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Qualitative Break: Why a Radical Critique of Work is Necessary Today

by Norbert Trenkle Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 at 12:23 PM

Capital has increasingly decoupled itself from directly expended labor and accumulation is now taking place predominantly on the level of financial markets... In large parts of the Global South, the majority has long since been declared ‘superfluous.’

Qualitative Break: Why a Radical Critique of Work is Necessary Today

by Norbert Trenkle

Translated by John de Plume and Neil Larsen

[This article posted on 3/20/2023 is available on the Internet,]

In capitalist society, the compulsion to work is fundamental. To survive in this society we either work for ourselves as self-employed or we must sell our labor power, that is, we must turn ourselves into commodities. As such, we cannot subscribe to the commonplace belief that labor is nothing more than the process whereby useful things are produced. Labor is a complex form of social mediation historically specific to capitalism. It is through labor that capitalist subjects establish their social relations with each other, relations that then return to confront us as an objectified, alien and violent social power.

Objectified capitalist domination is experienced directly through the labor process itself: at work, isolated individuals must submit to the compulsions of competition, ‘rationality’ and ‘performance’. Moreover, at work, producers must disregard what it is that they produce and indeed any harm that the latter might cause. For work is ultimately only a question of selling the product of one’s labor, or simply of selling one’s own labor power itself: without money we cannot survive in commodity society. Labor transforms us all into an inherent part of the social machine that obeys only one law, that of the accumulation of capital as an end in itself.

It is therefore no wonder that, ever since the beginnings of capital, it is labor that has ignited the most violent conflicts. Initially, such conflicts concerned the compulsion to work in general. People who were forcibly torn from their traditional relations of production and of social life refused this compulsion en masse, because, having once had the whole day at their disposal, they simply could not suffer the fate of then having to slave away under the control of others. Only after centuries of brutal disciplining via hunger, the lash and through ideological conditioning did labor become the mere, naturalized matter of course that it appears to us to be today. And yet still the impulse to somehow escape it has never been completely extinguished.

For neither the sheer compulsion to work nor its attendant forms of suffering can by any means be said to have disappeared today, notwithstanding the dramatic increases in productivity that we have seen in recent history. Indeed, over the past forty years, as knowledge has become the decisive factor in productivity, capital has increasingly decoupled itself from directly expended labor, and accumulation is now taking place predominantly on the level of financial markets. The domination of society by labor has, however, not been weakened as a result of this shift; if anything it has, paradoxically, been strengthened. Since the bases for non-capitalist modes of production and life have now been almost entirely eroded, virtually everyone in the world is now forced to sell their labor power or some other commodity in order to survive. But at the same time, as capital has become less and less dependent on labor, the conditions under which labor power is sold have, on the whole, become worse and worse.

No longer is the central contradiction in capitalism today between capital and labor. It is, rather, the contradiction between the drive of capital to devour—thereby destroying—the entirety of the planet on the one hand, and, on the other, the steadily increasing mass of people who find that they are now no longer needed for the purposes of such destruction. In large parts of the Global South, the majority has long since been declared ‘superfluous’ in this sense. Survival then becomes a matter of highly precarious work in the informal sector; leaving subsistence, an activity now predominantly carried out by women, to be pursued under conditions no less precarious.

In the capitalist centers, it was initially the working class inheritors of the old Fordist paradigm and the new service proletariat that were hit hardest by the economic and social devaluation of their labor power. But even the relative winners in the post-Fordist world of work, the new so-called middle classes, have now had to scramble ever harder both to maintain their social position and to avoid being left behind by the ever-accelerating machinery of the labor process. In recent years, demographics and shortages of workers have, it is true, forced companies into making some concessions when it comes to pay and working hours. But this is a temporary phenomenon, and with global economic downturn already on the horizon it is likely to disappear sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, aside from this, with housing becoming less and less affordable and the cost of living skyrocketing, it is not only those condemned to be this society’s losers but also large parts of the middle classes who are now facing increasing economic pressures. The causes for this lie within capital itself, as, driven to occupy the whole of the earth’s surface, the resulting destruction of the very bases of life itself has direct repercussions on economic processes as such.

In light of this economic dysfunction, it becomes clear that anyone who continues to romanticize work and pretends that the crisis can be resolved by everyone tightening their belts, turning down the thermostat and rolling up their sleeves is suffering from an obscene delusion. Demands to keep the capitalist machinery going can offer us nothing more than continued destruction and ever worse working and living conditions. We must demand the exact opposite. In the struggle against capital we must take back that which capital continuously takes from us and transforms into the means of planetary destruction, namely the necessary resources and the stolen time of life itself. Only in struggle against the capitalist machine can we hope to open new spaces for new ways of production and life based on free, self-determined activity, cooperation and solidarity.

Demands for cost-free social infrastructure and the socialization of the energy and housing sectors are already pointing the way forward here. By fighting to remove these key aspects of our subsistence from the demands of the market, these struggles aim instead to organize them as commons in the truest sense of the term: as common property. Equally, every step we take in this direction also expands our capacity to resist the coercive compulsion of labor, to fight in particular for a drastic reduction of working hours and for the shutting down of the most destructive sectors of production, such as the auto industry.

This would have nothing at all to do with the ‘sacrifice’ that is everywhere being preached to us now. On the contrary, it would be to step forwards towards winning a different and a better quality of life altogether. The resulting gain in the sort of disposable time that work robs from us would, not least, allow for the emergence of new, gender-emancipated forms of a social reproduction that, in its hitherto current form, has functioned as a hidden ground and constituent of work itself. The negation of labor, then, is much more than the simple matter of a quantitative reduction in working hours, as proposed, for example, by today’s technological utopians. Rather, the negation of labor is necessarily a qualitative break with all the reified forms of activity that constitute capitalist domination and its social relations—and a necessary precondition for social emancipation itself.

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