Should the left “value” work?

I used to think about the notion of “the value of work” as the quintessential right-wing piece of cheap rhetoric. The first political election I was old enough to follow closely saw conservative Nicolas Sarkozy gliding into power on the back of the infamous “Work More to Earn Morei” slogan in France. Concepts like that of “assistance”, coined to designate those who, by opposition to the deserving workers, would be undeserving scroungers, belonged, I thought, to the category of “divisive bullshit arguments” that were invented and mobilized only by proponents of an individualistic, every-man-for-himself ideal. According to this view, their quality of workers (read: their status on the labour market) would make the difference between fully-fledged, respectable human beings, and the undignified lower cast of the unemployed.

In fact, a certain form of glorification of work as an inherently positive value also runs deep in parts of the left. One could probably think of several, I’m sure; but let me list here four I could think of. The first one is historical: left-wing parties were formed as political platforms to represent the right of workers; the particular ties between trade-unions and parties of the left in many European countries are testament to that particular history. Think about it: in the UK, Labour is, after all, called labour.

Second, work has also been defended on the left as an equalising mechanism: full employment, the argument goes, ensures that every member of society reaches a certain standard of living. For many on the left, work, together with functional public goods and services, are the two pillars of a society guaranteeing prosperity for all. It is both the ‘best way out of poverty’, and the ‘best route to prosperity’. This has meant that ensuring the provision of work for all (either directly, or through attempts at correcting failures of the labour market) has become, over time, the main objective of left-wing governments. The fight against unemployment has kept them busy over the last 30 years, with the reference to the mythical full-employment of the golden post-war era hovering in the background as an evermore distant, all the more desired objective.

Another reason why so many left-wing governments since the mid-1990s professed their commitment to building the “society of work” is that participation to the labour market is conceived as a necessary pre-condition to social cohesion. “We cannot duck the central importance of work – and the work ethic” said former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “For this is the major challenge facing those who believe in equality and indeed anyone who is concerned about social cohesion.ii On the contrary, work is “the foundation of society”, for former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius: with it comes a title, a status of integrated, productive member of society, and, in short a place in it. That’s your social cohesion problem solved!

Finally, many on the left have been upholding work as a value following the idea that it would allow us to realise ourselves as human beings. Addressing Parliament in 1912, the father of French socialism Jean Jaurès thus declared that “Men should produce, until their last breath, and so long as they are able to. Only that way can they connect to their intelligence and to the activity of the mindiii. Work would be the way that we fulfil our destiny of thinking creatures. This is not an isolated example: the idea that work would be a gateway to individual fulfilment has been, and still is, highly popular among left-wing thinkers.

In 2017, it is time the validity of these rationales be re-examined. Is it still right, for the left, to attach a positive value to work in itself, and to defend it as an inherently good thing? As it turns out, none of the logics mentioned above offer much resistance to a renewed critical scrutiny.

On the first historical point, a more attentive reading of history is helpful in showing the absence of inherent filial link between the left and work for its own sake. Working class parties were traditionally invested with promoting things like fairer labour laws to ensure less exploitative workplace rules, reduction of working time, better pay, longer holidays – rather than work in itself. The original aim of these parties was to reduce the very strong asymmetry of power inherent between workers and management, with the ultimate objective often being more freedom from work, rather than work itself. In short, and as brilliantly argued by David Frayne in his book The Refusal of Work, “the forgotten struggle of the left (…) is for the right of workers to lead rich and interesting lives outside of workiv.”

Then, comes the idea of work as “the best way out of poverty”. The first reason why this is an outdated statement will seem obvious to anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention in the last 20 years: to a lot of poor people, work isn’t available. Unemployment, especially for those at the bottom of the income scale, is persistent. Yes, international comparisons reveal that some countries have lower unemployment rates than others; for instance, the US, the UK, or Germany are regularly cited as doing relatively better. But – and this is the second reason why work isn’t the best way out of poverty anymore – these are also countries with high rates of in-work poverty. In other words, being in work is not a guarantee of earning a living anymore. This has been a fact for quite a while: this is why the flagship employment policy advocated by the OECD in the 2000s encouraged governments to keep striving for full employment, while topping-up the wages of poor workers for whom the fruits of their labour would not be enough to live on. This is also what prompted campaigns such as the “Living Wage Campaign” launched in 2001 in the UK.

If it does not necessarily provide the material means of surviving anymore, does work at least guarantee social cohesion? Does it provide status? Does it guarantee integration? Casting a lucid glance on contemporary realities of the labour market leads to shedding serious doubts on that idea, too. First, the idea that work would be the key to social cohesion, in a world where the figures of the burnt-out office worker and the isolated Uber driver coexist is laughable: although both are in work, the social fulfilment that they get from it is arguably limited, as in fact is their ability to engage in society in ways conducive to social cohesion outside of their jobs (this is a reminder of the crazy hours many Uber drivers work). Second, the possibility that work will allow for social cohesion to flourish is also largely hindered by the increasing polarization of the labour market, with a concentration of jobs in high and low skilled, highest and lowest paying occupations. This “hollowing out” of the middle-skilled occupations means that being in work increasingly means radically different realities for different people; it means that people serving coffee to Facebook employees have to live in a garage with their family, while working two full-time jobs. This is not dystopian sci-fi, or the depiction of an ancient aristocratic society. It’s reality, and it’s because of the downward spiralling quest for work at all cost (and, preferably, close to no pay). Needless to say, I find it hard to see the cohesion in all that.

Does work, finally, allow people to realise themselves? Proponents of this idea often resort to a counter argument to argue their point: namely, the absence of work would lead humans right into depression and despair. This idea somewhat underlines the economic concept of “hysteresis”, following which the longer an individual stay away from the labour market, the less she will be “fit for work”. Among other reasons, this is because of the negative consequences of unemployment on her mental health, lifestyle, social network, etc. While these are indeed some of the dreadful side effects that often plague those unfortunate enough to be excluded from work for a prolonged period of time, it is important to ask if being out of work is the real cause of these side effects. Could these instead possibly originate in what the reality of unemployment carries with itself in our modern society, i.e. financial insecurity, scorn from your neighbours, and the sense of guilt and degraded self-worth that arises from one’s perceived inability to participate in the great collective adventure of work? On this issue, David Frayne makes the important point that “whilst unemployed people are technically outside work, they are not necessarily free from work in any meaningful sense. In the context of a work-centred society, unemployment represents a kind of no-man’s-land: a dead time, degraded by financial worries, social isolation and stigma. By maintaining – even in the face of mass unemployment – that work should represent a source of income, rights, and belongingv, he explains, society ensures that unemployment is indeed a source of misery. Thus, the argument is tautological: we should pursue work because unemployment makes us unhappy, but the reason why unemployment makes us unhappy is because it is the negative counterpart of the positive value attached to work in the first place.

Whether activity is necessary to human well-being is an entirely separate issue; unemployment (i.e. the (most often) involuntary non-participation to the labour market) and inactivity (which we could define as non participation to anything, or the absence of any action) are very different things. And while an incredible number of meaningful activities – like volunteering, or gardening, or helping your grandpa do his shopping – do not qualify as work in the labour market sense of the term, an increasing number of jobs do not qualify as meaningful in any sense of the term. Thus if we agree that human potential is fulfilled through the realisation of meaningful activities, rather than by having one’s name on whatever meagre wage slip, the link between work and human realization is also largely obsolete. Think about it: is a job in call centre a stronger link to “intelligence and the activity of thinking” than playing a video game?


So, should access to the work-centred, full-time full-employment wonderland remain the left’s primary objective, and selling point? Should it value work?

I have argued that there are no good principled reasons to do so anymore. On the contrary, if valuing work implies defending topped-up in-work poverty and an increasingly divided society of Brains v. Servants, if it implies protesting against the destruction of strenuous call centre jobs when the next generation of talking robots arises, then the left has in fact trapped itself into disowning some of its core values by committing itself to building “the society of work”.

Further, sticking to work as a value does not even necessarily make any strategic sense anymore. Isn’t one of the reasons why the left has been stalling in many countries, finding it hard to get elected, and harder to get re-elected, that they campaigned under the banner of the work dogma, and through that very promise, made sure to betray many of its other values – on inequality, on decent pay, on work-life balance, thus alienating many of its supporters?

It is time to leave behind the glorification of work, and the pursuit of the Work Fairy, because there is no way to be lefty about it. This does not mean that the objectives that were pursued through work, and that have been discussed here, should be abandoned. It means that the left need to start embracing new ways of thinking about achieving economic security, the reduction of inequality, social cohesion, and individual realization, beyond work. It needs to craft and broadcast a new paradigm aligned with its principled and strategic objectives. Whether that’s through a basic income system, or a policy of (meaningful) work-sharing through a serious reduction of working hours, there are plenty of ideas to start picking from.

Imagining what lies beyond the work-centred paradigm might seem like a scary prospect. Yet as explained above, the left is bound to lose by staying in the status quo. On the other hand, taking the leap might not be such a bad strategy after all. Indeed, what if the left embraced the strategic partisan divide that was designed by Nicolas Sarkozy as a trap in 2007: the right is for work, while the left does not value work. What if the left let the right defend work that does not pay enough to live? Or work consuming your entire life? Or meaningless work for the sake of work? What if it let them alone in defending the consequences of the work-centred organization of society on inequality? On burnouts and depression? Those realities are increasingly visible to anyone with their eyes open; would it be such a bad strategy to stand against them? Couldn’t it actually be the new line of division, between those acknowledging the absurdity of a dysfunctional system and the conservatives wanting to stick to it at any cost?

For parties looking to regain majorities, an “artistic creativity of the highest order” is recommended to help them “invent the right kind of new alternativevi“, the kind which will allow capturing relevant shifts in the electorate to create new majorities along those new dividing lines. Let’s be creative, then.

i. “Travailler plus pour gagner plus”
ii. Quoted in: Routledge, Paul. 1998. Gordon Brown, The Biography. Simon & Schuster. p.321.
iii. Original quote (translation by the author): “Moi je considère que, jusqu’au dernier souffle, l’homme doit produire, dans la mesure où il le peut. C’est par là seulement qu’il est rattaché à l’intelligence et à l’activité de la pensée.” Jean Jaurès, discours à la chambre des députés, 11 juillet 1912. Annales de la Chambre des députés, première séance du 11 juillet 1912, page 1478.
iv. Frayne, David. 2012. The Refusal of Work. The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work. Zed Books. p.35, emphasis added.
v. Frayne, David. 2012. The Refusal of Work. The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work. Zed Books. p.38.
vi. Riker, William H. (1986). The Art of Political Manipulation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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