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The Problem with Post-Work: Work and the Work Ethic as Units of Historical Analysis

Review products

RutgerBregman, Utopia For Realists: How We Can Build The Ideal World, translated from the Dutch by ElizabethManton. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017. 336 pp. $27.00.

PeterFrase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso Press, 2016. 160 pp. $16.95.

JamesLivingston, No More Work: Why Full Employment Is A Bad Idea. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 128 pp. $24.00.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2018

Jason Resnikoff*
Columbia University


“Work means everything to us,” James Livingston writes in the introduction to his recent book, No More Work: Why Full Employment Is A Bad Idea. The meaning of work, what Livingston calls the work ethic, is our problem. “And we've believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives—at any rate, we're pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.” The time for this mode of thinking, we learn, has passed. “These beliefs are no longer plausible,” Livingston says. “In fact, they've become ridiculous, because there's not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won't pay the bills.”

Review Essay
Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2018 

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1. Mills, C. Wright, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York, 1951), 215Google Scholar.

2. Livingston, James, No More Work: Why Full Employment Is A Bad Idea (Chapel Hill, 2016), 1Google Scholar.

3. Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham, NC, 2011), 23Google Scholar.

4. For a history of the guaranteed income in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century, see: Steensland, Brian, The Failed Welfare Revolution: America's Struggle Over Guaranteed Income Policy (Princeton, NJ, 2008)Google Scholar.

5. Bregman, Rutger, Utopia For Realists: How We Can Build The Ideal World, translated from the Dutch by Manton, Elizabeth (New York, 2017)Google Scholar.

6. In describing the origin of the Protestant ethic, the meaning of work under capitalism, Weber grants the idea a kind of causal power of its own, and I find his historical speculations especially weak on this point (21). That said, in discussing the capitalism of his day, Weber claimed that ideology and material phenomena (what he called “motivation” and “form”) had become inextricable from one another. Capitalism, he said, “forces on the individual, to the extent that he is caught up in the relationship of the ‘market,’ the norms of its economic activity,” (13–14). Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism trans. Baehr, Peter and Wells, Gordon C. (New York, 2002, c. 1905)Google Scholar.

7. For a touchstone study that discusses how ideological concerns at work are inextricable from the material of the labor process itself, see: Burawoy, Michael, Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capital (Chicago, IL, 1979)Google Scholar.

8. Weeks, The Problem With Work, p. 41.

9. Livingston, No More Work, p. xii, p. 92.

10. Bregman, Utopia For Realists, p. 167.

11. This division should not be confused with the common separation, found in certain traditions of Marxist thought, between a definition of work as the meeting of social necessity specifically under conditions of capitalism (understood as essentially exploitative) and the fulfillment of social necessity generally (under conditions not necessarily inconsistent with freedom, say, in a radical democracy). Moishe Postone offers an excellent criticism of a “transhistorical” understanding of labor in Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory (Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1993)Google Scholar. See also: Harry Magdoff, “The Meaning of Work: A Marxist Perspective,” (reconstructed from a paper delivered in 1982), Monthly Review, 2006 (accessed June 19, 2018) For an example of a Marxist interpretation that understands work as the essence of human being, see: Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1974), 32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. Take for example William Cronon's argument: “But it is essential to remember that food, like nature, is not simply a system of bundled calories and nutrients that sustain the life of a human community by concentrating the trophic energy flows of an ecosystem; it is also an elaborate cultural construct,” Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History,” The Journal of American History, 76 (1990): 4Google Scholar.

13. Daniel Rodgers has written a history of the “work ethic” in the United States by presuming that there is an objective, transhistorical definition of “work,” in which work and work ethic become units of historical analysis, rather than historical phenomena that must be explained. Rodgers, Daniel T., The Work Ethic in Industrial America: 1850–1920 (Chicago, IL, 1974), xiGoogle Scholar. For an excellent discussion of ideology as a historical phenomenon, one whose influence on this review goes deep, see: Fields, Barbara J., “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review I/181 (1990)Google Scholar.

14. Livingston, No More Work, pp. x–xi.

15. Livingston, No More Work, p. 35.

16. Lordon, Frédéric, Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire, translated by Ash, Gabriel (London, 2014)Google Scholar.

17. Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital, p. 134.

18. Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital, pp. 132–133.

19. On the meaning of work under conditions of industrial-capitalism being reduced to nothing more than mere survival, see the rich literature on “bare life.” A few notable works: Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA, 1957, c.1944)Google Scholar; Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man (New York, 1959, c.1958)Google Scholar; Mills, C. Wright, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York, 1951)Google Scholar; Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, translated by Hurley, Robert (New York Books, 1978, c.1976)Google Scholar; Gorz, André, Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-Industrial Socialism., trans. Sonenscher, Michael Adieux au Proletariat, Paris, Editions Galilée, 1980 (London, 1982), 2Google Scholar; Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel, (Stanford, CA, 1998, c.1995)Google Scholar.

20. Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital, p. 7.

21. Bregman, Utopia For Realists, p. 1.

22. Frase, Peter, Four Futures: Visions of the World After Capitalism (London, 2016)Google Scholar.

23. Frase, Four Futures, pp. 2–3.

24. Frase, Four Futures, p. 44.

25. Frase, Four Futures, p. 9.

26. Frase, Four Futures, p. 44.

27. Frase, Four Futures, p. 18.

28. Frase, Four Futures, p. 40.

29. Livingston, No More Work, pp. x–xi.

30. Bregman, Utopia For Realists, p. 196.

31. Frase, Four Futures, p. 28.

32. Denby, Charles, Workers Battle Automation (Detroit, MI, 1960), 89Google Scholar. The history of “automation” in the postwar period shows that the processes it has been used to describe do not differ from those described by the word “mechanization.” When managers apply machines to a labor process, sometimes they create more jobs through the detailed division of labor (as the digital computer did to clerical work in the middle of the twentieth century), sometimes they destroy jobs through the speed up and intensification of human labor (as occurred in Ford's postwar mechanization of engine production), and sometimes they do, in fact, replace human effort with machine action (as happened in the containerization of shipping). The word's origins in the postwar period were ideological, a way of narrating the old story of mechanization in terms of inevitable progress—that the supposedly apolitical, seemingly organic development of industrial production tended towards the abolition of human labor. This is the subject of my forthcoming dissertation, “The Misanthropic Sublime: Automation and the Meaning of Work in the Post-War United States.”

33. Livingston, No More Work, p. 23.

34. Bregman, Utopia For Realists, p. 178. Globally speaking, in the early twenty-first century, cotton picking is both highly mechanized (in Arizona) and not mechanized at all (in Burkina Faso), even though both American and African farmers are growing cotton for sale on the same world market. Meta Krese, “Our Cotton Colonies,” In These Times, April (2017) (accessed September 23, 2017)

35. I am not arguing that labor-saving devices cannot or should not be applied to help accomplish socially necessary tasks. I am not arguing that a socially necessary task has an inherent value, nor would I defend the fetish of craft work with which some thinkers answer the post-work argument. A more recent book in this vein is Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (New Haven, CT, 2008). In his preoccupation with “the process of making concrete things” he seems too ready to fix the meaning of work, rather than engage with work as both a material and intellectual phenomenon that does not have a single constant meaning through time, (8).

36. Roediger, David R. and Foner, Philip S., Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York, 1989), ix, 209219Google Scholar.

37. Livingston, No More Work, p. 32.

38. Nadasen, Premilla, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York, 2005), 165166Google Scholar.

39. Weeks, The Problem With Work, pp. 171–172.

40. Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, eds. Aronowitz, Stanley and Cutler, Jonathan (New York, 1998)Google Scholar.

41. Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, p. 79.

42. Livingston, No More Work, p. 54.

43. Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, p. 80.