The Rise and Fall of the Work Society

The victories of Bernie Sanders in the early primaries had people talking about socialist revolutions, while Biden’s wins on Super Tuesday (in largely conservatives states) have tempered that enthusiasm.  This is an important reminder of something we all need to remember:  The Capitalists already won.  There may still be a few scattered enclaves of subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples who haven’t been forced to pay to exist, but in the West they won a long time ago.  That victory has been so complete that we don’t even notice anymore.  It’s completely normal to us to rent our lives away to “earn a living.”  Faced with a such world, few can even ask how we got here, let alone how to fight it.

It started with Protestantism, or more specifically with John Calvin.  Ignoring that Bible quote about camels through the eye of a needle, he preached that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and therefore the wealthy were virtuous and moral.  In contrast, the poor were immoral and lazy (despite the fact that any poor person can testify to how much work being poor requires).  This led directly to the Protestant Work Ethic, and the idea that hard work could make anyone rich.

It was a mindset that well served the farmers and craftsmen of the era.  But that was not enough for the factory owners and the rising capitalist class of the time.  They needed people to work for them.  Most people were content with self-sufficient agrarian lifestyles.  Which is why the capitalists pressured governments to enact a series of laws to push peasants off the land and into the cities and factories, events often known as the Enclosure of the Commons.  This is not to say peasant life was utopian, it was not, but it did allow for a certain degree of independence.  People were then stripped of the means of that self-sufficiency, forced into the cities and the factories with only their labor to sell.  Patrick Colquhoun ((A Treatise on Indigence: Exhibiting a General View of the National Resources, 1806)) explained it in the late 18th century: “It [poverty] is the lot of man. It is the source of wealth, since without poverty, there could be no labour; there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.

It was there in the cities and factories that people began to think of themselves as Workers.  Capitalists secured their victory with various strategies that usually came down to destruction or cooption to make sure that people never think of themselves as anything other than workers, and we started paying to exist.  This was when the capitalists won.  In the centuries following, the world has been reorganized as a Work Society, with all social interaction revolving around labor.   Today, political pundits often speak of “workers” and the “working class” in the abstract.  Look at nearly any TV show, comedy or drama, and see how many of them revolve around the workplace.  Even the current buzzphrase “Work-Life Balance” places work first.  But “Worker” is a performative identity: workers must work.  In such a society, the providers of work will always have the advantage.  Labor may demand better working conditions, better hours and above all, better pay.  They may even organize workers’ political parties almost everywhere except in the United States) but beneath it all, they demand to work.

With jobs the be all and end all of demands, the best many of these workers now hope for is to change roles, move up in the Worker Hierarchy from Worker to Boss.  Unfortunately, this dovetails with a fascist mentality.  As Wilhelm Reich described it ((Listen, Little Man, 1971)): “The subjugated “little man” who desires authority and rebels against it at the same time.”  This means the potential for fascism remains latent in any Work Society.

But even capitalism’s favorite bogeyman, communism, is at its heart based around the idea of Human as Worker (i.e. the Proletariat).  The Worker identity was too strongly established in the industrialized countries so successful communist revolutions happened in countries that had no longstanding history with Protestantism (more specifically Calvinism), and more importantly, had large peasant populations.  Like our ancestors in the West, these peasants were in no way eager to accept poverty as the “lot of man.” And no matter how much they hated their feudal overlords (whose arrogance and abuse of power often sparked the revolutions in the first place), they did not wish to give up a self-sufficient way of life for waged labor, a condition that for centuries was regarded as little better than slavery.  In the end, many of the communist countries attempted to industrialize their people which meant forcing a worker identity upon them anyway, and often led to catastrophe.

This points to the contradiction at the heart of the Work Society.  Despite training us to see ourselves as workers, to capitalists labor is a cost to be reduced so that they may maintain their profits.  Always seeking to reduce those costs, they eagerly downsize and force less workers to do more.  That gives them a pool of surplus labor, makes workers so easily replaceable, plays factions of workers off against each other and keeps wages down.

Since the beginning, capitalists have been investing in technological innovation to increase labor power and further extend profits.  The problem, however, is that technological development and automation makes Labor more redundant than simply downsizing.  Up until now, this resulted in shifting workers from one occupation to another.  But recent developments in automation and Artificial Intelligence threaten workers to the point of irrelevancy. The Work Society is beginning to break down and workers are faced with a crisis of identity:  When workers cannot work, what then are they?  Neither labor nor capitalists are prepared to answer to that question.  Capitalists don’t want to lose their exploited slaves and laborer faces the fear of losing their identity (in addition to losing their livelihoods).  This threatens to overturn the very foundations of the Work Society.  Like any threatened system, it will fight to survive, and it has several strategies to do just that.

First, capitalists continue their old “divide and conquer” strategy of playing workers off against each other, this time including migrants and refugees into the mix.  Then they pay off their sycophants in government to unleash a full-throated neoliberalism in an attempt to turn the clock back to the Gilded Age.  A newer strategy is to blur the line between life and work by expanding the Work Society into more of people’s lives in order to marketize and monetize every aspect of it.  Under the trendy name of the “gig economy” they tell us how we can all profit by driving for Uber, renting our homes out on AirB&B and producing endless amounts of online “content” in what is essentially cyberbegging.  All in a quest to make ourselves ever more sellable, because if we can no longer be Workers, they would make us into Products.

But there is another more dangerous stopgap.  When faced with crises, combined with economic stress, the latent fascist tendencies will remerge.  Fascism is an emergency reaction of the Work Society as it tries to reorient itself to new circumstances.  We have seen it before, such as the defeat of Germany in the aftermath of WWI and the Great Depression in the previous century.  Similar conditions have appeared with the Crash of 2008 combined with increased automation and outsourcing in the labor market.  This time, even fascism may not save the Work Society as fascism is no more equipped to stop what’s coming than the previous order.

This is the world as it stands now.  There is a saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.  Capitalism (and Work Society) is the dominant global system to which There Is No Alternative, in the words of Margaret Thatcher.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, our capitalist ruling classes have even deluded themselves to believe that we live in the End of History.  However, there’s another old saying we should heed: “Those whom Gods destroy, they first make mad with power.”  In the madness of seeing the world only in this context with no alternatives accepted, capitalists have set up themselves (and the rest of us) to face an Outside Context Problem.  The Scottish author Iain M. Banks ((Excession, 1996)) described the Outside Context Problem as something that: “…most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”

Climate change is our Outside Context Problem.  It is a problem created by the capitalists, no matter how much they try to foist the blame on individuals for simply trying to survive in the society they created.  Once again, the capitalists have pulled out their usual bag of tricks: destruction and cooption.  Yet climate change cannot be killed, bought out, or paid off (even if those fighting against it can be).  Even bribing politicians to send in the military has brought chaos and suffering, but has not stopped the problem.  The desire to take on climate change directly is all but impossible because the US treats energy as an American monopoly (OPEC countries hold their reserves in the form of US securities).  Any attempt to mitigate climate change by decreasing fossil fuel use is regarded as a threat to US interests.  Forbidden to confront the very nature of the problem (unlimited growth on a finite planet), it is no surprise that many now are falling back on denial.  They say that this is just a bump that requires a few tweaks and not a world encountering a paradigmatic shift.  They sit back and trust in a technological solution to save us and continue on as before.

What it boils down to is this: in the coming years there is a choice to be made, either we continue down the road of misery we are on to destruction and possible extinction, or we make some very deep fundamental changes to our society.  Not just tweaks and marketing slogans like Sustainable Growth or Green Capitalism, but questioning capitalism and abandoning the Work Society and other changes so profound that they almost literally cannot be imagined in our current mindset.

Maybe it’s too late, and we have already destroyed ourselves.  And for people who see themselves as nothing more than workers, maybe extinction is a mercy.  But in the end if we do survive, we will have to rediscover what is is to be fully human and remember what we were before we allowed ourselves to be convinced that we were only workers.

Andrew M. Johnson is an artist and writer living in Arizona. Read other articles by Andrew M..