A good friend and I recently talked about how the mechanisms for the reproduction of life are already in place, and so a change to the economic system is not as radical, or unimaginable, as it might seem. They held that the idea that we would all starve to death if capitalism was to be banished is silly because all around us people are working to maintain essential infrastructure. The only change would be that the workers would no longer need to worry about securing their essential needs because the surplus of society’s production would be geared towards achieving security for the people, rather than lining the pockets of the rich.
I responded by pointing out that a great many of the jobs that exist today are either essential but unbearable, or completely unnecessary and unbearable. The unnecessary jobs can go, fine. But the essential jobs are much more difficult to deal with. The fact that both necessary and unnecessary jobs are mostly unbearable makes the matter even worse. The difficulty of distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary is easy at the extreme ends. Doctors are necessary; sales executives are unnecessary. But the grey area that emerges between the two is large and uncharted. Where do we stand with shelf-stackers? Where do we stand with cleaners? Where do we stand with lawyers? How do we determine which of these jobs in necessary? The problem is far from impossible, but it is made a great deal more difficult when we think about how unbearable the vast majority of jobs are at the moment. How quickly would any one of us leave a job simply because of how deeply unpleasant it is, despite how necessary it might be?
Most people only go to work because they need to. One must exchange wages for essential goods in order to live. If a person wants to survive, that is, if they want to have access to food and shelter and clothing, they must exchange their body for wages. This reality hangs over the worker in the sewers, in the mine, in the factory, in the telesales office, in the school. The radiant dream of throwing down one’s tools and walking out is extinguished by the reminder that dreams cannot pay the bills. Freedom from long and slow torture behind a keyboard eventually becomes analogous to a sexual fantasy, and films like Office Space become pornography.
If, somehow, the basic essentials to life were to be guaranteed (and we do currently have the technological means to achieve this), how many people would return to work the next day? I imagine very few. There are, of course, jobs that are extremely satisfying, with their unpleasantness being a product of current conditions. GPs, teachers, carers, and so on. And there are people who are committed to their jobs, despite the unpleasantness, because they realise how important their job is. But, teachers do not produce food, sanitise water, clear blocked drains, lay foundations, dig stone, mine minerals, and transport goods. And the people who would continue their essential but unpleasant jobs are of such a minority that, in the face of the task of reproducing society, their efforts should be considered noble and commendable, but ultimately meaningless.
The issue is not one of the intrinsic laziness of human beings, as some might have it. The issue is that the work we as a society need to do in order to survive has been ground into mince along with the garbage that is “bull-shit jobs.” This mince has then been force fed to us in the form of wage labour. Work feels like a punishment for the crime of being alive. Why would anyone voluntarily return to an activity that has for so long been used as a punishment?
A personal anecdote: my parents used reading as a punishment. Rather than let me watch TV, they would sit me down and force me to read. And so, I hated reading and associated it with punishment. I didn’t read a book under my own volition until I was seventeen years old. And only then did I realise how essential reading is.
The same is true for work. A society that cannot reproduce itself will not last a year, and so we cannot wait, as I did, for over a decade for the importance and necessity of work to become self-evident. My friend is right, the infrastructure for a better and more just society is in place. But like all lines of thought on the world, the pertinent and oppressive question looms over this text: “what is to be done about it?”