The Metaphysics of Work
The Historical Career of a Supra-Historical Term
By Robert Kurz
[This 1997 article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.krisis.de.]
In the language of modern western thought, the language of philosophy and science was more and more remote from the language of ordinary persons and became the secret language of an elite priest caste of knowledge separated from the rest of society. There are few terms that belong simultaneously to the sphere of theoretical reflection and the sphere of everyday life. "Work" is such a term that on one side represents a philosophical, economic and sociological category and on the other is applied to the life praxis of all people in a bewilderingly diverse way. This special character of the social significance of "work" refers to a universal connection of the modern world. No word is clearer on first view and no word is more unclear on second view.
In philosophy and social theory, no one made the term "work" the foundation of thought as much as Karl Marx. It was marxism that decisively emphasized the standpoint "work" to legitimate the great social movement of paid laborers in modern history. Philosophically "work" appeared for marxism as a supra-historical condition of the existence of people in their relation to nature. Economically according to this theory "work" as a universal form of human activity is degraded to a relation of exploitation by the rule of capitalist owners. Sociologically it is the "working class" that should form politically as the "party of labor" to end the social relation of the "exploitation of people by people" and gain a "liberation of work". This closed, self-contained and unshakable theory of society and history has lost its truth today; it appears antiquated and dusty. Nevertheless the term "work" retains its authority and its self-evidence. How can this strange state of affairs be explained?
Marxism has always attempted to claim "work" as a positive ideal and to delimit it from the alleged "non-work" of the middle class world and its representatives. In its caricatures, the socialist press of the 19th century represented capitalists as obese parasites or strollers who gained a pleasant and "unemployed" life at the expense of the working class. "Push the idler aside", the famous "Internationale", the hymn of the labor movement, proclaimed. The old feudal lords and the pensioners with great financial assets become concrete in this coarse stereotype, not modern managers. Industrial tycoons are slim, jog daily, have less free time than a plantation slave and renounce therapy because they are "work addicts".
In truth, "work" was always a middle class capitalist ideal long before socialism discovered this term. The praise of "work" is sung in the highest tones by Christian social doctrine. Liberalism has also canonized "work" and like marxism promises "liberation". All the conservative and radical rightwing ideologies worship "work" as a secularized god. "Work makes free" was inscribed above the gate of Auschwitz. Obviously the religion of "work" is the common reference system of all modern theories, political systems and social groups. They compete with one another in this religion by displaying the greatest piety...
When and in what context did this abstract general term of social and economic activity arise historically? In several cultures, the root of the word "work" describes an underage person, the dependent or slave. Thus "work" is not a neutral and rational term but a social abstraction, the activity of those who have lost their freedom. Whatever these people may do, whether they sweat in the mine or on the plantation, whether they bring the food as domestics in the house, accompany children to school or fan the air for the mistress, it is always the activity of a person defined as a servant. Existence as a servant is the substance of the abstraction "work".
This abstract term assumed the metaphorical connotation of suffering and unhappiness in antiquity. It is the suffering of the person who active in the negative sense "staggers under a burden"" This burden can also be invisible as the social burden of helplessness. "Work" is also interpreted as a curse of humanity imposed by God in the Old Testament of the Bible...
The "non-work" of the free and independent in antiquity should not be interpreted as idleness as in the vulgar-marxist literature. With Homer, the hero Odysseus was proud that he made his bed himself. Activity as such or manual labor was not dishonorable but the subsumption of the person under other people or under an "occupation". A free person could occasionally construct a bed or a cupboard but need not be a carpenter by profession. He could temporarily trade but need not be a trader. He could write poems from time to time but need not be a poet. Whoever was formally free but subject to paid labor in some branch of production all life long was "underage" in this activity and hardly regarded as more than a slave. Therefore the activity of the free amateur must by no means be more inept or poorer than the activity of the unfree "professional man". Exercising oneself in different skills and gaining knowledge is regarded as entirely respectable. From the fairy-tales of different societies, we could learn that kings' sons and princes had to learn a trade sometimes without "being" workmen subjected to the suffering of "work".
It was Christianity that first positively redefined the negative meaning of "work" as suffering and unhappiness. Faith demanded the "discipleship of Christ" because Christ's suffering on the cross redeems humanity. This meant joyfully accepting suffering. Thus Christianity ennobled suffering and "work" as a desirable goal in a masochism of faith. Monks and nuns in the convents submitted consciously and voluntarily to the abstraction "work" to lead a life in the suffering of Christ as "God's servants". In the history of humanity, the monastic discipline and order, the strict division of the day and monastic asceticism were the forerunners of the later factory discipline and the abstract linear era of operational rationality. This mission of "work" referred only the metaphorical meaning of the term as a religious acceptance of suffering with view to the world to come. No positive earthly goal was pursued.
Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist form, first made the Christian masochism of suffering into a worldly theme. The believing person should not take the pains of "work" on himself as "God's servant" in monastic seclusion but have success in the profane earthly world to prove his election by God. Naturally he could not enjoy the fruits of success without losing the divine grace in Christ's discipleship. With a sour expression he must make the result of "work" into constantly new "work" and ceaselessly accumulate abstract riches without pleasure.
This Protestant mentality joined with the money hunger of absolutist early modern states and their militarization of the economy. If the early Christian way of suffering in "work" was a voluntarily chosen way, the state now made it the compulsory social law. The religious motive of positive suffering mutated into the secularized social end-in-itself of "work" masked as "economic rationality". In this way, the formally free persons of the modern age were subsumed altogether under that underage form of activity that appeared in antiquity as slavery and therefore as suffering.
Free self-determined activity was reduced to the lifetime waste of so-called "free time". The central sphere of "work" purified as an abstract end-in-itself separated the spheres of housing, culture, education, play and life. "Going to work" gradually had the same meaning as "going to church" although modern society soon forgot the historical and religious origin of "work". What is left is the positive redefined character of an unhappy negative state of affairs. People have accustomed themselves to sacrificing their own life on the altar of "work" stylizing submission under a foreign-determined "job" as happiness.
Liberalism and marxism adopted this religion of "work" from Protestantism and from the absolutist regimes and perfected its secularization. In the global totality of endlessly burrowing activity, slavery has become freedom and freedom has become slavery, namely the voluntary acceptance of a suffering without meaning. "Work" replaces God and hence all persons are not "God's servants". Management is also part of "work" and takes the earthly cross of suffering on itself to find its masochistic power. The Homeric hero Odysseus scorned the so-called rulers as miserable slaves because they bowed under the yoke of "work" and committed themselves to the social form of underage existence.
The miserable "free time" today is only a continuance of "work" with other means as the leisure industry demonstrates. The logic of "work" seizes the fragmented areas and penetrates culture, play and even intimacy. Simultaneously development of the scienticized productive forces leads the liberal and marxist metaphysics of "work" to absurdity. The positive principle of suffering can no longer be maintained because capitalism has begun to liberate "work" from people... Social emancipation in the future can no longer be conceived with a positive "idea of "work". Nothing is left to people than to reverse the results of capitalism and liberate themselves from "work". This historical end of positive suffering would not be the end of human activity in relation to nature, only the end of unreflected underage status. Even if the voluntary servants want to persist unconditionally in the form of suffering, the time of historical masochism is over.