Patrick Spaet,  September 19, 2014

“So, What Do You Do?”

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[A version of this article appeared in the German newspaper Die ZEIT in July, where it inspired considerable debate and commentary. The article has been translated by the author and is reprinted here with permission; he has also written a response to the commentary, below. – Ed.]

Probably no other sentence comes up at a party as often as: “So, what do you do?” There is an unspoken question behind this: “Are you useful?” Work determines our social status: tell me what your job is–and I’ll tell you who you are.

Whoever isn’t “doing” anything, and says openly that he can’t be bothered to work, and that by no means any work is better than no work, is suspected of slacking, and of inciting others to do the same–with the result of this contagious slacking being that the whole of our hardworking society will plunge into an abyss. The mantra of our time is “I work, therefore I am.”

The work fetish has become deeply ingrained in the DNA of western industrial nations; it is drummed into us from childhood. In the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, I once watched a father with his child. The two were walking past a beggar–but instead of giving the beggar something, the father said threateningly to his little son, “That’s what will happen to you if you don’t work hard!”

Well, perhaps that just happens when wealth is unevenly distributed?…and when you can hardly survive on your wages, assuming you can land one of the few jobs available. The current distribution of wealth in the western world is as fair as the financial relationship between Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck–not to mention the situation facing developing countries. The top one percent of the world population hoards over 110 trillion dollars, almost half of global wealth, while the eighty-five richest people have as much as the entire poorer half of the world’s population.

Nevertheless, the policy is to continue to pour oil on the work-fetish fire: “If any man would not work, neither should he eat.” The supposedly lazy are harassed to this day with these biblical words.

Our attitudes towards work are extremely schizophrenic: we secretly aspire to sloth, while we loudly praise work. There isn’t an election poster that doesn’t promise more jobs. The call for more work is similar to the Stockholm syndrome, in which the victims of hostage-taking eventually develop a positive relationship with their captors. We constantly hear the drivel of “growth,” “competition,” and “local prosperity,” to convince us that we have to “tighten our belts,” because only that way are “secure jobs” possible–while everything else presents “no alternative.” A wage increase isn’t in the cards, because otherwise the company will go broke. We can’t tax too much, because otherwise the job generators will go abroad. All of these things have become the consensus–even among the wage slaves themselves.

This situation is all the more schizophrenic in that we take every opportunity every day to escape toil and work: who voluntarily uses a washboard, if he has a washing machine? Who copies out a text by hand, if he can use a photocopier instead? And who mentally calculates the miserable columns of figures on his tax return, if he has a calculator? We are bone idle, and yet we glorify work. The Stockholm syndrome of work fetishism has befuddled our minds. It is the paradox of the present: the religion of work has attained the status of a state religion, at exactly the point in time when work is dying. The sale of labor power will be as promising in the 21st century as the sale of stagecoaches in the 20th century.

We live in an era of capitalism in which the productivity of labor is so high that fewer and fewer workers are needed. The current mass unemployment in southern Europe–with a youth unemployment rate to some degree of over 50 percent–is only a taste of the great feeding frenzy that is still ahead of us. Computers and robots are taking over jobs everywhere.

The fast food chain McDonald’s has just installed thousands of “Easy Order” machines in their outlets worldwide. Customers enter their orders on the touch screen, pay for them using the machine, and pick up their food from the sales counter. McDonald’s can thus dispense with hundreds of otherwise unconscionably-low-paying jobs. At the other end of the line, even lawyers are now being sacked. In the United States, so-called “e-discovery programs” –complex and adaptive software products– are increasingly taking over research work, where formerly lawyers sifted through mountains of files and court documents. An Oxford University study concludes that by 2030 approximately 47 percent of all jobs in the United States may fall victim to automation (PDF).

Work isn’t disappearing because we’re too stupid. It also isn’t disappearing because the wealthy are forking over too much of their money to taxes, as the neoliberals would have us believe. Most people will not find a job in the short or long term, because capitalism is collapsing in the short term, and in the long term our labor force is being replaced by machines. Already more than a billion people worldwide are underemployed or unemployed, and this is a rising trend. But the scarcer jobs become worldwide, the more we praise work, instead of taking it easy. We could reduce the average working time drastically if we wanted to. “Growth” isn’t possible in any case. What exactly is supposed to grow, except people’s misery?

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I first published this article in July 2014, it appeared in the well-known German newspaper Die ZEIT, and has generated a major debate there. Some of the responses I got in the comments section below my article were:

“Thanks for this article. Unfortunately, our idleness is exceeded by avarice.”

“It would be far better if everybody worked only 10 hours a week instead of some few working 40 up to 60 hours.”

Indeed, the remaining work that isn’t destroyed by machines–whose labor should be taxed in my opinion–could be distributed among the population. The forty-hour work week isn’t engraved in the Ten Commandments.

Many commentators called for the state to provide an unconditional basic income. I like the idea of separating money and labor–and obviously it’s already separated, to some degree, with managers earning millions of dollars while the “working poor” are struggling to fill their fridges. But a basic income also has disadvantages: Only citizens would receive it, while immigrants and refugees would be excluded.

Worse, with a basic income, the capitalistic system wouldn’t be abolished. Thus, the so-called “means of production” such as machinery, tools, factories, and infrastructure, would still be in the hands of some few entrepreneurs. Perhaps the entrepreneurs would bump up the prices, claiming that with a basic income the people would have more money with which to buy those tools. Then our currency would be devalued. Less working time and a basic income: these things are fine, but they would only be cosmetic repairs to the ruins of capitalism. What we need beyond that is a fundamental redevelopment.

Some commentators pointed out that a lot of work is unpaid as well as underappreciated, like housekeeping, care work, and parenting. Yes, it’s a shame that this work, which is mostly done by women, doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s a vicious result of the pervasive work fetish that holds that only paid work is valuable work.

Other commentators were quite hostile: “Nobody has a right to be lazy,” they argued. “Those who don’t work are doing harm to society. They are just social parasites.”

Well, this is a prime example of the work fetish. And commentators like this one overlook the fact that most existing jobs are bullshit jobs. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

Furthermore, the whole discussion begs the important question, What is a life that is worth living? And here I argue: Let’s downsize! Let’s shake off the work fetish, and let’s not pass it on to our children! It borders on torture for us to forbid small children from playing and exploring, in order to chain them at a desk for hours to work. Instead of asking our children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we should ask them, “Who do you want to be when you grow up? What goals and dreams do you have?”

To sum it up it with a quote from John Lennon: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Have we really understood life?

Patrick Spaet is a freelance journalist and author in Berlin, Germany. In his new book he deals with the subject on work: Und, was machst du so? Fröhliche Streitschrift gegen den Arbeitsfetisch [So, what do you do? A cheerful polemic against the work fetish], Zurich: Rotpunktverlag, 2014.

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