Why Work?

Breaking the spell of the Protestant ethic


Last year we kept hearing that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were marginal figures of the left and right—over here an avowed socialist, over there a fan of “alt-right” idiocies—and that neither would stand a chance in the general election. It turns out we heard wrong. Each represented the programmatic mainstream of his party as it had evolved in response to Occupy and the Tea Party. And that mainstream was constituted by equal parts nostalgia for “good jobs” and commitment to “full employment,” often sprinkled with a new ingredient, the suspicion and resentment of elites.

How can the left and the right be devoted to the same universal remedy—“Get a job!”—for what ails us? (In this case, the sickness started with the breakdown of the labor market along with all others in the slow-motion economic collapse that began in October 1987, not in 2000 with the dot.com bust, nor in 2007 with the Great Recession.) This consensus seems both impossible and inevitable. Impossible because nobody agrees on who the “job creators” are, government deficits or private investors; inevitable because everyone, left to right, somehow agrees that work is essential to human dignity and individual achievement.

The great irony here is that both sides are heirs to the Left-Hegelian intellectual tradition, which, under Karl Marx’s auspices, designated the compulsion to work as the trans-historical element of human nature. “Hegel takes the standpoint of modern political economy,” as the young Marx put it in 1844. “He grasps labor as the essence of Man.” Marx knew full well that Hegel himself had named Luther the founding father of modernity because Protestantism sanctified work as the wellspring of grace. In this sense, the Protestant ethic still regulates most debates about the future of work.

Everybody wants to put us back to work. The left demands “full employment,” and the right answers by chanting “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

We’re not all card-carrying Marxists now, but we’re properly fellow travelers because “full employment” appears to many, left and right, a self-justifying project. Certainly the left remains the captive of the Marxist tradition, which still peddles two ideas that now threaten to distract us from the realities of our time. These are that human nature resides in its capacity to create value through work and, consequently, that the proletariat (the “universal class”) is the appointed engine of social change and progress through class struggle.

Critics of Marxism have always ridiculed it because Marxists sound, by and large, like religious sectarians who act on faith rather than reason. But these detractors have missed the point, for that intellectual tradition is more narrowly and thoroughly Protestant than merely Christian—surely Hegel’s designation of Luther as his philosophical antecedent and Marx’s impromptu genealogy would suggest as much. Before the Reformation, almost no one believed that socially necessary labor was an ennobling activity. After the Reformation, almost everyone did.

In this sense, the Protestant ethic was never just a matter of church schism and doctrine. “But at least one thing was unquestionably new,” as Max Weber explained, “the valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume.”

Now we have reached the point in the development of the human species where this fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs—work itself, necessary labor, a calling, a vocation, call it what you will—has become a fetter on the moral activity of individuals. It actually prevents such activity. Let me explain.

Politically Unconscious

The original title of my book on the looming collapse of the modern work ethic and all that entails was Fuck Work. It was a hard sell, in-house and out. But not just because it sounds obscene—a lot of our everyday experience is composed of obscene phrases, visual and aural, whether we’re watching YouTube videos, or listening to congressmen describe the deleterious moral effects of universal health care, or laughing with John Oliver about Donald Trump. Besides, books with titles like On Bullshit and Ratf*cked have met with notable commercial success. Why, then, did my interlocutors—friends, enemies, family, colleagues, editors, students, and acquaintances—respond uniformly, with anger or exasperation and no hilarity, when I announced the title of the book?

I’m not suggesting that their response is irrational. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’d say that the burden of proof is mine, not theirs. Their deeply felt response derives from two assumptions that can’t be ignored as quaintly neurotic psychological imperatives or dismissed as wishful political thinking; these assumptions are, instead, latent components of a political unconscious. They lie dormant until challenged—in most if not all of us.

The first assumption I’m contending with here is that work, broadly conceived as a “metabolic exchange” with Nature, as “the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence” (Marx, from Volume 1 of Capital) and thus as the trans-historical element of human nature, is the site on which human subjectivity—individuality—is conceived and constructed. In modern times, and in modern terms, it is where character and conscience get built.

To put this proposition in the idiom originally provided by Luther, Hegel, and Marx, the socially necessary labor of the slave, the serf, or the proletarian was not—as both classical and Christian specifications had it—the most significant impediment to knowledge, grace, and freedom; that labor was instead the only available road to redemption. In the specifically Hegelian terms of The Phenomenology of Spirit, which Marx used to periodize human history, the deferred desire that constituted the work of the slave was also the active predicate of the slave’s morality and self-consciousness. The slave’s work allowed him a glimpse, a preliminary consciousness, of freedom, but like the natural right of property that marked the advent of modernity, it was merely a first approximation, a down payment. In any event, freedom and necessity, mind and body, imagination and drudgery, interiority and embodiment, ethical principle and historical circumstance, grace and sin—these had once appeared as antithetical moments in every life. Each was now conceived as an indissoluble element of the other. The “modern time,” Hegel explained in The Philosophy of History, arrived when “the repudiation of work no longer earned the reputation of sanctity.”

The second assumption here resides in the Marxist theory of historical progress, or “prophecy,” to again recur to the idioms of his own intellectual heritage. In Marx’s scheme, the proletariat can constitute itself as a class-conscious agent of progressive historical change—overthrow capitalism, install socialism, and so forth—only insofar as its avowed political purpose becomes the abolition of the social conditions that created it in the first place: alienated labor. Conversely, in the absence of this social stratum as the agent of progress, talk of opposition to capitalism or transition to socialism becomes intellectually ungrounded, creating the hot air that inflates liberal balloons. What’s more, non-proletarian opposition efforts are doomed by definition to be socially scattered, validating the kind of commitment you fulfill by signing a Change.org petition. Without a working class defined by its opposition to capitalism and alienated labor, the argument goes, progress has no social groundwork, no palpable constituency, and no political valence.

Desire Deferred

The doubters of my proposed book title ask me how we can relinquish these politically unconscious assumptions about the intrinsic dignity, epistemological consequences, and political implications of work without also renouncing the kind of moral commitment to the poor and the oppressed that produces progress. The short answer is that we don’t have much of a choice. Insofar as socially necessary labor recedes—that is, insofar as we can experience and measure the end of work—we move beyond the moral universe we call the Protestant ethic. In navigating this historic transition, we see that a world unmoored from the safe harbor of necessity could be full of moral promise, but only if we grasp it as such.

How so? I have paraphrased Hegel to the effect that deferred desire, allegorized as the work of the slave, became the engine of morality and self-consciousness. This deferral, this inhibition and delay, was according to Hegel a response to the Absolute Terror that follows from Absolute Freedom, when all existing impediments to heaven on earth would be abolished—including those etched in our consciousness as the external limits imposed by the past or material necessity. Tarrying with these negatives—treating those external limits as the condition rather than the antithesis of true freedom—was the work of the slave, the duty of the philosopher, and the errand of modernity. Hegel was the first to break with the inherited classical wisdom on all three counts.

The Protestant ethic and its vestigial bourgeois virtues have become a deadly contagion—a disease, not a remedy. Possessive individualism has finally become destructive.

The slave as Hegel conceived him was the conscience of the philosopher, the herald of the Stoic, and the exemplar of modernity. For the slave experiences freedom as self-denial, as the renunciation of desire and the acknowledgement of external limits he carries out in his work. He remakes the world only to realize that he has built a prison house, an iron cage—and yet he keeps on striving. Morality so conceived—as the slave time of deferral, inhibition, and delay that work presupposes and teaches—has become not only anachronistic but chafing and corrosive, simply because it is no longer needed.

There, I’ve said it. The safe harbor of necessity is gone, washed away along with the jobs that convinced us that “full employment” was a good idea. Deferral, inhibition, and delay have become excuses for political inaction and causes of psycho-economic dysfunction: ways of rewriting failure as spiritual success, means of realizing the left’s insistent will to powerlessness. In this sense, the Protestant ethic and its vestigial bourgeois virtues have become a deadly contagion—a disease, not a remedy. Possessive individualism has finally become destructive.

It’s time, then, to let work go rather than to stay melancholic or anxious about it. But how? Our task, as historians or social theorists or activists, is to make our ethical principles legible not merely to ourselves but to our fellow citizens—legible in the sense that they are clearly etched in the historical circumstances of our time, so that we can deduce ought from is. If our principles are already grounded in familiar practices and traditions, so that the future we want resides in and flows from the past, then, and only then, we have more to offer than pious wishes that things should be better.

Until recently, the ethical principle that animated the left insisted that true freedom lies somewhere beyond material necessity, after the abolition of alienated labor—after the end of work. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, until recently, the left was of two minds on this question. On the one hand, it grounded its moral compass in the magnetic field the Reformation had unearthed in “warrantable” callings—in the transcendental possibilities of work. On the other, its moral compass pointed to an “existing beyond”: an ancient past or a distant future when the criterion of need was or will be the sole regulator of the allocation of resources, including labor—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The prospect of a world without material scarcity, or at least one regulated by need alone, sounded like news from nowhere until the second half of the twentieth century. By the end of that century, its emergence had become a historically measurable trend, almost a commonplace remit of social science.

The left’s perennial aspiration has become a live option—if we can cut the Gordian knot. For now everyone worships at the shrine of work, and everyone agrees that the end of work is in sight. The question is not whether these principles are legible—or realizable—in the historical circumstances of our time, but which of these principles will take precedence. This choice will dictate how we expend our political energies.

The Un-Exquisite Corpse

Once upon a time in America, work was where you learned discipline, initiative, honesty, and self-reliance—in a word, character. It was also the source of your income. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. But if you worked hard, you could earn your way and make something of yourself. In this sense, a market in labor both produced character and distributed income: it developed the individual’s moral capacities and allocated economic resources, imperfectly but transparently. The work you found there created most of what you called your self or, nowadays, your identity.

Not anymore. Work no longer serves these dual purposes of building character and providing income commensurate with effort. There’s not enough work to go around, and what there is has been reduced to a simulation of effort—pretend work in the cubicles and at the academic conferences—or backbreaking toil in the sweatshops, the office towers, and the offshore factories. The working world as we now experience it is an exquisite corpse, a collaboration between Charles Dickens, David Lodge, and William Gibson.

By now the factory hand and the industrial worker have gone the way of the yeoman farmer, as manufacturing jobs have moved overseas or have been casually appended to the to-do lists of smart machines. Editors from Wired magazine, Silicon Valley types, and MIT and Oxford professors have all converged on the idea that workers will lose their race against these machines, while Thomas Byrne Edsall, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks seem to think that the question we should be asking is how to get good jobs as their servants.

The downsizing or outsourcing of middle managers and the virtual disappearance of white-collar and clerical workers has become a premise or a cliché in dozens of novels and movies, while numerous political campaigns ask, “How to restore the American middle class?” The temporary or “contingent” labor force is the fastest growing component of job creation since 2009, when the Great Recession supposedly ended. Since 2000, there has been no net gain in full-time “breadwinner” jobs. So labor-force participation rates keep falling for every demographic segment, except for old people and women. The latter are twice as likely as men to work for the minimum wage.

It gets even worse. A quarter of the adults actually employed in the United States are paid wages too low to lift them above the federal poverty line; almost half of them are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Nearly a quarter of American children live in officially defined poverty: food stamps and emergency rooms keep them alive. The direct result of this severance between hard work and a living wage is the recent explosion of transfer payments and so-called entitlements.

Put it this way: every Walmart with three hundred or more “associates” costs taxpayers roughly a million dollars in public assistance each year because the wages paid these employees don’t cover their food and health care. In the absence of such assistance, at least half the labor force would be officially poor, and Mitt Romney’s notorious pronouncements on the 47 percent would become an understatement. The requisite jobs don’t exist, and almost half of those that do don’t pay enough to live on (much less build anyone’s character). The United States may be the indispensable nation, but it is clearly a less-developed country—a place where hard labor means a prison sentence, not a living wage, and work means economic impoverishment, not moral possibility.

And yet everybody from left to right wants to put us back to work, one way or another. The left demands “full employment,” and the right answers by chanting “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The left wants increased public spending to create more jobs and more consumer spending, which will presumably encourage private investment that follows the demand curve. The right wants reduced public spending to restore “confidence,” thus giving more scope to private investment, which will presumably create more jobs and more consumer spending. These are disagreements on means, not ends. But again, given what we know about the shrinking American work regime, how is this consensus even conceivable?

It’s understandable, in a way. The urge to put everybody back to work appears both rational and humane because without jobs, people lack incomes adequate to their needs. Unless they can work for wages, their access to the goods available in the marketplace is diminished. So job creation has become the obvious, bipartisan goal of public policy, and small businessmen, who apparently create most of the jobs, have become the heroes of both left and right.

For the right, this urge makes perfect political and psychological sense. Most people with regular jobs aren’t on the dole, and they’re more likely to acquire the kind of familial obligations that make them law-abiding citizens: work disciplines their unruly desires and energies, making them more likely to marry and take on the responsibility of children, thus reproducing the “social capital” that civilization requires. But for the left—broadly construed, from apologetic liberals to avowed socialists—the same urge to put everyone back to work makes much less sense.

The left has arguably won the culture wars. It is also winning the debate on the distribution of income—we, the people, have finally agreed that the rich must pay more taxes—and it has even mounted an effective defense of the welfare state. Why, then, does it still worship at the shrine of the self-made man, the entrepreneur who is “inner-directed” because, as his own boss, he remains the proprietor of himself? Why does the left, no less than the right, treat this bourgeois individual, the man who works for himself, as the paradigm of genuine selfhood? Why does it want us to be fully employed? In short, why has the left, no less than the right, made itself the prisoner of the Protestant work ethic?


Since the advent of bourgeois society and the rise of capitalism, work has served as the crucible of your character and the source of your income: in sum, your individuality. With your labor—your capacity to produce value through work—you produced a self capable of deferring gratification as well as material goods. You made profits or wages, and with them you acquired legitimate access to a share of those material goods.

Your consumption of goods was enabled and justified, in this sense, by your prior production of goods. By the same logic, the detachment of income from work—getting something for nothing—signified aristocratic privilege, subaltern sloth, bureaucratic chicanery, or criminality (in other words the absence or decline of the bourgeois virtues). How could it be otherwise? Income derived from privilege, sloth, bureaucracy, or criminality was unearned. Luck never counted in these moral sequences because it was occasional and entirely inexplicable.

Everyone worships at the shrine of work, and everyone agrees that the end of work is in sight.

Until the 1920s, this strenuously bourgeois and thoroughly Protestant logic animated left-wing critiques, liberal analyses, and reactionary defenses of capitalism. In the late nineteenth century, for example, the Knights of Labor excluded capitalists, drunkards, lawyers, and bankers from membership because the men and women in these occupational categories performed no “productive labor”—their income was a deduction from the sum of value created by others. The Knights’ ideological successors, the Populists and the Socialist Party USA, had no membership requirements, but they agreed with the indictment of those who consumed without producing anything of value; in this sense, they, too, lived by Lutheran criteria.

Meanwhile, liberal economists and progressive politicians devised theories and programs showing that capital’s share of national income—its profit margin—was justifiable as a contribution to “total factor productivity.” This recondite share in production also quite possibly exceeded the contribution of labor: income from large property was not theft, after all. And the reactionaries in the National Association of Manufacturers defended their open-shop drives as a means to the ends of improved labor productivity and higher wages, which would be limited, they stoutly maintained, if trade unions could determine working conditions.

Since the 1920s, this case for the Protestant work ethic has become much harder to make (which should, but somehow does not, mean that the case for capitalism has also become much harder to make). Under corporate auspices, the mechanization of the labor process accelerated via electrification, instrumentation, and automation; the result was a net loss of two million jobs in manufacturing, mining, and transportation between 1919 and 1929, even as industrial output increased 60 percent and non-farm productivity increased 40 percent. This astonishing subtraction of the “human element” from goods production might be construed as merely another stage in the development of “labor-saving technology”—except that the technology was capital-saving as well. As a result, the value of past labor-time congealed in capital equipment now shrank as fast as the value of the present labor-time personified by employed workers. Marx’s labor theory of value stopped making sense, exactly as he predicted it would in the Grundrisse (1857) and Capital, Volume 1 (1867).

In other words, socially necessary labor, whether owned by capital (past) or performed by workers (present), began declining in the 1920s. When that happened, the proletarian’s production of value through work could no longer appear as a more fundamental, more legitimate claim on a share of society’s goods than the capitalist’s claim of ownership—and so the larger distribution of income began to look arbitrary. By the same token, the creation of character or individuality through work increasingly strained belief, explicable only as the occasion of comedy. Witness the slapstick humor of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.

Stuart Chase exemplified the intellectual distress induced by these novel facts about the necessity of labor in a 1934 book called The Economy of Abundance. “Under modern conditions of production,” Chase wrote, “no measurable relation can be found between work contributed and goods consumed. . . . A whole moral fabric is thus rent and torn, with the most alarming and far-reaching consequences.” Chase wrote in a state of panic: by this time, America had suffered through four years of the Great Depression, which blithely obliterated every inherited truth about the meaning of work. At this point, the “stigma of relief” had disappeared in the cities, according to Labor Department surveys, and the dole was just another way of making a living.

Chase’s prescription is mine: “With this alarming and wholesale denial of claims to consume based on productive labor . . . and with power-age industry roaring and straining to produce goods, titles to consumption must be found elsewhere, and speedily.” Since the 1920s, socially necessary labor—what it takes to reproduce the material rudiments of civilization as we know it—describes a smaller and smaller proportion of everyday transactions. Every year, we produce more output without any increase of inputs (whether of capital or labor), and this holds true globally, not just within the United States. We’ve solved the problem of production and are now, finally, facing the problem of distribution. So we’re already passing beyond the historical moment when “the social relations of goods production,” as a Marxist might put it, organized and indeed determined social relations as such—when your occupation determined your social standing, your position in the class structure.

And yet we can’t seem to let go of the Protestant principle that tells us our work defines us and gives us morally sound “titles to consumption.” We hate the idea that anybody is getting something for nothing, especially if the recipient is a paper-pushing bureaucrat, or a class-action lawyer, or a Wall Street banker—or a “welfare queen.”

In American Dreams Begin Responsibilities

We’re living through a historical moment when the piling on of more work and more productivity has become pointless, absurd, or positively dangerous—when we “work” tirelessly at failed marriages, demand that academics “add value” to the human capital that comes within range of the classroom, “reward” cops for more collars as crime rates decline, and produce more atmospheric toxins in the name of “energy independence.”

Why do we still think that a job well done is our goal in life? Why do we locate our identities in the production of goods, as against the consumption of goods?

Why reinstate the ego ideal of the bourgeois individual, rather than ask—as both Weber and Freud did—whether it’s adequate to our present historical condition?

More to the point, why does the left want to restore the ego boundaries determined by the emotional austerity and psychological renunciations that work requires and reproduces? Why reinstate the ego ideal of the bourgeois individual, rather than ask—as both Weber and Freud did—whether it’s adequate to our present historical condition?

Intellectuals on the left still conceive of work in the same way that Luther, Hegel, and Marx did, as the “essence” of human nature, as the setting in which genuine selfhood is enacted. How else to explain their devotion to the transcendent value of socially necessary labor? In this crucial sense, the left, no less than the right, is still committed to the bourgeois virtues—and to their material framework, a self-regulating market where no firm is “too big to fail.” The right has fetishized love as sanctified by marriage and the family: keep working at it! The left has fetishized work as such. As always, Freud’s exaggerations about love and work have come true, thus confirming Adorno’s judgment of psychoanalysis—that only its hyperbole was accurate.

The question is, what happens if we dispense with this bourgeois conception of work and the ego ideal that attends it? Instead of repatriating work from overseas, or reclaiming factory labor from the robots on the shop floor, or increasing public spending to create full employment, what if we said, fuck work? Or, more politely: “We prefer not to. Work and life are not the same thing. And now that work matters less in the making of our character because socially necessary labor is, practically speaking, unavailable, we can create lives less burdened by its demands.”

Then, and only then, will we be able to address the real questions: How to detach income from work without hating ourselves, the recipients, for doing so? How to justify getting something for nothing—receiving income and consuming goods without producing anything of value? How to build individual character in the absence of real or meaningful work that pays a living wage? What is meaningful work, anyway?

And how to pay for a civilization no longer constrained by the imperatives of material scarcity—how to distribute income when the problem of production has been solved and the labor market can no longer allocate resources rationally? How to get beyond the austere moral universe of bourgeois society, which still regulates its corporate successor, that baroque stage of capitalism we call post-industrial society?

My answers turn on the history of work and the recent decline of socially necessary labor. The meaning and significance of work have already changed fundamentally. The possibilities of increasing and using leisure time have meanwhile increased exponentially. To ignore these facts is to remain trapped in the gravitational field of classical social theory—from Hegel to Freud via Marx—and to make work a fetish. It’s also, not incidentally, to dismiss the moral promise and the historical momentum of a society that is passing beyond necessary labor, “the realm of necessity,” on its way toward a new kind of freedom, a new version of genuine selfhood.

The future of selfhood and society is written in what we now think about the meanings of work. Either we continue to treat it as the source of both character and income—let’s reconvene the American Dream!—or we find ways of developing individual moral capacities and allocating economic resources outside the market in labor.

We don’t have much of a choice. We’ve already changed the address of our moral personalities—where we recognize and realize our capacities as individuals, where we make choices—from the supply side to the demand side, which is to say from work to leisure, from production to consumption. It’s time we explored this new side of town. By now, we can’t afford not to.

James Livingston is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea.

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