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220px-8hoursday_banner_1856LUMPENPROLETARIAT—British songwriter Bernard Sumner has often written some of the more thoughtful lyrics found in popular music, embedded in a social consciousness informed by his upbringing in 1970s post-industrial Manchester.  In “Turn My Way” (2001) Bernard Sumner (joined by Billy Corgan) sings:

I don’t wanna be like other people are
Don’t wanna own a key; don’t wanna wash my car
Don’t wanna have to work, like other people do
I want it to be free, I want it to be true

There’s a sense of utopianism, which can be traced through such popular song lyrics rejecting work. [1]  Yes, we honour labour as a means to an end, but not as an end in itself.  We don’t celebrate work for its own sake.  Creativity and self-directed activity are quite distinct from capitalist modes of production predicated upon profit motive and capital accumulation.

Since we know that unemployment through automation is increasingly rendering more and more people redundant within capitalist modes of production, we’re confronted with a choice as a society:  Do we criminalise the redundant, or involuntarily unemployed?  Or do we liberate them?

For some time now, the eight-hour work day has been taken for granted.  But it was fought for and won under great sacrifice.  As Americans (and others) are increasingly facing longer work hours, Dr. Kathi Weeks argues that we need to imagine life beyond work in order to challenge the constraints to conventional thinking and imagining around what makes life meaningful.

In her book, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), Dr. Kathi Weeks makes a case for shortening the working day to a six-hour day without a pay cut, as our forebears did when they fought and won the right to shorten the working day to an eight-hour workday in the 19th century.  She joined free speech radio’s Against the Grain to discuss her book, The Problem With Work, and to challenge conventional thinking around the romance of labour and the virtues of self-directed activity.  Listen (or download) here. [2]

Messina

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[Working draft transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Against the Grain]

AGAINST THE GRAIN—[12 APR 2016]  “Today on Against the Grain, more than a century ago, the Industrial Workers of the World, or the IWW, called for the four-hour workday.  Should we be considering something similar now?

“I’m Sasha Lilley.  We’ll air my conversation with Kathi Weeks about why radicals need to envision a world where work is not central to our existence.  She’ll also talk about cutting the workweek.  That’s after these news headlines.”

[KPFA News Headlines omitted by scribe]

SASHA LILLEY:  “This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.

“Liberating work from its exploitative nature under capitalism has been a central tenet of the radical Left.  But what about liberating our lives from the centrality of work?  Work may be necessary.  But should it be at the heart of our vision for the future?  And what would be the political consequences of demanding shorter work hours in the here and now?

“The Autonomous Marxist tradition has championed the refusal of work.  And, today, I’m joined by Kathi Weeks, who brings together Marxism and feminism in arguing that we need to rethink the place of work in our imaginings of life after capitalism.  She also argues that, in the present, we should fight for a significantly shorter workweek without a cut in pay and for a guaranteed basic income for all.

“Kathi Weeks teaches Women’s Studies at Duke University and is the author of a number of books, including The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.  That’s published by Duke University Press.

“Kathi, could you begin by describing for us the history of the work ethic under western capitalism?  How has it evolved?  Why has it been so central?”  (c. 7:54)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Well, I mean, I trace it back, in the book, to Max Weber‘s famous study in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  And he identifies, kind of, the original formulation of the work ethic as the Protestant work ethic.  And he talks about how it creates some of the conditions conducive to early capitalist development.  So, it promoted really hard work and long hours from one class of people—workers—and frugal saving on the other side.  So, that made it possible to produce capital in that moment.

“But, over time, I think the work ethic has evolved and changed slightly.  I mean in some ways it remains the same.  In all its forms, the work ethic sort of preaches the value of work as an end in itself, not just a means to other ends.  it preaches the importance of hard work as not just an instrumental activity, but a kind of highest calling, an ethical duty as what we should organise our lives around, as what we should invest our identity in.

“And I think that element of the work ethic remains similar across time.  The supposed reward of all of that activity sort of shifts.  I mean it’s no longer sort of, as it was for Weber, a matter of the anxious Protestant being sort of assured of being among the elect, or the saved.

“It’s not even, any more, the industrial version that promised that one could pull oneself or one’s family up by their bootstraps and sort of climb the class ladder through this activity.  And I think that today it’s much more about being able to develop your capacities as an individual.

“So, I mean what’s promised by these activities shifts.  But I think that the basic insistence on work as an end in itself, rather than just an instrumental activity remains the same.”  (c. 10:16)

SASHA LILLEY:  “You’ve just been describing the centrality of the work ethic within capitalism, particularly in the West.  But work itself—the process of work itself—seems to be pretty uninterrogated, both, within academia in many ways, also for people at work, they feel frustration often.  But they see it as an individual problem.  Why do you think it is that we have such a hard time getting a handle on work in our lives, our relationship to work?”  (c. 10:49)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Yeah, I just find that such an interesting problem.  You know I have a couple of ways getting at it.  But I think it remains an open question.  And I think of it in terms of why work is not more politicised than it is now in some ways.  I mean it’s strangely depoliticised.  And, yet, work is where most of us experience direct relationships of domination, you know, between bosses and employees and among coworkers.  Work is an incredibly hierarchical structure in most sites.

“So, I mean I think it is an interesting question why we don’t want to interrogate more the actual, everyday experience of work.  And, again, I think it is in part because we treat work as—we don’t really think of it in terms of a system.  We think of it in terms of this job or that job.  And we measure one job in relation to another job.  But we don’t really think about the similarities among jobs or think about work as a system, let alone as a system of domination, that it gives employers power over employees.  And that’s crucial to how most of us experience work.  And, yet, we don’t think of it as a site of power relationships, that should be evaluated for their justice or lack of justice.  (c. 12:13)

“And, again, I find that an interesting puzzle.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “We’ll probably speak more about this in the course of the hour, but how do you define work?  Are you speaking of just paid labour?  Does unpaid labour fit into this?”

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Yeah.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “What is work in your definition?”

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Yeah, I mean, again, it’s a good question.  And, generally, when I talk about work, I tend to focus more on the privileged model of wage labour because I think that’s how we understand work popularly.  But I think what counts as work is constantly being debated.  It’s certainly something that feminists have long debated, you know, why forms of unwaged work are not counted as work.

“So, I don’t want to limit it to waged work.  But I do wanna highlight that when we talk about work, we usually mean wage labour and that wage labour becomes the standard for what we count as work.  So, I kind of slip between a focus on just wage labour and also a more expansive understanding of what work is.”  (c. 13:15)

SASHA LILLEY:  “So, your book, The Problem of Work, draws on a couple different traditions.  It draws on Marxism; it draws on feminism and traditions within them.  But the traditional Marxist critique of work has two basic, or central, elements.  There’s, on the one hand, the critique of exploitation—the extraction of surplus value.  And, then, on the other hand, there is a critique about alienation, that work is alienating, that it degrades our skills and makes us separate from our actual work process.

“So, the idea within Marxism is that in a society, that would be socialist or communist, the idea would be to free work from its oppressive aspects and make it joyous.  You have a different take on how work should be in a more utopian society.  What are your problems with the Marxist critique, as traditionally conceived?”  (c. 14:11)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Well, I mean I think the problem with both of those versions of the Marxist critique is that they leave that work ethic uninterrogated.  That is: Work could live up to what the ideology says, if only work were not a site of exploitation and alienation.

“So, I think its critique of work is incomplete, to put it mildly.  So, I draw on other traditions also within Marxism, that I think try to take aim, both, at a system of organisation of production, but also the ideology of productivism—so, not just work, but also the ethics and our ideas about work, that support and encourage us to invest in work.

“So, one tradition, that I’m very interested in is the tradition of Autonomous Marxism.  And there’s a kind of slogan, that’s central to most iterations of Autonomous Marxism, and that’s been the refusal of work.  And, at one level, it’s sort of self-evident.  You know, refusing work is—the strike is an example of refusing work.  But in another, like, more theoretical level, the refusal to work is really an attempt to try to think much more critically about, both, the present world of work and the ethical discourse, that helps to sustain it.

“So, the problem, from this point of view is not just that work is exploited or that  our work, our labour, is alienated.  It’s really that the critique has to go farther.  It has to extend to the ways that work dominates our existence, the way that work is over-valued.

“And I think that this one tradition of Marxism really wants to take the critique much further—beyond just the critique of exploitation and alienation.”  (c. 16:07)

SASHA LILLEY:  “And I will ask you more about some of these different contending perspectives.  But I just wanna ask you:  What does the refusal of work mean?  I would imagine most listeners would say: But wait a minute.  So many people are out of work.  Why would we wanna refuse work?  What does it really mean?  Are you talking about a society where no one actually works?”  (c. 16:29)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  ”  [SNIP] ”  (c. 18:50)

SASHA LILLEY:  “And I’ll ask you more about the whole feminist dimension of this argument a bit later on.  The programme is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  And I’m speaking with Kathi Weeks about her book, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.  That’s published by Duke University Press.

“So, I want to just stay a little longer with the Marxist tradition.  And you were saying that you’re drawing from the Autonomous Marxist tradition, particularly, which a lot of these ideas swirled around in Italy in the 1970s, intersected with feminism.  But, sticking with the traditional Marxist critique, you mentioned a moment ago the notion of productivism, which I wonder if you could explain.  It’s something, that you locate within Marxism, but also within other ideologies and radically different political outlooks.  What is productivism?”  (c. 19:52)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  ”  [SNIP]  ”  (c. 20:35)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Within Marxism, you locate two traditions where the lack of interrogation of work, as you see it, leads to what you deem insufficient solutions or visions for a new utopian society.  One of them is socialist modernism.  And the other is socialist humanism.  I wonder if you could explain both of those and what they are, and then why you have problems with the solutions, that are on offer within those two traditions.”  (c. 21:05)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  ” [SNIP] ”  (c. 24:11)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Well, within Marxism, work isn’t just, I think, simply about the productivist aspect, that you mentioned.  But you could also argue that work has been seen to be the kind of center of people’s social and collective power, that having work is important because it gives you a collective strength in being brought together in work, which you don’t have under capitalism, as an individual.  Also, within work, there may be even sort of creative or utopian potentialities.  How do you respond to that argument in favour of the centrality of work?”  (c. 24:49)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “I would respond by saying I haven’t seen much evidence of people’s being empowered through work as workers in their opposition to the present organisation of work.  I support it entirely.  But I think that we need to try to think about additional ways to politicise work and to fight for change.

“And, so, one of the reasons that I’m interested in this kind of politics of work, that’s really a critique of the over-valuation of work and also the way that work dominates our lives and also our imaginations and sociality is I think we can construct a more powerful coalition of activists.

“I mean in some ways, instead of, rather than focusing on only the employed, or employed in only certain kinds of industries, or employed who have access to unions, there’s a way to think about some of our common problems with work.

“I mean I think the people who are employed, underemployed, and also overworked all have an investment in this critique of work.  And I really wanna think about constructing a politics of, and against, work, that can draw in more people, that can speak to a range of people’s problems with work.

“I don’t think it’s the province of a specific class formation, as it’s been understood at this point.  I think that there’s a possibility to provoke other kinds of activism across some of these traditional divides of union/non-union, employed/unemployed, waged workers/unwaged workers.”  (c. 26:40)

SASHA LILLEY:   “Kathi Weeks is my guest.  We’ll return with her after this music break.”  (c. 26:45)

It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” by The Ramones

SASHA LILLEY:   “You’re listening to Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  And I’m joined by the author of The Problem with Work.  Her name is Kathi Weeks.  And she teaches Women’s Studies at Duke University.  She’s also the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects.

“And we are talking today about the issues around a politics, that puts work at its center.  She’s arguing for more utopian possibilities.

“So, earlier in the programme, you spoke about the Italian feminist autonomist Marxist traditions, which were connected up in the 1970s efforts for wages for housework.  And I wanna ask you more about your critique of feminism, as it relates to work.  But I wonder if you could tell us more about what the wages for housework campaign actually was—wages from whom, for example—as a way of looking at this dimension of your argument.”  (c. 29:55)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  ”  [SNIP]  ”  (c. 34:04)

SASHA LILLEY: “Does feminism have its own—and, of course, I’m generalising when I say feminism; it’s obviously a broad category—but outside of the Marxist-feminist tradition, that you’ve been talking about around wages for housework.  Does the feminist tradition have its own politics related to an embrace of the work ethic?”  (c. 34:24)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  ”  [SNIP]  ”  (c. 36:32)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Is there also the danger within feminism that, when work is subject to critique, it often gets contrasted to work time and family time, that, you know, we need to allow people to have time with their families.  And, so, the whole notion of the time when one isn’t at paid labour that it is seen through that familial lens?”  (c. 36:55)

DR. KATHI WEEKS:   “Yes and, again, that’s another reason why I find wages for housework so refreshing because they insisted that a family was within—not against or outside—the system of work, that it is part of the general economy.  It’s where work is organised and work takes place.  It’s just happens to be mostly unwaged work.

“So, the idea that family would be refuge from work and that family is something we should be balancing with work is something that I think that they critique quite well because family is another side of work.

“So, I think they wanna sort of include the critique of family in a larger critique of work and try to think in different ways about what we want outside of work and that we might want time for families and other kinds of relationships of care and sociality.  But family, you know, it’s not limited to this institution of the family.”  (c. 37:55)

SASHA LILLEY:   “Well, let’s talk about what we want outside of work.  You just said that, although you have found the Wages for Housework campaign of the ’70s to be very stimulating in your thinking.  But, ultimately, Wages for Housework is not enough.

“So, in terms of what you’re proposing as an alternative to our work-centered lives, you mention two things, two reforms of sorts.  One is a basic income guarantee.  And the other is a 30-hour workweek without a cut in pay.

“Let me ask you, first, about the basic income guarantee.  How would that work?  Why do you support it?”  (c. 38:32) [3]

DR. KATHI WEEKS:  “Well, a basic—I mean there are many, sort of, proposals out there for how we imagine a basic income.  As I imagine it, it would be an income, that would be paid unconditionally to individuals.  And it’s designed to sort of establish a kind of minimal floor, below which income would not fall.  Um, if it—you know, again, there’s different versions of this.

“If this income is so small that people would be forced into work, all it does is sort of subsidise low wage labour in some ways.

“But, if it’s an income, that someone could possibly live on, independent of work, it would enable people to—maybe not completely independent from the wage system, but less dependent on its sort of present terms and conditions.

“So, I think it might give workers some bargaining power to demand better work in some ways.  It provides support for all of the different kinds of unwaged work and for workers, that are precarious at this point.

“And I think it also, then, provides some relief for those who are forced into family relationships in order to be part of another income-pooling unit.

“So, I think a basic income would provide—again, it probably wouldn’t enable most people to be free of the wages system.  But I think that it would allow people some measure of relief to be not tethered to it so tightly.”  (c. 40:12)

SASHA LILLEY[SNIP]

DR. KATHI WEEKS[SNIP]  (c. 42:00)

SASHA LILLEY[SNIP]

DR. KATHI WEEKS[SNIP]  (c. 45:00)

SASHA LILLEY[SNIP]

DR. KATHI WEEKS[SNIP]  (c. 49:00)

SASHA LILLEY[SNIP]

[SNIP] (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.

[This transcript will be expanded as time constraints, and/or demand or resources, allow.]

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Turn My Way” by New Order

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[1]  Of course, various songs come to mind, which reject work:

  • “I was looking for a job and then I found a job / And heaven knows I’m miserable now…”  —”Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (1984) by The Smiths
  • “I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day…” —Rock and Roll All Nite” (1975) by Kiss
  • “You can take this job and shove it/I ain’t working here no more…”Take This Job and Shove It” (1977) by Johnny Paycheck
  • “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more…”  Maggie’s Farm” (1965) by Bob Dylan
  • “I don’t work / I just speed / That’s all I need / I’m a lazy sod…”  “I’m a Lazy Sod” by The Sex Pistols
  • “You and me, all we want to be is lazy…”  —“Lazy” by Suede
  • “You thought you’d come and amaze me, honey / You thought you’d come on and amaze me with your money…”  —”Money” by Suede
  • “How many insults must you take in this one life? / I’m in prison most of the day…”  —”Don’t Talk To Me About Work” by Lou Reed
  • “Everybody’s working for the weekend…”  —Working for the Weekend” (1981) by Loverboy

[2]  Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving:  Against the Grain, this episode hosted by Sasha Lilley, for Tuesday, 12 APR 2016, 12:00 PDT.

[3]  Also see a previous article on the concept of a basic income guarantee for all, which includes notes on the more concrete Job Guarantee Programme, which is promoted by proponents of Modern Money Theory (or Modern Monetary Theory):

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[Image entitled “8hoursdaybanner 1856” by not known via Wikipedia; it is believed to be public domain.]

[14 APR 2016]

[Last modified  00:15 PDT  15 APR 2016]

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