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. READ MORE