The Problem with Work

Issue section: 

Kathi Weeks

Weeks presents a thought-provoking case for an "anti-work politics", arguing that Marxists and feminists need to break away from the idea that productive labour should be the central feature of a post-capitalist society. She begins with a detailed review of the capitalist work ethic, and goes on to discuss Marxist "productivism". She bases this critique on two variants of Marxism.

The first she calls "socialist modernisation", according to which socialist production will be organised along the same lines as it is now, only more efficiently.

The second is "humanist Marxism", which holds that once labour is no longer alienated it will be restored as the essential feature of human life - often this argument is coupled with a romantic, utopian vision of small-scale craft production.

Both these trends, she argues, buy into the capitalist work ethic by assuming that productive labour is the only source of meaning and fulfilment for human life.

However, at this point she drifts towards "autonomist Marxism" as a solution to these problems, without acknowledging the other Marxist trends that argue that alienation does not imply a fixed human nature that we need to be restored to.

She provides us with two stunted versions of Marxism which are, rightly, rejected.

Her discussion of the feminist "Wages for housework" slogan as the inspiration for the demand for a basic income is interesting, although there is surprisingly little discussion of the dynamics of the campaign in its broader context. This makes her very valid points about the relationship between productive and reproductive labour sometimes seem quite abstract.

This abstraction is a recurring feature of the book, as there is no mention of the state or of the current capitalist crisis in relation to making demands. She draws on the theory of crisis that sees the struggle between workers and capital as the only driving force of capitalist dynamism, which means any discussion of the objective forces within the system tending towards crisis are not seen as relevant.

She concludes with a discussion of utopian demands, which is the most interesting part of the book. As an argument for revolution over reform, it is an inspired intervention, although it focuses very much on subjectivity and has only a sketchy outline of a strategy to do this.

Overall this is well worth a read, as Weeks presents a set of imaginative and insightful ideas in a clear and thoroughly argued format. I would recommend it with the caveat that it should be treated as the start of a discussion about the possibilities for a post-capitalist society, rather than a blueprint for a strategy to get there.