What is So Great about Work Anyway? Lecture 2

December 7, 2012

I want to start first of all with the distinction between work as a value and work as a reality. Of course all of us, unless we are independently wealthy and can live of rent, have to work to pay for our needs. We might argue what our needs might be, but without the money that we earn from our work we would have no food, no shelter, indeed no life at all.  But the reality of work is not the same as the value of work. Today work is not only seen as a reality but as the very reason for living. I do not work in order to live, but I live in order to work, and it is not sufficient simply to turn up to work and do one’s job as well as one can, but one has to believe in it, as if working were a philosophy in itself. One has to fit one’s ethics to one’s job. Work is promoted as though it were a life style rather than a necessity.

Such an valuation of work has not always been a constant in human history. The ancient Greeks, for example believed that working for others was the same as being a slave.[1] Aristotle argued that a true citizen would not work at all, but devote themselves to the practice of politics:

A state with an ideal constitution – a state which has for its members  men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard  – cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity. [Politics 1328b37-1329a.2]

The argument is not whether this is a better view of work than ours, but that it is different. This means that our view of work as a necessity for ‘growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity’ is equally a consequence of the society in which we live, rather than intrinsic or natural property of what is means to be human (unlike the necessity of work, which of course is), as was the ancient Greek view that work was a curse that everyone would avoid if they could.

Such a change in the value of work (that work is valued in itself and rather than just a necessity) can be seen in the role and  justification of education. Education is not seen as a process of the development of the individual, but as an investment for the sake of future earnings. Thus, employability, which is a general designation of an individual’s worth, is no longer linked to specific skills that one might learn at work or in training to work, but to education as a whole. The difference between academic and vocational abilities has been elided, not because every subject in the university has to be academic, but that every academic subject has to be vocational. This has led to a crisis in the conception of the humanities, which used to be seen as the bedrock of the university, but which now, if it is allowed to exist at all, has to defend itself as supplying skills for future employment. The idea that one would study a subject at university for its own sake is seen as laughably anachronistic.

When history repeats itself the second time it is always a farce, as Marx famously remarked about Louis Napoleon.[2] So there is no point thinking, even if we wanted to, that we could return to a time when work was not seen as the ultimate value of existence, or universities were not factories of employment. However, this does mean, from within our own time, our own reality, we simply have to accept the status quo and accept whatever value is imposed upon us. It is perfectly possible for us to rethink, for example, what a university might be for us, rather than returning to some medieval fantasy.

Noam Chomsky, in an interview, argues that there are two concepts of education (Learning without Frontiers 2012). One, what he calls the Enlightenment view, that education was a process of self-transformation, and the other, indoctrination, where the purpose of education is to instruct students in certain values that they are not meant to question or criticise. In the first case, the student is an active learner, and in the second, passive. What is particularly interesting about his comments, however, is that he places the dominant view that universities should be primarily, and for the majority, vocational on the side of indoctrination and not enlightenment. This has both a subjective and objective side. Subjectively, the student is meant to think that the only purpose of university is to get a job, and objectively, that one has to get a job to pay off the debts one has incurred by going to university in the first place (a strange kind of vicious circle that everyone takes to be commonplace).

The opposite of a vocational university, therefore is, a critical questioning university. A university whose staff and students together refuse to accept received opinion and authority. A university, like ours, which places the highest value on employment, cannot be such a university. It might allow at its margins, a different conversation or dialogue (perhaps because it has a faint memory of what another university might be), but its indulgence is precisely proof of its indifference. How else can only explain the axiom that every student, even a humanities one, must have ‘employability’ embedded in their curriculum without question or debate? As Chomsky remarks, human knowledge would not be possible without openness. So we are now faced with the paradox that our university’s primary function is not to open but to close minds, which is the very opposite of knowledge.

It is not enough, of course, to say one ought to be critical, one has to practice it as well. So what does it mean to be critical of the value of work? First of all, work, for the vast majority of people in our society, is not a form of self-expression but the opposite, and they know this in their daily lives. Again, as with education one can explain this subjectively and objectively. Subjectively, work is experienced as alienation, objectively as exploitation. When I work for another, I am selling my labour time to them as a commodity in so doing I increasingly see myself, and others see me, as a commodity that can be bought and sold. I therefore become alienated from myself as a living, breathing and complete human being who is not just a thing that has an economic price attached to their existence. This separation is everyday by the vast majority as the boredom, cynicism and anxiety of work. I am bored because work does not express my existence, I am cynical because to succeed at work means to exploit and alienate others, I am anxious because alienated from myself I feel that I have no control over my life, and the division between life and work has become increasingly blurred.

Objectively work is exploitation. This is because when working for another, I do not own the product that I produce. In a capitalist society, it is the capitalist not the worker who owns the means of production. I sell my labour time to produce the things that the capitalist sells to produce a profit. Marx argues that there are two kinds of capital, fixed and variable. Fixed (or constant) capital is the machinery and the technology, whereas variable capital is labour. The capitalist produces profit, according to Marx, through surplus value. They must pay the worker less than the product’s value in order to make a profit. The contradiction at the heart of capitalism, as the financial collapse in 2008 demonstrated, is that those who work do not have enough money to buy the products to produce the necessary level of profit except on credit that they cannot pay back.[3]

What I have just described is the classic Marxist theory of labour value. One might criticise it in terms of economic theory (Keen 2011, pp.277–99), but even it is were right economically, one might wonder whether capitalism has developed in such a way that it quite fits this model of the opposition between the worker, on one side, and the capitalist on the other. Or we might put it this way. Modern capitalism has become increasingly subjective. Rather than seeing myself as alienated and exploited by capital, I have to see myself as capital, as human capital. We can see precisely how this works in the example of education. The purpose of education is to increase my earning power. I invest in myself (either directly by paying for my education, and indirectly by forgoing earnings during the period of my education) in order than in the future I would earn a higher salary. All of us, then, to some extent, have come to see ourselves as little enterprises. We are self-entrepreneurs. The aim of society, then, is how to increase human capital, for it is only through this investment that innovation and creativity will increase and thus profits (which in turn are meant to be invested back into the accumulation of human capital). At this point, there is no division between life and capital, for any investment in life, is seen as an investment in human capital.[4]

Well if I did want to resist all this, how would I begin? One of the pressures of an ideology, if not the dominant one, is to present itself as the only reality. ‘There is no alternative’ is the refrain that we hear on many people’s lips these days, which should precisely make us be suspicious of it. One reason why we might think that this is not true is that even if capital and life have become increasingly synonymous, nonetheless capitalism or work is still parasitical on human creativity and solidarity. What we might call, following Graeber, ‘baseline communism’ (Graeber 2011, pp.94–102). Of course when we think of communism we tend to think of it the former USSR or the current China, but this isn’t what Graeber means by the word. First of all these states, even on their own terms, are not communist but socialist (indeed some might argue that they were and are not even that, but state capitalist).[5] Secondly what is at the heart of this ideological communism is a myth of the ‘common ownership and common management of collective resources’. Rather than a communism of the past that might exist again in some ideal future, Graeber argues that there is a communism that exists right now, and to some degree, we are all already communists.[6] Such a communism does not begin with the principle of collective property, but ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. We all act of this principle, Graeber asserts, if we are involved in some ‘common project’. If we are fixing, to use his example, a broken water pipe, If I ask you to pass the wrench, then you are unlikely to ask me what you will get from it if you do so. We allocate tasks and activities by ability and need. The everyday co-operative basis of work is communist. Without co-operation and communication, how would work work? The opposite of this is the bureaucratic managerialism that stifles creativity and innovation, but even this is parasitic on what little co-operation it allows to survive.

‘Communism,’ Graeber writes, ‘is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible’ (2011, p.96). Mostly we help each other and strangers, because we see someone in need and we have the ability to do something about it. Society pretty much has to be the edge of collapse for that not to be the case. Of course different societies have different levels of what Graeber calls ‘baseline communism’. So in an impersonal city, getting directions from a stranger might be as much as one can assume, whereas as in more personal societies, feeding and accommodating strangers would be seen as a norm. What is common to all these ‘communisms’ is that no account is taken. It would be very strange to ask for payment for opening a door for someone, or giving directions, as it would to pay for a meal amongst the Nuer (Nilotic pastoralists of southern Sudan, which Graeber uses as an example of a less impersonal society than ours), but any kind of accounting, any kind of exchange or market relation is dependent on this fundamental hospitality to the other, even though it obscures or even actively attempts to destroy it, as a virus might destroy a body that it needs to survive.

Works Cited

Applebaum, H.A., 1992. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Albany: SUNY Press.

Desai, M., 2004. Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism, Verso.

Foucault, M., 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Keen, S., 2011. Debunking Economics – Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? Second Revised & enlarged., London: Zed Books Ltd.

Learning without Frontiers, 2012. Noam Chomsky – The Purpose of Education, Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdNAUJWJN08&feature=youtube_gdata_player [Accessed November 28, 2012].

Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1950. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In Selected Works : in Two Volumes. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House.

May, T., 1994. The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, University Park, Pa: Penn State Press.


[1] ‘The artisan’s work is considered to be service to others, a form of slavery, and an activity unworthy of the truly free man.’ (Applebaum 1992, p.31)

[2] ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ (Marx & Engels 1950, p.247)

[3] As Desai writes, ‘The truth is no capitalist will employ a worker who doesn’t produce more value than the cost of hiring him or her.’ (2004, p.65)

[4] For an account of this historical transformation of capitalism and the importance of the notion of human capital, see Foucault’s lectures The Birth of Biopolitics (Foucault 2008, pp.216–38).

[5] I am thinking here of the critique of USSR by Castoriadis who described it as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’. Todd May, in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, writes a good short overview of his work (1994, pp.38–43).

[6] He also points out that there is a ‘communism of the rich’ (Graeber 2011, p.326).

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