The Problem with Work

by Kathi Weeks

Cover image

Publisher: Duke University Press
Copyright: 2011
ISBN: 0-8223-5112-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 304

Buy at Powell's Books

One of the assumptions baked deeply into US society (and many others) is that people are largely defined by the work they do, and that work is the primary focus of life. Even in Marxist analysis, which is otherwise critical of how work is economically organized, work itself reigns supreme. This has been part of the feminist critique of both capitalism and Marxism, namely that both devalue domestic labor that has traditionally been unpaid, but even that criticism is normally framed as expanding the definition of work to include more of human activity. A few exceptions aside, we shy away from fundamentally rethinking the centrality of work to human experience.

The Problem with Work begins as a critical analysis of that centrality of work and a history of some less-well-known movements against it. But, more valuably for me, it becomes a discussion of the types and merits of utopian thinking, including why convincing other people is not the only purpose for making a political demand.

The largest problem with this book will be obvious early on: the writing style ranges from unnecessarily complex to nearly unreadable. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

The lack of interest in representing the daily grind of work routines in various forms of popular culture is perhaps understandable, as is the tendency among cultural critics to focus on the animation and meaningfulness of commodities rather than the eclipse of laboring activity that Marx identifies as the source of their fetishization (Marx 1976, 164-65). The preference for a level of abstraction that tends not to register either the qualitative dimensions or the hierarchical relations of work can also account for its relative neglect in the field of mainstream economics. But the lack of attention to the lived experiences and political textures of work within political theory would seem to be another matter. Indeed, political theorists tend to be more interested in our lives as citizens and noncitizens, legal subjects and bearers of rights, consumers and spectators, religious devotees and family members, than in our daily lives as workers.

This is only a quarter of a paragraph, and the entire book is written like this.

I don't mind the occasional use of longer words for their precise meanings ("qualitative," "hierarchical") and can tolerate the academic habit of inserting mostly unnecessary citations. I have less patience with the meandering and complex sentences, excessive hedge words ("perhaps," "seem to be," "tend to be"), unnecessarily indirect phrasing ("can also account for" instead of "explains"), or obscure terms that are unnecessary to the sentence (what is "animation of commodities"?). And please have mercy and throw a reader some paragraph breaks.

The writing style means substantial unnecessary effort for the reader, which is why it took me six months to read this book. It stalled all of my non-work non-fiction reading and I'm not sure it was worth the effort. That's unfortunate, because there were several important ideas in here that were new to me.

The first was the overview of the "wages for housework" movement, which I had not previously heard of. It started from the common feminist position that traditional "women's work" is undervalued and advocated taking the next logical step of giving it equality with paid work by making it paid work. This was not successful, obviously, although the increasing prevalence of day care and cleaning services has made it partly true within certain economic classes in an odd and more capitalist way. While I, like Weeks, am dubious this was the right remedy, the observation that household work is essential to support capitalist activity but is unmeasured by GDP and often uncompensated both economically and socially has only become more accurate since the 1970s.

Weeks argues that the usefulness of this movement should not be judged by its lack of success in achieving its demands, which leads to the second interesting point: the role of utopian demands in reframing and expanding a discussion. I normally judge a political demand on its effectiveness at convincing others to grant that demand, by which standard many activist campaigns (such as wages for housework) are unsuccessful. Weeks points out that making a utopian demand changes the way the person making the demand perceives the world, and this can have value even if the demand will never be granted. For example, to demand wages for housework requires rethinking how work is defined, what activities are compensated by the economic system, how such wages would be paid, and the implications for domestic social structures, among other things. That, in turn, helps in questioning assumptions and understanding more about how existing society sustains itself.

Similarly, even if a utopian demand is never granted by society at large, forcing it to be rebutted can produce the same movement in thinking in others. In order to rebut a demand, one has to take it seriously and mount a defense of the premises that would allow one to rebut it. That can open a path to discussing and questioning those premises, which can have long-term persuasive power apart from the specific utopian demand. It's a similar concept as the Overton Window, but with more nuance: the idea isn't solely to move the perceived range of accepted discussion, but to force society to examine its assumptions and premises well enough to defend them, or possibly discover they're harder to defend than one might have thought.

Weeks applies this principle to universal basic income, as a utopian demand that questions the premise that work should be central to personal identity. I kept thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement and the demand to abolish the police, which (at least in popular discussion) is a more recent example than this book but follows many of the same principles. The demand itself is unlikely to be met, but to rebut it requires defending the existence and nature of the police. That in turn leads to questions about the effectiveness of policing, such as clearance rates (which are far lower than one might have assumed). Many more examples came to mind. I've had that experience of discovering problems with my assumptions I'd never considered when debating others, but had not previously linked it with the merits of making demands that may be politically infeasible.

The book closes with an interesting discussion of the types of utopias, starting from the closed utopia in the style of Thomas More in which the author sets up an ideal society. Weeks points out that this sort of utopia tends to collapse with the first impossibility or inconsistency the reader notices. The next step is utopias that acknowledge their own limitations and problems, which are more engaging (she cites Le Guin's The Dispossessed). More conditional than that is the utopian manifesto, which only addresses part of society. The least comprehensive and the most open is the utopian demand, such as wages for housework or universal basic income, which asks for a specific piece of utopia while intentionally leaving unspecified the rest of the society that could achieve it. The demand leaves room to maneuver; one can discuss possible improvements to society that would approach that utopian goal without committing to a single approach.

I wish this book were better-written and easier to read, since as it stands I can't recommend it. There were large sections that I read but didn't have the mental energy to fully decipher or retain, such as the extended discussion of Ernst Bloch and Friedrich Nietzsche in the context of utopias. But that way of thinking about utopian demands and their merits for both the people making them and for those rebutting them, even if they're not politically feasible, will stick with me.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-09-26

Last modified and spun 2021-09-28