The destructiveness of “hard work”
Few things in American society are as universally revered as a good work ethic.
It’s one of the core values we attempt to instill in our offspring. Commentators and politicians have been known to denigrate the supposedly slovenly Europeans for their lack of it. It’s so woven into the country’s ethos in fact, that that enduring myth, the American Dream, is predicated upon it.
But when the ostensible efficacy and benevolence of hard work isn’t obscuring the reality of declining social mobility, it’s being used to separate society into “parasites” and “contributors.” If the hegemony of hard work isn’t being wielded as a rhetorical cudgel against activists, it’s implicitly condoning some of the most destructive work our society knows. So too with the encomiums to employment, which legitimize dehumanizing working conditions and stigmatize the jobless. At bottom, the problem with the prevailing fetishization of employment and hard work is that it’s done so indiscriminately, so reflexively. The work of the corporate PR guy isn’t distinguished from the work of the community organizer; the untrammeled goodness of employment is common sense.
Hard work and employment are desirable only when the means and ends involved are desirable, though. To actually determine the worth of work, then, terms like dignity, alienation, and social value must enter the equation. Think of the investment bankers who torpedoed the world economy. Sure they put in 60+ hour weeks. But their actions were morally inferior to that of the hermetic high-school dropout who spent his day eating Cheetos and watching porn in his parents’ basement. Hard work isn’t good if it facilitates egregious ends.
Or consider the average man or woman working a job at the local grocery store. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about this line of work. And if the attendant revels in stocking groceries, engaging with customers, and learning the ins and outs of the grocery industry, this could be a fulfilling way of earning a living. Most people if given the choice, however, would rather not perform boring tasks for little pay. They bristle at their lack of autonomy in the workplace. And we can say with some certainty that only those stripped of their agency, powerless and desperate, would do dehumanizing work like cleaning shit out of rich peoples’ toilets. The widespread veneration of work is so destructive because it effaces these differences, then shames those who deviate from its norms: The woman who chooses joblessness over a menial job deserves castigation, not government assistance. But do those who fail to “make the right choices” really deserve to be discarded, denied a dignified existence in which they aren’t supplicants?
The admonition to work hard, and the subsequent veneration of those who heed this omnipresent call, is stunningly simplistic. The American Dream, of course, was always a bit of an illusion. The circumstances one is born into are hardly determinative, but they constrain and shape one’s life trajectory in unmistakeable ways. A singular devotion to hard work assumes that we live in an atomistic world in which individual initiative counts for everything. When the evidence begins showing that social mobility in the United States is relatively low, however, the hegemony of hard work remains intact. This is the inevitable, fatuous result of a facile ideology.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote Peter Frase, the brilliant Jacobin writer who has profoundly affected my thinking on these issues. Here he is on the guaranteed minimum income and getting rid of crappy work:
A guaranteed income could begin to reverse this state of affairs by giving people the option of opting out of the labor market, which today is only possible for a wealthy few. It would therefore address a goal that Pat Devine mentions in a passage Jason quoted: reducing the amount of unpleasant labor that people are forced to perform. As I already noted, I think this goal is of such paramount importance that I’m baffled by any theory of a socialist economy that doesn’t make it absolutely central… If you just talk in general terms about giving people “incentives to work”, you’re neglecting the reality that while some work would have to get done in any kind of desirable society, other kinds of work should actually be dis-incentivized.
If the left is about anything, it’s about the empowerment of the marginalized and the eradication of oppressive relationships. The current political environment renders a left-wing project of empowerment impossible; an assault on the internalization and propagation of the hard work hegemony has become a necessity.