Value of “Work”

Amid the seeming disorder – the uncertainty and fear, a silent revolution is happening during the corona crisis: a revolution in the way we assess work. The drumming and clapping for health care workers, the public praise for those who stack supermarket shelves – all of this suddenly appears natural to us. And our applause for those working in the medical or food industry expresses the value we now see in their constitutive contribution to society.

Yet for far too long the capitalist strain in our workforce has overlooked the constitutive contribution that workers make, and has instead measured the value of work in terms of the marketplace. Since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, markets have remained relatively free to provide employment, dictate its conditions and assess the value of work in monetary terms. What counts is the generation of capital, and an employee’s salary is determined by the power of supply and demand. But it should become clear that work has a type of constitutive role that is not accounted for in market logic. What is meant by constitutive? Constitutive work means the structural elements that working contributes to life.  These structural elements include not only physical infrastructure, but much of a social fabric that makes the market a quintessential “social” institution which can connect us as a species, but also as communities, and also as providing much of what keeps us alive, but moreover, what makes life worth living. This profound disconnect between a constitutive account of work and the logic of productivity becomes painfully clear in a moment of crisis.

During times of emergency priority is given to jobs that matter most in the short run: those that literally keep us alive. It is because we are more than our digital avatars, because we have bodies and our bodies have needs, that we depend on those who care for others or deliver needed food. Briefly, a constitutive assessment of work brings jobs that cater directly to basic human needs to light.

The focus on basic human needs is understandable and important in the midst of a crisis such as the Covid-19 outbreak. But the constitutive account also captures the other ways workers contribute to society by catering to our higher-order needs for sociability and meaning. There are, for example, those who run the places in which we gather: cafés, pubs, fitness studios, cinemas and theatres, but also churches, art galleries and museums, and schools. And there are those who create our vibrant cultural life, whether they be comedians, clergy, educators, athletes, visual and performance artists, or independent film-makers. Instead of asking how to make the most money, these workers have a vision of the world and of what is valuable in it, and through their work they try to realise such values.

In contrast, a market approach to work sees human activity primarily as input factors into a production process that ultimately serves the maximisation of profits. We have become so used to this perspective that we’ve forgotten that for much of human history an exclusive desire to make money was considered a pathology, a kind of addiction that is more likely to eat up the soul of individuals than to make them happy.

The sociologist Max Weber tried to explain the origins of capitalism, with its limitless striving for profits, as caused by a displaced religious striving. Specifically, Weber thought the Calvinist work ethic was inextricably linked with capitalist drive. Today, historians have serious doubts about Weber’s theory. However, few people dare to question the legitimacy of an unlimited striving for profits. Yet by applying the idea of unlimited striving for profits, we also tacitly accept the reduction of work to its market valuation, whereby remuneration and the conditions of employment are designed to boost profits and increase capital accumulation.

In times of crisis, the implausibility of a market-driven account of work becomes visible. We suddenly appreciate the contributions of those who make sure our physical needs are satisfied. It also dawns on us that the small businesses and cultural organisations that fulfill our higher needs, but whose activities must be put on hold to “flatten the curve”, might go bankrupt. This forces us to ask what kind of future lies ahead if only large, profit-oriented organisations survive, and what type of employment will be left for those who enter the labour market after the crisis.

Assessing the value of work exclusively through the market overlooks a crucial point. Many individuals and organisations have a constitutive perspective on work, and they often create benefits that go far beyond the immediate tasks they fulfil. A nurse or doctor who believes it’s their duty to care for the sick will also try to support their patients psychologically. Similarly, a small business owner may provide a supply of goods, but they also contribute to livening up a street. In the language of economics, these are all “positive externalities”: valuable contributions to the community that are not factored into prices and therefore tend to get undersupplied in a pure market environment.

Market logic encourages people to seek profits from negative externalities: to put costs on to others, whether specific individuals or society as a whole. This behaviour is particularly frequent among large corporations, not only because they tend to be powerful enough to do so unquestioned, but also because they are primarily run as money-making machines for the benefit of shareholders.

In recent years, big companies have significantly downgraded the conditions of employment for “low-skilled” workers. By reducing wages and forcing families to seek additional public support, large corporations have offloaded some of their costs to improve their “bottom line”. Needless to say, this has had disastrous consequences for the well-being of many individuals and families. And a society in which millions have no financial buffer, or the means to stay home when sick, is clearly ill prepared for pandemics such as the corona virus.  While this is not exclusive to the United States and Europe, it is sourced in a kind of Anglo-American approach to capitalist economics. Hopefully, the post-crisis reconstruction will be guided by a more just understanding of work than the free pursuit of profit. This would require better pay and working conditions for those whose contributions are vital for our societies. It also implies ending the wage gap between jobs that have traditionally been coded in gendered or racialized ways. And it means giving workers the right to a voice in how their work is organised.  But it also recognizes the constitutive element of work, that actually builds the human artifice, which locates our lives, and provides a location for human activity.  In other words, work provides not merely the economic means to survive with greater or lesser ease, it also constitutes the very reality, the human artifice, we happen to live in.  

Democratically or not, communities have long valued and structured work for the purpose of thriving processes and institutions, even these communities would be distorted if we understood them as democratically organized. We may wonder if democratically organised work can create space for workers to constitute the well-being of their communities. Yet, from now on, it is important to understand the basic reality that many individuals do not simply seek to maximize their income while minimizing their working time, as textbook economic models of labour markets suggest. Work is done by human beings, with dreams and hopes and a desire for social recognition. Many individuals want to make a meaningful contribution to society through their work – and work should be organised so that they can do that.  As I have argued elsewhere, this may be something which actually has its origin in another realm than mass society, and it is possible that mass social organisation is likely ineffective and unfulfilling.  However, we are in the experiment now in our neo-liberal cultures.

This does not mean labour markets should be replaced by state-allocated work, but it does require regulation to prevent the imbalances of power between large corporations and their employees. It would also push societies to rethink how they spend tax money: which functions do we consider vital in both the short and long run? Lastly, it means asking how work can be organised in more democratic ways, not only because democracy is the most appropriate political form we know of for checking and balancing excess power, but also because it allows for better protection of workers’ rights. Political and moral considerations that constitutively substantiate our social lives are thus given recourse to some organizing principle tho maintain their living reality. The question then becomes, are democracies equipped to do it, and do they have the will to carry on such a vital task?

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