Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Undoing Work, or Doing it up? How Central Should Work Be to Society?

I just finished reading James Chamberlain’s new book Undoing Work, Rethinking Community: A Critique of the Social Function of Work (Cornell University Press). It’s an ambitious theoretical work that raises fundamental issues regarding not only the meaning of work but also the construction of society. But let me first back up. My own book, The Thought of Work, is intended partly as a statement of the diverse ways in which work is important—materially, psychologically, sociologically, and so forth. Behind this is an assumed default in which work’s diverse values are not fully appreciated, especially when it is reduced largely to an income-generating activity. That is, capitalism and neoliberalism devalue work by prioritizing the monetary aspects and reducing work to being seen as simply a commodity.

Undoing Work comes from a seemingly-opposite perspective—that work is too central in today’s neoliberal, capitalist societies.  So whereas I want to raise the value of work, Undoing Work wants to, well, undo it. Why? Because neoliberal social norms require an individual to be working full-time for pay in order to be fully welcomed and included as a citizen—normatively if not in fact. But this raises at least two problems. One, the highly-unequal nature of capitalism limits the opportunities for full-time, paid work to a privileged set, thus excluding from full citizenship many who have traditionally been marginalized, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or other bases. Two, the material and social pressures for full-time salaried or waged work limit human freedom by coercing people into spending more time at work than they would choose if they were truly free.

Chamberlain strongly argues that at a fundamental level, these norms are rooted in how society is constructed. That is, Undoing Work argues that neoliberal, capitalist societies are seen as collections of individuals who form societies (communities) because they benefit from exchanging their work. So the twin features of individualism and work lie at the core of a capitalist society. Through the Marxist lens that grounds Undoing Work, this is highly problematic because capitalism always degrades work and because individualism always leads to hierarchy and exclusion. So how can individuals—or maybe I should say, members of communities—be free to follow their self-determined rather than neoliberal needs and wants?

A popular proposal these days is for a universal basic income, the (simplified) theory being that reducing people’s dependency on work for subsistence will allow them to choose from a broader set of life activities. An interesting contribution of Undoing Work is showing how the thinking that lies behind many of the proposals for universal basic income do not break with traditional views of work and society to the extent needed to really bring about a large-scale change in the centrality of work. Which brings Chamberlain to the heart of his argument: for humans to truly be free, the basis of society needs to be seen as something other than work. So it’s not just about rethinking work, it’s about rethinking the definition of community. Maybe it’s my own lack of sophistication, but unfortunately, after reading Undoing Work I’m left with a much greater appreciation of the nature of this problem than for the author’s solutions. And by this, I don’t just mean practical solutions—which the author admits are challenging given that he believes this entails a rejection of capitalism; rather, I’m referring to the conceptual solution. Maybe I’ve been studying work for too long, but I can’t figure out what it would mean to undo work.

Undoing Work is clear (at least towards the end), that work would remain important (otherwise I think we’d really be getting into utopian territory), but what would seem to be left of value are psychological rewards and caring. This strikes me as a movement towards the more individual aspects of work—which make sense in some respects because it’s the social aspects of work in terms of exclusion and lack of solidarity that are at the root of the problem presented in Undoing Work. But on the other hand, this seems contradictory with the overall direction advocated—that is, this movement toward individualism does not seem consistent with the overall goal of trying to reconstitute society on basis of something other than a collection of individuals.

So where do we go from here? I think Professor Chamberlain would agree with me that work is too important to be left in the hands of neoliberal thinkers or propagandists. But dedicated readers of my blog will know that I’m a pluralist scholar rather than a critical, heterodox (including Marxism) scholar. So imbalances of labor market power are important, but can be alleviated. This requires continued attention to the material institutions that shape work—laws, unions, and the like—as well as the normative institutions. Going back to The Thought of Work, my goal is that if society can more fully recognize the ways in which work is important—including the dimensions that Undoing Work rightly recognize, like inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity—then we can design institutions that will better support inclusion, citizenship, and solidarity. And empowered individuals can pursue something that comes closer to their desired forms or conditions of work and do so with dignity.

But as I admit in my own writings, this is challenging because we don’t want to elevate work to such a level of importance that it is the only way of creating an individual and social identity. I think Undoing Work is premised on that ship having sailed. I maintain that somehow it’s still possible. But we can both agree that these issues are too important to not discuss as scholars and a society.  

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