Posts Tagged ‘work’


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Students are much too busy to think these days. So, when a junior comes to talk with me about the possibility of my directing their senior thesis, I ask them about their topic—and then their schedule. I explain to them that, if they really want to do a good project, they’re going to have to quit half the things they’re involved in.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. “Really?! But I’ve signed up for all these interesting clubs and volunteer projects and intramural sports and. . .” I then patiently explain that, to have the real learning experience of a semester or year of independent study, they need time, a surplus of time. They need to have the extra time in their lives to get lost in the library or to take a break with a friend, to read and to daydream. In other words, they need to have the right to be lazy.

So does everyone else.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Paul LaFargue argued, in a scathing attack on the capitalist work ethic, “The Right To Be Lazy,” back in 1883.

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).


Today, nothing seems to have changed. Workers (or at least those who claim to champion the cause of workers) demand high-paying jobs and full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official unemployment rate has declined in recent years, the labor-force participation rate in the United States has fallen dramatically and remains much too low.

Mainstream economists and their counterparts in the world of politics and policymaking—both liberals and conservatives—never cease to preach the virtues of work and in every domain, from minimum-wage legislation to economic growth, seek to promote more people getting more jobs to perform more work.

hours worked

This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the “work ethic” remains particularly strong. The number of hours worked per year has fallen in all advanced countries since the middle of the twentieth century but, as is clear from the chart above, in comparison with France and Germany, the average has declined by much less in America and Britain.


Today, according to the OECD, American and British workers spend much more time working per year (1765 and 1675 hours, respectively) than their French and German counterparts (1474 and 1371 hours, respectively).

But in all four countries—and, really, across the entire world—the capitalist work ethic prevails. Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

That’s the utopian impulse inherent in the right to be lazy.


Special mention

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work harder

According to the Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness represents a growing health epidemic in the United States.

We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

As it turns out, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It also inhibits people’s ability to think creatively and work productively.

Murthy also notes that people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their families. So, he suggests that “the workplace is one of the most important places to cultivate social connections” and that employers should follow a series of steps (from evaluating the current state of connections in their workplaces to creating opportunities to learn about their colleagues’ personal lives) in order to create “an environment that embraces the unique identities and experiences of employees inside and outside the workplace.”

The one thing Murthy doesn’t suggest is giving employees more of a say in their workplaces. He takes it as a given that there is a small group of employers, who hire workers and decide how work will be done, and a much larger group of employees, who follow the diktats of their employers (although he does acknowledge that perhaps half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles).

Therefore, Murthy doesn’t even consider the possibility that workers might want to play a decisionmaking role in the places where they spend the majority of their waking hours—and that making decisions as a community or collectivity, instead of just working for someone else, might play a significant role in reducing loneliness on the job and in the wider society.

We already knew a great deal about the perilous condition of the American working-class and the terrible condition of the American workplace. Now we know that American workers are facing an epidemic of social estrangement and individual loneliness.

It’s about time, then, that we rethink the way corporations are structured and allow workers to play in role in deciding—equally and democratically—how workplaces are organized and how corporations manage their operations.

That one change in the economy would have enormous implications, by improving the condition of the working-class, their workplaces, and the degree of loneliness.


It’s about time someone pointed out the obvious: “Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.”

We generally don’t talk that way, of course. However, as Elizabeth Anderson [ht: ja] explains, contemporary workplaces are like private governments, in which employers have dictatorial powers over their workers—and workers have almost no say in how they are governed.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Dictatorship in the workplace—after workers are forced to freely sell their ability to work in the labor market—seems obvious to me and many other heterodox economists. But it’s certainly not obvious to mainstream economists, who like their classical predecessors continue to celebrate the freedom and mutual benefit of wage contracts and the efficiency of firms that are ruled by the representatives of the property owners.*

What is even more interesting, at least to me, is the way Anderson mentions the issue of time and then seems to let it slide.

Here’s how she begins her essay:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

But then Anderson, after mentioning “time theft,” moves on to the various ways employers exercise dictatorial control over their workers and forgets about time. But isn’t time what the employer-worker relationship is all about—the reason that employers act like dictators and workers are forced to surrender almost all their rights while they are working?

What is mostly absent from Anderson’s analysis is time, especially the distinction between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. During part of the workday, employees—whether at Walmart, GM, or Google—work for themselves, and thus receive a wage equal to the value of their ability to work. But they continue working and during those extra hours they aren’t working for themselves, but for their employers. That’s time that’s stolen from the workers, which forms the basis of their employers’ profits.

So, the real “time theft” is not what workers do to their employers, exactly the opposite, what employers do to their workers—when, after necessary labor-time is completed, workers are forced to have the freedom to engage in surplus labor-time.

Thus, when Amazon workers exchange casual remarks while on duty, they’re cutting into the surplus labor-time due to their employers. The half-hour Apple workers wait in line to be searched, for which they are not paid, is a way of making sure that particular activity doesn’t cut into the surplus-time due to their employers. By the same token, when Tyson prevents its’ poultry workers from using the bathroom, who are then forced to urinate on themselves, less time is being spent engaged working for themselves and more for their employers.

In other words, under conditions of workplace dictatorship, time is stolen from workers to  benefit their employers.

Furthermore, because employers, and not workers, are the ones who appropriate the benefits of surplus labor-time, it puts workers in the position of continuing to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and to submit to the dictates of their employers.

Thus, “time theft” is both a condition and consequence of the private dictatorship of employers in the workplace.

A whole book could in fact be written about this idea of “time theft,” inside and outside the workplace.

For example, inside the workplace, new technologies have the effect both of allowing time to slip out of employers’ grasp—as, for example, when workers appear to be working at their desks but, in fact, are surfing the internet or catching up with friends and family members on Facebook—and allowing employers to tighten their grip—especially when it permits control over the pace of work and new forms of surveillance. Technology seems to cut both ways when it comes to “time theft” in the workplace.

But “time theft” is also important outside the workplace. Consider, for example, the standardization of time—which robs many of us of local traditions of time—as well as the fact that there is a large and growing gap in life expectancy between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale—which means time is being stolen from the poor and distributed to the rich.

I could go on. The important point is “time theft” is an ongoing problem of contemporary capitalism, both within the dictatorship of the workplace and in the seeming democracy of our lives outside of work.

It’s time someone wrote that book.


*In fact, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics for “proving” that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.



Emily Badger is right:

The new White House budget proposal is built on a deep-rooted conservative belief: The government should help those who are willing to work, and cull from benefit rolls those who aren’t.

But it’s also a deep-rooted liberal belief. Lest we forget, it was Bill Clinton who signed the original let-them-work-or-starve welfare reform in 1996 (two years after signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history).*

As I argued back in March,

liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Basically, liberals and conservatives have long shared the view that government programs should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the working-class, white, black, and Hispanic—are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else.

Donald Trump’s first budget is merely the latest proposal to implement this view, held by liberals and conservatives alike.


*In general, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, work requirements have done little to reduce poverty, and in some cases, they push families deeper into it:

Work requirements rest on the assumption that disadvantaged individuals will work only if they’re forced to do so, despite the intensive efforts that many poor individuals and families put into working at low-wage jobs that offer unpredictable hours and schedules and don’t pay enough for them to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads without public assistance of some kind.  Too many disadvantaged individuals want to work but can’t find jobs for reasons that work requirements don’t solve:  they lack the skills or work experience that employers want, they lack child care assistance, they lack the social connections that would help them identify job openings and get hired, or they have criminal records or have other personal challenges that keep employers from hiring them.  In addition, when parents can’t meet work requirements, their children can end up in highly stressful, unstable situations that can negatively affect their health and their prospects for upward mobility and long-term success.



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