Work: From ‘Decent Work’ to ‘The Liberation of Time from Work’


The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

(graffito cited Sousa Santos 1995:479)


A map of the world that does not include Utopia

is not even worth glancing at

(Oscar Wilde)


I want to here comment on a number of historical and contemporary understandings of work, represented in the quotations below. I want to comment more particularly, of course, on the utopian ones. I want, even more specifically, to comment on those related to the World Social Forum (WSF), or to the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJ&SM) in general. Because, at least with the Forum, we are confronted by the problem of an event (or process), that is increasingly including within itself a position on work that is quite literally pro-capitalist, whilst so far lacking any specific utopian (post-capitalist) position on such.[1]


The golden future of communism (But who’s looking after baby? And collecting trash?)

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

(Karl Marx 1845-6/1970)


A utopian vision of worker power: forming the new society within the shell of the old


Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’ It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

(Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World, USA, 1905)


The actually-existing industrial proletariat: workers socialised into capitalist work

[T]he proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nation[s], the class which in freeing itself will free humanity from servile toil and will make of the human animal a free being – the proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.

(Paul Lafargue, France, 1893)


The ILO’s vision of ‘decent work’ under capitalist globalisation: Forward to the past!

Decent work is about your job and future prospects, about your working conditions; about balancing work and family life, putting your kids through school or getting them out of child labour. It is about gender equality, equal recognition, and enabling women to make choices and take control of their lives.

It is about your personal abilities to compete in the market place, keep up with new technological skills and remain healthy. It is about developing your entrepreneurial skills, about receiving a fair share of the wealth that you have helped to create and not being discriminated against; it is about having a voice in your workplace and your community.

In the most extreme situations, it is about moving from subsistence to existence. For many, it is the primary route out of poverty. For many more, it is about realizing personal aspirations in their daily existence and about solidarity with others. And everywhere, and for everybody, decent work is about securing human dignity.

Decent work is a development strategy. It is a goal not a standard. It does not offer a "one size fits all" solution. It is a personal goal for individuals and families and a development goal for countries.


(Juan Somavia, Director, ILO, as summarized, The Jobs Letter, 2001)

‘Decent work’ is both an idea and a well-funded programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a liberal-democratic body that has been marginalised by the neo-liberal international financial institutions (IFIs) in the process of globalisation. The ILO is trying, both energetically and pathetically, to re-establish the significance it had during the passing epoch of National-Industrial Capitalism. In this effort, it is seeking to appeal to the more liberal-democratic capitalists and states, to the broadly social-reformist unions…and to the radically-democratic World Social Forum! Following up on a first presentation, in 2002, the ILO and its union partners is now trying to involve also ‘other social organisations’ in this project (ICFTU, WCL, ETUC 2003).

The message being broadcast (or received) attempts to simultaneously adjust itself to capitalist globalisation (and language) and to propose some kind of global neo-Keynesian inflection of such.

‘Decent Work’ has been enthusiastically adopted by the inter/national union organisations that are in a posture of subordinate partnership (i.e. political or ideological dependence on) capital and/or state. It is the latest fig-leaf behind which the inter/national unions are hiding their bankruptcy in the face of neo-liberal globalisation. What ‘decent work’ looked like, in a brochure of the World Confederation of Labour that I found at the WSF2 in 2002, is the kind of job that workers in industrialized capitalist countries had – or were told by employers that they had – before neo-liberal globalisation. ‘Decent work’ has apparently to do with ‘rights’ and ‘dignity’ and being ‘free from exploitation’. It allows a worker to be an actor in an economy ‘at the service of mankind’ (‘mankind’ here presumably embraces womankind). This, it seems to me, is basically a Social-Christian doctrine that takes us back less to the 20th than to the late-19th century and the Papal Encyclical on human labour. (Waterman 2002a).

‘Decent Work’ is again a Big Issue at WSF3, Porto Alegre, 2003. This does not mean it should be simply ignored, dismissed or condemned (as I may appear to have done). ‘Decent Work’, it seems to me, could have considerable appeal not only to an inter/national labour movement lacking an ideology or strategy of its own. It could, if widely promoted, have considerable appeal to those in work degraded by globalisation, to the marginally-employed and to the unemployed. Whether, of course, the inter/national unions have any intention of turning this into a worldwide international solidarity protest, on the model of the Eight-Hour Day movement of the late-19th century, is another matter. ‘Decent Work’ may function for inter/national union officers as yet another strategy within the framework of international union diplomacy, with no more likely success than that of the now downgraded (or dying) strategy of winning labour rights through the WTO!

 What workers and unions identified with the GJ&SM could, however, do is to confront ‘Decent Work’ with, at the very least, notions of ‘Useful Work’, ‘Ecologically-Friendly Production’, and with the argument that available work be evenly spread amongst available workers. An international campaign for ‘Decent, Useful, Ecologically-Friendly Work for Women and Men Worldwide’ could move a social-reformist strategy in a radically-democratic direction. I will return to this matter below.


The end of a labour utopia, or the recovery of one?

 [W]hat was utopian in the early 19th century has ceased in part to be so today: the economy and the social process of production require decreasing quantities of wage labour. The subordination of all other human activities and goals to waged work, for economic ends, is ceasing to be either necessary or meaningful. Emancipation from economic and commercial rationality is becoming a possibility, but it can only become reality through actions which also demonstrate its feasibility. Cultural action and the development of ‘alternative activities’ take on a particular significance in this context[…]

 I have attempted to identify the meaning history could have, and to show what humanity and the trade union movement could derive from the technological revolution…Events could nevertheless take a course which would miss the possible meaning of the current technological revolution. If this happens, I can see no other meaning in that revolution: our societies will continue to disintegrate, to become segmented, to sink into violence, injustice and fear.

 (André Gorz, 1999/1988:45-63)


            Liberation from work is the strategy of Gorz (1999.[2]  Gorz has produced a challenging critique of the ideology of work that dominates the international trade-union movement as much as it does the capitalist (or statist) media.  This ideology holds that 1) the more each works, the better off all will be;  2) that those who do little or no work are acting against the interests of the community;  3) that those who work hard achieve success and those who don’t have only themselves to blame.  He points out that today the connection between more and better has been broken and that the problem now is one of producing differently, producing other things, working less.  Gorz distinguishes between work for economic ends (the definition of work under capitalism/statism), domestic labour, work for ‘oneself’ (primarily the additional task of women – for whom ‘self’ customarily means ‘the family’), and autonomous activity (artistic, relational, educational, mutual-aid, etc).  He argues, I think, for a movement from the first type to the third, and for the second one to be increasingly articulated with the third rather than subordinated to the first.


            Gorz points out that, with the new technologies, it is possible, in the industrialised capitalist countries, to reduce average working hours from 1,600 to 1,000 a year without a fall in living standards.  Under capitalist conditions, of course, what is likely to happen is a division of the active population into 25 percent of skilled, permanent and unionised workers, 25 percent insecure and unskilled peripheral workers, and 50 percent semi-unemployed, unemployed or marginalised workers, doing occasional or seasonal work.  This is the dystopia that has come true since Gorz first predicted it in 1988. If the trade unions are not to be reduced to some kind of neo-corporatist mutual-protection agency for the skilled and privileged, they will, Gorz argues, have to struggle for liberation from work:


            Such a project is able to give cohesion and a unifying perspective to the different elements that make up the social movement since 1) it is a logical extension of the experience and struggles of workers in the past;  2) it reaches beyond that experience and those struggles towards objectives which correspond to the interests of both workers and non-workers, and is thus able to cement bonds of solidarity and common political will between them;  3) it corresponds to the aspirations of the ever-growing proportion of men and women who wish to (re)gain control in and of their own lives.  (Gorz 1999:45)


            This argument reveals no particular awareness of the existence of a world of labour outside Western Europe (though later work does).  But, in case it should be thought that struggle against wage labour is the privilege only of ‘labour aristocrats’ in industrialised capitalist welfare states, it should be pointed out that it was with the struggle for the Eight-Hour Working Day that the international trade-union movement was born in the 1890s, and that similar national or international strategies have been long proposed within Latin America (Sulmont 1988) and the USA (Brecher and Costello 1994).  Moreover, the legal reduction of the working day has taken place in France and remains on the statute books despite energetic attempts by the present government to remove it. The importance of the Gorz argument lies precisely in its rooting within international labour movement history and contemporary union concerns, and the explicit connections made with the alternative social movements – or, if you like, with those interests and identities of workers that unions currently ignore, subordinate or repress.


            What Gorz, in other words, offers us is a labour discourse and strategy for the GJ&SM!

Information workers and a utopian form of worker self-articulation: problems and possibilities

We must conclude that although there is considerable potential for the emergence of a common class consciousness amongst information-processing workers, based in a common labour process, common employers and a common relation to capital, powerful counter-forces are present which seem likely to inhibit this development, the greatest of which, perhaps, is racism…There is considerable evidence of successful organizing by the new “e-workers” within countries […] However, examples of such organization across national boundaries are few and far between…In general…the evidence of resistance by these workers comes in more sporadic and anarchic forms, such as the writing of viruses or other forms of sabotage […] It is apparent that a new cybertariat is in the making. Whether it will perceive itself as such is another matter.

(Ursula Huws 2000:19-20)

As in other industries, workers in the emerging digital economy also need to defend their common interests. However, most of the existing labour organisations are not responding quickly enough to the changes in people’s working lives. Although formed to fight the employers, industrial trade unions were also created in the image of the Fordist factory: bureaucratic, centralised and nationalist. For those working within the digital economy, such labour organisations seem anachronistic. Instead, new forms of unionism need to be developed which can represent the interests of digital workers. As well as reforming the structures of existing labour organisations, digital workers should start co-operating with each other using their own methods. As they’re already on-line, people could organise to advance their common interests through the Net. Formed within the digital economy, a virtual trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation: artisanal, networked and global’.

 (Richard Barbrook 1999)


               Huws and Barbrook make specific address to the emerging digital economy. Information workers, in the most general sense, are already a majority of the wage-earning classes in industrialized capitalist countries. And the expansion of that part of the working class that is wholly or partly dependent on computer use, or involved in developing the industry itself, is also growing. Ursula Huws seems to recognize that there are different working classes, and that the ‘cybertariat’ is a significant part of such, but seems to doubt whether it can even develop a corporate (category-specific) self-consciousness. Richard Barbrook looks at the matter from the point of view of organization. Or perhaps we should here say (bearing in mind he is talking of networking) the point of view of worker collective self-articulation. Two conclusions spring to mind. One is that the new category identified by Huws is unlikely (given its internal divisions) to spontaneously develop a new consciousness: such needs to be proposed, discussed, argued for and demonstrated by activists. The second is that the New Model union (based on the new industry and the new worker) is one relevant to wage-workers and working people more generally. Increasing numbers of such working people, including the most marginalized are already involved in ‘organisations’ that are ‘artisanal, networked and global’. Consider only the international network of fishing workers and communities (Waterman 2002b), which was present at WSF2. And arguments about the ‘networked union of the future’ are increasingly appearing in the literature of labour studies. Is this utopian? I would say yes because utopia has to be understood as process as well as place. And because the implications of worker articulation that is artisanal, networked and global are that it can be non-professional, that it can be horizontal and incorporate feedback, and that it can be global (both international and holistic).


Wo/men and work in an eco-feminist-socialist utopia

Nearly everyone is required to participate in farming and cleaning; the chores of transportation, public welfare, defense and other necessities are also shared among all members of the community. Citizens receive the option of pursuing higher education, yet careers are distributed on a rotating basis and nearly everyone is involved in public service. Art is produced communally. People may choose to identify with any ethnic or religious group regardless of their genetic backgrounds, but everyone is expected to pray and celebrate together, regardless of affiliation.

And gender, the most intractable difference among human beings, has been eliminated. Children are conceived in laboratories through random selection of genetic attributes and raised to viability in artificial wombs. As members of communities die, groups of three "co-mothers" (who may be male or female) are selected to parent. Hormones stimulate milk production in parents who want to breastfeed, men as well as women. Every child is a wanted child, and all infants and toddlers are housed together in large nurseries. Members of both sexes receive maternity leave just as members of both sexes engage in all forms of physical labor…Mattapoisett…has had to make sacrifices to achieve peace and prosperity; among the sacrifices have been synthetic food, animal products, mass entertainment and non-recyclable materials. The political and social commitments of these futuristic socialists and environmentalists come into sharp contrast with American capitalism, with its roots in human and environmental exploitation.

(Review of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, 1977, Irene Green 19??)


Move over, Karl, here come the feminists!


Here is Marge Piercy, restating Marx’s aristocratic, rural – and obviously gender-blind – formulation for our own times. That she was discussing, in positive terms, genetic engineering (at a time in which the best of the Left was just discovering computers) again reveals how literature can break with old scientific – and political – paradigms and prejudices. Utopias have customarily taken literary form. They represent, after all, appeals to the feelings and imagination. It is this that enables us to escape from the iron cage of whichever present, and discourse, imprisons us. Utopias are offered not simply to please or inspire us, not only as a critique of actually-existing society. They are also there to provoke.[3]


Putting utopia back on the socialist map (now that utopia isn’t what it used to be)

1.     Overcoming alienation;

2.     Attenuating the division of labour;

3.     Transforming consumption;

4.     Alternative ways of living [the feminist one - PW];

5.     Socialising markets;

6.     Planning ecologically;

7.     Internationalising equality;

8.     Communicating democratically;

9.     Realising democracy;

10.  Omnia sint communia [All in common - PW]

(Panitch and Leys 2000).


The importance of the above specification for me is not only its courage, in devoting the annual Socialist Register to utopia at a nadir of socialist self-confidence, but the way in which Panitch and Leys have broadened out the utopian agenda, linking traditional labour and economic concerns to take account of the newest features of social life, of subjective identity and of social movements.[4] Here I just want to recommend the book to readers, and  to suggest that those who cannot access this simply consider the implications for the contemporary labour movement. It once again prefigures, I think, the kind of orientation that the GJ&SM might offer to and discuss with the unionised working class.


Conclusion: Relating ‘Decent Work’ to ‘Liberating Life from Work’ in a utopian manner



            It would, I think, be a major error to see the relationship between a subaltern and an emancipatory orientation to work in terms of a binary opposition, such as that between Reform and Revolution in traditional socialist terms. This is for several reasons.


            In the first place, binary oppositional thinking obviously mechanical rather than dialectical, suggesting discrete entities or options (of which one is customarily virtuous and the other vicious), the one excluding the other, victory implying the surpassal, domination of suppression (!) of the other. The increasing interpenetration and mutual dependency of natural, human, social and scientific fact and thought in a globalised and informatised universe, condemns us to think dialectically (in terms, for example, of the mutual dependency of the opposed terms, of contradictions within each of them). The mutual dependency or determination of reformism and insurrectionism within the historical labour movement, and their mutual decline into irrelevance (Wallerstein 2002) provides a terrible warning against such thinking to new utopians.


            In the second place, we must remember that utopia refers both to a place and to a process, which is, I suppose, why Frigga Haug (2002) refers to the complex and contradictory feminist movement as ‘utopian’. Both of the orientations to work discussed above are being presented within the World Social Forum. They are, moreover, being presented alongside other traditionally trade unionist and emancipatory labour/economic proposals (here particularly those of ‘solidarity economics’.[5] Despite the increasing controversy around the WSF, this is a utopian process in so far as it sees these…umm…different strategies being posed in the same place, and within a space or process in which dialogue is assumed.[6] Dialogue is, indeed, becoming the norm, in and around the labour movement, where previously positions were identified with organisations, and these assumed or demanded of members institutional, ideological and emotional loyalty rather intellectual challenge, creativity and an openness to the rest of the world. Alongside the increasing porosity of the old institutions, goes the penetrating and expanding space of the World Wide Web. If and as the proposed global web of social movements (CUT-MST-WMW-ATTAC-FGS. 2002) takes appropriate shape, control-by-information-provision/suppression breaks down.


            In the third place, one could suggest that these two broad positions stand in a hypothetically evolutionary relationship to one another. I have already suggested that Decent Work could have considerable attraction to millions of (non-) workers, at least if it was converted from an institutional policy into a public campaign. Today it is difficult to imagine that bringing workers and the public into activity, on however moderate a labour reform policy, would not debouch onto something much more ambitious. Or at least that us utopians, with one foot in the future and one in the present, would not ensure that such a mobilisation would take on the character proposed, during an earlier utopian moment, space and process, and 20 years before the Web, by Hans Magnus Enzensburger 1976:21-53):

The open secret of the electronic media, the decisive political factor, which has been waiting, suppressed or crippled, for its moment to come, is their mobilising power. When I say mobilise I mean mobilise…namely to make [people] more mobile than they are. As free as dancers, as aware as football players, as surprising as guerrillas…In the socialist movements the dialectic of discipline and spontaneity, centralism and decentralization, authoritarian leadership and anti-authoritarian disintegration has long ago reached deadlock. Networklike communication models built on the principle of reversibility of circuits might give indications of how to overcome this situation […] “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the Will” (Antonio Gramsci)’’’.




Barbrook, Richard. 1999b. ‘Frequently Asked Questions: Digital Workers and Artisans: Get Organised’:

Brecher, Jeremy and Tim Costello. 1994. Global Village or Global Pillage: Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up. Boston: South End. 237 pp.

CUT-MST-WMW-ATTAC-FGS. 2002. ‘Building a Social Movements World Network: A Proposal for Discussion’, Central Unica de Trabalhadores-Brazil, Movimiento Sem Terra-Brazil, World March of Women-Quebec, ATTAC-France, Focus on the Global South-Thailand. Focus on Trade, No. 83, December,

Enzensburger, Hans Magnus. 1976. ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media’, in Enzensburger, Hans Magnus, Raids and Reconstructions: Essays in Politics, Crime and Culture. London: Pluto: pp. 20-53

Global Unions. 2002. ‘Changing The Model: IFI Policies and the Failures of Corporate-Driven Globalization: Statement by Global Unions to the 2002 Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank. (Washington 28-29 September 2002)’


Gorz, Andre. 1982. Farewell to the Working Class. London: Pluto.

Gorz, Andre. 1989. Critique of Economic Reason. London: Verso.

Gorz, Andre. 1999. ‘A New Task for the Unions: The Liberation of Time from Work’, in Ronaldo Munck and Peter Waterman (eds), Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order. Houndmills: Macmillan. Pp. 41-63

Gorz, André. 2000. Reclaiming Work, Oxford: Blackwell.

Haug, Frigga. 2000. ‘On the Necessity of Conceiving the Utopian in a Feminist Fashion’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias. London: Merlin and New York: Monthly Review.

Huws, Ursula. 2000. ‘The Making of a Cybertariat? Virtual Work in a Real World’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Socialist Register 2001: Working Classes: Global Realities. London: Merlin, New York: Monthly Review. Pp. 1-24.

ICFTU-WCL-ETUC. 2003. ‘Porto Alegre, 3rd World Social Forum Seminar “Decent Work, Globalisation with Jobs and Dignity”, Trade Unions Discuss Proposals with other Social Organisations’, 24 and 25 January 2003. International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, World Confederation of Labour, European Trade Union Confederation. [Email received 16.01.03).

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels (C. H. Arthur (ed)). 1970/1845-6. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Panitch, Leo and Colin Leys. 2000. ‘Rekindling the Socialist Imagination’, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias. London: Merlin and New York: Monthly Review. 283 pp.

Sulmont, Denis. 1988b. Deuda y Trabajadores: Un Reto para la Solidaridad. Lima:ADEC/ATC. 127 pp.

The Jobs Letter. 2001. ‘Juan Somavia: The Global Challenge of Decent Work’, The Jobs Letter,

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2002. ‘New Revolts against the System’, New Left Review 18, November-December.

Waterman, Peter. 2000. ‘Is it Possible to Build Utopia in One Country?’, Biblio: A New Delhi Review of Books. March-April. 37-8.

Waterman, Peter. 2001 (1998). Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London and New York: Continuum. 302 pp.

Waterman, Peter. 2002a. ‘The Still Unconsummated Marriage Of International Unionism And The Global Justice Movement: A Labour Report On The World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, January 31-February 5, 2002. http://groups/,

Waterman, Peter. 2002b. ‘Emancipating Labour Internationalism', [16,000-word keynote essay, for project/book coordinated by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, University of Coimbra, Portugal. [Contribution to, ‘Reinventing Social Emancipation’, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation.]

Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming. ‘Omnia Sint Communia: A New/Old Slogan for International Labour and Labour Internationalism. The Commoner.


[Peter Waterman (London 1937), is a retired academic, resident in The Hague. He has been working since 1984 on the ‘new labour internationalisms’, on the ‘new internationalisms’ more generally, and on a ‘global solidarity culture’ in relation to such. Since 2001 he has been working more specifically on the World Social Forum. Most recently he has guest-edited the first issue of a new e-magazine, TransnationalAlternativ@s, for the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. This is a special issue on the WSF, entitled ‘Two, Three, Many New Social Forums!’]


[email protected]

Global Solidarity Dialogue Website (inactive):

Global Solidarity Dialogue Group (less inactive):


[1] An apology, or at least an explanation, for the quotes (sometimes second-hand and indirect), in this paper. It was produced in Lima, under the usual pressure of time, with adequate access to the Web, but none to my books in The Hague.

[2] Much of the following argument comes from Waterman (2001:221-2). There it forms part of a general position on international labour and labour internationalism under and against capitalist globalisation.

[3] Piercy’s notion of men being able to not only mother but breast-feed babies certainly provoked my mother, then in her 70s. It was at this point that, in disgust, she gave up reading the book.

[4] I have discussed this work elsewhere (Waterman 2000), and been inspired by the last to write a paper on labour and the commons (Waterman Forthcoming).

[5] Within WSF3, Porto Alegre 2003, a panel on this topic actually precedes one on ‘Full Employment and the Re-Regulation of Work’ (sic).

[6] One is, of course, acutely aware of the differential wealth, power, initiative and potential impact wielded in and around the Forum process (now being globalised). The international trade unions are now running, for the second year, an event on ‘decent work’, this time for two full days, with full publicity, cabin translation, and in the central WSF location. The ZNet initiative, from the US, is for a five-day programme, but dependent on ‘sweat capital’ and solidarity, and no assured translation, which will probably have to be improvised. Although co-sponsored by the WSF, it is a more peripheral event. Even more peripheral was my effort in 2002 to organise a seminar on ‘Globalisation, Internationalism, Networking and Solidarity’. At no cost, except my own for being there, I got a room for two hours, with 15-25 participants. We have to take account both of the utopian space and of its political-economic limitations.

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