Note from the Uneven Earth editorial team: This entry is the twelfth to be published within Uneven Earth’s new Resources for a better future series: a glossary of crucial concepts in political ecology, alternative economics, and environmental justice. We are calling on experts and activists to help us put out easy-to-read, clear, and opinionated explainers of some of the most important issues. Anyone can write an entry, and we will help with editing to make them readable to wide audiences. The time is now to put forward concise definitions of key concepts, to explain our political position firmly and clearly.
Work is drudgery for a lot of people, whether physically or mentally, as they have to work a lot to make a living. Despite this, the work we do defines how we are perceived in society, while precarity of work has become the norm. A lot of work in capitalist growth-oriented economies is also environmentally and socially destructive. However, work can be different and meaningful, if radically reorganised. In what follows I will introduce the word, then proceed to addressing the problems with work, and finish by sketching how work could be transformed.
If you look for a general definition of work, it would usually be presented as an activity that involves physical or mental effort. Such a definition includes work of different kinds, for example, wage labor, unpaid care work or subsistence farming. It is the former, however, that we usually associate work with – i.e. work as a means to earn income, taking the form of wage labor. It is this kind of work that many have to do in a capitalist economy, whether they want to or not, and despite other kinds of work co-existing with it.
What work looks like today: from modern slavery to alienation
The etymology of the word ‘work’ has negative connotations in some languages, including ‘torture’ (e.g. French) and ‘slavery’ (e.g. Russian). This is unfortunately the way work is experienced by many, metaphorically and literally.
Work is extremely unjustly distributed within and across societies, defined by class, race, gender and other divisions. The hardest and most dangerous work is today done by people in the Global South – including children – in inhumane conditions. The earnings from this work are often not enough to live on, and yet this work creates wealth for global economies and powerful corporations. Mining for minerals in Congo to make modern technological devices possible, making cheap disposable clothes for renowned brands in Bangladesh or manually recycling plastic waste in Thailand are all examples of such work.
Severe exploitation of people for commercial gain via, for example, forced labor and debt bondage, is called ‘modern slavery’. According to the ILO, about 16 million people were in forced labor in the private economy in 2016, with 51% of these being in debt bondage. Modern slavery is particularly present in agriculture, mining and extraction, construction, and some forms of manufacturing, as well as unregulated or poorly regulated service industries. New service-oriented sectors that have been expanding rapidly and relying on digital technology – epitomised by companies like Foodora and Amazon – also come with new forms of extremely tough, controlled, accelerated and low-paid work, some of which can also be characterised as modern slavery.
When work is done in safe environments and in more decent conditions, with better salaries and shorter working hours, it still remains alienating: it leads to deskilling and lacks meaning for many. As David Graeber observed, capitalism has been good at creating a lot of ‘bullshit jobs’ – the kinds of jobs that do not need to exist. Corporate rhetoric, in turn, has worked hard to promote work as attractive to potential employees. For example, glitzy graduate brochures pay attention to the employer’s brand, adventures, consumption and endless training opportunities that will come with work, rather than work itself. However, even the most prestigious and glamorous jobs often turn out to be mundane, boring and complicit in the problems of our times.
In response to this, we see a revival of the interest in work as craft, which is laborious but fulfilling – baking, beer brewing, small-scale agriculture, running a zero-waste store. People leave their work in corporate spaces to do something both for themselves and the society. However, these interests are often restricted by the very structure of the capitalist market, with interesting work being difficult to live from.
Work has become precarious over the past thirty years, with job security having been substituted by employability in labor market policies. Zero-hour and short-term contracts become never-ending for some, and even those in permanent positions can be made redundant fairly easily. This is expected to be exacerbated by the rise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, which will substitute many jobs done by people. Employers today can hire and fire people to adapt to the situations on the market, while state employment agencies help one to search for work, rather than to actually get it. In other words, the responsibility for one’s situation with employment has been shifted from governments and employers to people themselves.
Despite this precarity of work and many not identifying with what they do to earn a living, most societies are characterised by a culture of workerism, where people’s worth is defined by the status of the work they do. To receive financial support from the state, those who are unemployed have to engage in the often humiliating and disciplining process of proving that they are searching for work, for example, sending a particular number of job applications per week. The kind of work unemployed people have to apply for, however, is often far off from what they want to be doing.
The value of work
Beyond the ways that work is changing today, there is a fundamental problem with how and which work is valued. Wage labor is a key feature of capitalism. Most people have to engage in wage labor to survive. Following Marxist theory, what appears as value created by investors or entrepreneurs is actually built on workers’ labor. For example, a worker at a shoe factory makes the shoes, but doesn’t own the shoe she ends up making nor does she own the machines she uses to make it with. As a result the owners of “the means of production” (e.g. the shareholders and bosses) cash in on any surplus value created, while she only receives the minimum wage the bosses are required to provide. This separation of workers from the means of production drives both capitalist surplus value and alienation from work. Because of this, Karl Marx calls work the “hidden abode of production”, i.e., the source of capitalist value which is often made invisible.
As further stressed by social reproduction theory, workers also need to be sustained in spaces outside production in order to continue working. Thus, capitalist surplus value relies on yet another “hidden abode” – a vast range of reproductive activities, which are, however, invisible and are not recognised in capitalist value creation. These activities, such as domestic labor, can be paid but are largely unpaid, and mostly fall on the shoulders of women.
When products are sold, however, their exchange value comes across as independent from productive and reproductive activities – Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. Furthermore, the capitalist system is oriented towards financial gain, rather than satisfaction of human needs, and work that brings higher profits is recognised much more than work that contributes to well-being and welfare.
As vividly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, work that is most essential for the daily functioning of societies – care work, nursing, driving public transport, garbage collection, etc – is valued least. At the same time, economic sectors that are destructive or churning out bullshit jobs – financial and housing market speculation, advertising that pollutes public spaces or creating distractive social media technology – enjoy extreme levels of financial gratification and social status. They are able to create jobs, employ people, and pay them well. Moreover, some industries are directly responsible for environmental destruction and health deterioration. Bue Rübner Hansen calls work in these sectors ‘batshit jobs’, to denote the madness of the contradiction when making a living is also part of unmaking life. The fossil industry, which some of the world’s richest and most powerful companies belong to, is a case in point. It gives jobs to many people, but drives destruction. Such industries have to be phased out, but the workers in those industries would also need to be ensured a just transition to meaningful jobs in sectors that would be needed in the economy of the future – care, repair, and environmental regeneration.
Abolish work or liberate it?
In response to the problems with work, anti-work theses have become popular, arguing, for example, for the abolition of work. Some believe that technology will help to liberate us from work, if only it could be reclaimed from the hands of capital and used in public interest. However, reliance on massive technological interventions requires a lot of energy and materials, and will likely create a lot of waste, too, and will thus bring further environmental devastation. It is also likely to come with hierarchical systems of control and, ultimately, its own forms of injustice. For example, as Barbara Muraca and Frederike Neuber argue, complex technologies like BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) will not be possible to manage in a decentralised way, while any side effects of these technologies – such as leakage of CO2 – will directly affect local communities. Furthermore, a lot of work, often hard, time-consuming, or unpleasant, is required for the daily life of societies – such as childrearing, caring for the sick, cleaning, and provision of services. Thus, work – done by humans – is here to stay. However, it needs to be transformed.
The problem with work is not confined to ‘work’ only, but is structural. Capitalist economies are oriented towards continuous capital accumulation, economic growth, and profit by all means. So transformation of work should be part of a general reorganisation of societies and economies away from capitalism and towards socio-ecological transformation. This reorganisation would decentre work from the social pedestal it enjoys today and put life at the centre instead. As part of this transformation, we need to collectively rethink which work is essential for societies and contributes to well-being and environmental regeneration, and how much of it is needed.
As Stefania Barca argues, we need to liberate ourselves from work, but also liberate work itself. In general, we should be working less, at a slower pace, and have time for many things outside work – reproductive, social, political, but also rest, idleness and contemplation. There also needs to be a more equal distribution of work within and across societies, with everyone contributing to socially necessary work and also having spaces for more craft-based, creative and intellectual work.
To liberate work itself, it should be organised differently. Collective forms of ownership and organising – such as cooperatives and commons – are key to the transformation of work. So are workplace democracy, non-hierarchical organisational structures and participatory decision-making. With such organisation of work, even work that is not pleasant in itself can acquire a different meaning. There are many ways to push for the transformation of work, starting from grassroots initiatives where work is organised differently, to institutional changes such as reduction of working time, job guarantee, universal basic income, and universal basic services.
Critiques of work
On modern slavery
Crane, A. (2013) ‘Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation’, Academy of Management Review, 38: 49-69.
International Labor Office (ILO) (2017) ‘Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labor and forced marriage’, Geneva: ILO. www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf
On other problems with work: Boredom, lack of meaning, environmental destruction
Costas J. and D. Kärreman (2016) ‘The bored self in knowledge work’, Human Relations, 69(1): 61-83.
Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs. London: Penguin.
Hansen, B.R. (2019) ‘“Batshit jobs” – no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living’, Open Democracy, 11 June. www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/batshit-jobs-no-one-should-have-to-destroy-the-planet-to-make-a-living
Hoffmann, M. and R. Paulsen (2020) ‘Resolving the “jobs-environment-dilemma”? The case for critiques of work in sustainability research’, Environmental Sociology, doi: 10.1080/23251042.2020.1790718.
On discourses and qualities surrounding work: Consumption, employability, precarity
Chertkovskaya, E., Korczynski, M. and Taylor, S. (2020) ‘The consumption of work: Representations and interpretations of the meaning of work at a UK university’, Organization, 27(4): 517-536.
Chertkovskaya, E., P. Watt, S. Tramer and S. Spoelstra (2013) ‘Giving notice to employability’. ephemera: theory & politics in organization 13(4): 701-716.
Standing, G. (2011) The precariat: The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Reclaiming work, visibilising social reproduction
Fraser, N. (2014) ‘Behind Marx’s hidden abode’, New Left Review, 86: 55-72.
Schleuning, N. (1995) “The abolition of work and other myths’, Kick it Over, 35 (Summer). Libcom.org. libcom.org/library/AbolitionWorkMythNealaScleuning
Articulating and doing work differently (from critiques to alternatives)
Barca, S. (2019a) ‘An alternative worth fighting for: Degrowth and the liberation of work’, in E. Chertkovskaya, A. Paulsson and S. Barca (eds.) Towards a political economy of degrowth. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Chertkovskaya, E. and K. Stoborod (2018) ‘Work’, in B. Franks, L. Williams and N. Jun (eds.) Anarchism: A conceptual approach. Routledge.
Kokkinidis G. (2015) ‘Spaces of possibilities: workers’ self-management in Greece’, Organization, 22(6): 847-871.
New roots collective and 2000+ signatories (2020) ‘Degrowth: new roots for the economy’, degrowth.info, 13 May. www.degrowth.info/en/open-letter
On organised labour as a transformative actor
Barca, S. (2019b) ‘The labor(s) of degrowth’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30(2): 207-216.
Barca, S. and E. Leonardi (2018) ‘Working-class ecology and union politics: A conceptual topology’, Globalizations, 4: 487-503.
Thanks to Aaron Vansintjan for his caring editing of this text.
Teaser photo source: William Morris