Far left thinkers are often lazy and stupid, but occasionally they get one big thing right. Nina Power responds to the UK trade union Right to Work campaign with the important point that the right to work includes the right to work less:
There is, on the other hand, a rather British attitude towards work that sees it as a kind of purgatorial moral obligation. The retrenchment of attacks on the unemployed (such as ITV’s Fairy Jobmother) are the froth on a deeper mood that at once blames and resents those without work (‘get a haircut!’). The Right to Work campaign, although vital, plays into this attitude that work is the ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a woman too.
Thinking of a world with less but better work, or even no work at all (as we currently understand it), particularly in the midst of an economic crisis, is impractical, of course. Yet thinking about alternatives to the current system, however unfathomable, may help us to break with much that is wrong about our everyday existence.
Richard Seymour expands on this:
We have a Tory government that is determined to cut the welfare state, slashing benefits, driving more and more of the disabled off benefits… One of the ways in which this is justified is by means of a moralistic, coercive appeal to work as the alternative to poverty and ‘dependency culture’. Work, in this reactionary trope, confers dignity and respectability. Indeed, it is put to us that if we truly respect our elders, we have to find a way to ‘allow’ older people to stay on in work for a few more years before claiming their pension entitlement, even as youth unemployment soars, and even if this means millions of people die before seeing a single penny of their deferred wages.
The right to work is not coextensive with the obligation to work. On the contrary, asserting the right to work is essential for the purpose of reducing the amount of work that people have to do, and increasing the share of the social product they receive for their labour.
Work is a fetish in the British psyche. We see labour as physical cleansing and character building, while in reality, a lifetime of work can screw you physically, curtail your life expectancy and shrink your inner universe. Still, we can walk off to the most grinding and exploitative manufacturing and service sector positions with our head held high, and denounce pretty much anyone on benefits for pretty much any reason. It never seems to cross our minds that the working life of which we’re so perversely proud is also a waste of the only time we’re sure of and a major source of human misery.
It’s great to put energy and effort into something you love. But the dignity of labour is an illusion.