Revising Our Moral Values: A Society Not Based on Work

17.11.2020 - Flavio Del Santo

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Revising Our Moral Values: A Society Not Based on Work
(Image by Public Domain)

By Flavio Del Santo

In memory of David Graeber (1961-2020), whose untimely death deprived contemporary anarchist ideology of one of its finest thinkers

  1. Why do we (and should we) work?

We are today going through a global pandemic which inevitably conditions some of the structures of our society. The places of social, political and cultural aggregation where to enjoy leisure are shut down, while most people are still keeping their usual working schemes, often regarding as simply “wrong” to interrupt their assigned role in the chain of “production” (under inverted commas, because today it is really only a minority of jobs that can claim to be productive). We should realize that we mostly live with a distorted perception of the role of work, regarded as something necessary, not only for the practical maintenance and advancement of society, but also and foremost as a moral value for each individual.

This is not surprising: both in the capitalistic doctrine and in Marxist ideology (arguably developed as a reaction to the capitalistic system of production) work plays a major role. For the former, work is the individual means to achieve success in a naturally competitive market; whereas for the latter it is work that creates the conditions for the revolution to happen by gathering in a “working class”. The strength of Marxism relied on the workers’ control over the means of production. However, what seems to make traditional Marxism obsolete, is the fact that a tremendous amount –between fifty and sixty percent [3]– of productive jobs have been automated away. And the next 20 years the number of employed workers will decrease by a ratio estimated to be between one third and one half of the total current amount [1]. Such a development does not come as a surprise: In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, had already predicted the “new disease of […] technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses of labour.” [5]. Yet, in Keynes’ optimistic view, “we should endeavour […] to make what work is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or fifteen-hour”. This idea was shared by Bertrand Russel, who noticed that (in 1935!) “modern technique ha[d] made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone” [9]. And Karl Marx himself had expressed explicitly that automatization would lead to “the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them” [6].

While productive jobs are disappearing, a peculiar phenomenon takes place: contrarily to what logic might suggest, we are not redistributing the products and the tasks left to do, but new jobs are appearing to ensure that everybody is constantly kept busy, independently of the usefulness of these businesses. David Graeber, passed away early this year, has recently named this phenomenon the rise of Bullshit jobs: “A bullshit job is a form of payed employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence” [3]. These jobs are usually paperwork for white-collar workers, and they are not necessarily bad or humiliating jobs per se, but rather are so pointless to lead the worker to exhaustion.

Let us stop and recap. We are today technically capable of providing the primary livelihood to humans with little work, and yet a considerable part of people face starvation. Indeed, the lawless (and ruthless) capitalistic economy in which we live, allows that the “collective wealth of the 26 richest people equals that of the 3.8 billion poorest’” [8]. Meanwhile, our society creates new “bullshit jobs” in the desperate attempt to catch up with the technological unemployment and keep everybody at work. But why does work look for us so unavoidable, although we have good reasons to consider it unnecessary? In the words of Graeber,

the answer clearly isn’t economic: it is moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time is a mortal danger. […] And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserve nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

We grow with the conviction that work, an activity that involves physical or mental effort, is not only necessary for society but a keeper of order and discipline, a fundamental moral value in itself. “For the most of us, working is an entirely non-discretionary activity, an inescapable and irreducible fact of existence” –Gini and Sullivan maintain– “while many people don’t like their specific jobs, they want to work because they are aware at some level that work plays a crucial […] role in the formation of human character” [2]. Indeed, a typical reaction to a proposed drastic reduction of the amount of working hours is that people with no special talent would fall into a sort of decadent leisure, whereas the routine imposed by work prevents people from getting depressed and teaches them the rigor and the discipline that keeps society together. However, this is not necessarily so. As a provocative example, notice that there is a species on the planet that has experienced already this kind of issues. For millennia horses have been working on a plethora of tasks ranging from means of transportation and communication to the work in farms and warfare. What are horses doing today? Well, presumably they rest. In the words of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk:
there are almost as many horses today as there were in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but they have all been reassigned. They are almost all leisure horses, hardly any workhorses nowadays. Isn’t it an odd comment on today’s society that only horses have achieved emancipation?” [10].

Coming back to humans, I believe that they could be happy and productive even if the structure of work as we know it today was to be demolished. Moreover, a number of statistical studies, since the 1950s, showed that most people declare that they would be willing to work –perhaps in a more stimulating way– even if they would be set free from this obligation. To the question “if by chance you inherited enough money to live comfortably without working, do you think you would work anyway?”, 80% of the respondents replied positively [7]. Similar studies have been conducted at regular intervals since then, always finding similar results [2].

Moreover, note that leisure appears not only desirable but necessary to the development of culture. Looking at the past, a great deal of ground-breaking inventions, scientific discoveries, as well as poetry and art has been produced by the ‘boredom’ of those who could enjoy leisure (nobles and priests in the first place). But this progress came at the expense of a huge number of men and women who were told that their role in this world was to work hard. Quoting Russel again,

Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. [9]

Imagine what a whole population could do, provided with the time and education to enjoy leisure.

  1. Society without work?

Having reviewed some compelling arguments for revolutionizing the way we think about work, I wish to discuss some of the alternative conceptions of work:
(1) Instrumental jobs (or part-time freedom). One way of thinking about work, is to regard it as a mere instrument which allows one to enjoy the remaining free time. It can be summarized by the phrase: “I don’t like what I do, but it allows me to do what I like.” [2]. This describes the most common current situation. But, of course, given the problem of technological unemployment, this requires a continuous supply of “bullshit jobs” to keep people working without any practical necessity. Hence, a more intelligent solution seems desirable.
(2) Necessary jobs (or most-of-the-time freedom). An improvement of the previous view would be to still maintain a tension between free time and work, but drastically decrease the amount of hours devoted to the latter. This reduction can be implemented by estimating the necessary amount of work left to do, and then divide the workload among the people (roughly fairly). The result would still be a partial unhappiness do to possibly unstimulating jobs, but the amount of free time could be increased enough to secure social content.
(3) Stimulating jobs (or identification of work with free time). A famous aphorism attributed to Confucius tells: “Find something you love to do and you will never have to work a day in your life.” According to this view, one can conceive a system wherein the few practical jobs which are left to be done –considered unpleasant by the majority– should be redistributed, whereas for the rest of the time one can work on something that he or she really likes. This view is upheld by those who acknowledge the problems of the current system, but still consider work as a positive value (for instance in forming human character). As such, one can slowly reform (as opposed to revolutionize) the system of work by providing more room for stimulating remunerated activities. For instance, Gini and Sullivan maintain: “Good work is the ideal, but clearly good work is hard to find. Perhaps the only realistic compromise available to most of us is to find and embellish whatever good is possible in our work. As individuals we must find work that is good for us, as a society we must create work that is good for individuals.” [2]. However, such a view tends to limit actual free time and pushes in the direction of an identification of free time with pleasant work.
(4) Optional jobs (or the introduction of a Universal Basic Income). A solution – advocated today by a vast number of scholars, politicians and economists [4]– is the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which would unconditionally guarantee to all citizens (and hopefully ultimately to all human beings) at the same time livelihood and free time. Provided that machines can supply for our basic needs, their products can be redistributed (or the wealth that derive from these products) to everybody, possibly leading to what certain British activists have defined a “fully automated luxury communism”. This looks today as the most promising way to achieve the desired disentanglement between livelihood and work. Several political forces are moving towards the direction of a UBI, and as a matter of fact this solution has been recently considered by whole countries and international agencies. Remarkably, in the 2017 report of the International Labour Organization (ILO) of the UN, one can read: “Additional challenges remain. Cuts in social protection systems in both the developed and developing world […] increased the risk of poverty.” While remaining to some extent sceptical, they argue that “as a response to these challenges, some scholars and policy-makers have argued for the need to delink social protection from employment by creating a universal basic income that would provide a flat unconditional […] benefit [that] can eliminate absolute poverty.” [4].
One should however be careful on how UBI would be implemented, because this could lead to serious political issues:

Problem 1: UBI is not necessarily socialist. While it is usually taken for granted that UBI fosters a leftist vision, one should be aware that this does not necessarily bring us closer to a socialist system. In fact, even in a fully capitalistic and conservative model of society UBI can be introduced “to provide a modest stipend as a pretext to completely eliminate existing welfare state provisions like free education or health care, and just submit everything to the market” [3].

Problem 2: fascism of machines. A crucial concept in Marxism is that workers own the means of production. This implies that through their unionization, and the tool of strikes, workers can claim contractual power and rights. However, once the production will be mostly carried out by machines and a UBI introduced, people will be at the mercy of those who have the control (or the property) of these machines. As such, UBI can lead to a ‘fascism of machines’, or rather of their owners, who could decide whether to grant a fair salary (in the form of a basic income) to everybody or otherwise, and under which conditions.

Problem 3: oligarchy of specialized workers. I assume that in the foreseeable future not all the jobs will be substituted by machines. In particular, there will be specialized workers who will be able to maintain these machines and only to those the Marxist motto that workers control the means of production will apply. Thus, we should make sure that these workers do not form a powerful lobby, being the only ones capable of having the means to stop the production.
We have seen that the reduction of human work and the introduction of a UBI does not directly lead us towards a fairer society. However, we could strive for an ideology –understood as a collection of political and economic priorities– based on uncompromisable human rights. Advocating a novel socialist not-based-on-work political theory, should lead us to state with even more strength what are the aims of society. I maintain that the priority of our politics should be securing fundamental human rights for everyone. In fact, we must strive for a society that is robust against authoritarian principles (such as in the scenario of the “fascism of the machines”), even though the Marxist tenet of the control of the workers’ control on means of production is dropped. I do not find it hard to imagine a serious political program that does not fear to state fundamental human rights as their political priority. We have the means to give to everybody simple basic needs, and yet declarations of human rights (such as the most famous one from UN [11]) remain formalities that are basically never seriously considered in the programs of the major political forces.

  1. Conclusions

In conclusion, capitalism, by its very nature, pursues a pragmatic view towards unbounded richness of (a few) individuals, even if this could be pernicious for the society as a whole and ultimately for the planet we live in. On the other hand, Marxist ideology has proven itself inadequate to deal with modern fluidity of the distribution of work. We should strive for a new leftist political theory that puts back humans, their happiness, their dignity as the uncompromisable priority of society. And any form of work can only be subordinated to this view.
I wish to end this paper by restating the final words of hope of Russel. However, we cannot avoid pronouncing them with a somewhat bitter taste in our mouths when looking at how little of this program has been realized in the almost one century that separate us from their drafting:
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving […].

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia […]. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. [9].

I would like to thank Veronika Baumann, Alexander Smith and Pierre Martin-Dussaud and the participants to the THINK V Conference for Interdisciplinary Exchange, for interesting discussions and comments. I acknowledge Filip Mistopoljac for the name “fascism of machines”.


[1] Bronzini, G. (2018). Il reddito di base e la metamorfosi del lavoro: Il dibattito internazionale ed europeo. Rivista del Diritto della Sicurezza Sociale, 4.
[2] Gini, A.R. and Sullivan, T. (1987). Work: The process and the person. Journal of Business Ethics, 6(8).
[3] Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit Jobs. Simon and Schuster, United Kingdom.
[4] ILO. (2017). Report of the International Laubor Organization (ILO) of the UN.—dgreports/—cabinet/documents/publication/wcms_591502.pdf.
[5] Keynes, J. M. (1930). Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Essays in Persuasion. New York, W.W.Norton.
[6] Marx, K. (1857). Fragment on Machines. Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Penguin Classic, United Kingdom.
[7] Morse, N. and Weiss, R. (1966). The Function and the Meaning of Work. American Sociological Review, 20(2).
[8] OXFAM. (2019). Report of the anti-poverty international organization: Public good or private wealth? (January 2019).
[9] Russell, B. (1935). In Praise of Idleness. In praise of Idleness and other Essays. Taylor and Francis, Psychology Press, Abingdon (repr. 2004).
[10] Sloterdijk, P. (2016). Selected exaggerations: conversations and interviews 1993-2012. John Wiley & Sons.
[11] UN. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights of the United Nations.

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