Work ethic as ideology

From Stanley Aronowitz “Why Work?” Chapter 7 of Politics of Identity:

He wants “to suggest a campaign to reduce work on social and ideological grounds,” as a way of counteracting degraded form of compulsory labor under capitalism. Since productivity enhancements have to some degree eliminated the possibility of worker autonomy within the work world, and the prevailing ideology of consumerism has helped make leisure the more pressing and meaningful engagement in everyday life, the workplace is mainly a place where domination is established and reproduced — not a place where skills are learned, social ties are developed and species being is expressed. Work could be severed from income and have meaning thereby restored to it — “Work is that human activity which expresses creative achievement and corresponds, therefore, to part of desire, our will to objectivate ourselves individually and collectively by creating objects or social relations.” But capital needs to be able to compel low-wage workers to sweat. Society is held together, as Marcuse argued, surplus repression derived from compulsory work — if we all got to do our own thing, it would be anarchy. So we work not because it produces useful stuff, but because it disciplines us to the existing order. To “civilization,” as Freud would have it.

But there are pockets of resistance to administered consumerism: Aronowitz cites the example of furloughed longshoremen. They demonstrate

that the shift from production to consumption as the locus of everyday life is by no means automatic when “free” time dominates “necessary” labor time. When the workplace and the neighborhood are spatially contiguous and workers have succeeded in preserving an institutional equivalent of the shop floor to provide for the basis for their social interaction, consumerism is relegated to a subordinate place in their everyday experience.

Suburbanization and commuting, etc., all serve to destroy that work-life integrity, and make work time seem “unreal” and dead and leisure time seem the time for identity forging.

The classic model of contemporary mass society is provided by the suburban or exurban location of industrial and commercial working spaces. The horizontal patterns of home construction produce low density living arrangements. Hence the nuclear family, the shopping center, the mass media constitute the nexus of social relationships that often effectively counterveil the collective tasks performed at the workplace.

So much for the “general intellect”? Aronowitz’s analysis sounds a lot like what I grew up with in a 1980s exurb. Work was a drag, consumption dictated identity, and life was a struggle to find ways to connect meaningfully with peers and to escape the isolation of family. WE face “the crisis in leisure — the effort of people to regain their sense of craft, and liberate themselves from their complete dependence on the wage relation for personal and social meaning.”

The question then is whether the networked society has upended that isolation-meaningless-work-consumerism balance. Can we upset the crisis of leisure through immaterial labor — or is immaterial labor a further alienation?

The underlying logic: capitalist management techniques make work empty “unwork”, but capitalism produces enough goods to make consumerism appear to compensate for the emptiness. But we will only accept consumerism (promoted by mass media and by insecurity about social belonging) if we are unnaturally isolated from our natural companions in society, those who we would have formed solidarity with in the workplace.

Indeed, millions still seek jobs, but only to earn a living. Few jobs still carry with them the idea of a vocation such as is usually associated with professions or genuine crafts (neither of which correspond to their contemporary practices). Even much industrial labor of the past — mining for example — was closely linked with work cultures that far overshadowed the semi-skilled character of the work itself. The sense of vocation experienced by workers in retail trades or civil trades (two of the most important service sectors) was long eclipsed by the advent of corporate selling

Work used to provide a culture and a sense of belonging. It meant something to be a steelworker, etc. This is why lost working class culture gets sentimentalized, and rendered nostalgically. But it doesn’t exist anymore; only the mass monoculture that the Frankfurt school lamented — or is that monoculture being fractured by network culture and its alleged niches?

Aronowitz cites Baudrillard argument about the end of politics: “The family cannot be said to form an alternate cultural sphere capable of resistance…. Privatization is not only a rebellion against being represented by the political. According to Baudrillard in his In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, it signifies the end of the social.” The masses are neither subject nor object but are “now purely a series of signifiers, their representation entirely simulated.” Here we arrive at why networked sociality is not a solution to the atomization problem but is instead its apotheosis. It materializes the notion that we are a series of signifiers articulated serially in prescribed, administered commercial spaces.

Basically this is the all-important question: post Facebook, do we now more than ever live in a world in which “friendship and community-making have become as rare talents as good cabinet-making” as Aronowitz puts it? Or has social network worsened the erosion of those skills that work microcultures once nurtured? Can we stop instrumentalizing work to rediscover the real work of reforging the general intellect, only outside the work world subsumed by capital? Facebook of course is completely subsumed. Must discard Facebook and meet face to face, to rid ourselves of partial mediated, partially administered sociality and compulsory sharing as immaterial labor, and recapture the social, the fulfilling work of making friends and communities.

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