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labor | political theory

Work and Work Moralists

As long as people feel handed over to the disgrace of being unemployed, as long as they are ashamed of a machine that offers less and less work to more and more people, as long as social legislation is whittled down, people are pestered to find something that hardly exists.

By Roberto J. De Lapuente

[This blog entry from May 11, 2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://ad.sinistram.blogspot.com/2008/05/die-arbeit.html.]

The one-dimensionality of the modern person is expressed wherever prevailing conditions are absolutized and made appealing again and again as the only possible form of social integration. The commodification of human labor, the exploitation of human energy called "profit maximization" is at the heart of every decision. This constant woven like a central thread even through little niches of everyday life influences the thinking of simple employees, workers, students etc and judges the usefulness of all acts. The extolled progress beckoning as a ray of hope and even salvation proclamation in the capitalist social structure like an idea of careless existence of a world to come justifies the drives of all actors while excluding the large majority of all people of this world - a world that shows real advances and improvements in many areas like medical progress. What good is a progressive treatment against AIDS if the benefits of such treatment - the healing of a human life, the restoration of human dignity because the sufferer is kept from dying on installments - if the costs relativize and flatten the benefits? Here the careless-capitalist world breaks down. False promises are sent into the world when "advances of products and services" are announced although "advances of profits" are meant.

The one-dimensionality of this society that makes cost-benefit analysis the basis of every action is expressed superficially in another way. That their labor is only for profit maximization is not made clear to people. For them, the salvation proclamation is of sweat in daily paid labor, the romanticism of the working and therefore useful person. While early socialists were skeptical whether the ennoblement of work conforms with the human inclination to idleness - we think of Paul Lafarge and his postulate "The Right to Laziness" - this upgrading of human effort that often leads into total physical and mental exploitation - individual safety laws only offer limited protection when entrepreneurs can apply pressure with the "reserve industrial army" is today more and more a discontinued model, really a relict of an extinct epoch when plenty of work or work galore could still be preached. Today's capitalist society chains its population to values and moral ideas that deify work as the crucial priority giving meaning and high social status.

A tight rein is kept on persons who are called "unemployed." This happens even though jobs become scarce - jobs that deserve to be called jobs and not pocket-money affairs where one works into poverty on installments and unemployment statistics indicate there is no upswing and will be no upswing. The "unemployed" are forced to search daily for a good that does not exist and cannot exist any more in sufficient quantity.

Experience teaches us every day that the person loses his pursuit or mad scramble for a job against machines and computers. We have few unemployed electronic systems but regularly high numbers of unemployed persons. Holding fast to the value labor as a basis of capitalist society dominates the individual. Work makes him a decision-making person who decides whether he belongs or is excluded. Work's absence plunges families into disaster. Individual unhappy ones stab themselves with knives to escape the shame. The economy keeps alive this absurd disgrace. As long as people feel handed over to the disgrace of being unemployed, as long as they are ashamed of a machine that offers less and less work to more and more people, as long as social legislation is whittled down without resistance, people are harassed to seek something that can hardly be found. Vivianne Forrester ("The Terror of the Economy") says persons on the stock exchange should feel shame because that exchange is the best raw material for holding to the antiquated salvation-fantasy of work. As work decides how someone is rated socially, the person of the work-based society believes only work can give meaning to life. Modern bustle offers a certain meaning but this only flanks the concrete meaning of the respective person. Someone without work but meaningfully occupied with free time contests this meaning because he expends energy for a meaning that seems absurd for the "work moralist."

We should not trivialize the fact that "work" really means "wage" or "salary." The glorification of this disappearing good also plays in here. The unemployed generally seek work, not a salary. Someone is recruited by a business because the nice-sounding name of the firm makes the exploitation lighter. "What creates work is social." Whoever seeks work and not a salary is socially respected.

When we deny work as a basis of our society, when we now realize that human labor is needed less and less, that fewer people are needed for a functioning economy, then the question is raised first of all what happens with those not of any use any more for the production run. Will we also subject them to a cost-benefit analysis? Will we pull out the weeds by the root one day and obliterate them? The last century has proven that the driving human force - based on the certainty of doing what is right and good - does not allow any humanity or know any compassion. What would an economy look like that provided for every person of this world - not fixated on costs and benefits - and ensured progress for all people?

When work disappears as a value, when work-based societies cannot be societies of the future, the profit-deity also disappears. Then the whole system is turned upside down and perhaps even torn down. Wasn't it the dream of all people to live in a world that cares for everyone and offers everyone the greatest possible happiness? Aren't the religious theme of Paradise and the utopia of the land of milk and honey based on this eternal human dream? Doesn't everyone try to arrange daily affairs so as little time as possible is spend on them? Don't we all pursue a certain form of private work rationalization? Businesses cannot be reproached for wanting to produce more quickly, more efficiently and more cheaply. However they should not proclaim the old value of the blessings of work.

The command socialist societies also ran aground by adopting a modified form of capitalism manifested in the "right to work" which was de facto a duty to life and death. A true socialism would satisfy human needs including the "right to laziness." What we witnessed in the last century was the struggle of two twins, not the struggle of capitalism and communism. The last century was a century of conflict between two capitalisms, two manifestations of the exploitation of human labor and its glorification as a value.

How long will it be until something appears that existed for centuries - in pre-capitalist times - and emerged out of beneficial work giving meaning and status: the necessity of safeguarding human dignity gladly avoided when it can be finished more quickly and comfortably? Until then much work faces us.

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