Struggles for Work Beyond the Wage: Keep Kindling Rebellious Spirits and Other Imaginaries of Work

The idea that what makes us human is working for a living is central to Eurocentric modernity. This is a white, masculinist idea that is universal and inclusive primarily in the sense that its implementation has made everyone dream of wage labor to pay for individual consumption and thus sustain the capitalist productivity and growth that is ruining the planet. To counter this toxic, destructive hegemony of wage labor society, we must imagine and inspire new, unprecedented alliances among all different exploited workers, argues scholar-activist Manuela Zechner in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.


Wage labor has been part of modernist hegemony – built on petrol, industry, urbanization, extractivism, exploitation – so perhaps we can’t dismantle the master’s house with it. How might we escape the capitalist and heteropatriatchal ideology of the wage, and the liberal-colonial notion of inclusion into work, to radically reimagine work and life in contexts of social and ecological ruin? Learning from feminists, decolonial and indigenous thinkers, this text is an invitation to build struggles within, against, and beyond the wage, as well as wild and weird workers alliances.

Work’ is performative: what do we want it to do?

When we talk (or write) about work, we’re doing a performative thing. Feminists have known this for a long time, as they struggled to have reproductive activities valued, wanting care, community and domestic work and toils to become visible, appreciated, shared. Subaltern and precarious workers laboring under conditions of informality, from colonial regimes and all the way up to contemporary neoliberal exploitation, have also known and know what it means to work without being seen as a worker, let alone an employee. Slaves, servants, serfs, apprentices, housewives, artists, prisoners, the unemployed – many feel the pinch of the word ‘work’ when they know themselves to be exempt from the legitimizing power of this category, albeit in very different ways. Knowing themselves to be producing value, wealth, capital for others, as a force of reproduction or reserve army of labor.

Work is a category that people are included into in differential ways, and that serves the accumulation of capital. Much of this is old news, but worth remembering in order to question what we mean when we say work. More importantly: what can it means to struggle within, against, and beyond work today, in a way that goes against exploitation as well as extraction? Work not as a liberal miracle solution to ‘poverty’ or ‘climate change’ but work that goes against the grain of the exploitation-extraction nexus, in its logic, value or organization – what would that be? We cannot imagine such change on the basis of wage work alone. Ecosyndicalism needs to involve a deeper shift that greening jobs and replacing some tech with other tech, some energy with other energy, one kind of extraction with another. Ecounionism, as Dieterich and Gutiérrez write on this platform, needs to challenge the system as such. This has many facets; one of them is to look beyond the wage, to kindle other ways of relating and organizing work in relation to life.

Toxic wages?

Waged work is historically, geographically, and demographically anecdotal, and all but the only possible or desirable way of laboring today. Work as waged work first spread in a context of enclosures and a concentration of land ownership, of people stepping out of subsistence to serve others. For some, home becomes separate from work. In modern industrial capitalism, waged work comes to be the ideological centerpiece of both capitalist and socialist ideas of progress. Industrial workers movements arise because wage labor tends to be exploitative: it means working for a boss that most people don’t get to choose, despite the ‘freedom’ to sell one’s labor. Workers’ movements innovate, organize, and come to be seen as primary agents of transformation. In modernity, left and right agree: waged work and its workers are the key historical subjects.

But now on top of being exploitative, capitalist waged work increasingly also turns out to be toxic, destructive of the living tissues of the world, in our age of ecological breakdown. This doesn’t apply to industrial work only, it also applies to tech-based production and services: consuming high amounts of so-called resources, energy, and space, that all need to be cheap just like labor. To be cheap, they need to come from afar. The farther from home, the better. Displacing some, including others. When those of us who’ve always been included suddenly panic about climate and ecological breakdown and fear for our lives, we should remember that for everyone else, the violence of capitalism’s colonial extraction, poisoning, displacement has long been a series of ancestral catastrophes (as Elizabeth A. Povinelli argues alongside the Karrabing Film Collective).

Multilayered collage: Remix of film stills from the Karrabing Film Collective showing struggles of workers and indigenous peoples; superimposed: wasp swarm and figure of happy black worker advertising. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

The centrality of waged work is not coincidental in all this. The work that counts as most productive in capitalism is waged work, whether in modern industrial or post-industrial information-based regimes. It’s not the care, education, or service work that reproduces societies, is often part of public systems, and is generally much less toxic and resource-intensive. Nor of course, all the unpaid reproductive work that sustains societies and still makes up the bulk of work time even in rich countries; that’s an endless source of externalization that doesn’t even gets seen, counted or valorized for the most part. A known problem: some work is valued and protected more than other work. The way to solve it, however, is disputed: more inclusion of undervalued work in the market and thus wage, or more community-based organization of work – or both?

One argument for expanding community-based work: as reproduction becomes more difficult outside the capitalist market, more people become dependent on wage labor, and more worlds and ecosystems are enclosed and exploited. While wages may allow some to escape from nasty informal dependencies, they also foster larger and more abstract circuits of reproduction that are synchronized with the extractive logic of capitalism. They bring more enclosure, alienation and accumulation, more competition and differential inclusion. Wages tend to reinforce the separation between home and work, reproductive and productive. This separation has been spun as pure liberation, but as many feminists, indigenous communities, commoners, and peasants (among others) will attest, that’s a very one-sided argument spun by capitalists.

Along with ideas of humanity and progress, wages are a pillar of liberal thought. But with the ecological crisis, many liberal ideas are looking shakier. The people, communities and ecosystems that have long been extracted from, poisoned, and ridiculed are coming back to haunt us all. The river greets our city as a flood, burning trees fill our houses with smoke, bodies wash up on the shore, toxins silently sicken… Thousands of ecomodernist calls for calm and millions of green jobs will not save us from this. If work means wages as money for consumption and thus also extraction, more production and economic growth, more separation between home and work, then work will be what brings us down. No matter how much we ridicule, fear and persecute all the others of salaried work, no matter how much we sexualize, racialize, and dehumanize them.

Primitive accumulation can also take place at the level of the imaginary: reduce all ideas of social reproduction to the formula of paid and waged labor, to job, pension, property, consumption. Reduce all ideas of work to ideas of dominating nature, of taking things, of mastering others. Reduce all debates around work to the liberal hegemonizing formula of including people in work, in the economy, the dream of full employment. If there were full employment, and therefore full production and consumption, would there still be a living planet? We may (finally) laugh at the idea of full-luxury communism, but have we really emancipated ourselves from its logical fallacy? Can we reimagine work beyond exploitation and extraction if we can’t also reimagine life beyond consumption, private property and leisure?

Not all struggles around work are waged worker’s struggles

We need to pay attention to all the struggles around work, and – this is key – to the different demands, imaginaries and organizations they forge. What configurations of labor do they enable in relation to life? While wage labor struggles are vital when people depend on a wage, let’s be very clear about where, when, for whom, under what conditions they happen, and that they can at the same time work toward horizons beyond the wage and subvert it.

Emancipatory struggles around work strive for autonomy…

Whether or not they include wage demands, emancipatory struggles for work are always about creating autonomy, breaking unwanted bonds of power and dependency. The kinds of demands people can make to gain autonomy and returns for their labor vary widely: from access to land, to freedom of movement, to goods, housing, wages, pensions, mobility, control over the means of re/production, and so on.

and interdependence

If our labor has the capacity to transform everything in the world, we must be able to shape it into the kind of meaningful, common, and caring activity we want. Our work needs to belong to an ‘us’ that isn’t just humans domineering over nature, over other animals, other life forms. We don’t need be sovereign as a species or class, rather to value, revisit, and forge interdependence without fear.

Ecosyndicalism undoes pride and privilege

Transformative ecosyndicalist struggles are, in fact, not only about work, but also about how we want to live: not seen as a question of what goods and lifestyles we can afford (the poor definition of life or wealth), but about how we can sustain our lives, in common. Ecosyndicalism will cultivate our radical, rooted, embodied, and situated desire to break out of the dichotomy of work time and spare time, out of the meaninglessness of alienated work, and out of industrial or technoscientific pride and arrogance. It will undo the idea that wages are a license to extract and consume, rooted in the same petromasculinity that centers white, wage-earning workers over all other beings (Cara New Daggett has more on this). Ecosyndicalism will undo aspirations to be part of the salaried few, and cultivate labor cultures steeped in vulnerability and care.

Salaried and waged life are not universal, nor are they all we can imagine…

So when we talk about work, we should not just mean waged work. Reproductive work, (earth)care work, community work, shadow work, subsistence work, unpaid work, autoregulated work, unwaged work,and on and on – what workers’ struggles can we pay attention to, learn from, draw uncomfortable lessons from? We don’t need to find a universal definition of work, but to pluralize its meanings. A while back, Ned Rossiter and Brett Neilson pointed out that Fordism may be a historical and geographical exception rather than something we can generalize from and take as horizon forever. It’s a similar story with the wage.

or desire

Who really dreams of full employment, full time jobs, wages for everything? Aside from full employment being ideological fiction, capitalist wage work also sucks. With it comes measure, contract, a boss, loss of self-determination, and freedom with one’s time: is that a good life? Is it preferable to have a solid wage and little time for relating outside the wage/consumption spiral, or would we rather have more time to build other kinds of relation and reproduction? Build cooperative wage work for ourselves, at least? This question comes up increasingly as temporary jobs lead nowhere, as we stop believing in that promise of a stable job or career, as work turns out to be meaningless (bullshit jobs) and/or indeed toxic (batshit work). We can dream of more than jobs.

Build mo(ve)ments of subversion

Around 2000, precarity movements in Europe questioned the accessibility and desirability of solid and full employment in neoliberal economies – staging Mayday parades of precarious workers, building networks and pride, linking movements of cultural and knowledge workers, migrant workers, sex workers… After 2008, anti-austerity movements fought cuts and defended the public sector, built translocal solidarity networks and set up soup kitchens, precarity offices, occupied banks and squares, and oriented themselves towards notions of universal basic income, commons and care economies, and cooperativism. Around the summer of migration in 2015, refugee solidarity movements pushed for migrants’ rights to work and stay. Starting in 2017, feminist movements rose up again to question what it means to work, this time through strikes. Massive care strikes have marked days of feminist solidarity and celebration, leaving men to care for children and kitchens, and suspending heteropatriarchal divisions of labor as well as organizations of care.

Inclusion, no thanks: escaping the wage imaginary in good company

Feminist strikes and community care struggles are not out there to ask for inclusion in the world of ‘real work.’ Similarly, emancipatory indigenous struggles aren’t about being included in liberal democracy or, as Povinelli says, in toxic late liberalism (see also her book “Between Gaia and Ground”). Indigenous thinker and activist Ailton Krenak prefers not to be counted as part of ‘humanity,’ a notion that separates humans from their living worlds, and has been part and parcel of colonialist enterprises and the destruction of indigenous forms of life (see his book “Ideas to Postpone the End of the World”). When rioting kids, welfare mothers, peasant communities, nomadic peoples and others prefer not to be included in the world of wage labor, they probably know what they’re saying. They’re our allies in getting out of the horrible impasse of toxic liberal capitalism.

Build bastard alliances

In the words of María Galindo, better be a bastard feminist than be absorbed by the representational logic of the modern state and identity politics (see her book “Feminismo Bastardo” or this interview). Better build a politics of weird alliances, of alliances between those who are not meant to come together: a good example of that, I would say, is wage earners and other workers. We can build wild alliances between different people who work, different struggles against work and for life, horizons and infrastructures worth maintaining. We can build crazy and careful strikes, make subversive demands (‘wages for housework,’ ‘wages for homework’!), slack off and share work meaningfully, because these things have effects and open up new possibilities.

Reclaim the means of reproduction and kinship

Povinelli invites us to refuse the notion that we distinguish ourselves from animals because we work, because some of us try build human immortality at the expense of the others forced to inhabit the heaps of toxicity our modern immortality is built upon. In practice, that’s about a struggle to reclaim the means of reproduction, first and foremost the land and our relationship to it as earth and soil; it involves making kin (and especially oddkin, as Donna Haraway called it); and it involves imagining forward as well as looking back to undo, repair, reclaim. Earthcare, agroecology, peasant struggle, care based incomes, self-managed factories, cooperativism, ecological reparation, commons economies, degrowth, ruralities, interdependence, vulnerability, doing away with the idea that we’re there to control nature, with our sovereign performance.

Beyond petromasculine and ecomodernist fear

There’s still a lot of masculinist modernist subjectivity – and associated fears and loathing – floating around when it comes to reimagining and reinventing work. There may be a growing consensus that modernist petromasculinity has to go, but we can’t just have ecomodernist masculinity in its place. We probably can’t undo either of these toxic forms of subjectivity without eventually undoing “the essential emblem of modern masculinity: a job to make a living” (Daggett). The pride and identity of having a job has a flip side: a great fear of losing that job, which leads down very reactionary paths. What is true of carbon jobs is probably true of green jobs too. That’s why we need to imagine forms of work that are connected to the world not through a capitalist technoscientific paradigm of control, but through earthcare labor, community management, and cooperativism.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

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