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Vlad-Ștefan Harbuz

Resources on the Philosophy of Work

Wage labour is when you get paid a salary by a company to do work. It's not a good system because it allows and encourages employees to be exploited by manager-owners. This exploitation can be financial, for example if you get paid less than you produce, but it can also be something more than that. Because our work is important to us, and because we spend 8+ hours a day doing it, having a bad relationship to our work can significantly and negatively impact that way in which we view ourselves and the world around us. This idea is called “alienation”, as in, we are alienated from ourselves, or from the world.

Some might say that this is unavoidable, but this is not true. In fact, the very idea of this system being unavoidable is a result of a bad way of looking at things called “reification”. Reification means taking something that us humans have made up, such as our economic system, and saying that it is actually real and inevitably has power over us. This is not the case because it is us who structured society in this way, and we could have done it any other way.

Gradual change is possible, and a big part of this change is cultural. This means first realising all the harmful things that gross inequality of income and power does, then changing our values to say that everyone deserves to direct their own life and earn a fair living. This does not necessarily mean that everyone actually will be able to do these things, but the first step is recognising the current state of affairs as unjustifiable.

Here are some beginner-friendly books and articles on this topic that I have loved, and are both eloquent and fun to read. If you're not sure where to start, I would recommend either “The Tyranny of Merit” or “Bullshit Jobs”. If you want more in-depth philosophical content, “Alienation” by Rahel Jaeggi gives a great historical overview and proposes a way of looking at things that I find very useful.

You can also read my somewhat amateurish essay, “Alternatives to Wage Labour”.

Explanatory quotes

Here are some quotes that I feel explain the ideas I have referenced above quite well.

We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.
— Buckminster Fuller
The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer—deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them. (...) I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not.
— Isaiah Berlin
Each individual aspect of his life (...) has not really been decided on. Thus, his situation is in fact “out of control” in a certain sense, and (...) it is a situation for which no one can genuinely be held responsible. This does not merely mean that he has not acted, or has not availed himself of his possibilities for acting, but that he has not even understood his situation as one in which action is called for or possible; it does not merely mean that he has not decided something for himself, or has not led his life himself, but that he has been incapable of understanding or regarding it as something he can or must lead.
— Rahel Jaeggi (“Alienation”)

The Story of the Mathematician

This is a very short story used as an example by Rahel Jaeggi in “Alienation” which I find a stunningly good illustration of the problems I refer to.

A young academic takes up his first position. At the same time he and his girlfriend decide to marry. That makes sense “because of the taxes.” A short time later his wife becomes pregnant. Since large apartments in the city are expensive and hard to find, they decide to move to a suburb. After all, life outside the city will be “better for the child.” The man, a gifted mathematician, who until then has led a slightly chaotic life, oscillating between too much night life and an obsessive immersion in work, is now confronted with a completely new situation. All of a sudden, and without him having really noticed it, his life is now, as it were, “on track.” One thing seems to follow ineluctably from another. And in a creeping, almost unnoticeable process his life acquires all the attributes of a completely normal suburban existence. Would he, who earlier ate fast food most of the time and relied on convenience stores for picking up milk and toilet paper as the need arose, ever have thought that he would one day drive every Saturday morning to the shopping mall to buy supplies for the week and fill the freezer? Could he ever have imagined that he would hurry home from work on Friday because the lawn needed to be mowed before the barbecue? At first he and his wife hardly notice that their conversations are increasingly limited to their child and the organization of household chores. Sometimes, however, he is overcome by a feeling of unreality. Something is wrong here. While many envy him for the beautiful suburban house he lives in, he is not really at home in this situation. The life he leads, which, as it seems to him, has so suddenly tightened around him—one could almost say “rearranged” him—seems, in a strange way, not to be his own life. Everything is as if it could not be any other way; everything happens with a certain inevitability. And in spite of this—or perhaps precisely because of it—it remains in a crucial respect alien to him. To what extent is this life “not really” his own? To what extent is he, in this life that he leads, alienated from himself?
— Rahel Jaeggi (“Alienation”)