The Work Ethic and Its Discontents

Anis Shivani extols Charles Bukowski’s Factotum as offering “the only answer that makes sense” to “the sham that is modern work” (“The Life of a Bum: Against the Work Ethic,”. Henri Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego in that novel, “shows utter disrespect for the work ethic.”

“The problem with liberal critics of capitalism,” Shivani argues, “is that they don’t want to mess with the foundations of the system.” His answer to this faintheartedness? “Refusal of work means that you have given up the deceptive fight to ameliorate its conditions.”

Of course, not all anti-work dissidents have the perserverence to drink, fuck, goof-off and get fired like Henri Chinaski, let alone write like Charles Bukowski. A handful of Bukowski acolytes may write a novel or two. A few more pick up a degree in literature. Most probably end in something more dependable like advertising or journalism.

Robert Frost wrote that he “never dared to be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.” That’s a fear worth attending to.

This is not to disparage Bukowski, only the notion of Bukowski as a beacon of revolt against the work ethic. The catch is that a little youthful rebellion never brought down a regime. Nearly forty years ago, Timothy Leary invited youth to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Somehow the work ethic has weathered both Henri Chinowski’s picaresque contempt and Leary’s pixelated pied-pipering.

Shivani is right that today’s work ethic is an abomination. Modern work is a sham — not all work, mind you, but all too much of it. It is highly improbable that a bit of tinkering can set things right. So where does that leave us? Can’t live with it, can’t live without it and can’t reform it? Can’t get over it, can’t get under it and can’t get around it?

Not quite. The work ethic and the refusal to work are the two poles of an axis. Amelioration of working conditions also lies on that axis, located somewhere between the two poles. But there is another dimension at stake that forms its own axis, an axis that intersects the work ethic one.

That other dimension is time. Unless the word “time” brings to mind such names as Marcel Proust, Henri Bergson or Walter Benjamin, it may not be what you think it is.

In his preface to Time and Free Will, Bergson asked, “whether the insurmountable difficulties presented by certain philosophical problems do not arise from our placing side by side in space phenomena [namely the experience of time] which do not occupy space…” It may be worth asking if the insurmountable difficulties presented by work and the work ethic do not arise from our acquiescence to an illegitimate quantification of time and to the incoherent practical and moral consequences that flow from it. It is, after all, discontent with such practical and moral incoherence that motivates such an inquiry.

It does seem reasonable to wonder, as Freud did, whether people would perform necessary work without coercion. It’s another matter when a political and economic elite insists on coercion for fundamentally aesthetic reasons — because it pleases them to see an increase in measured output without regard to whether that output contributes to public welfare or detracts from it. How does one distinguish between reasonable doubts about the relationship between work and coercion and unreasonable certainties?

Shivani’s glorification of the Factotum lifestyle trivializes the Freudian doubts, as did beat sensibility and 1960s counter-culture. Liberal proposals for workplace reform enshrine those reasonable doubts to an extent that paves the way for a return of the unreasonable certainties. It remains to be shown that we are throwing virgins into the volcano, not because we believe it will appease the volcano god and not only because we have been doing it so long that it has become a habit but, most disturbingly, simply because we can’t think of anything else to do.

Not thinking of something else to do is a moral lapse that makes Henri Chinaski’s ennui positively heroic by comparison. But only by comparison. The anti-hero’s heroism is parasitic in that it depends on the complacency of the squares. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But when everybody tries to be a bum, goofing-off loses its cachet. Ultimately, the work ethic returns stronger than ever as an indignant reaction to the beat ethic — no longer a true positive but a double negative. They’re the worst kind.

Work ethic? We don’t got no work ethic.

This ungrammatical, double negative work ethic doesn’t even have to stand on its own two feet. It can lean against its own shadow. Its adherents believe it is sufficient to proclaim “there is no alternative” to overrule any objection. For crying out loud, there is an alternative. Those who deny it are liars, cheats and embezzlers. The alternative is an affirmation of work that is unequivocally subordinated to an affirmation of life and dignity. The alternative makes distinctions.

The alternative is neither a work ethic nor its polar opposite. It is definitely not the spectral refusal-of-a-refusal that passes for a post-ethical work ethic – the topsy-turvy work and spend ethic. It is a time ethic.

If one accepts, with Max Weber, that Benjamin Franklin’s counsel, “time is money,” represented the epitome of the capitalist spirit, then it should seem peculiar that custom and law in the most capitalist of all lands, the United States, should blythely sanction the routine and wholesale confiscation of this purest form of private property, a person’s time. The traditional employers’ position with respect to working time is founded on the hypocritical proposition that liberty of contract is realized by the unrestricted right to offer one’s time for sale but not by a corresponding right to retain it.

In effect, the first abstract right is nullified by the absence of the second concrete one. After all, the right to not work and to starve as a consequence is no bargain. It may well reflect the situation in the state of nature, but in that state of nature the politicians, central bankers and self-appointed moralists who point with satisfaction to the lash of necessity would be unceremoneously clubbed to pulp for their supercilious arrogance. A.J. Liebling said, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who owned one.” Conversely, the unrestrained right to work could only be enjoyed by those who can afford not to work.

Instead of such a meaningless and abstract right, what if we were to turn the tables and legislate a definite limit on the number of hours a day and week that anyone could be employed by a single employer? Many people might assume there is already such legislation in effect. There isn’t in the U.S. or Canada. There are overtime laws but no absolute limits. Theoretically, an employer could compel an employee to work 168 hours a week, provided the employer paid the given premium for overtime hours.

As a thought experiment, say we propose an absolute limit of 16 hours a day and 96 hours a week after which no employee may be required or permitted to work? This means that everyone would be guaranteed 8 hours off each day and — and a full day off after working the 16 hour maximum for six days in a week. Positively Dickensian.

Some exemptions could apply, for example, where there was clear and immediate danger to life or limb or, as in the case of hospital interns, where round-the-clock hours served an explicit pedagogical or scientific purpose. What employer could possibly object on practical grounds to such a generous standard?

Now that we’ve established the principle of an absolute limit to the workday and week, thin edge of the wedge wise, the next step is to initiate a public dialogue on the practical scope of the limitation.

If establishing a principle and initiating a public dialogue sounds like yet another pallid prescription rather than an answer that makes sense, my excuse is that the goal is persuasion, not protest. As with any persuasion, the primary audience is one’s self — if you can’t get excited about your own spiel, who will?

It comes down to zeal. It’s easy to be cynical about the work ethic but it’s hard to be zealous about cynicism. Those who are enchanted by their illusions have the advantage over those who are merely disenchanted. Presumably what motivated Shivani’s impatience with the pallid prescriptions of the liberal critics was that they weren’t inspirational. A heroic gesture of refusal may be more inspiring in the short term, but it is not sustainable. Hangovers, venereal disease and a glut in the small press book market get in the way. A time ethic, such as I am suggesting here, is sustainable in that it offers a seemless program for self-understanding and for social intervention.

Dreaming up legislative principles and topics for public dialogue doesn’t exhaust the potential of a time ethic. Recall that such an ethic derives from questioning whether philosophical problems arise from symbolically “placing side by side in space phenomena which do not occupy space.” Economics, especially mathematical economics, relies heavily on just such a procedure. By examining successive, artificially frozen states of the economy side by side, it excludes from the analysis precisely what constitutes economic “becoming”.

Think of what fun it could be to tumbril the self-proclaimed queen of the social sciences off for a haircut at Madame Guillotine’s! “Just a little off the top, please.” On second thought, maybe that’s getting a bit over-zealous. Good economists have always been very much interested in the becoming. John Maynard Keynes even talked about “animal spirits”. And that sounds suspiciously like Bergson’s *elan vital* to me.

In his discussion of the work ethic, Max Weber lamented that care for the accumulation of worldly goods had become an “iron cage” from which the formative spirit of religious ascetism had escaped. Four decades later, the words *arbeit macht frei* — work liberates — were wrought in iron above the gates of the Nazi death camps. Asceticism had escaped but the modern individual couldn’t. That’s the dark side of the problem of free will and determinism.

In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson sought to show that the problem of free will and determinism was a false problem. He concluded:

“The problem of freedom has thus sprung from a misunderstanding: it has been to the moderns what the paradoxes of the Eleatics were to the ancients, and, like these paradoxes, it has its origin in the illusion through which we confuse succession and simultaneity, duration and extensity, quality and quantity.”

TOM WALKER is a social policy analyst with TimeWork Web,can be reached at: