A New Vision of Work
Work in its broadest sense is mental or physical effort in order to achieve a purpose or result. Within capitalism, however, work has become synonymous with activity on a job, that is, to labor for wages, with surplus value kept by the employer. This link between work and money has skewed how we value human effort. We associate work with its exchange-value instead of its use-value. In Wage, Labor and Capital, Marx points out that with capitalism, labor is a commodity sold to the employer so that the wage worker may live. This insulting reality caused labor activists to push for inclusion of the statement “The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce” in the 1914 Clayton Act.
About a century later, it is clear to everyone that the world of work for wages is changing dramatically. As more physical and intellectual production is robotized, jobs, especially stable jobs, are becoming scarcer. The book by Guy Standing, The Precariat, the New Dangerous Class, documents in great detail the growing global sector of permanently unemployed and of temporary, part-time, un-benefited low-wage labor.
With this breakdown of the traditional contract between labor and capital, we have to take a new look at what kind of work is valuable in society. Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow that with these new changes in the labor market more and more people, especially young people of color, are being marginalized. She offers the insight that in some ways it is better to be exploited than marginalized, because at least when you are exploited you are needed. Capitalism classifies people as unnecessary when there is no job for them that will lead to profit for capitalists. However, there is plenty of work that needs to be done, that we can do, for each other.
Laboring Without Compensation
In reality, United States history is full of examples of those who labor under capitalism without compensation. Chattel slavery of Africans in the South, indentured servitude of Europeans in the North, and the labor of Native Americans in the Spanish missions of the Southwest laid the basis for that in the nation’s beginning.
Furthering that tradition, the convict lease policy started in the late 19th century and only ended in 1927. In his book, Slavery by Another Name Douglas Blackmon show how it was Southern policy to intimidate Blacks whereupon tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations.
With the current explosion in the incarcerated population, prison labor has returned, promoted by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Commission). For example, inmates in Florida work for PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises), processing beef, chicken and pork; they are paid minimum wage minus 40% for room and board.
Participants in the bracero program of the 1940s, 50s and 60s endured slave-like conditions, with very few rights and poor compensation. In more recent times, The Coalition of Imokalee Workers has a mobile Modern Day Slavery Museum which documents the conditions of immigrants and homeless citizens recruited to work in fields and orchards of Florida. The Polaris Project has shown how hundreds of thousands in the United States are victims of the commercial sex trade.
Most domestic labor, primarily by women, is not within the wages system – child-rearing, housekeeping, caregiving , etc. Canada estimated in 1994 that the value of housework, if it were paid, would be $318 billion. AARP estimated the value of unpaid caretakers at $450 billion in 2009. Much of the important work in society is already done on an unpaid basis. When the budgets for human services are cut, or falling incomes do not allow for bringing in assistance, family members, friends and neighbors become caretakers for the disabled and elderly. When cash-strapped schools fail, parents homeschool their children.
There are also new forms of labor without pay. Job hunting itself is very time consuming. Job hunters have to spend hours daily looking for work either in person or on the internet, create multiple resumes´ and cover letters, fill out online applications and psychological assessments, and travel to interviews, only to do it all over again when the job is part-time, temporary, or poorly paid. To become more employable, people have to do unpaid internships and/or show volunteer work to show experience or fill in gaps on their resume´. Desperate for an edge in the job market, they respond to come-ons from vocational schools and for-profit colleges, spend years in classes earning degrees and certificates, usually becoming debt slaves in the process, only to find there are not enough jobs in the field for which they are trained.
In the so-called service economy we pump our own gas and assemble our own furniture. We may commute hours in a day. The technological revolution which eliminates jobs often has the side effect of making us do more for our personal lives. We check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library. To save money we research our own flights and buy our own insurance online instead of using an agent, go to health care web sites for self-diagnosis instead of the doctor, and deal with automated or remote technical support to fix computers ourselves instead of utilizing a repair person.
When There are No Jobs
People increasingly try to survive in the informal economy. They make tamales or jewelry to sell, recycle bottles and cans, sell at flea markets, or work under the table for less than minimum wage doing yard work, babysitting, washing windshields or walking dogs. Musicians and other artists perform in the park or subway stations for tips, and often hold benefits for each other when they experience catastrophic health issues or other misfortune.
The desperate stand at freeway off-ramps, or panhandle on the sidewalks asking for handouts. Some turn to petty theft, small scale drug dealing, gambling and prostitution. The wages they receive are incarceration and/or early death from addiction, violence, or sexually transmitted diseases. A prison record puts up barriers to getting a job, applying for many benefits, voting, or running for office.
Public benefits and assistance are often used as an example of free money without work. But, the reality in most cases is stressful and exhausting as individuals and families have to fill out often complex applications, gather up documents, and travel to eligibility interviews in order to receive a bare subsistence. They go from the food pantry to the welfare office, from the housing authority to the clothes closet, from the free clinic to the legal aid agency. They apply for free school lunch, Thanksgiving baskets, children’s Christmas gifts, and back-to-school backpack giveaways. To fulfill requirements they have to go to job-readiness classes, parenting classes, independent living classes, 12-step programs and/or punitive workfare jobs.
The real compensation without working comes from inherited wealth and stock dividends from the profits of production with the surplus labor of workers. Financialization creates new opportunities to gain wealth through day trading, hedge funds, derivatives and other financial instruments. A recent video that went viral on YouTube, Wealth Inequality in America, points out that the top 1% owns fully half of all stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, while the bottom 50% own just ½ of 1% of them. That is why the top 1% has 40% of the wealth and the bottom 80% has just 7% of the wealth. No wonder the Occupy movement resonated across the country!
Just the other side of legal are white collar crimes such as insider trading, grand theft, embezzlement, money laundering, racketeering, and drug cartels. Capitalists also benefit from the privatization of the public domain.
A New Vision of Work
As the wages system becomes more and more dysfunctional we need a new definition of work, measuring it according to its use-value to society instead of its exchange-value as a commodity. We have to evaluate how any particular kind of work benefits humanity by providing the essentials for us to survive and thrive, such as healthy food, decent shelter, medical care, and clothing, or meeting emotional and psychological needs. Does it contribute to the raising of children, their intellectual and cultural development and their need for recreation and exercise, and offer adults the same? Does it help repair and maintain a healthy environment, promoting clean land, air and water as well as the reversal of global warming? Does it promote the public good?
It’s not true that without punitive measures or financial incentives people won’t work. That is a myth propagated by capitalism, to justify the wage-labor system, and of course many have been infused with that mindset given their options within that system. Recent studies publicized in the Scientific American and New York Times have indicated both that we are born with an urge to help, and that our intuitive instinct is to cooperate with others. The world is full of those trying to make things better without compensation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 64.3 million people a year in the U.S. volunteer for an organization such as a church, school, youth, or community service organization. This does not including the efforts of individuals. People are looking for opportunities to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Neighbors babysit their neighbor’s children, church circles visit the sick, and friends have a carwash to pay for funeral expenses, while volunteers coach sports leagues, build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and hold concerts to raise money for causes. People constantly organize themselves to work together for each other in many ways. They have community gardens, potlucks, sports leagues, book clubs, and open mics. John Curl, in his book, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America shows that U.S. history is full of examples of consumer and worker cooperatives and mutual benefit societies; even today, 48,000 cooperatives exist in the United States.
With technology able to take over arduous and repetitive tasks, humans could have the freedom to devote themselves to do what humans do best, such as caretaking and teaching, without fear of not meeting their basic necessities. But, that will depend on the elimination of the wages system as we know it, and the reorganization of society along cooperative lines. One of the most meaningful contributions we can make to society today is to advance that cause.
July/August 2013. Vol23.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011