The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries
The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries

The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries

by Kathi Weeks


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822350965
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/09/2011
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kathi Weeks is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader.

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Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5112-2

Chapter One

Mapping the Work Ethic

    Let us, then, be up and doing,
    With a heart for any fate;
    Still achieving, still pursuing,
    Learn to labor and to wait.

    The idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives
    like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

There are two common answers to the question of why we work so long and so hard. First, and most obvious, we work because we must: while some of us may have a choice of where to work, in an economy predicated on waged work, few have the power to determine much about the specific terms of that employment, and fewer still the choice of whether or not to work at all. Whereas this first response focuses on necessity, the second emphasizes our willingness to work. According to this account, we work because we want to: work provides a variety of satisfactions—in addition to income, it can be a source of meaning, purpose, structure, social ties, and recognition. But while both explanations are undoubtedly important, they are also insufficient. Structural coercion alone cannot explain the relative dearth of conflict over the hours we are required to work or the identities we are often expected to invest there; individual consent cannot account for why work would be so much more appealing than other parts of life. No doubt our motives for devoting so much time and energy to work are multiple and shifting, typically involving a complex blend of coercion and choice, necessity and desire, habit and intention. But although the structure of the work society may make long hours of work necessary, we need a fuller accounting of how, why, and to what effect so many of us come to accept and inhabit this requirement. One of the forces that manufactures such consent is the official morality—that complex of shifting claims, ideals, and values—known as the work ethic.

This chapter develops a critical analysis of the work ethic in the United States. Max Weber's account of the Protestant work ethic will serve as an archeology of the ethic's logics and functions that will guide our brief explorations of two later—and comparably ideal typical—versions of the ethic: an industrial work ethic that dominated US society through the culmination of the Fordist period in the years following the Second World War, and a postindustrial work ethic that has accompanied the transition to post-Fordism. The analysis seeks to recognize the power of the work ethic and to identify some of its weaknesses—that is, the chapter's goal is to attend at once to the coherence and the contradictions of the ethic's elements in a way that can account for both its historical durability and its perennial instabilities. As we will see, the elements that make the discourse of the work ethic so forceful and tenacious also render it always productive of antagonism. The work ethic has proved to be a trap, but it is also sometimes a weapon for those who are subject to its strictures.

I want to advance three general claims in this chapter: first, we cannot take on the structures of work without also challenging the ethics on which their legitimacy depends; second, despite its longevity, the ethical discourse of work is nonetheless vulnerable to such a challenge; and third, a claim that I will make more explicitly toward the end of the chapter, because of its particular significance to post-Taylorist labor processes, our "insubordination to the work ethic" (Berardi 1980, 169) is now more potentially subversive than ever before. In short, I want to argue that confronting the dominant ethic of work is necessary, possible, and timely.


Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains a touchstone for studies of the work ethic, including this one, for good reason. As an unintended consequence of the Reformation, the Protestant work ethic, as Weber tells the story, bestowed on work a new and powerful endorsement. This new ethic entailed an important shift in expectations about what work is or should be, and a distinctive conception of what it means to be a worker. What characterized the Protestant ethos in particular was the ethical sanction for and the psychological impetus to work; ascetic Protestantism preached the moral import of constant and methodical productive effort on the part of self-disciplined individual subjects. This was no mere practical advice: "The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness," Weber maintains, "but as forgetfulness of duty" (1958, 51). One should set oneself to a lifetime of "organized worldly labour" (83) as if (and not, as we will see, precisely because) one were called to it by God. Weber's brilliant study of how and to what effect we came to be haunted by the legacy of this Puritan ethic introduces the essential components, fundamental dynamics, and key purposes of the new ethic of work that developed in conjunction with capitalism in Western Europe and North America.

Weber offers an archeology of capitalist development that is in many ways comparable to the one Marx proposed in the brief account of primitive accumulation toward the end of the first volume of Capital. There Marx countered the political economists' morality tale about two kinds of people, the industrious and the lazy, with a very different kind of origins story, this one about the violent usurpation by a few of the common property of all (1976, 873–76). In equally polemical fashion, Weber takes on his own enemy, the structural teleologies of the economic determinists, and presents a sharply contrasting analysis that emphasizes the unpredictable emergence and historical force of ideas. Marx and Weber each offer an account of how two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, came to be; but where Marx focuses on their relations to the means of production as propertied owners and propertyless workers, Weber concentrates on the development of their consciousnesses as employers and employees. Weber explains the ideas that gave the political economists' parable about the ethically deserving and undeserving its authority and insists that this story must be understood as more than an ideological cover for the use of force; it was itself part of the arsenal of historical change in Europe and North America, and part of the foundation upon which capitalism was built. Indeed, the two analyses mirror one another, with the role of consent and coercion reversed: in one, the proletariat must first be forced into the wage relation before its consent can be manufactured; in the other, consent to work must be won before necessity can play its role in inducing compliance. The private ownership of property may be fundamental to capitalist exploitation, but that does not in itself guarantee the participation of exploitable subjects. Thus to Marx's account of the primitive accumulation of private property, Weber adds a story about the primitive construction of capitalist subjectivities.

One could pose Weber's project—as indeed many have—as a historical idealist alternative to Marx's historical materialism, an analysis centered on cultural forces to counter Marx's privileging of economic production. And certainly Weber's insistence on the role of ideas in history is sometimes cast in terms that match Marx's occasionally polemical claims about the primacy of material forces. But both Weber and Marx recognize that, formulated as a dichotomous pair, neither materialism nor idealism is adequate; they may at times serve some rhetorical or heuristic purpose, but they should not be treated as viable methodologies. Weber is clear that neither a "one-sided materialistic" nor "an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation" will do; thus in the final paragraph of The Protestant Ethic, he reminds us that the cultural explanation of economic developments that he has so vigorously defended is insufficient without an economic explanation of cultural developments (1958, 183). For his part, Marx affirms that production involves the fabrication not just of material goods, but also of relationships, subjectivities, and ideas; cultural forces and forms of consciousness are inseparable from, and thus crucial to, whatever we might delimit as a mode of production. "Production thus not only creates an object for the subject," Marx observes, "but also a subject for the object" (1973, 92). Although each thinker may have tarried with a different line of emphasis, neither denies that understanding and confronting the contemporary work society requires attention to both its structures and its subjectivities.

Finally, just as Marx's account of primitive accumulation in Capital stands out as a brief historical exploration of a phenomenon he was otherwise dedicated to explaining in terms of its current logics, Weber's Protestant Ethic can also be profitably read, rather against the grain of traditional interpretations, as more a critical study of the present and its possible futures than a historiographical narrative of beginnings and ends, or a sociological analysis of causes and effects. In keeping with this line of interpretation, I will treat Weber's famous argument about the historical relationship between capitalist development and religious belief less as a strictly historical claim than as a genealogical device. Indeed, what I find most compelling about Weber's presentation is not the argument about the religious origins of capitalist economic institutions, but the way that putting the analysis in a religious frame enables Weber to capture and effectively convey both the specificity and the peculiarity of this orientation to work. The discussion that follows will thus focus more on the rhetorical force of the causal argument than on the details of its empirical adequacy. As we will see, posing the historical claim about the unholy melding of religion and capitalism in terms of a neat causal argument—with its sharp and definitive contrasts between a "before" to the Protestant work ethic that Weber casts as "traditionalism" and an "after" that he assumes to be secular—serves to highlight, clarify, and dramatize this capitalist ethos, to train our attention on and school our responses to the phenomenon. Each of these transitions—first from the traditionalist to the Protestant orientation to work, and then from that religiously informed ethos to a secular one—offers an opportunity to defamiliarize what was already in Weber's day, and certainly is today, an all too familiar formulation of the nature and value of work.

Though cast as an elegantly simple and straightforward causal argument, Weber's account nonetheless manages to convey many of the complexities of this animating ethos of capitalist development. The Protestant work ethic is not a single doctrine so much as it is a set of ideas, a mixture or composite of elements that sometimes work in conjunction and other times in contradiction. Indeed, it is by Weber's reckoning a highly paradoxical phenomenon, at once powerfully effective and spectacularly self-destructive. The paradoxical character is nowhere more evident than in Weber's claim that this Puritan brand of productivism unwittingly sowed the seeds of its own destruction: the rationalization it helped to fuel eventually undercut the religious basis of the Protestant ethic. While the ascetic ethos of work lives on in the spirit of capitalism, as the "ghost of dead religious beliefs" (Weber 1958, 182) its existence and effects are now far more mysterious, a haunting that is at once palpably present and strangely elusive. Weber's analysis is attentive to several points of instability on which my reflections on the ethic's later manifestations will build. As we trace its later iterations under the Fordist and post-Fordist periods of US history, we see that some of its elements remain constant while others shift. Indeed, the history of the work ethic in the United States—from the Protestant to the industrial and then to the postindustrial work ethic—reveals the precariousness of what is at the same time a remarkably tenacious set of ideas, dispositions, and commitments. What makes this normative discourse of work so adaptable also renders it constantly susceptible to contestation and change.

The exploration of the work ethic that follows identifies in Weber's original argument a set of antinomies that continue to animate the work ethic in the United States over the later course of its history, through the industrial and postindustrial periods. Three of these antinomies stem from the content of the ethic's prescriptions as it mandates at once the most rational and irrational of behaviors, promotes simultaneously productivist and consumerist values, and advances both individual independence and social dependence. Two more emerge as we consider the history of struggles over the ethic and its application: how it has served as an instrument of subordination but also as a tool of insubordination, and functioned as a mechanism of both exclusion and inclusion. These five pairs are conceived as antinomies rather than contradictions to highlight the effectivity of their internal conflicts without presuming their dialectical resolution and teleological trajectory. Whether such dynamics will produce disciplinary devices or weapons of the weak, and whether they will generate a progressive historical development, let alone sow the seeds of their own destruction, remain open questions.


At the heart of the Protestant work ethic is the command to approach one's work as if it were a calling. It is here that we find the first and, perhaps for Weber, most remarkable of the discourse's constitutive antinomies: the unlikely confluence of the rational and the irrational. Arguably the most important message that Weber manages to convey—the central finding and dominant theme of his analysis—is that the work ethic is irrational at its origins and to its core, and yet it is prescriptive of what is taken to be the most rational forms of practical economic conduct. Indeed, this religious doctrine played no small part in the rationalization that is for Weber so distinctive of Western modernity. It is this doubling with which Weber seems so preoccupied. "We are here," he insists, "particularly interested in the origin of precisely the irrational element which lies in this, as in every conception of a calling" (1958, 78). Key to this "irrational element" is, as we will see, the noninstrumental qualities that Weber discerns in what we commonly take to be the most instrumental of endeavors: disciplined, productive work.

This irrationality of our commitment to work as if it were a calling is, however, also the element of this new cultural orientation to work that Weber may have struggled most to bring into focus. This "peculiar idea" of one's duty in a calling, "so familiar to us to-day, but in reality so little a matter of course" (54), has settled into the cultural fabric, making it difficult to grasp on its own terms. The value of work, along with its centrality to our lives, is one of the most stubbornly naturalized and apparently self-evident elements of modern and late, or postmodern, capitalist societies. To examine its social and historical specificity and understand its impact on our lives, this most familiar of doctrines must first be rendered strange. Indeed, given the normalization of these work values, perhaps the most important task and lasting achievement of Weber's analysis is the powerful estrangement from the reified common sense about work that it manages to produce. In this case, the periodizing frame and story of the ethic's religious origins serve Weber well; the alternative historical perspectives they identify provide the reader with the possibility of critical distance. In fact, the ethic is defamiliarized from two directions: first by considering it from the perspective of the "traditionalist" orientation to work that it supplanted, and second from the perspective of the secularized world from which the reader can then look back.


Excerpted from THE PROBLEM WITH WORK by KATHI WEEKS Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Problem with Work 1

1. Mapping the Work Ethic 37

2. Marxism, Productivism, and the Refusal of Work 79

3. Working Demands: From Wages for Housework to Basic Income 113

4. "Hours for What We Will": Work, Family, and the Demand for Shorter Hours 151

5. The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope 175

Epilogue. A Life beyond Work 227

Notes 235

References 255

Index 275

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