Many people are anxious about work. Fear of unemployment and under-employment is widespread, especially amongst young people. Youth unemployment has skyrocketed since the financial crisis of 2008 and is at scandalous levels in many countries.
Then there's job insecurity. Many are anxious about the future, not just those with insecure employment contracts or the self-employed, but also those with regular jobs who wonder how long they can cope with the stress of it all, all the ‘bullshit’. Discontent with work is rife. This much we can agree on: we are in the midst of a malaise around work.
But how should we respond to this malaise?
A common response is the post-work view. According to the defenders of post-work, the whole system of work is a fraud and needs a complete overhaul. We have been duped into thinking that work is good for us, but all it gives us is pain and dishonour. The work ethic, the idea that we should love our work and the injunction always to work harder, is a sham. What we should really be striving for is freedom from work; release from this ethic. This is best achieved in two ways. Firstly, by getting robots to do all the unpleasant work humans have traditionally done. Secondly, by introducing a basic income that is obligation-free in relation to work. With a UBI in place, no one would be forced to work or need have a bad conscience about not working. As the work ethic withers, irrational guilt about not working will disappear too.
"Hegel thought that work was one sphere of modern society in which social freedom could be achieved through activity involving mutual recognition."
The post-work view certainly has its appeal. But is it the right response to our malaise around work? I have my doubts.
First, while the post-work view rightly alerts us to the inevitability of technological change, it has a too rosy view of the impact new technology has on work and an unrealistic view of what technology on its own can achieve.
The purpose of technology in a capitalist economy like ours is not to make work easier but to increase the speed and decrease the cost of production. It’s no coincidence that the world’s richest entrepreneurs are all fans of automation. And to suppose that robots on their own will solve the problems of production, i.e., provide all the goods and services humans need, is as realistic as supposing that building cities in space will solve the problems of climate change. The fact that powerful people tell us such things does not make them any less fantastical.
Second, while a basic income has a lot going for it, its implementation without a work ethic, in the sense of a strong desire amongst the majority of the population for gainful employment, would be self-defeating. This is because without a strong incentive to work there wouldn’t be funds available for redistribution through the basic income scheme. Far from being antagonistic to a work ethic, unconditional basic income requires such an ethic to be effective.
"Freedom at its fullest is a social achievement."
Third, and most important, the post-work view gives us a narrow picture of the ethical significance of work itself. By ethical significance, I don’t just mean the value that an individual may or may not attach to work. Nor do I mean the position work has in a society’s hierarchy of values - its worth compared to leisure, family life, political association and so on. Rather I mean the field of morally contoured experience that constitutes the lived reality of work and exclusion from work.
Describing lived reality is not easy. Description is typically a reflective act, but for the most part we don’t experience the world from a reflective standpoint. We do it pre-reflectively. So we need to be vigilant when attempting to describe lived experience, so that we don’t falsely reify or intellectualize it. Phenomenologists, and particularly Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, have drawn attention to the ways in which much traditional philosophy, especially empiricism and rationalism, falls prey to this tendency.
Empiricist and rationalist philosophers, and their intellectual cousins - the classical and neo-classical economists, haven't done justice to the experience of work in their writings. For instance, Bertrand Russell described work as the movement of matter, or the giving of orders about such movement. This is an incredibly reductionist and crude description of the experience of work. But Russell is not alone. It has become normal to overlook the fine texture of the experience of work, to view it as a purely instrumental action, of no more significance than the economic function it serves.
To think of work as part of our ‘being-in-the-world’, as Heidegger put it, can help bring the reality of lived work back into view. But there is another aspect of the lived reality of work that Heidegger’s philosophy is not so well suited for. This is the way work involves relations to others. The philosopher who, more than any other, helps to see what is going on here is G.W.F. Hegel.
One of the key insights of Hegel’s philosophy as a whole is that we only come to know ourselves, and to realize our potential as free beings, through interaction with other human beings. We do not become free by attempting to isolate ourselves from others, by extricating ourselves from networks of dependence, or by retreating into a private space where we can do what we like. Or at least we don’t achieve full freedom that way. Rather, freedom at its fullest is a social achievement. It is something a ‘we’ brings about together, though the mutual recognition of the ‘I’s that make it up.
"What drives contemporary discontent about work is forced exclusion from the opportunity to obtain recognition as an esteem-worthy contributor to society; and disrespect in one’s contribution."
How do we obtain such recognition? Hegel’s answer rests on two vital points. First, recognition is not monistic, but comes in various forms. We can recognize each other in our capacities as lovers, carers and friends, for example, or as citizens and bearers of rights. Second, recognition as a source of social freedom is not a one-off act, but is embedded in institutionalized practices. It is by participating in these ethically shaped practices - practices that have their own specific obligations - that individuals are able to live out their social freedom.
Crucially, Hegel thought that work was one such practice, one sphere of modern society in which social freedom could be achieved through activity involving mutual recognition. Furthermore, this is how work is actually experienced by the members of modern societies: it is a field of experience in which mutual recognition is expected, though it is very often denied.
Now it seems to me that this is just the sort of standpoint we need for understanding our malaise around work. What drives contemporary discontent about work is forced exclusion from the opportunity to obtain a crucial form of recognition - recognition as an esteem-worthy contributor to society - on the one hand, and disrespect in one’s contribution, on the other. We expect to be treated with respect at work, to be paid appropriately, to have manageable tasks to perform, to have meaningful tasks to do, to have regular time off, to have a decent level of security, to be listened to, not to be bullied and harassed, and so on. We expect, in other words, work to be ethical.
It is the disappointment with this expectation that lies at the heart of our malaise around work. If that is the case, then the correct antidote to the malaise consists in an ethical reshaping of work.
This view, with its philosophical roots in Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, provides us with an alternative to the ‘post-work’ view, which is currently so popular. This is a pity, because the alternative view gives us both a more nuanced understanding of the roots of the malaise and a more realistic framework for doing something about it.