The Problem With Work (a book review and musings)

The Problem With Work (2011) by Kathi Weeks has been sitting on my desk now for some time in preparation for my reviewing it here. Recently, my 5-year-old walked by my desk. She is just learning to read, and she sounded out the title. “What is the problem with work?” she said. “Is it that not everyone has a job?”

On the answer to that question hangs a tale. It’s the contention of many in the faith and work movement that the best way to fulfill God’s plan for the world is for everyone to work, or more properly for everyone to see what they do as work. But there is a growing push in other arenas to argue that the best thing for the world is exactly the opposite: we need a postwork world, perhaps one with a universal basic income, in order for human dignity to be achieved.

This book is the most extensive theoretical development of that idea that I’ve seen, but there’s also James Livingston’s No More Work (which I have read and hope to review here) as well as some recent articles by TGR blogger Jon Malesic, who is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.  It’s exactly these kind of difficult questions that this blog was founded to discuss.

The problem with work, Weeks thinks, is that we think everyone needs to get a job. “Why do we work so long and so hard?” she begins. “The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs…What might we name the variety of times and spaces outside waged work, and what might we wish to do with and them?” What we need instead is to get a life: “a project that refuses the existing world of work that is given to us and also demands alternatives.”

In the service of this, Weeks gives a history of the Protestant work ethic and of resistance to that ethic from various quarters, especially the “wages for housework” movement begun in the 1970s. She also considers the family’s relationship to the work ethic and ends with some consideration of how the postwork utopia she’s proposing fits into the history of utopias. The book is a useful introduction to Marxist thought on work while also critiquing it from a feminist standpoint. (That “remember the women” theme will come back when I get around to reviewing this, by the way.)

Now, the average reader of this blog is unlikely to be a Marxist, quite possibly is not a feminist either, and is probably philosophically opposed to a workless world. So, why should you read this book? Several reasons.

First, for a book that depends so heavily on academic theory, it’s actually pretty clearly written. I’ve referred before here and elsewhere to the casual Marxism assumed in mainline education (seminary and otherwise). If you want all those unexplained assumptions spelled out with a reasonable minimum of head-scratching, this is the book that will do it. (Yes, you’ll have to go look up post-Fordism. I did too.)

Secondly, the book puts its finger on a lot of the pain points people feel about work. The attraction of Marx and Weber for me has always been that they give a theory for why working in this world seems alienating. (Yes, I know the Bible also has a theory on this. Hold that thought for a moment.) Again and again while reading I found myself underlining descriptions that matched my own experience and others’ experience: excessive expectations, the exacerbating of those expectations by technology, injustice in the workplace with no means of recourse, the feeling of being on a hamster wheel, the substitution of wellness initiatives for structural change, the difficulty in accounting for the place of the family in a working world. I was especially struck by one of her sentences about daydreams:

….risky violations of that strategy of social adjustment by which we allow ourselves to want only what we are likely to have. In this familiar estimation, daydreams are without value, neither sufficiently productive nor sufficiently reproductive to merit indulgence or warrant exploration.

The world Weeks paints as happening now is one where daydreams are not allowed. The good time coming, she says, will be structured on the realization of daydreams in a utopia where we are no longer defined by our work:

The refusal of work is not in fact a reaction of activity and creativity in general or of production in particular…but rather a refusal of the ideology of work as the necessary center of social life and means of access to the rights and claims of citizenship, and a refusal of the necessity of the capitalist control of production. it is a refusal, finally, of the asceticism of those – even on the Left – who privilege work over all other pursuits, including “carefree consumption.”

Now, the response of many of my readers is likely to be that we have an alternative narrative that explains this alienation. (I said to hold that thought.) All we need to do is tell people that their work matters to God, and they will be saved from the alienation Marx was preaching and be able to cope with their daily work.

Well, not exactly (and here is where I leave off reviewin’ and go to preachin‘). What matters to God are people, in whom the image of God dwells. Work matters to God because people do it. The Bible seems to say that doing work is part of what it means to be people, and hence it should not be despised. But doing work is not all of what it means to be people. Daydreams are also part of what it means to be people. Love is part of what it means to be people. Justice is part of what it means to be people.

Weeks’ book knows all this. Which is why it is interesting that her chapter on the family is the weakest to me. There she proposes that we fight for shorter hours not (as was done in the past) to benefit families, but in order to make space for freedom and autonomy to construct our relationships how we will. I am a woman, a feminist, a wife, and a mother, and, while recognizing that the church badly needs to preach a better theology of singleness and barrenness, I also think that any narrative that values autonomy over connectedness leaves unexplained how the human race is meant to continue.

Which, in the end, is why I am here in this space. I think we’ve got the better story. (I also think the story is true.)  But I think it’s impossible to overestimate how deeply people are hurt and alienated in the modern world, and with what depth and care we need to tell that story, and how long we may need to tell it before anyone listens, and how much direct action in pulling down sinful structures may be involved in telling the story. Reading this book will begin to help you see that. We too think there is a good time coming where we will joy in creativity, activity, production…and also in daydreams and love. Let’s preach that like we mean it.


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