Economic realities in recent years have begun to highlight problems with dominant attitudes to work. The idea of paid work as an ethical obligation or an inevitable part of daily life is called into question as decent, stable work becomes harder to find and maintain. But there is still a long way to go before this challenge to common assumptions can have a real political impact and change the social distribution of work. In her work, Kathi Weeks deals with such issues, from how the modern work ethic functions ideologically to how gender division and the family unit remain central to the meaning of work and how it is valued. She also considers the future of work, and the kinds of measures necessary to tackle the on-going crisis. The following interview focuses on these important issues.
Kathi Weeks is a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her primary interests are in the fields of political theory, feminist theory, Marxist thought, the critical study of work, and utopian studies. She is currently working on a genealogy of U.S. Marxist feminist thought. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects (Cornell UP, 1998; Verso, 2018) and The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011), and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader (Blackwell, 2000).
At the beginning of your book, The Problem with Work, you question why so many people still seem willing to work so hard, and why work is still so often valued above other pursuits. As you say, ‘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.’ But do you think that at least certain alternative ideas about work, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), are beginning to gain mainstream traction? Are the contradictions between the ideal and the reality of work becoming too great to ignore?
Kathi Weeks: I do think that at least some of the key problems with work are becoming more legible within mainstream public discourse. Of course, the many contradictions between the ideals and the realities of work are longstanding, if not, to one degree or another, inherent to capitalist political economies. One way to approach this terrain would be to distinguish between the problem of quantity and the problem of quality.
First, there is the perennial contradiction between a political system of income distribution that revolves around waged work and an economic system that does not provide an adequate number of jobs. This quantitative contradiction may well be intensifying: although the system’s health has always depended on a margin of unemployment, not only did the crisis of 2008 expand the pool of unemployed and underemployed workers, the inclusion of more economically and/or occupationally privileged people in these ranks has resulted in a little more mainstream attention to the issue.
Second, there is the equally familiar problem of the quality of the employment available to us: a contradiction between, on the one hand, what it is we imagine that work should be like and what work should do for us as individuals, family members and citizens, and, on the other hand, the interminably stultifying and dreadfully demeaning realities of the daily grind in most jobs.
This general contradiction may also be sharpening insofar as the dominant mythology of work continues to expand its claims about how we should “do what we love,” “love what we do,” and cultivate an intimate relationship to work as a site of personal development and social belonging. But whereas the problem of quantity may be more visible in public discourse, it seems to me that the problem of quality is still too often ignored in these venues.
Although I think a basic income guarantee should be advocated as a response to—though certainly not a cure for—both the quantitative and qualitative problems of income generating work, my sense is that it is most often considered by the popular media lately in relation to the prospect of further technological unemployment rather than as a way to improve the qualities of our lives by lessening our dependence on work.
Another point you make is that problems surrounding work today are not definable merely in terms of traditional class politics, but also cut across lines of class, gender, race and nation. Do you therefore see work as being a potential unifying issue for progressive political causes at this particular historical moment?
KW: I do. Or at least I see work as a site of common ground for critical thinking and coalitional politics. I would list at least three reasons why work is such an urgent and widely shared site of political agitation in the present conjuncture.
The first of these stems from the simple fact that the work system in the U.S. is not working for the vast majority of us. The problems with work today are systemic and not confined to any one class fraction. Depending on where we are situated these include everything from overwork to unemployment, from not being able to sustain a life outside work to not having time for one. So even if these problems are, of course, experienced very differently by the most and least privileged among us, the fact that the system of waged work is deeply flawed can be made clear and compelling to the vast majority.
Second, the divisions of labor by class, race, gender, (dis)ability, and citizenship are important—I would argue profoundly important—machines for the production and reproduction of social hierarchies. Anticapitalist, feminist, antiracist, disability rights, and immigrant justice workers, to name a few, have good reasons to be invested in work as a site of struggle.
Third, work is an elastic category, the very definition of which has been a significant focus for activist movements. To single out just one example, the 1960s and 1970s welfare rights movement in the U.S. launched an impressive campaign both to recognize nonwaged caring labor as work and, at the same time, to question why it is that we are only deemed worthy citizens to the extent that we can claim to be “productive.”
So then rather than imagining the emergence of a single or unified revolutionary subject, I would argue that work as a meaningful and expansive category, and as the site of widely experienced discontent, offers a rich territory on which to build a variety of broad based political projects.
You argue that the concept of a ‘work ethic’ remains important in post-industrial societies, as a way of reproducing people’s commitment to work. Indeed, you say that, ‘the dominant ethical discourse of work may be more indispensable than it has ever been, and the refusal of its prescriptions even more timely.’ Conversely, some other theories emphasise what might be called ‘negative’ ways in which people consent to work today, such as cynical acceptance and resignation (the assumption that there is no better alternative), or a more ‘structural’ economic compulsion (the pressure to work to pay the bills). It may also be considered that consumerism, or the rewards of work rather than work itself, motivates people. In what ways does your theory compliment or contrast such ideas?
KW: For the most part, my analysis is meant to compliment these other explanations for our willingness to work so long and so hard. Consumerist incentives, weary resignation, and especially, economic compulsion can all serve to deliver waged workers to employers and to manufacture their consent to the job. But when you consider the amount of time and energy most of us are expected to devote to work—and this should include the time and energy we train, prepare, search, and travel for work over the course of a lifetime—it is also I think clear that sheer necessity, extraneous rewards, and mere acquiescence are insufficient to sustain the quality and quantity of compliance among workers that we find today. Given its centrality to our lives, which, incidentally, unemployment and underemployment does not, in most cases, remedy, I do not think it is surprising that so many of us are eager to attribute some kind of more meaningful significance to our lives as workers.
As I see it the mythologized and moralized ethos of work that prescribes the subordination of life to work also offers a way to make sense of our predicament. So not only does the work ethic help to provide some measure of ideological cover for the appalling terms of most labor contracts, by translating them into welcome opportunities for responsible individuals to achieve their virtuous independence, to the degree that these ideas about work are internalized they can also help to fashion the capacities of workers so many employers are seeking: enthusiastic, self-disciplined, team-players committed to achievement in whatever terms the organization defines it. Particularly in the context of the kinds of post-Taylorist labor processes that characterize so many service sector jobs, in which employees cannot always be controlled through scripts, monitoring, or quantitative measures of their output in the way that factory or office workers once were, hiring workers with the “right” attitude about and affective orientation to work becomes even more valuable for employers and more urgent as a terrain of contestation.
In mainstream politics, the concept of the ‘hard-working family’ is often used to signify the ideal of responsible citizenship. Why is the family so important here? To what extent is the traditional family structure and gendered division of labour still intrinsic to the work ethic?
KW: I think the institution and ideology of the family remain fundamental to the system of waged work. As Marxist feminists have long insisted, the economy includes not only what was traditionally understood as “productive” activity but also the “reproductive” work necessary to (re)create and sustain its workers and the commons that are enclosed as its economic inputs or “raw” materials. The family, that kin-based and privatized social and economic institution that continues to recruit so many individuals into households, functions as a crucial component of the wage system.
The family is used to distribute wages to some of the unwaged, underwaged, not-yet waged, and no-longer waged among us. It also serves as a managerial regime that organizes and assigns non-waged reproductive work to its members and as ideological cover for the lack of public support for or recognition of that socially necessary labor. The gender division of domestic labor also helps to support the class, racial and gendered occupational segregation that subtends so much low-waged work.
Just to be clear about how I understand the institution of the family today, it is important to note that efforts to expand what counts as a family beyond the narrow bounds of the heteropatriarchal nuclear model have had little impact on the stubbornly persistent gender division of unwaged domestic labor and have not altered the privatization of the responsibility for care that remains definitive of the institution. That each individual is expected to work for wages without much in the way of social supplements is matched by the expectation that individuals will provide care for family members with little in the way of support either in the form of time off waged work or in the form of publicly funded services. In this way too, private property and the private family are lynchpins of the wage-and-family work system.
The institutions of work and family are also co-constitutive of the social imaginary. The ascetic ideal of hard work and self-sacrifice for productive ends is echoed in the emotional impoverishment of the family model that presumes to limit and pre-define our relations of intimacy and care. Work and family are so tightly coupled that we may have a hard time disentangling our investments in them. Do we work, for example, to support a family or support a family in order to make meaningful our investments in work? That is, do people work because they have families or organize their lives around the familial model of sociality because they work? In this way too, work and family are not the alternatives assumed by the managerial discourse of work-family balance, but two sides of the same economic, social, and cultural system.
You use concepts such as ‘refusal of work’ and a ‘postwork society’ to highlight a social need for less work. As challenges to the more common focus on creating more jobs, or merely improving employment standards, these concepts express a utopian possibility that is not meant to prescribe a specific alternative social organisation, but encourage different ways of thinking about work and the potential to reshape our priorities. But there is presumably some indication of what ‘postwork’ could mean here, based on the definition of ‘work’ itself. Could you explain what the term ‘work’ includes and excludes in these concepts, or the range of activities and relations that they aspire to refuse and transcend?
KW: No, not really. If we define work narrowly as waged labor, then I would describe the refusal of work as—at minimum or perhaps initially—a project of demanding first, less work, for example, in the form of shorter hours and a basic income that would give us at least some measure of relief from the now relentless link between work and income, and second, demanding lesser work, as in efforts to de-sanctify and de-romanticize waged work.
But I would also want to push it further. I believe that we need to interrogate work in a more fundamental way and on a more expansive scale. If work also includes unwaged forms of social productivity like domestic caring labor, then the refusal of work involves the refusal of the institution of the family and the invention of alternative ways to form and support households or other networks of care. If we expand work to include the pursuit of education conceived as a means to the acquisition of job skills, then the refusal or work should also entail a recalibration of our educational system that could align with a less instrumentalized calculus. If we include leisure in our conception of work, as the time we spend recovering from work or compensating for the damage it does, then the refusal of work would require as well the refusal of consumerist practices and values and a more radical reimaging of what more “free” time might enable.
To the degree that work has come to dominate our conception of activity itself such that we have a hard time imagining what we would do with more time that is not given over to working at a job, in the home, or at school, or can only imagine it as more time sleeping, watching, or shopping, then the refusal of work should involve a deeper analysis of what work is, what it means, and how it shapes our supposedly nonwork practices and relations. To put it in other terms, I would argue that there is much yet left to accomplish in the way of developing antiwork critiques before we can start in on cultivating a more robust imagination of postwork futures.
Do you see demands for UBI or a shorter working week as actual realisable goals within the existing social order, or do they mainly function as mechanisms to inspire more critical thinking about work relations? Are neoliberal logics not so antithetical to these ideas that it would require a larger overhaul of the system in advance to make them viable?
KW: I would answer yes to all those questions. I do approach the demands for shorter hours and basic income as what I have called “utopian demands,” demands that are at once legible as serious proposals but which we should also not expect to achieve in the short or even medium term. But I also think that the practice of demanding, that is, the process of agitating for these demands, explaining their rationale and mounting arguments to support them, is not just in the meantime a waste of precious political energies. Beyond securing significant reforms that could better our lives, these demands, or demanding the demands, can also serve to open discursive spaces in which to think about work systematically and debate its merits. By introducing new questions and vocabularies, the critique of work that the demands presume and the remedies they advance will over time become more recognizable and credible to wider publics.
As far as the current political viability of basic income is concerned, I want to add one more point. I truly believe that it is the only plausible way that capital can save itself for the time being. The waged work system continues to produce profit, but it is utterly broken as a mechanism of income allocation and social inclusion. Make-work programs will not be able to jerry-rig the system, let alone fix it. In this sense, the demand is nothing if not realistic. And for a demand that was considered ludicrous even ten years ago, it has managed to gain a good deal of traction in the mainstream media recently. So, despite its treatment by some as a utopian conceit, I really don’t think it will take as long to achieve as many people assume.
How do you situate concepts such as UBI or shorter working hours in terms of advancing a feminist agenda? How do they support or contrast issues surrounding work that are more explicitly gender focused, such as the wage gap between male and female workers, or the status of domestic work?
KW: The demands for shorter hours and basic income are not substitutes for other demands for equal pay and for an end to the gender division of domestic labor. Those latter demands cannot be abandoned. But both shorter hours and basic income have had a longstanding, if complicated, relationship to feminism.
One of the key problems with these demands from a feminist perspective has to do with the question of whether they will function to exacerbate the gender divisions of waged and unwaged work by incentivizing separate employment tracts with longer hours for men and shorter hours for women or by enabling more women but not more men to perform unwaged domestic work. The demands themselves are gender neutral in the sense that, unlike demands for wages for housework or for equal pay or comparable worth, they do not necessarily evoke or speak to obviously gendered problems. The reforms themselves could arguably tend in either direction and there is no guarantee of an outcome favourable to gendered subjects.
I have been thinking about this question most intensively around the demand for basic income. Two 1970s feminist movements were pioneers of the demand: the U.S. welfare rights movement and the European and North American wages for housework movement both advocated and elaborated a rationale for a basic income as, among other things, a way to support the domestic caring labor for which women are (still) disproportionately responsible. There is a lively debate in the literature on the likely gendered effects of various proposals for basic income. The only conclusion that I have settled on at this point is that the outcomes will depend in large part on the terms by which the demand is advocated, more particularly, on whether a feminist agenda is forcefully and over time successfully communicated.
The only thing I would add is that to say that the demand for basic income is feminist does not mean that its benefits accrue only to gendered subjects. My own entry into the political theory of basic income came from feminists who defended it as a way to secure income for unwaged domestic workers. But these analyses have also provided the model for a broader critique of the other forms of social productivity that employers make use of but don’t pay for, including education, communicative capacities, artistic creativity, and the cultivation of social networks, and can teach us to cultivate concern for others that have been excluded from or marginalized by the wage system because they have skills that are not recognized as such or because they do not meet the narrowly conceived physical, cognitive, or emotional benchmarks of the idealized “independent” worker. By my understanding of feminism, the feminism of the demand for basic income inheres in its potential to alter some of the rules of the game rather than only to make the positions of men and women more equal relative to one another.
 Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press: 2011), p. 1.
 Weeks, The Problem with Work, p. 31.