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Work. It’s a four-letter word as familiar to us as our own name, as commonplace as sliced bread, always needing to be done, never coming to an end. It seems harmless. But the world’s workers know better.
Pretty much all of us must carry out tasks that, at the very least, provide us with our basic needs: food; shelter; safety; clothing. That fact has held true throughout history, from the hunter-gatherer, pastoral, horticultural and agrarian societies, through to the industrial and post-industrial society of our present-day.
As our species has evolved, so too have our needs and wants, growing in complexity, variety and quantity, demanding more activity on our part but also changing the very nature of that activity, altering its structure, attaching economic value, separating who does the activity from who benefits (rarely the same person), until what emerges is the thing we understand today as work. And work is something we must all do, whether that work is formal or not, paid or not.
The authors must pause for a moment to make a distinction between formal paid work and informal unpaid work, a lot of which is in the home in the form of household chores, caring duties and child rearing. Many of us engage in both, although it is women who are left with the biggest share of the informal unpaid work that largely goes unseen and is not valued by the system. Of course, there is much we do, and many sacrifices we make, for our loved ones that we do not necessarily want to classify as work. But at the same time, it is important to recognize that these responsibilities should be valued and should not fall on the shoulders of a subsection of society. A previous C20 article has discussed this at some length.
Outside of formal paid work, there is unemployment, where a person is unable to find a formal job or cannot work due to ill health. There is also underemployment where a person is underused because their job does not make full use of their skills or leaves them without anything at all to do for long periods during working hours. There is a lot of both, unemployment and underemployment, in the capitalist system. So much for efficiency, that holy grail of capitalism.
Work is an enormously defining factor in our lives. Without it we cannot provide for ourselves or our family or expect to attain any standard of living. For many, our job defines us and is closely linked to our identity. For some, our job is something we enjoy and that gives us great satisfaction. For all, the work we do dictates how others treat us, our status in society, whether we enjoy positions of privilege or are dismissed as irrelevant.
So, point made, work is necessary and important. But that being the case, then what exactly are the authors trying to say about the nature of work?
Well, an initial observation is that working life can be a pretty wretched affair for the vast majority of people. Sure, some of the workforce may have meaningful work, may have some autonomy or self-management, or may have access to redress when required. But many more are treated like inanimate inputs to an equation; added and deleted when expedient; overused, underused, and misused. For those of us who live in so-called democracies, it is ironic that too many of us will spend nearly half of our waking lives at work where there is little or no democracy or personal self-determination.
On the whole, workplaces are hierarchies. The higher up the hierarchy, the fewer jobs there are, with the biggest proportion of jobs found at lower levels. Workers in the lower levels, will follow orders from above, will exercise very low levels of control over their working day, and will know little or nothing of what is going on outside of the narrow role they are employed to do.
You might think, so what? No big deal. Well, the thing about hierarchies in the workplace is that they are bad for our health. Yes, they are unhealthy. For instance, longitudinal studies of the British civil service known as Whitehall I and Whitehall II have shown that staff in the higher grades lived longer and healthier lives than did those in the lower grades.
On top of that, about 80% of jobs are rote, disempowering and mind-numbingly mundane. Many are also meaningless, outside of the purpose of making or protecting the profits of owners. For the workers at least, they might as well spend their days rolling rocks up a hill and letting them roll back down again. The relentless monotony and repetition and pointlessness grind us down, kill our joy, sap our creativity. We find all sorts of ways, some healthy and some not-so-healthy, to dull the pain of our misery and boredom and the awful realization that no matter how much we hate the job, we have to get up, day after day after year after year, and keep doing it anyway. It is Groundhog Day on steroids.
And unfortunately, it is often the case that the wretched daily grind does not even provide us with our basic needs, and work does not guarantee protection from poverty. Those in work but also in poverty are known as the working poor. In the Global South, this is taken to the extreme and people working 16 hour days might earn little more than $13. In the West, in-work poverty is becoming all too familiar. The working poor represent a substantial share of people at work. For example, in 2018, there were 7 million people classified as working poor in the US, while 2017 figures show that in the EU nearly 20 million workers were at risk of poverty. Also wages have been steadily driven down over the last five decades so we are forced to work more hours for less money. Far too many jobs have become casualized, or part of the gig economy where a person is not even employed but is decreed self-employed, and cannot depend on the security of regular hours and steady pay, low or otherwise. Many jobs have stripped away hard-won workers’ rights and conditions such as decent holidays, sick leave, maternity leave and paternity leave, pensions. All of this has been done so that profits can be maximized and siphoned off to the financial sector or tax havens.
Of course, in our capitalist system, work is established as a contract between the employee and the employer. This contract, we are told, means that if the employee does not like their job or is unhappy with how they are being treated, they are legally entitled to up and leave and go find another job. But that is a hollow entitlement. How many people are really free to leave their job, practically, financially? And even if a person did leave their job, will the next one be any better?
These criticisms about work are not to say that the authors are against the concept of work. There are endless essential tasks that make a contribution to society and that we could not do without. And as human beings, we are creative, sentient, intelligent creatures that seek fulfilment and purpose in life, a reason for getting up in the morning, a sense that we are doing something worthwhile and meaningful. Work, if it can contribute to those needs, is necessary and indeed, no bad thing.
What this article objects to is the nature of the work on offer. Most jobs today do not provide any of the things that work should and could provide. Most jobs do not make the best use of our talents or allow us to flourish and grow as people or give us the scope to develop other interests or abilities.
In addition, the products and services we produce are not always about meeting human needs, but instead are destructive of the environment or are luxuries for the 1%. Examples, to name a few, include the production of weapons, marketing and advertising, private finance, private security, prisons and incarceration in their current form, policing in its current form, building McMansions, and serving the wealthy.
Which brings the authors to a second observation about work, and to the heart of this article: that while work is pretty much unavoidable, it does not have to be the way we know it to be.
Our present-day understanding of work has been around for fewer than 300 years. When considered against the 4.5 million years of human history, that is a mere 0.0067% of our existence. The blink of an eye. In past societies, work has come in all sorts of shapes and forms, not always better than what we have now, but definitely not always the same. If work has been different in the past, it can be different in the future. We do not have to endure it as it is.
The nature of work is intrinsically linked to our capitalist economic system which is based on private ownership and a free market of supply and demand, continuous growth and profit-maximization. As such, the jobs to be done must serve those needs, not the needs of society and the people who live in it. The post-industrialized world that is increasingly prevalent in the West means that more money is made outside any kind of productive economy than inside it—although this has happened because manufacturing has largely shifted to the global South where higher profits can be made by the super-exploitation of workers and the environment; and the majority of workers in the global South work in the informal sector with no minimum wage or even basic benefits such as healthcare and social security.
A good example of a post-industrial sector is the financial sector, the playground of the wealthy elites. For the most part, no useful product or service whatsoever is created. The elites accrue their fortunes trading, not goods or services, but abstract entities taking the form of stocks, shares, derivatives, and debt- and equity-based instruments. What the hell are these things? No one knows for sure, not even the clever people who waste their talents dreaming them up. In layman terms, let us call them sophisticated forms of gambling that put skin in the game by using cash squeezed out of all the other parts of the economy—remember those ever-diminishing wages and worker’s rights?
But if we could imagine an alternative economy, one not driven by private ownership and growth and profit and consumerism and a free market, we could also imagine other ways of defining work. If we were to successfully organize and resist in order to transform this capitalist society into an alternative economic and social model such as Participatory Socialism, what we know as work would change radically. Co-created by Robin Hahnel and Collective20’s Michael Albert, this model aims to create an economy based on the principles of equity, solidarity, diversity, worker self-management, efficiency and sustainability as a means of achieving democratic workplaces and decentralized participatory planning carried out by worker and consumer councils who determine the extent of production and consumption.
Our new possible economy would be able to go further. There would still be work to do, and yes, some of this work would be unpleasant and rote but there would be a crucial difference: the power to decide how that work is shared and remunerated would lie with the workers and the people, not the capitalists.
In our new economy, we would be workers in enterprises that are part of the Commons, in other words, that are socially-owned. With participatory planning, these Commons enterprises would not be in competition with each other, and by virtue of being socially-owned they would end private ownership as we know it. They would not be consumed by the pursuit of profits at any cost because participatory planning removes the profit incentive. They would create non-hierarchical, self-managing workplaces where the worker would have equal say and genuine decision-making power and control over their working lives.
The balanced job complexes in Participatory Socialism would give every job a fair balance between the unpleasant, rote work and the more pleasant, empowering work. No longer would there be some workers toiling in the misery of tedious tasks, with other workers enjoying the stimulating tasks, as all jobs would have a mix of empowering and mundane tasks. Balanced job complexes would have the added benefit of instilling people with more confidence to participate in decision-making outside their workplaces in the wider participatory society that would exist around them. Removal of the racial and gender division of labor—where the worst paid and least empowering jobs are disproportionately occupied by women, by people of color, by immigrants—would be a priority of a participatory economy.
As workers with control over our working lives, we would treat ourselves with more dignity and respect. We would ensure higher pay for ourselves, but equitable pay too whereby workers within and between Commons enterprises would get paid the same for similar effort and sacrifice rather than being paid according to productivity or inherited talent. This would help to close the income gap and remove the pay differentials that currently exist between blue collar and white collar workplaces.
Abusive precarious work practices would be gone, as would all those dreadful working conditions we endure today. We would have decent holiday entitlement with pay, and full pay when on sick leave, maternity and paternity leave. We would have affordable childcare and flexible working hours that would allow us to attend to family and caring responsibilities and emergencies.
The above transformations would apply to public sector workers too who would see their workplaces become more democratic and more equitable.
With the profit-driven motivation gone, it is likely that less production would be necessary. As such, everyone would work fewer hours while still managing to produce what was needed. This, combined with job sharing and shorter working weeks, and eliminating the non-beneficial profit-driven production we have already mentioned, would enable us to eradicate unemployment. And we could make underemployment a thing of the past because having balanced jobs would mean we were making the best possible use of our skills, whilst also sharing the more rote work with others so they too could do work that maximized their skills. And we might decide to take time out from work altogether because there would be a Universal Basic Income in place, an income everybody would be entitled to from birth. This would afford us the space and money to pursue other interests other than work such as hobbies, volunteering, creative pursuits, further learning or reskilling, more time with family…whatever we chose, in fact. We would have the luxury of training in the profession of our choice or to change professions if we found ourselves in work we did not enjoy.
We might also envisage having the freedom to choose to work from home if that suited us, or mix working from home with working in a formal setting. In fact, these alternative models would create more decentralized and localized workplaces.
Hell, it might even be the case that in this future world the very concept of work disappears altogether. In its place could be something more akin to civic responsibility where each of us would receive equitable pay and choose a composition of daily activities made up of tasks for the productive economy, tasks for our family caring responsibilities and household chores, and tasks for our own personal and creative pursuits. The exact composition of this civic responsibility would be different for each individual, would be decided by us based on our unique abilities, needs, capacities, circumstances, and preferences, and would adapt to expected and unexpected changes throughout our lives.
The better working life that an alternative economy promises all seems like a long way off. Or maybe not. In spite of the insidious capitalism system, there are inspiring examples of non-reformist reforms—the reforms that take us that bit closer to a place of radical change—that are already in place, already connecting us in the now to the better future we want. Let us have a quick look at a few of these.
Universal Basic Income pilots, and successful ones at that, have been implemented in several places including India, Brazil, Kenya and Alaska. Mutual and public banks that democratize finance by giving people more control over their own money are widespread, particularly in Europe, for example, the Sparkassen in Germany, the Cantonal Banks in Switzerland, the Handelsbanken in Sweden, and the Caja in Spain and the Basque Country. Participatory budgeting projects have also been initiated, most famously in Port Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India, but also in city regions and local government areas in such countries as the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, Portugal and Italy.
And of course, there are countless examples of worker-owned co-operatives, a credible alternative to the conventional workplace. The principles of co-operatives mean they create democratic and self-managing workplaces that remove superior-subordinate hierarchies and allow all worker-owners an equal say in decisions about the work they do and the operation of the enterprise. Co-operatives often make business decisions that prioritize environmental and social considerations over profit. Wages are more equitable with narrower pay differentials between the highest and lowest paid worker-owners. The profits—more often called surpluses—are distributed in a way agreed by the worker-owners, for example, part to the development of the enterprise, part to the worker-owners, part to the local community for socially beneficial programs. These practices encourage solidarity among worker-owners.
Worker co-operatives can be found in almost every country in the world and operate in pretty much any type of business you care to think of. Notable examples of worker co-operatives include the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque Country, the largest worker co-operative in the world employing over 70,000 people; the Emilia Romagna Region in Italy home to several thousand co-operatives and a per capita income that is 50% higher than the national average; Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, a network of co-operatives and worker-owned democratically self-managed enterprises that are helping to build the solidarity economy in Mississippi; the Cooperative Alliance of Kenya whose worker co-operatives abide by the country’s official motto, i.e., coming together or harambee in Swahili, and have been used to help the country emerge from its colonial past.
That said, co-operatives are not without their problems. After all, it should not be forgotten that while today’s co-operatives are an alternative to capitalism, they are forced to operate within the rules of capitalism. That means they must always swim upstream, against the flow, to maintain their co-operative principles and values. This will hold them back from achieving their full co-operative potential. Some co-operatives can see their principles and values erode because of the pressures of existing within the global market, and it happens that over time, they may become little different from private enterprises. These problems have been observed in the case of Mondragon, for example, where market pressures have caused them to hire temporary workers who are not members of the worker co-operatives, and to outsource labor to the global South.
Today’s co-operatives might have no choice but to maximize productivity, externalize costs and cut corners in order to be competitive in the global market. They may also be forced to trade with firms that are not co-operators but that are purely capitalist and that mistreat their workers. The wage differential between different types of co-operatives can also be substantial too. For instance, the worker-owners in an architects’ co-operative will have higher pay than the worker-owners in a cleaning co-operative.
Since the division of labor in co-operatives is generally the same as it is in conventional workplaces, the worker-owners in the less skilled, less empowering jobs can feel left out or unable to make informed decisions. Sure, there is no one to stop them participating in decision-making but they will lack the knowledge about the business to be able to do so effectively and will inevitably feel excluded. Worker solidarity diminishes as a result.
And it is true to say that the co-operative movement itself has seldom worked out a means of inter-co-operation, in other words, co-operation between co-operatives. They could offer each other mutual support, and they could become suppliers or customers to each other. They could intentionally seek to do business with co-operatives first where possible, rather than with conventional businesses. That this has not generally happened cannot be blamed on capitalism.
Despite these limitations, co-operatives offer a credible starting point in helping redefine what we understand work to be. We have to start somewhere and co-operatives, along with the other non-reformist reforms mentioned previously, are at least that, a start. They show us what is possible in the future, giving us a glimpse of what a truly participatory society could be like and offering us hope that what we understand as work today does not have to be this way.
INITIAL SUBMISSION: Peter Bohmer and Bridget Meehan | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)
Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.