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Vlad-Stefan Harbuz

Resources on the Philosophy of Work

Wage labour is when you get paid a salary by a company to do work, thereby renting out your time. It’s not a good system because it forces 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. One often ends up in a situation where one finds one’s work meaningless, because one cannot connect to, own and direct one’s work in a hierarchical managerial workplace. Additionally, because wage labour is by far the most widespread method of organising work, one might feel powerless to attempt to connect to their work without having someone else own and direct it.

Worse, even when one works 8 hours per day, the remaining hours are often dedicated to recovering from work and restoring one’s energy so that one may be productive on the next workday. All of these things come together to form something called “alienation” — our work is important to us, and we should have a positive connection to it, but we end up having a deficient and corrupted connection to it, which is an injustice.

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”, which 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.

Indeed, we know that it is possible to be creative without being oppressed. Most people can contrast alienated wage labour (what some simply sweepingly call “work”) with playful creation, where someone is compelled by passion and interest to put a lot of effort into creating something. In fact, we know that, ironically, we are usually more productive in this passionate state, than when we are managed and disciplined into doing something we do not care about.

One might object that this view is naïve because it is not possible to simply do what we’re passionate about — there are many jobs that must be done and that are simply not fun. But the fact of the matter is that a very large amount of today’s jobs are entirely pointless and unneccesary. Instead, they only exist to provide a reason to perpetuate the status quo of wage labour.

Imagine someone doing a job we knew to be completely useless, and receiving a salary for it every month. How would we respond to the proposal of paying this person their salary, but allowing them to simply stop doing their work? Many would react negatively and say that this person would be getting paid for nothing. But is it not concerning that we would want someone to waste their life away doing something which is never useful to anyone, just so that we can feel that they have thereby somehow earned their right to exist?

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. I have also included some quotes that I feel explain these concepts well.

Introductory Essays and Books

The absolute best place to start is “In Praise of Idleness”, a short and very accessible essay by Russell that explains some of the most basic problems with our conception of work. “Bullshit Jobs” is a classic in which Graeber describes how many of the jobs we are currently doing are simply not useful to anyone. In “The Tyranny of Merit”, which I have found life-changing, Sandel describes how our conceptions of “merit” do not align with reality, and that our blindness to this affects our lives significantly. Lastly, “The Abolition of Work” is a classic and emotionally powerful essay by Bob Black in which he very clearly describes many of the problems with “work”, but this essay can also be too polemical and antagonising.

More In-Depth Books

People often ask me what a system that abolishes wage labour and capitalism would look like. In “Another Now”, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis tells a fictional story that describes what such a parallel world would look like, and he goes into significant economic detail. Similarly, “Talking to my Daughter About the Economy” is an easy to read and light-hearted description of today’s economy.

Philosophical Background

Perhaps you have read the more accessible material above, but would like to get more into the philosophical details. In “Alienation”, Rahel Jaeggi describes the history of the concept of alienation, and describes a modern and analytic way to look at it, which I find very useful. Her description really makes one wonder about the aspects of alienation that transcend the financial, such as its impact on our epistemic agency. Adorno’s “Free Time” is an amazingly insightful look at how work has profound effects on us not only during our time at the workplace, but also during our so-called “free time”, which the employer nonetheless deeply affects and controls.

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. I do not necessarily directly endorse all of these perspectives, but rather find it useful to illustrate how philosophers describe these issues.

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

The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible.

— Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man”, p. xliv

The things of everyday life [must be] lifted out of the realm of the self-evident. (…) That which is “natural” must assume the features of the extraordinary. Only in this manner can the laws of cause and effect reveal themselves.

— Bertolt Brecht, “Schriften zum Theater” (Berlin and Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1957), p. 7, 9.

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?

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”