New Internationalist

The Haunted House

Issue 289

The haunted house
The ‘work ethic’ was bad enough, says Zygmunt Bauman.
But its ghost is even worse.

Whenever you hear talk about ‘ethics’ you can be pretty sure that someone somewhere is dissatisfied with the way other people are behaving and would rather they behaved differently. This is especially true in the case of the notorious ‘work ethic’.

Since its emergence in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the work ethic has served politicians, philosophers and preachers by removing the obstacles to the brave new world they envisaged.

The main obstacle was the basic human inclination to do no more than satisfy one’s needs. Why work more than necessary? the individual might ask. For more money? There are so many other worthwhile things to do of which you might lose sight if you spent all your time running after money.

The early entrepreneurs had different plans, though. Shiftless and laggard factory hands were to be taught – or forced if need be – to wish for a better life, to desire more, and to improve themselves by desiring more.

The moral crusade for the work ethic was presented as trying to recapture – within the factory – the commitment and pride that came naturally to the craftsperson. The trouble was that it was the factory system itself which had destroyed these in the first place.

So under the guise of a work ethic a discipline ethic had to be promoted. As Werner Sombart commented, the factory system needed part-humans; soulless little wheels of a complex mechanism – and war was waged against the other, now useless, emotional ‘human parts’. No wonder critics of that time such as Ferdinand Lasselle spoke in support of ‘the right to laziness’.

Finally, for the first time in history, the work ethic prioritized ‘what can be done’ over ‘what needs to be done’. The satisfaction of human needs became irrelevant to the logic of production – and cleared the way for the modern paradox of ‘growth for growth’s sake’.

Give me your poor
Since then, however, something has happened which neither the industrialists nor the critics of capitalism imagined. A century ago Rosa Luxemburg predicted that capitalist modernization could not survive without devouring the ever-shrinking enclaves of non-industrialized life. The tendency of capital to move from already ‘modernized’ areas and into the ‘under-developed’ territories of the Third World seems to have proved her right.

But what she did not predict was that Modernism (or industrialism) would create expanding enclaves of ‘post-modern’ existence in which people are consumers first – and workers only a very distant second. The work ethic has been replaced by a consumer ethic; the savings-book culture of delayed gratification has been replaced by the credit-card culture that ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’. The inhabitants of these enclaves are kept in place not by coercion but by seduction, by the creation of new desires rather than by normative regulation.

Inside these post-modern enclaves the work ethic has lost its obvious and crucial usefulness. There is simply not enough paid employment any more to support the model of full-time jobs for life.

It is tempting to applaud the demise of the work ethic and to rejoice in the post-modern way’s recognition of the multiplicity of human existence. The learned classes are always the first to wax lyrical about the blessings of new life. Now they praise liberation from the stultifying monotony of assembly lines with as much ardour as their predecessors a century ago brought to their songs about the glory of factory chimneys. What the songs of praise stifle, however, are the voices of the victims: the new poor, denied the opportunity to follow the rules of the work ethic in a world in which the only access to the resources needed to exercise one’s freedom is still through the door marked ‘work’.

The idea that the poor – and the rich – will always be with us is not new. But never before has the split been so unambiguous, so unequivocal. The reason is simple. The rich – who happen also to be the most politically powerful – no longer need the poor. They do not need the poor for the salvation of their souls – which they do not believe they have and which at any rate they would not consider worthy of care. Nor do the rich need the poor for staying rich or getting richer – in fact they reckon they would be better off if the poor weren’t there at all, making claims on their riches.

The poor are not a reserve army of labour which needs to be groomed back into wealth-production. Neither are they consumers who must be tempted and cajoled into ‘giving the lead to economic recovery’. Whichever way you look at it, the poor are of no use. This is a real novelty in a world undergoing perhaps the deepest transformation in the long history of humankind.

So the mutual dependency between rich and poor has gone. No wonder the US pollsters of both competing camps informed their respective candidates for the Presidency that the voters wanted cuts in benefits to the poor and lower taxes on the rich. Both rivals did their best to outspit each other in their proposals to cut down welfare assistance and to lavish the saved funds on building new prisons and employing more police. As Pastor John Steinbruck, the minister at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, recently summed it up: ‘This nation has as its symbol the Statue of Liberty, with the message carved at its base “Give me your poor, your homeless, your huddled masses”. But here we are now in this damn country, the richest in history, and we’ve forgotten all that.’

Haunted house
To a growing number of people the demise of the work ethic comes too early and in too malformed a fashion to be experienced as a liberation. What such people know for sure is that there is not enough work for them in a society that can easily obtain all the goods it needs – and more – without calling on their labour power. But at the same time they are told that in order to get access to those goods they have to sell their labour. They are reminded, day by day, that without ‘being available for work’ they are not entitled to any part of the social riches, however meagre and pitiable their share may be. In the US they were told recently that they would be allowed to stay out of work for no more than two years during their entire life. Regardless of the reasons for their unemployment, they are derided as misfits, reproached for sloth, dubbed anti-social and stigmatized as spongers.

The fact is that the house of post-modernity is haunted by the ghost of the work ethic, no less sinister in its posthumous life than it was in its halcyon days.

We have two worlds, at opposite poles, which are becoming increasingly out of touch with each other – much as the no-go areas of contemporary cities are carefully fenced off and bypassed by the traffic lines used for the mobility of well-off residents. The inhabitants of the First World, the relatively affluent and employed, live in a perpetual present. These people are constantly busy and always ‘short of time’. People marooned in the opposite world are crushed under the burden of abundant, redundant and useless time they can fill with nothing. In their time ‘nothing ever happens’. They do not ‘control ‘ time – but neither are they controlled by it, unlike their clocking-in, clocking-out ancestors, subject to the faceless rhythm of factory time. They can only kill time, as they are slowly killed by it.

For the residents of the first world, abiding by the rules of the work ethic and sacrificing their lives to professional success is the supreme test of freedom. They wear the badge ‘workaholic’ with pride. For the inhabitants of the second, not being able to follow their example is the symptom of failure and carries a stigma of shame.

Those who have the capacity to act out the principles of the work ethic at will are sceptical and ironic about its virtues. But those who can only dream of their share of a chance bitterly complain of their deprivation. If their ancestors rightly saw the work-ethics preachers as the enemies of their freedom, today’s unemployed see those who criticize the work ethic as members of a worldwide conspiracy against their right to humanity.

And this will remain the case unless, as Claus Offe suggests, the proper conclusions from the great social transformation are drawn and all lifestyles are treated equally, including lifestyles that do not involve employment or do so in only a very fragmentary fashion. The old distinction between ‘anomalous’ and ‘normal’ life situations and modes of conduct needs to be abolished. Not just in word, but in deed: through breaking the link between employment and living resources and establishing material entitlements to all citizens – a ‘minimum wage’ that is not tied to work.

Exorcising the spectre of the work ethic will take no less than that.

Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Leeds University in England. He is a leading theorist of Post-Modernity and author of several books including Modernity and the Holocaust and Post-Modern Ethics.

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