Tag Archives: political theory

We’ll Rest.

Since we’re focusing on a theatricality versus historical realism, we’ve not spent much time discussing some of the political and social issues framing the lives of Russia’s rising middle-class in the late nineteenth-century. One post isn’t going to fill in those blanks, but Andy Chu (thanks Andy!) posted an article from Jacobin that discusses a relevant recent book: The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, by Duke Women’s Studies Professor, political theorist Kathi Weeks. As Fall Break approaches it also seemed an appropriate time to engage discourses of work and leisure in relationship to Uncle Vanya. I’ve not read Weeks’ book myself, so I’m relying on author Peter Frase’s (a PhD student in sociology at CUNY) take. Other responses to her book can be found here and here, and the entire introduction is online thanks to libcom.org.

Frase opens his review by framing the complicated world of “work” in the US today:

15 million people cannot find work, or cannot find as much work as they say they would like. At the same time, up to two thirds of workers report in surveys that they would like to work fewer hours than they do now, even if doing so would require a loss of income. The pain of unemployment is well-documented, but the pain of the employed only occasionally sees the light, whether it’s Amazon warehouse employees working at a breakneck pace in sweltering heat, or Foxconn workers risking injury and death to build hip electronics for Apple.

Frase then connects the narrowing certainty people feel over jobs and income to narrowing political imaginations (and political actions). Neither “side” seems to have sufficient solutions to the problems of work/employment and each blames various (often nefarious) interests for preventing their ideas or programs from succeeding or blames various individuals for avoiding or refusing “real” or “hard” work. Such rhetoric encourages individuals, business owners, and politicians to valorize particular kinds of intensive labor, which, in turn, are not interrogated for their legitimacy or the financial and personal health demands required to acquire, maintain and excel at such positions.

Frase introduces Weeks’ analysis by mentioning Marxist Paul Lafargue and his 1883 pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in which he argued, among other things that “a politics for the working class must be against work.” Frase argues that Weeks digs deeper into this “dissident socialist tradition,” finding arguments for more work and better work lacking. By contrast, she advocates less work for all. And here’s where the connection to Uncle Vanya comes in and I’m going to quote from Frase’s review at length, drawing your attention to particular ideas:

At the dawn of capitalism, the call to work was a call to salvation, as Weeks explains in her reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1905]. She recognizes that, far from providing an idealist alternative to Marx’s account of the rise of capitalism, Weber complements historical materialism by describing the construction of a working class ideology. The word is used in Althusser’s sense: “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The Protestant ethic allowed workers to imagine that when they worked for the profit of the boss, they were really working for their salvation, and for the glory of God.

By the twentieth century, however, the calling had become a material one: hard work would ensure broad-based prosperity. Each of the century’s twin projects of industrial modernity developed this calling in its own way. Soviet authorities promoted the Stakhanovite movement, which glorified exceptional contributions to the productivity of the socialist economy. In Detroit, meanwhile, the social democratic union leader Walter Reuther denounced advocates of shorter hours for undermining the U.S. economy in the struggle against Communism. In neither case was the quality of industrial work called into question; it was simply a matter of who was in control and who reaped the spoils.

The industrial work ethic ran aground on the alienating nature of industrial labor. Workers who still remembered the Great Depression might have been willing to subordinate themselves to the assembly line in return for a steady paycheck, but their children were emboldened to ask for more. As Jefferson Cowie recounts in his history Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, the 1970s were characterized by pervasive labor unrest and what was popularly called the “blue collar blues,” as “workers were harnessed to union pay but longed to run free of the deadening nature of the work itself.” In the realm of left theory, this development was reflected in the vogue for “humanist” critiques of work, rooted in the young Marx’s theory of alienation. Weeks highlights the Freudian-Marxist Erich Fromm, who argued that “the self realization of man . . . is inextricably linked to the activity of work,” which will again become authentic and fulfilling once it is freed from capitalist control. In recognizing the limitations of demanding more work, the humanists instead called for better work.

Given that Uncle Vanya was written at least 5 years before Weber’s Protestant Ethic was published, I don’t think Sonya is offering an ironic commentary on labor systems as much as she’s articulating a line of thought that has sustained her (and Vanya?) over the years. It an ethos echoed by our overworked, harried doctor, Astrov, and (probable) former-serf Marina throughout the play. (“People won’t remember, but God will.”) Given the 110+ years that have passed since both writings, however, I keep wondering how our audiences will respond to the invocation of work as salvation in this day and age. Again, I quote Frase at length:

[In] the precarious world of post-1970s capitalism, … individuals were encouraged to celebrate unstable jobs and uncertain income as forms of freedom rather than insecurity. Intangible benefits were offered as an alternative to a share in rising productivity, which became decoupled from wages. Thus we arrive at a third iteration of the work ethic in the post-industrial era, where work is now represented neither as a path to salvation nor as a road to riches, but as a source of personal identity and fulfillment. This ethic is exemplified by hip Silicon Valley firms like Apple, which reportedly told employees, in response to their wage demands, that “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.”

In these circumstances, Weeks argues, calls for “better work” are not only inadequate, they tend to reproduce and extend a form of capitalism that attempts to colonize the lives and personalities of its workers. Hence “worker empowerment can boost efficiency, flexibility can serve as a way to cut costs, and participation can produce commitment to the organization . . . quality becomes quantity as the call for better work is translated into a requirement for more work.” Any attempt to reconstruct the meaning of work in a non-alienating way must begin, then, by rejecting work altogether.

[…] Like Weeks, [economist Guy] Standing is a proponent of an unconditional basic income—a regular payment provided to every individual regardless of whether or how much they work—as a way of providing income security without locking people into jobs. Yet he still grounds his appeal on the concept of work, now expanded beyond the boundaries of wage labor. […] “All forms of work should be treated with equal respect, and there should be no presumption that someone not in a job is not working or that someone not working today is an idle scrounger.” This evokes the notion of a social factory in which we contribute various kinds of productive activity that is not directly remunerated, ranging from raising children to coding open source software.

Two interesting things about this passage. First, in Switzerland this past week, campaigners collected enough signatures to force a public referendum on giving all citizens an “unconditional income” (roughly $2800 per month) as a response to increasing income inequality post-global financial crisis/recession. (This article from Philippe Van Parjis archived on the Boston Review site tells a bit more about the economic and social motivations behind UBI or universal basic income.) Second, the notion of the “idle scrounger” made me think of Waffles concern about being called a “moocher,” given that his relationship to the estate and the family seems largely undefined. Must one ‘work’ in ways that are legible as ‘work’ in order to be considered full or worthwhile citizens? And that question puts me in mind of recent problematic reports from This American Lifes Planet Money team (March 2013) and on this past Sunday’s 60 Minutes program purporting to expose abuses of the system by those receiving disability payments. The reports have been roundly critiqued for their hysterical characterizations and faulty evidence (the best of these has been offered by Media Matters) that indict “scammers” and parasites instead of offering a much needed critique of profoundly dysfunctional national systems and images of labor, personal identity, and income inequality. This touches back on Frase’s review of Weeks:

The contrast between work and “idle scrounging” implies that we can measure whether any given activity is productive or useful, by translating it into a common measure. Capitalism has such a measure, monetary value: whatever has value in the market is, by definition, productive. If the critique of capitalism is to get beyond this, it must get beyond the idea that our activities can be subordinated to a single measure of value. Indeed, to demand that time outside of work be truly free is to reject the call to justify its usefulness. This is a central insight of Weeks’ consistent anti-asceticism, which resists any effort to replace the work ethic with some equally homogenizing code that externally validates the organization of our time. Time beyond work should not be for exchange or for use, but for itself. The point, as Weeks puts it, is to “get a life,” as we find ways “to sustain the social worlds necessary for, among other things, production.”

At that moment, I found myself reading Frase’s review and Vanya in the context of that paradoxical event – the Fall Break – wherein the time off from attending classes, rehearsals (!) and meetings is usually invested in “catching up” on work put off because of all the work that had to get done first. I’m always putting “break” in quotation marks. Now that technology makes it easier to for work to find me no matter where I go, the idea that I’m away from my office means nothing. FYI, I started this blog post in a coffee shop and finished it while sitting up in bed around 10:30pm.

There’s a section where Frase discusses the feminist nature of Weeks’ proposals: an unconditional basic income and shortening the work week. But more significantly than these ideas is recognizing the difficult (impossible?) process of detangling work practices from American’s identity as workers even if that detangling is offered in an effort to reconceptualize our relationship to basic rights and services as well as the fruits of our own labors no matter their material or non-material forms.

Elsewhere, Weeks remarks that we should not underestimate just how much hesitation about anti-work positions is rooted in fear. Fear of idleness, fear of hedonism—or to borrow a phrase from Erich Fromm, fear of freedom. It is relatively easy to say that in the future I will be what I am now—a worker, just perhaps with more money or more job security or more control over my work. It is something else to imagine ourselves as different kinds of people altogether. That, perhaps, is the unappreciated value of Occupy Wall Street encampments and similar attempts to carve out alternative ways of living within the interstices of capitalist society. It may be, as critics often point out, that they cannot really build an alternative society so long as capitalism’s institutional impediments to such a society remain in place. But perhaps they can help remove the fear of what we might become if those impediments were lifted, and we were able to make our exodus from the world of work to the world of freedom.

After my gloss of Frase’s gloss of Weeks’ book, I’m wondering whether I’m selling Sonya’s final cry a bit too short. It’s clear that she’s offering the image of salvation through work to Vanya. In that way, it’s wholly conservative and more than a bit pathetic. But the wonderful thing about theater is that we hear her say these words both in the past and present, in Vanya‘s world and our world. As such, do they allow us to imagine one end for Sonya and Vanya but a different one for ourselves? I wondered aloud during our table-work about the fact that the play’s one big “action”, [SPOILER ALERT for outside readers!] the Professor’s threatened sale of the estate, does not happen. The announcement causes havoc and transforms relationships, but actually cements the status quo relationships among Sonya, Vanya and the Professor. And, while that sad order is tragic, I’ve often wondered whether it’s also a kind of relief. So many characters seem to desire to break away from their confines but are utterly incapable of making things happen. It’s as if the break is too much, too traumatic to even attempt. So as much as they loathe where they are, even who they are, it’s the only life they’ve ever known so they might as well continue to work.

So if we want to refuse the fate of Sonya and Vanya, what might it mean for us “to rest” not in the afterlife but in the now? To stop and even transform the value (monetary and socially) we place on our work for forces which refuse to recognize our worth and, in turn, to refuse the idea of our lived lives as only self-sacrifice? What would we, could we do with our freedom?