Can the Covid-19 pandemic bring us out of the vicious cycle of working ourselves to death?
In today’s world, we are always working and always busy.
If a friend asks us to meet, we usually browse through an extensive list of deadlines to find some time when we are not working. Even if we find some time, we usually carry laptops and keep working or thinking about the tasks we are involved with. It is not because we live in a society where people do not differentiate between work and leisure, but because work has become the major path towards finding our true self.
In contemporary world, work is the basis of human dignity and measure of individual achievements. Since the protestant ethic sanctified work and capitalism became the major organizer of our lifeworld, we treat work as the essence of our lives.
Work has become the principal issue not only at the level of individuals, but creation of jobs has become the major agenda of governments across the globe. From left to right, all political orientations aim to create “jobs” and perceive full “employment” as solution of all problems. In our education system also, we only strive for employability.
Nonetheless, through a critical analysis it appears that over-emphasis on work and associated ethics are ailing us at present. Joanna Biggs in a 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work argues, we give our lives meaning through work and the sense of community has fallen away.
Are we working more than it is necessary?
Globally, though we have amassed unprecedented quantities of wealth, it did not reduce our work hour. Rather the more we became wealthy, the more we became invested into work. Estimates suggest, people over 30 years are working more and earning less than the earlier generations, and owing to this, we are forced to work more and more.
Anne Helen Petersen in the 2020 book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation called us the “burnout generation.” This characterization supports the fact that hours of sleep might be “a proxy for work-life balance or stress,” which has steadily declined since the 1940s, as David Pilling has argued in 2018.
Why we have reached such a situation? The immediate reason: Cumulatively, though we have ever more wealth, because of unequal distribution of resources, we must work more for lesser share.
In 2019, the GDP of the world was $88,081.13 billion but the top 20 economies received almost 79% of it. We do not seem to care about the role of all the other countries in this economic growth. The present form of capitalism has separated the locations of production and locations the realization and appropriation of values.
Dispersions of production to locations with untapped human resources are producing surplus values which can be extracted and transferred to another location -- the capitalist centres. Thus, inequality is created and sustained amid exceptional economic growth. The World Inequality Report 2018 has revealed that since 1980, the top 1% of the population captured 27% of total growth while the bottom 50% captured only 12%. The World Social Report 2020 showed, inequality is growing for more than 70% of the global population.
Distribution of the global labour income is extremely unequal. For instance: ILO’s report in 2019 on The Global Labour Income Share and Distribution has revealed, the top decile earned 48.9% of all labour income, while the poorest 50% -- the global workers earned just 6.4%.
As such, most of us must keep working to make ends meet. Still, why work is something around which we revolve our life around is yet to be answered.
Why do we work so much?
We have inherited an ideology and the emphasis on work as such resulted from the immediate socialization process in the capitalist society that puts value of work over everything else.
A sense of “success” -- market-rationality has triumphed over other cultural aspects and infused in our social behaviour -- we do overtime, we work on holidays, and there is no such leisure time. Basically because of compounding intensity of capitalism, we have no alternative either. We are afraid of diverting from the notions of “good” constructed by the capitalist society.
Work is the only way we can make our life count. Hence, the wealthiest individuals are treated as the most enterprising segment, Thomas Piketty in his 2019 book Capital and Ideology argued that every epoch has developed “ideologies” that legitimize the existing society.
The mega-narratives that dominate today’s world centre on property, entrepreneurship, and meritocracy. Modern poverty or inequality is perceived to be “just” because it supposedly results from a “freely chosen process.” Only way to be free from misery is -- work.
The reality of meritocratic discourse is far from reducing inequality or poverty and forcing us to work even more. Modern capitalism relies on the illusion that everyone has the potential to gain anything that the richest has -- the possibility of realizing the “great American dream” or “Golden Bangladesh” for instance. As such these ideologies oblige us to “work” continuously.
The human condition in a work-state
In a work-state, generally, people are treated as workers who will help achieve the future goals set by the state or government. The appearance of humans as workers crucially reverberates to what philosopher Hannah Arendt termed as the human condition.
In The Human Condition, published in 1958, Hannah Arendt suggested, active lives of humans are entangled with each other. On this premise, Arendt differentiated human labour and work. Simply, labouring refers to what we do to keep ourselves alive. Humans eat, take shelter, and procreate like all other animals, even not being lured to do so.
Contrarily, work is something that gives meaning to our existence collectively. We work to produce something; we build homes, make furniture, knit clothes, manufacture vehicles, and/or write books. Our work establishes something which facilitates our living.
Work is significant, as it makes up the reality that everyone in the society shares. Human work generates lasting effects, as generations to come will inherit many of these. The archaeological histories of, for instance, the Mesopotamian, Indus, and Mayan civilizations reveal the achievements of human work. Even the mega-structures of the contemporary world are the outcomes of human work.
The meaning of work is significantly altered when humans are considered only as workers for achieving a future proclaimed by the state mostly run by a few -- capitalists or socialists alike. In the process, human work is transformed into sheer labour.
In contemporary work-states, everything is produced as a commodity to be exchanged and consumed, which ironically reduces “a shared feeling” among the people. Mainly, a profit motive drives everyone and everything. Thus, the distinction between labour and work is diluted and we keep labouring towards an illusion of “success.”
For example, workers of the corporate sector are expected to work even after designated work hours. Even if a meeting is proposed after work hours, everyone hesitates to point out that our families are deprived. Rather, working late has become a measure of our dedication to work and our commitment to the organization; hence, the labouring humans are ripped off from any possibilities of a shared action.
Letting work go
We have reached a situation where work prevents us from everything else in our life, even though socially necessary labour began declining since the 1920s. We are living through a historical moment when the piling of more work and more productivity has become pointless, and absurd as David Graeber pointed out in the 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
But how can we let go “work” and avoid being melancholic or anxious about it? We must not hold on to the ideal of “job well done” as our goal in life. Instead of looking for a possibility of creating full employment what if “we prefer not to work.”
To establish a post-work world, we need a double-edged agenda. We must demand and allow fair distribution of resources as at the heart of increasing intensity of work is the issue of unequal distribution. As workers, we earn continuously lesser share of the output, consequently, we are forced to work more to live a desired life promoted by our cultural ideals. So, we must also start a cultural change forming a counter ideology of the “ideology of meritocracy” that forces everyone to remain engaged in work.
The solution could start at the provisioning of basic income not as supplement, but as an income which is enough to live on. Thus, livelihood will be divorced from work entirely. With this form of basic income, we might have to pay a lot to get the essential services, such as cleaning, food production, care or service work done, but no one will be forced to work unjustly or pointlessly anymore.
We may thus wish for a 2021 -- in which we will not only see an end to the Covid-19 pandemic but also free ourselves from the vicious circle of unfair resource distribution and capitalism’s work ethic that only benefits the rich and forces a “work-centred” life on us -- as such start building a post-work world.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the university of Dhaka.