert the centrality of “care” and caregivers it is expressly to reinforce this idea: working-class women who do not go to the factory or office, would not be part of the working class.

But there is nothing individual about this. In a capitalism increasingly pitted against human development, wage labor can only be increasingly destructive to the working class as a whole. That whole then materializes in suicides, heinous crimes, addictions, mental illness, diffuse violence, general degradation of ever more commodified human relations… a whole set to choose from.

“Purpose and Meaning”

Walter Crane "The cause of Labor is the hope of the World" allegory of the moral dimension of the centrality of work.
Walter Crane “The cause of Labor is the hope of the World” allegory of the moral dimension of the centrality of work.

The vast majority of working class families are communities of goods and income. Within the family metabolism, the “purpose” of selling labor power was never anything other than to obtain money in order to be able to buy commodities that could not be produced by the family itself in order to satisfy the basic needs of the family unit. So-called “care” remains partially decommodified because we can produce it partly on our own, protected from the market which atomizes and exploits us.

The meaning of work, on the other hand, has more implications. On the one hand, work is the only thing that is really “essential” to our species. The centrality of work is a material social fact: organizing social work is the essence of every mode of production. On the other the exploitation of work is the core of all modes of production based on the division into classes. And within this framework, in capitalism, the social and juridical form it takes, wage labor alienates us and imposes on us as something foreign what we ourselves, collectively, produce.

The only “purpose” with a truly universal, truly moral meaning that is fit for such a world is to fight for the abolition of wage labor, simply because there is no way to universally satisfy human needs which does not involve the end of human exploitation.

Recognition of the centrality of work is a precondition for being able to fight for the abolition of wage labor. That is why the centrality of work is non-negotiable. Not only because social work has been, is and will be the material basis of all human society. But because to reject, devalue or detract from the centrality of labor in society is to participate in our own negation as a class.