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Eight Theses on the New Culture of Work

by Johano Strausser Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 at 4:02 AM

Person-oriented work and labor-intensive work are vital in a post-industrial economy wrestling with decreasing resources. Work and security must be uncoupled like work and income. Reducing working hours is the only way to guarantee the right to work for all.

Neoliberalism, the myth of the self-healing or self-correcting market, is over. The state cannot be only a trough for corporations and the super-rich. The state has a social nature and must devise social compromises so the future is one of generalized security, not generalized insecurity.


Ideas for a Political Project of the Future

By Johano Strasser

[This article published in: Gegenblende, the DGB union debate magazine September 6, 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.gegenblende.de.]

1. What is the meaning of work? Sometimes work has its meaning in itself for some persons more than others. Then the worker is motivated by joy in (creative) achievement, in spending productive energy in the concrete result of the work process. Occasionally work can resemble a free game. But most people work above all or exclusively for the pay to afford what they need and desire: food, clothing, a roof over their heads, leisure, vacation, a good education for the children, a new car, the latest cell phone and attending the theater, concert or opera. Work can be part of the beautiful life but usually is a burden that people take on themselves to earn money to embellish their life in their free time.

2. In the modern age, people try hard to increase their pleasure possibilities. To realize these possibilities, they must work on one hand to buy the hedonist things and possibilities and on the other hand to be free of work to gain free pleasure time. When people have no time to make use of the pleasure possibilities, it is pointless in the long run to open up more and new hedonist possibilities. That is the tragedy of the workaholic. Whoever can afford everything often loses joy in effortlessly gained pleasure at the end. That is the tragedy of the rotten epicurean.

The modern age’s view of the person circles around the idea of active self-realization. Modern leisure time is seldom a time of pure inactivity. Large parts of so-called leisure time are devoted to socially or privately necessary non-gainful work. Family work still one-sidedly burdening women takes the greatest share. Freely disposable lifetime is always openly active whether in freely chosen self-determined productive activity, games or pleasure-oriented activity. If Paul Lafarge dreamt of the right to laziness, the right to a lifetime for all should concern us today.

3. For most people a fulfilled life is inconceivable without gainful work. Therefore opening up access to the paid work system to older persons who can and want to work remains an important political goal. Consensus seems to exist across all parties today that there is a royal way to regaining full employment: economic growth.

However the same dynamic that produces economic growth also leads to innovativeness with the goal of saving labor, rationalization and automation. In Germany’s greatest growth phase from 1953 to 1973, the economy grew around 5.4% every year. A decline in the work volume occurred around 1961. Growth rates as in the 1950sd and 1960s in Germany are no longer attainable on today’s development level. Therefore hope in the continuous expansion of the volume of gainful work through growth is illusory.

Average gainful working hours were drastically reduced in Germany since the beginning of industrialization in the early 19th century: weekly working hours from over 80 to 40 and below, life work through extension of education, lowering the retirement age and higher life expectancy. Without this continuous reduction of working hours, there would not have been a single phase of approximate full employment in modern history.

4. Today we face ecological, social and economic limits to growth – on the side of consumers. The acceleration of innovation also produces a new problem of meaning. The acquired consumer article is often devalued along with joy in consumer goods because the even-better comes into view. How should the notion that performance is rewarding be maintained? There are meaningful mega-projects that can still mobilize energy like extension of rail service, replacement of fossil energy by renewable energy, building an emission-free circulation economy and services that relieve lives. These services can and should be expanded. Work is not ending in the work society. This should not be feared. However a large part of the new service work (for example, via the Internet) is shifted to consumers and eliminated as a source of income. Full employment through economic growth alone remains a chimera even in the perspective of the new service society. This cannot happen without reduction of working hours.

The old regular working hours no longer exist in many areas of modern goods- and services-production. New forms of reduced working hours must play a greater role in the future: Sabbath regulations, paid time out for family responsibilities, community work, retraining working hours accounts, part-time work, job-sharing etc.

5. Skepticism is appropriate regarding the thesis that education is the key to full employment. Investing more in education is sensible for many reasons, above all to promote children from milieus far from education in all-day schooling and longer common learning. Education and qualification are not the same. The broadest possible basic education including the humanities, music and sports represents the best preparation for life. But since the constant expansion of gainful work volumes is impossible, education also cannot be the key to full employment. An isolated strategy of promoting education would lead to better credentials for the unemployed. Full employment is impossible without reduced working hours.

6. A glance at the distant future can help us understand why conventional old and new answers are not viable any more. What work is left when rationalization and automation spread? Presumably all work with completely defined and calculated work steps will be automated in the long run – at least in the market sector. What is left is the work performed by people that cannot be automated. This massive amount of work includes directing and consulting activities in the economy and administration, marketing and advertising, part of artisan and rural work, artistic production, inventing, planning, developing , person-oriented services, communicating, motivating, organizing learning processes, being creative, dealing with people, comforting and caring – everything that machines cannot do now.

By their nature, all these activities are personal-intensive and not suited for rationalization and automation. Therefore they are regarded as too expensive today. However the usual saving strategies lead to reduction or perversion of work. The replacement of the teacher by the computer, the substitution of the nurse with the monitor and the replacement of the community pastor by the televised Word for Sunday perverts the service instead of making it more effective.

In our system of social security, person-oriented services and other services that cannot be rationalized contribute far more to financing social security benefits than the highly rationalized sector because they are personal-intensive. The social fees are calculated according to the number of employees or the wage sum. This means part of the work to be performed in the future by persons is simply not competitive today… Rationalization and automation in the machine sector and growing cost pressure in the sector of human labor will increase unemployment even more – if everything remains as it is – even without more financial crises.

There is only one way out. The fiscal and financial privileging of the machine sector must end. Profits in this sector must help finance those tasks that can only be done with human labor. Only in this way can the great and growing need for person-oriented services be covered through investments in health care, nursing, education and research. Only in this way can the growing domestic demand arise that the machine sector also needs to sell its products. Machines cannot buy any machine-manufactured products!

7. Whoever asks about the future of work must first answer the question about the work of the future. Instead of following the crude ideas of progress of the 19th century and privileging machine work, we should utilize the utopian possibilities opened up by rationalization and automation, particularly when they go along with a more effective use of energy and material. This is mostly the case today. Firstly chances of relieving burdensome work and increasing free time for all and expanded chances of democratic participation in all social areas result that previously were not thought possible. Secondly, the type of work that is vital and cannot be rationalized away is usually more demanding. This work opens up greater possibilities of meaning and offers intrinsic gratifications that go far beyond what classical industrial- and office work provided. A truly modern service society oriented in the needs of people and not in capital exploitation could offer satisfying and humane work possibilities for all, even for those who have not received the higher consecration of the education system.

This vision includes the ideas of liberation of work that pervade Marx’ early writings. This goes beyond the mere liberation from work which is certainly necessary. The unions and the SPD that discussed humanization of work in the 1970s and employee-oriented time sovereignty in the 1980s should be developed further today and refer to the conditions of the post-Fordist and post-industrial world of work and not leave this field to those who only see the exploitation interests of capital. New communication-, organization- and technological production processes open up in principle – unsuspected possibilities for organizing the world of work according to workers’ claims. These possibilities can only be realized when the one-sided power of capital is broken by a further development of the joint-determination of workers and legal initiatives.

8. We stand in the middle of Europe at the threshold to a new work society where gainful work is distributed more justly and organized more humanely while taking up a smaller part of lifetime. The modern age that impressively increased human capability in the past and thus expanded possibilities of action and pleasure now raises the question what should people do with their expanded possibilities? Selective consumption according to the standard of a freely chosen self-image and civil society activity could be more important. The burdens of family work could be shared more justly and new chances opened up for personal work.

Simultaneously distribution questions are again in the foreground through the crisis of the conventional growth strategy. A society of the developed modern age can only be a humane and democratic society when it distributes work and pleasure possibilities more justly, pursues both goals, liberation from work and liberation of work, and expands the possibilities of personal activity for everyone.


“Foreword to the Manifesto against Labor” 1999

“Manifesto against Labor” 1999

Robert Reich interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show, October 20, 2010
"We are nearly at the end of our coping mechanisms.. Globalization and automation undermined mindless work.. We deregulated and privatized according to the myth of trickle down.. The top 2% don't need a continuance of the Bush tax cuts.. Consumers don't have money.. Wall Street should help distressed homeowners and small business.. TARP was another example of trickle down that didn’t.. From 1947-73, the economy was working for everyone.."

Robert Reich, “The Tortoise Economy” September 8, 2010

“What work is really worth,” Pierre Rimbert, July 2010
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