Work-centered societies must be recognized as the key to the ongoing planetary crisis, argues Maja Hoffmann in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, and asks: who then is the subject of political struggle and change toward a radical reduction, reorganization, and re-evaluation of work?
At this point in history, all human activity and inactivity must be directed toward stopping the destruction of life on Earth. To this end, we need everyone to join a movement against work and productivism.
To be clear, a movement against work is obviously not in principle against necessary activity to secure one’s livelihood. Nor is it a movement against precarious workers struggling to make ends meet – though too many workers are at the exploiting rather than the exploited end of the spectrum of modern industrial destruction. What’s meant is a movement against work in its specific modern form as commodified employment with its norms and institutions that constitute the work-based society.
This includes the modern work culture and ethic that prevent even emancipatory movements from imagining, desiring, and demanding activities and a life beyond work (hence the widespread but in many ways problematic idea to expand the notion of work to incorporate all kinds of activity while leaving the system of modern waged work largely untouched). In other words, we need a movement against work as a global system, as a cult and way of life, as the “necessary center of social existence, moral duty, ontological essence, and time and energy” in modern societies.
The unsustainability of work
In this particular historical-cultural form, work is structurally unsustainable. It is one of the main drivers of the ecological crisis: work always necessarily entails resource and energy use with the resulting pollution and destruction (as well as indirect environmental impacts from the time-use, income/consumption, mobility, and infrastructure patterns work conditions and necessitates), currently at scales that clearly exceed several biophysical limits. To give an example: taking climate change mitigation in line with the Paris Agreement seriously means that work in modern industrial economies must be substantially reduced or entirely phased out and its energy basis completely reorganized. However, work in a number of sectors is not only structurally dependent on fossil fuels, but also classified as socially essential – these areas of work should be hotspots of concern for any serious eco-social politics.
Work is also inapt to support human and non-human life in a sustainable way: while waged work still assures a livelihood for a considerable share of the world’s population, it not only undermines the ecological conditions of life but is increasingly precarious and, as long as organized according to market logic, uninterested in fulfilling social and ecological needs.
Work is thirdly a major structural obstacle for a social-ecological transformation: modern societies are structurally dependent on work in various ways which is why work cannot simply be reduced or changed even if we wanted to. Work and the work-centred society therefore need to be recognized as a key ecological problem and the various dependencies need to be tackled systematically – something which is currently at best superficially discussed in public debates and largely absent from the political agenda.
The complicity of labor
The historical labor movement and the political Left, including much of Marxist theory with its glorification of work and mystification of the ‘worker,’ is complicit in this state of affairs. The labor movement has traditionally struggled for improvements within the confines of capitalism, usually compromising for the common aim of industrial productivity, capitalist expansion, and the growth-based welfare state. More an ally of capital than of environmentalism, the main demands of labor struggles to this day are not for systemic change but for more jobs, higher wages and better working conditions, usually accompanied by the familiar moralizing discourse about work as a virtue and an end in itself. There are notable exceptions that should be celebrated and fostered, however they are usually limited to single industries or otherwise limited in scope, and a few exceptions don’t change a system.
Key demands for a movement against work
‘System change not climate change’ would imply to address the relentless centrality of work and productivism in modern society – to radically question and challenge work, its norms, and institutions and explore the prospects of:
First, a substantial reduction of work – as a direct mitigation measure in the spirit of selective degrowth (i.e. reducing work foremost according to where it is most destructive and most useless), not in the spirit of a productivist “green army of labor” (i.e. the assumption that we need to work more than ever to come to terms with the ecological crisis, something Ivan Illich would have called the modern tendency “to solve a crisis by escalation”). To give a rough idea of the scale of the necessary reduction of work: to stay within a 2°C-compatible carbon budget, working hours in OECD countries would need to be as low as five hours per week.
Second, the re-evaluation of work – differentiating work according to its social and ecological value and purpose: Instead of promoting job creation, full employment, and workfare coercion, no matter what kind of work at what cost, we need debates and new institutions to determine what kinds of work are ecologically sustainable and what kinds are not, what work is needed and what is not, what should be reduced, abandoned, prioritized, and reorganized. Such debates started decades ago and got reinvigorated with the sudden prominence of “essential labor” during the pandemic, and we need to continue, deepen, and institutionalize them.
Third, the reorganization of work – to ensure that making a living is no longer reliant on unmaking life, which includes phasing out fossil fuels (i.e. the full-scale reduction and restructuring of society’s energy basis), reconstructing care, establishing a basic income and enhanced services and infrastructures of non-commodified social provisioning (and much more). Decisive are new institutions of democratic control over the economy based on organizing principles such as economic democracy, the commons and democratic planning beyond labor markets and the workfare state. And this is also where most research and political experimentation is currently needed.
Fourth, the refusal of work – refusing to give one’s time and labor power to a failed, destructive system, rethinking the place of productivism in our lives and whether a life worth living should really be so subordinated to work, organizing small and large and general strikes as a powerful political weapon, and enjoying ecological idleness as the single most effective measure (and perhaps our last resort) for environmental protection. The lazier we are, the less world we use and pollute.
Fifth, seeking inspiration from the majority world – where formal waged work has never been the norm, but where people are accustomed to assembling their livelihoods in a myriad of ways, some of which explicitly reject and turn against the norms and structures of modern waged work, despite all developmentalist discourses denigrating these diverse other forms of making a living as underdeveloped and backward.
Who is the subject of change?
Who then is the subject of political struggle and change towards a radical reduction, reorganization, and ethical relegation of work? This question was asked four decades ago by André Gorz, who suggested that the “social subject of the abolition of work” and the “liberation of time” might be the “non-class of non-workers,” those many who are allergic to work and its sacralization, seeing it as a mere tedious necessity, an imposition and a waste of their lives. Today, there are many promising signs and examples of a corresponding shift in attitudes and aspirations toward work that point to an ongoing, deeper cultural shift – a shift that is not only articulated in theory, but increasingly translated into actual lived practices:
Examples include the recent globally successful campaigns for shorter workweeks, Millennials and Gen Z’ers confidently abandoning the work ethic, burnout, and hustle culture of the older generations; a heightened public awareness of (non-)“essential labor” and the varying social value of work during the pandemic; widespread dissatisfaction with work prominently articulated as bullshit jobs; empirical studies of people deliberately reducing hours or stopping working entirely; the US-American r/antiwork (“unemployment for all, not just the rich!”); great resignation and quiet quitting phenomena along with an apparently widespread longing for an approach to activity and time inspired by militant unproductiveness, uselessness and refusal; the Chinese Tangping/Lying Flat and similar movements across Asian countries; tireless UBI advocates; a flourishing artistic postwork production; or a best-selling Afrofuturist-womanist Nap Ministry calling for rest as resistance, rest as reparations and for joining the rest movement to realize its liberating power.
What these diverse attitudes, approaches, and struggles from around the world have in common – besides their open sympathy for post-work ideas, practices, and politics – is that they address the problem not (only) as “workers” but as full human beings who want to live a livable future on a living planet, or, again in Gorz’s words, as “all those who refuse to be nothing but workers.” This nascent movement against work needs to be more boldly articulated and promoted, and its ecological value more clearly explained; it may be one of our last chances.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds