I went to a lecture about Marx and work, and it turned out to be mostly about Hegel and work. They talked a little about alienation, and Hegel, and work as our inserting our likenesses and order onto it in order to understand it and create ourselves. Or something. To be honest, it had validity, but fell far short of a meaningful discussion about work (tentatively hypothesising that the work as pain/leisure as happiness binary might, according to Marx, be inaccurate).
So, work – what are its aspects, what are its functions, what is it to us? And more importantly, given the stated direction of this blog and my striving to form a practical idealism – what could it be for us? How can we make it, now, next month, next year, next decade, more like what it could be? It hardly needs to be said that even for me, this post only plays a small role.
Exploration into what work is and does
Work is crucial (as ever, in balance with it’s long-maligned partner, idleness) to various aspects of ourselves: some aspects reflective of the culture we live in; others I suspect less so. Work gives us activity with purpose – I shall not, as I might have been tempted before, to give the best or most accurate definition of work, but its is worth throwing around various of its aspects. As many people have experienced, it frequently has its boundaries blurred by play, and pleasure, even leisure.
The environment of work, the status and structures that we work within give some meaning to our lives, even if it is for some a meaning that we resent or struggle with. Our work can create who we are, destroy who we are, or we can compartmentalise it away from our understanding of ‘ourselves’.
Work is often characterised often by the notion of provision: either the work directly provides – society with this or that, selected individuals this or that – or the work provides money, which in turn provides.
It is also associated with reward – although let’s also release work conceptually from the ties of financial reward. Work most frequently comes with some kind of reward – otherwise it would not get done. But simply ‘the job well done’ is not an insignificant reward, and for certain types of job/people combinations it entirely overshadows financial reward gained. Consider caring work, and much of the creative industry.
This leads me down a side alley – the same job can of course be done mainly for money. You can even raise a child mainly for the money. You can certainly work in the city mainly for the money.
Jobs that might be done because those doing them want them done, or see the need and meet it, or simply enjoy helping a friend, associate, or stranger, can also be done for the money. Not just that, but they can be ‘professionalised’, made ‘efficient’ and colonised by a culture of ‘doing it for the money’
How we end up working
The requirement of living appropriately to our wishes and culture (I do not wish to entirely distinguish those two), as well as force of habit, is most frequently what provides the main push into taking up work. Our own inspiration and drive (to define our own work) is lacking, perhaps just through superfluity. Most of us don’t need to. For many of us, the effort of fitting We by and large choose a salaried, full-time position for these reasons plus the added one of stability, routine and structure.
What kind of work we end up in is determined frequently by the vaguaries of the job market, itself determined uncertainly and arbitrarily by a mix of common aspiration and wealthy direction. The end result is an ‘occupation’, both in that work occupies us is the present (we focus on it whilst doing it), but the status of an occupation to us is one of, fittingly, occupation – the taking over and inhabiting of us. Our occupation, so frequently ascribed not by ourselves and entered out of force of habit and necessity of cultural survival, takes over our life and creative energy, takes what otherwise would be our freedom and subjects it to a literally pre-described and defined state. In some occupations, it is a completely prescribed state, down to pre-scripted human interaction, bodily actions. We might be given a life to experience, but not to act in.
All this is not new, and is as evident to you as to me in the simplicity of observation.
Where can we go from here?
What are the alternatives? Let us not just think here, pleasant as it is, of our utopia where all our work is limited and in harmony with the work of others, and our time for leisure increases and increases as successive generations of ingenuity strive to provide ourselves with the same quality of life (for our well-being has risen as much as it can from the effects of ever more plastic labour-saving devices) for less and less work. Let us take this as an obviously pleasant place to be, and of course examine it for warts and the more prominent objections of its incompatibility with anything but ideal human behaviour.
Let us think, however, of some present alternatives. Perhaps for a starting point, the radical notion that we might even at present be able to come together, decide what we want, and work out how we will start to get there. By we, I mean us. You. Perhaps we could start with things that we want, and that other people want, and start by finding those other people, and seeing if we can create what we want, and make enough time for it in our lives.
Projects like community vegetable-growing, practices like skill-sharing (fluffy word for the corporate ‘knowledge-management’), are small glimpses, albeit ones that can stimulate prejudice. Our massive volunteer organisations are examples of work with ‘advanced’ reward systems, motivations. There are plenty of communities around that share around all internal work necessary according to need and capability. What will and might it take for these experiences to take hold of and inspire larger communities and administrations? Time banks have a similar, beautiful, function, although are largely unambitious in scope and content to be for those on the margins not in the mainstream.
There are also other communities trying out ‘new forms of work’ – for instance, clubs of co-working social entrepreneurs (www.kingscross.the-hub.net). Inspiring, dynamic, perhaps – helping to shift the boundaries of organisations – but no vision here for all our work, and, to be provocative, just a trendy, innovative way of doing a small amount of trendy, innovative work.
Social enterprises offer a new(ish) model of enterprise, and I’m sure there are models out there that are worth spreading, but many and most of this disparate and loose-fitting collection firmly embed themselves in entirely conventional places in the market.
These questions are young, and others form them better than I. More posts to follow.
I’ll end without conclusions: draw your own. But I will end with some starter questions for you: if you find them interesting to think about, please pass them on:
To mull over:
Thought experiment 1:
What work do you effectively create for others in your demands (purchasing being the modern way of demanding that work is done for you). How much time, effort and energy for others do you think you might create daily in your existence?
Is that more time, effort and energy than you would be willing to personally put in to create the goods and necessities you live by?
If so, why is this ok?
Thought experiment 2:
If a basic living wage were provided for you, a) would you work more to get more money? b) would you work for the love of it? c) what else would you spend time doing/creating for yourself and others?
How much would be left to be done? How much time would that take up in a week?
Thought experiment 3:
What is it that you want that is over and above, perhaps of a different nature to, the basics of life? Would you be prepared to work directly to achieve it?
If you are not already working for it, why are you not?
If you have answers, I really would be interested to hear them – perhaps leave them in the comments below.