The Work Ethic

I feel like the points made in this article work on some level, but I’m uncomfortable with them on many other levels. Let’s talk about the work ethic, its validity to people, the way it may or not be used to manipulate people in our economic system, and its relation to ideas like the UBI.

What is the point of full employment?
Why do we have to put everybody to work? In these terms, full employment becomes a punitive program. A way of saying you must earn your keep. You must be a producer of something. Why in the world do we have to think of ourselves as producers of goods—whether actual durable goods or the kind that you’re producing with this radio show? Why? What is the imperative, what is the constraint at work here? I don’t see that we need that identity anymore.

Is there a rational or justifiable relationship between effort and reward, work and income?
The original title of the book was, as you know, Fuck Work, and a few people said, “Well, wait a minute, aren’t you demeaning the work ethic? Aren’t you trivializing what most people feel about work?” So as an author of a book that mostly denigrates work and says it’s a sickness unto death and that it’s almost literally killing us, I wanted to say I know how it feels. I know what it feels like to want to work. But we’ve got to get over it.
One of the things that I do that might be controversial is that I both criticize and enlist Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in the argument to say we are living with a slave morality. That’s what the work ethic has become. We go to work, and we’re pretty diligent about it, and yet 25% of the people who are actually employed live below the poverty line. A fifth of American children live below the poverty line. Forty to fifty percent of the people who are employed in this country are eligible for food stamps. They don’t apply for them, because it’s embarrassing. But they’re eligible.
The labor market, as you pointed out, is simply broken. Although at the end of the book I say that maybe the labor market has actually been perfected, along the lines that capital always wanted.
Since I started writing the book, I keep discussing it with my students, and they’re pretty adamant about having a work ethic. Part of the argument in the book is that we need a guaranteed annual income, and that we already have the groundwork for doing that without worrying about what happens to the work ethic. But my students often say, “Wait a minute, if everybody has the same income, what if I want to start a company, or what if I have an invention, or what if I want to work really hard and make a lot of money?” And I say, “Fine! What’s the constraint?”
If we do a basic guaranteed annual income (which, by the way, is not a left or a right idea; it has an unpredictable political valence) it doesn’t stop you from working your ass off if you feel like it. It doesn’t stop you from starting a company. Let’s say we give everybody forty thousand dollars as a basic annual income. Does that stop you from killing yourself to write the Great American Novel or to start some silly-ass company that provides another app on your phone? No. It doesn’t.
The relationship between work and income is already broken. That’s one. We know how to detach income from work. That’s two. So what, then, is the point of us insisting that there is some transparent, rational, or justifiable relationship between effort and reward, work and income?


Must we ‘earn our keep’?
In No More Work, you try to “broaden [your] indictment of the moral universe, where we must ‘earn our keep’ if we are to be true to ourselves, where meaningful work and the production of goods is somehow better for us than indolent leisure and the consumption of goods.”
Now, leisure and consumption might be better, but aren’t they impossible without work? Isn’t what little happiness we have outside of work only possible because of work? Isn’t work the cost of happiness?
JL: The simple answer is no. In part because, again, the correlation between income and work has been broken. Now we could say that that means the labor market is broken; people are not getting paid what they’re worth—and not enough to even reproduce labor power. What are the inputs? Food. Shelter. Clothing. Some modicum of leisure (the historical and moral element, as Marx said). Working doesn’t guarantee any of that—we are reaching a point where labor is worthless altogether.
If that’s true, if I’m right about this, then what is the point of full employment? Why do we have to put everybody to work? In these terms, full employment becomes a punitive program. A way of saying you must earn your keep. You must be a producer of something. Why in the world do we have to think of ourselves as producers of goods—whether actual durable goods or the kind that you’re producing with this radio show? Why? What is the imperative, what is the constraint at work here? I don’t see that we need that identity anymore.
Look at it this way. The most basic product of a post-industrial society like ours is information. And it is, practically speaking, free. Why is that? It’s because your labor, and my labor, is becoming worthless.
CM: But media companies still make billions and billions of dollars a year. Disney made close to sixty billion dollars last year. These media companies need content to make money, so how worthless is the work of content providers when they’re providing content to a company that’s making sixty billion dollars a year?


Can we enjoy leisure without work?
Now, leisure and consumption might be better, but aren’t they impossible without work? Isn’t what little happiness we have outside of work only possible because of work? Isn’t work the cost of happiness?
JL: The simple answer is no. In part because, again, the correlation between income and work has been broken. Now we could say that that means the labor market is broken; people are not getting paid what they’re worth—and not enough to even reproduce labor power. What are the inputs? Food. Shelter. Clothing. Some modicum of leisure (the historical and moral element, as Marx said). Working doesn’t guarantee any of that—we are reaching a point where labor is worthless altogether.
If that’s true, if I’m right about this, then what is the point of full employment? Why do we have to put everybody to work? In these terms, full employment becomes a punitive program. A way of saying you must earn your keep. You must be a producer of something. Why in the world do we have to think of ourselves as producers of goods—whether actual durable goods or the kind that you’re producing with this radio show? Why? What is the imperative, what is the constraint at work here? I don’t see that we need that identity anymore.
Look at it this way. The most basic product of a post-industrial society like ours is information. And it is, practically speaking, free. Why is that? It’s because your labor, and my labor, is becoming worthless.

Our labor is nearly worthless, yet companies make billions a year?
CM: But media companies still make billions and billions of dollars a year. Disney made close to sixty billion dollars last year. These media companies need content to make money, so how worthless is the work of content providers when they’re providing content to a company that’s making sixty billion dollars a year?
JL: That’s a really good question. That raises the fundamental question of income inequality. The historical and moral element that Marx insisted on in determining the value of labor—how has that gone missing? I mean, that’s another reason full employment is a bad idea. It doesn’t let us address the issue of income inequality.
Is income inequality going to be solved by full employment? I can’t see how. Full employment is going to be determined by the minimum wage. Where does that get us? In other words, why do we have to keep working our asses off for these people, and they’re reaping all the benefits? Saying Disney makes billions of dollars is not a way of saying labor is not worthless. It means that the derivation of income is so out of whack that we have to address it to begin with as an intellectual issue and then as a political issue.
Yeah, they’re making a lot of money. Companies are so profitable that it’s insane. Apple is sitting on a trillion dollars. The banks are sitting on more. Why aren’t they investing? Because they don’t have to. That’s the key economic element here. They don’t have to invest. Full employment is already here. Unemployment is under five percent now. Has that made a difference in income inequality? No. Not at all. So it’s a deeper, broader intellectual (and political) problem than we’re letting on by falling back on full employment.

Jobs have been disappearing in America for the last 100 years
JL: No, I think the market actually perfected itself, shall we say. I hate to say that. But no, let’s look at the data first. Since the 1920s there have been net losses in goods-production jobs. They have returned from the dead, but only through war spending. That is to say, the military industrial complex brought capitalism back to life in the 1950s by public spending, by placing demand on that capacity.
But since the 1920s economists have been worried about—and complaining about—this net loss of jobs in goods production (manufacturing, transportation, construction and so forth). In the 1950s, in fact, you can’t find a social scientist, an historian—it’s hard even to find a literary critic who isn’t concerned about where the jobs are going. Daniel Bell said in 1956 that it’s not just that jobs are disappearing or that workers are being displaced; it’s that work itself is being displaced. It’s disappearing. So that conversation has being going on for a long, long time. Almost a hundred years now. Since the 1920s.
If we look at the data, there’s been no gain in the goods-production labor force since the 1920s except as it has been induced by war spending. None. And we’ve been complaining about the loss of manufacturing jobs since the 1970s. So there’s that. It’s a trend that is, practically speaking, a century old. So is it the perfection of capitalism? Yeah, you could say that.
Now, the data. Two Oxford economists looked into the job classifications that the Labor Department has used for fifty years to chart employment trends and so forth, and they say at least half, maybe two thirds of these job classifications are at risk of computerization. They’re following the example of two MIT economists. There’s a new book called The Rise of the Robots—and it’s social science, not science fiction—which cites these very sources.
The Oxford economists say that non-routine, cognitive tasks (part of the job classifications that they are deploying) are also at risk of computerization. What does that mean, “non-routine, cognitive task”? It’s thinking. The automation of our time is new in that sense, that we can replace thinking human beings with these machines. That, to me, is a plea: let’s get over the idea that to have a legitimate income (that is, an income that can be justified socially and intellectually and all the rest of it) requires you to work. The jobs are disappearing. Why in the world do we insist, then, on full employment as the solution?


American people are already receiving handouts
Here’s the thing. On the one hand, twenty percent of all household income in the United States of America comes from a transfer payment from government. So we’re all on the dole, in that sense, and if we weren’t on the dole, we’d all be on the poverty line. That goes for everybody, except the rich people.


there has never been a free market in labor
And it’s not just black folk who have suffered from this systematic exclusion and discrimination. It’s also women. One of the great ironies of our time, it seems to me, is that after the long exclusion of women from the workforce—which has been rectified to some extent in our time—the kind of work available to us now, in the 21st century but also in the late twentieth century, is what we used to call “women’s work.” Health, education, and service. That’s it.
And that’s because the labor of goods-production (at which men used to excel) has been disappearing now for almost a hundred years, so what we have left is to try to figure out how to love one another, how to be our brother’s keeper, how to do again what was stereotypically and stupidly called women’s work. That’s what we have left.
Now let’s get on with it. But let’s know that women’s work has been traditionally underpaid, just like the work of black folk. Let’s rectify that too. In other words, detach the receipt of income from the performance of work.

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