The abolition and limitation of (which and whose) work?

I had sat down to do a post on automation and the abolition/limit of work-time, but given the level of some of the discussion I’ve seen, that seems to require some preliminaries and backgrounding, so aside from these remarks below, there’s another post on the concept of ‘socially-necessary labour’ here.

There’s been some renewed discussion around both the abolition of jobs and a re-assertion of demands for limits to work-time. The second of these is taken up in Laura Flanders’ interview with Kathi Weeks at Truthout, while the first is discussed by David Graeber in “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”


By contrast to calls to return to ‘full employment,’ these are important interventions. But if there remains any attachment to the notion of employment, the premises are increasingly not those of Fordism (of a neatly distinguished work- and leisure-time) but of post-Fordism and the problem of too much work along with low and/or precarious pay and conditions.

In that sense, the debates with remaining adherents of the work ethic seem to me far less crucial or pressing than those that already assume the problem of too much work and/or the demand to be constantly available for such as a point of departure. There are many who adhere to a productivism, including that of a vitalist reading of Marx—but leaving that aside for now …

In many ways, a sentiment critical of the work ethic has become uncontroversial precisely because of the indistinction between the time of work and that of life.*

But even if the critique of work has become ubiquitous, it still doesn’t attend to questions about the materialities of work, and in so doing risks nurturing a version of previous strategies for decreasing labour time that—as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—rested on the expansion of surplus labour by way of colonial labour and the unpaid work of women.

While Graeber’s piece is obviously intended as a provocation, it conflates particular jobs with the question of work time to such an extent that it ends up feeling a lot like the debates within marxism in the 1960s. Before, in other words, feminists and the civil rights movement challenged the myopia of a labour movement dominated by white men, which they did by raising the issues of both unpaid domestic work and slavery as interior to the history of capitalism—and, I’d add, as constitutive of a vast portion of surplus labour. Those questions don’t even seem to exist for Graeber, but I think they explain why the issue is not reducible to whether or not specific jobs are useful or useless, as he implied by characterising some as ‘bullshit.’

Put another way: I think only the most unreconstructed of orthodox marxists (that is, those who only read Marx through Engels and Lenin) would still talk about use-value as if it were something outside the dynamics of value and exchange value. But that’s almost what Graeber does by taking the intrinsic value of particular occupations as his point of departure. In other words, there’s no discussion of unpaid labour, which is to say surplus labour in the case of either particular jobs or on a social scale—which means there is no discussion of what this call for the abolition of ‘unnecessary work’ might mean when it comes to that portion of work Marx referred to as ‘socially-necessary labour.’ To be clear though, while there are many problems with Marx’s account of work, I don’t think that assuming that ‘socially-necessary labour’ involves a natural quantum of labour-time was one of them.

By contrast to Graeber’s contribution, Kathi Weeks’ discussion offers a far better and considered discussion of what is at stake in raising the issue of a decrease in work time without falling into the trap of re-partitioning leisure and work-time in the conventional Fordist and familial sense, or assuming that the question of work can be reduced to that of ‘jobs’ or indeed waged work.

I will add, though, that very little of the recent (marxist-)feminist literature on work-time really grapples with the issue of race, of the ways in which slavery is entangled with gender and sexuality, or something beyond an additive model of gender plus race regarded as identities. But there’s more on that in C&C, even if I still feel like there’s a long way to go on this.

In any case, there are a whole series of readings around work, value and socially-necessary labour that have informed recent-ish debates about the abolition of work. I’m sure I’ve missed some, and I don’t agree with them either all or in parts, but I think within these reside the more important debates to move on to and beyond—not, I should say, because they are ‘more radical’ than the critique of the work ethic. They are premised on that critique. But Graeber’s contribution seems to me to have missed many of the salient aspects of those debates.

Aufheben, “The Arcane of Reproductive Production.”
George Caffentzis’ “The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri.”
Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction.
Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination
Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work

*See also “Precari-Us?” on the indistinction of work/life, and of course C&C for the broader historical argument.

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