Dr. Nick Srnicek
As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. This is the final week.
4. Does it still make sense to talk of a work ethic, and does work still provide recognition and a sense of meaning? How should this be negotiated in the future?
It’s worth distinguishing here between a few different categories. First, there’s the work ethic, as distinct from the value and meaning one might get from work. The work ethic refers to a socially imposed norm that measures one’s value against the amount of socially validated effort that one exerts. The latter aspect is particularly important because most effort that we exert in life goes unacknowledged socially, and as a result, deems the performance of this work to lack any value. The work of childcare, of emotional care, of housework, of cleaning is often not deemed to be ‘proper work’. What this means is that just as society holds up a particular norm (e.g. one must expend effort for 40 socially validated hours), it renders invisible much of the work that society actually does.
One problem with this is that following the work ethic becomes a key way to achieve social recognition and the meaning and value that come along with it. It becomes not only a source of material resources (in the form of the wage), but also social resources (in the form of respect and recognition). So the work ethic comes to take on a sinister necessity under capitalism, even as much of the world’s population is left working in the home or in informal labour markets. The demand to end the work ethic is therefore the demand to end the imposition of this norm and the consequences it has.
“A defining feature of capitalism is the separation of the worker from the means of (re)production, leaving them dependent upon wage-labour to receive an income”
Yet it is worth noting that this has nothing to say about the intrinsic value that people may find through work. But here again we need to draw a distinction, between alienated work and unalienated work. The former is work under capitalism – it is work that is imposed upon us, both wage-labour (the vast sector of the formal market economy) and much of unwaged labour (the even larger sector of informal and unpaid work). This work can be more or less enjoyable, but even at its best, it remains an imposed form of work. A defining feature of capitalism is the separation of the worker from the means of (re)production, leaving them dependent upon wage-labour to receive an income. We work under the coercive threat of starvation and homelessness.
This is not the only sense of work though, and even under capitalism we often exert immense efforts at various goals even without remuneration or social validation. This latter category is that of unalienated labour, done for its own pleasures and autonomously chosen rather than being externally imposed. It is this sense of work that Marx expected would flourish under communism: the fabled ability to “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. This would be a form of work unburdened from the work ethic and unleashed from the constraints of wage-labour and its peculiar organisation of work. It is a potential to do, rather than an imperative to act.
Dr. Nick Srnicek is Lecturer in Digital Economy in the Digital Humanities department at King’s College London. His current research is focused on post-work politics and social reproduction, and how the two separate areas can be fit together. He is the co-author, with Dr. Helen Hester, of a forthcoming book, entitled After Work (Verso, 2018) and has previously written on labour market transformations – Inventing the Future (co-authored with Dr. Alex Williams, Verso, 2015) – and on the digital economy and its dynamics: Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016).