[P2P-F] Fwd: The Struggle for Meaningful Work (GTN Discussion)

Michel Bauwens michelsub2004 at gmail.com
Thu Jan 5 06:51:33 CET 2017

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Great Transition Network <gtnetwork at greattransition.org>
Date: Thu, Jan 5, 2017 at 5:34 AM
Subject: The Struggle for Meaningful Work (GTN Discussion)
To: michelsub2004 at gmail.com

>From Eva-Maria  Swidler <eva.swidler at goddard.edu>

Hello everyone,

The degradation of work is an issue largely ignored in academia today,
perhaps reflecting the fact that academics, who are the ones who do most
writing about work, like their own (craft) work a lot. The actual lived
day-to-day reality of a strong majority on the planet is that work is a
demeaning experience of frustration. So thanks very much to Kent Klitgaard
for raising this issue!

I have here a series of somewhat unrelated thoughts inspired by this very
important subject.

1) The key feature of degradation that Klitgaard points out takes the form
of a lack of control over the immediate labor process, leading to what I
would call alienation. But that problematic powerlessness of workers also
extends into many other facets of an undemocratic workplace. Workplace
decisions that exclude the actual workers include the choice of the purpose
or mission of work (to use corporate parlance), the creation of strategies
and priorities, juggling trade-offs, and formulation of pay and profit
distribution structures. In many ways the labor process is merely the
endpoint of those undemocratic workplace decisions, as the labor process is
shaped by the economics and efficiencies demanded by those larger
institutional decisions. I would like to see our idea of and hopes for
worker control, even as we pragmatically imagine it or fight for it in the
immediate future, expand from struggling for control over the labor process
itself into these wider contextual realms of
workplace decision-making, which after all ultimately drive the labor
process itself.

2) Economists such as Steven Marglin and David Noble, but also many others,
have shown that technological “progress” often does not produce greater
efficiency. Efficiency itself is always a relative term—maximizing A in
terms of B—and not absolute. For instance, an agricultural technique may
maximize calories grown per acre-foot of water used, but at the expense of
more labor. Is that an efficient technique? Yes, it is water-efficient, but
no, it is not labor-efficient. Beyond the fact that the terms of efficiency
must always use defined inputs and outputs, however, is a larger and
oft-ignored fact that often new production processes are less efficient in
terms of all inputs and outputs, but are adopted because they afford
greater control or predictability to the boss. Here we can see how the
economic and institutional context of a workplace—that un-democraticness of
priorities, strategies, purposes, etc.—actually does directly impinge on
the details of the organization
of the labor process. Often bosses mechanize at great expense merely to be
able to guarantee less possible disruption by discontent workers. So we
have to be wary of assuming that technological developments that degrade
work actually equate to greater output. They often don’t. They may just
equate to an interchangeable worker who can be replaced during a strike, or
who can’t effect a slowdown or some other work disruption now that skill or
decisions have been automated.

In other words, what we have seen in the development of increasingly
degraded workplaces is not necessarily a simple exchange of the higher
quality of work for a greater quantity of output or profits. Sometimes the
quality of work degrades and output does not rise, or may even fall. And
sometimes the increased work that is required is never even tallied. How
many of us have wasted hours on hold with a phone company or health
insurance? Those hours I would argue are unpaid work and result in high
inefficiency in any complete economic calculation.

If there is not a direct relationship between the degradation of work and
efficiency of output, the scenario to be tackled to create meaningful,
undegraded work is on another order of complexity altogether than a simple
continuum of trading one for the other.

3) I approach many of the issues raised in this piece with a more central
location of economic concepts such as “capitalism” (not mentioned by name
here in this essay) and the “productivity dividend”. After all, as
Klitgaard points out, the technology for vastly shorter work weeks is
there. It is used or spent to produce greater profits rather than fewer
labor hours, by making people work just as many hours even though they
produce more, and thereby making workers produce greater profits rather
than being able to enjoy a shorter work week. This way of distributing the
productivity dividend is a question of workplace struggles and political
economy, and I find economic concepts such as capitalism and the
productivity dividend to be essential in understanding the situation we are

4) An important question is certainly how to make work meaningful, but also
whether we need work to have meaning. It does seem to be a capitalist
preoccupation to define ourselves and our lives’ meaning in terms of work.
In fact, I’d say it is the fundamental spiritual/personal/psychological lie
of capitalism—that without work, we are nothing. We tend to create an
opposition between work/meaning on the one hand and leisure/individualistic
hedonism on the other. What if by leisure we include participation in
community, social life, and cultural creativity, not merely what you could
call entertainment? Could we not attain all the meaning we want or need
through that leisure? What about instituting a campaign for meaningful
leisure (by which we don’t mean volunteer work, but something else
altogether)? Benjamin Hunnicutt describes the development of what we could
call a leisure ethic rather than a work ethic in his most recent book, Free
Time: The Forgotten American Dream. Paul
LaFargue’s classic pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy”, or Kathy Weeks’ The
Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and Post-Work
Imaginaries take an even stronger anti-work view. I’d venture that a
working-class leisure ethic is what has served historically as the cultural
foundation of a rejection of constant and increasing consumption, expressed
through various forms of work resistance. My piece “Radical Leisure” in
Monthly Review this past summer has more thoughts on this
monthlyreview.org/2016/06/01/radical-leisure/ .

In fact, I think that the meaningfulness of much of caring work has more in
common with the kinds of meaning a well-developed leisure ethic can provide
than with the meaning that stems from a craft work ethic. A struggle for
meaningful leisure might shed light on caring work that the current
discourse on work has a hard time with. Certainly there are craft issues of
skill in caring work (as an RN and midwife of 20+ years clinical practice,
I staunchly support this view), but many satisfactions of care work stem
from the rewards of companionship, accompaniment, support, and love, which
are experiences that might be more likely to come from meaningful leisure
rather than meaningful craft work. The craft-work-oriented rewards of
mastery or the “transcendence of setbacks” Klitgaard describes are rewards
that result from what is to me a somewhat gender-limited experience of
work. Renewed intellectual attention to leisure, which seemed as though it
would be an academic field of note a
few decades ago, might allow a different kind of understanding of care work.

Thanks again for this essay raising a topic of crucial importance. I’m
looking forward to the conversation to come.

Eva Swidler
Goddard College


On Fri, Dec 30, 2016 at 3:27 PM, Great Transition Network wrote:
>From Paul Raskin

Dear Great Transition Network,

As we bid adieu to 2016, a banner year for the Fortress World scenario,
what can we do but turn with renewed resolve to the work of transition?
There is no alternative (to hijack TINA, Margaret Thatcher’s infamous
justification for neoliberalism). Anyway, the work itself is a privilege
and a gratification.

This brings me to the topic of our JANUARY discussion: “The Struggle for
Meaningful Work.” Kent Klitgaard’s Viewpoint, so titled, argues that the
degradation of work, like the degradation of community and the environment,
is inherent in the logic of capital accumulation, but receives insufficient
attention. The struggle for meaningful jobs, he contends, ought to stand
alongside parallel struggles for justice, equity, and sustainability as
core components of a transformative praxis.

Kent’s thoughtful piece is inspired by his own search for meaningful work
in a career that has spanned cabinet-making to ecological economics. It
highlights a critical dimension of a Great Transition that warrants
heightened emphasis, or so it seems to me. Do you agree? Would you revise
its formulations? Please read it at www.greattransition.org/
publication/meaningful-work, and share your thoughts.

This Viewpoint will be published in February, along with selected comments
drawn from the forthcoming discussion and an interview with Nancy Folbre on
“The Caring Economy.”

Comments are welcome through JANUARY 31.

Warm wishes to you and yours for a healthy and meaningful 2017.

Looking forward,
Paul Raskin
GTI Director

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