Cancel work: The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that work is not a virtue

Philosophers argue that work should not be required to live a good life. The pandemic has proven that

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 20, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Working at home during quarantine during a coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images)
Working at home during quarantine during a coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images)

Several years ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released an overview of the Green New Deal that mentioned guaranteeing "economic security" for people who are "unable or unwilling to work." When conservative critics noticed those last three words, they pounced. Fox News waxed poetic about the "dignity of work" and Breitbart sneered at the "self-described Democratic Socialist" whose "radical proposal" ignored that even "traditional American liberalism regarded full employment as its goal because of the importance of work to society and the individual."

Indeed, there is a deep-seated belief in American society that one's survival is tied to work — and, thus, those who don't work don't deserve to survive, or at least to not be poor. You can see this in the New Testament, where it is written that "if a man will not work, he shall not eat" and people are urged to "settle down and earn the bread they eat." Over time conservatives found ways of couching that belief in lofty rhetoric about the wonders of the free market and warnings that if the government guarantees economic rights to all, somehow we'll lose our most cherished freedoms. Even Democrats have bought into this, most notably when Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform bill threw millions of people off relief by limiting benefits and establishing as a policy priority that recipients eventually be forcibly transitioned back to work.

Flash forward two years, and one global pandemic, later. Joe Biden just passed a historic $1.9 trillion stimulus bill to help the millions who are financially struggling as COVID-19 lockdowns spur job losses. Millions of other people suffer from burnout, stress and exhaustion as their employment lives and domestic lives have involuntarily meshed while they work from home.

We don't need studies to demonstrate how traumatizing this has been: Most of us are either stressed about making ends meet or stressed because the need to work for a living in these unusual times is physically and spiritually taxing.

Yet the people who decide what ideas fall within the Overton window — or the spectrum of opinions deemed socially acceptable — only permit us to seek ways to reinforce the pro-work status quo, not reevaluate it. Even in the earliest days of the pandemic, right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck were urging older Americans to risk their lives by going to work lest the economy suffer as authorities tried to contain a deadly disease. Billionaires became vastly wealthier during the pandemic while income inequality (which was already out of controlsignificantly worsened.

But instead of questioning whether this redistribution of wealth was just or efficient, the political focus has been on "getting people back to work" no matter what. Options like paying people to stay home and not work until the pandemic is over (which countries like the United Kingdom and Spain did to varying degrees) were never seriously considered — even though scientifically this would have been the most effective way to contain the disease. After all, if we did that, then people might start to question whether they should be forced to work to survive in the first place. And we can't have that because, well... reasons.

But what are those reasons, exactly? Why do we assume that whenever the economy crashes — whether in the Great Depression of 1929, the Great Recession of 2008 or now the Great Lockdowns of 2020 — the most we can hope for is that a moderate liberal like Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama will step in and mildly mitigate the damage? Why do we take it for granted that people must, absolutely must, be forced to work in order to survive? Why do we insist that anyone who even considers challenging that notion is a lazy and immoral mooch, someone who wishes to contribute nothing to society — even though, ironically, many of the world's wealthiest heir and heiresses do no work themselves?

What if there is a third way of looking at the concept of work, but we are so conditioned to reflexively believe that you must "earn your living" that we are failing to recognize it?

Ocasio-Cortez was not the first political thinker to ponder these things. In his 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness," philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out that there are two kinds of work: "first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so." In other words, all work is either manual labor or managing manual labor. As Russell quipped: "The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid."

Although the first type of work, manual labor, is necessary to some degree, Russell says that it "is emphatically not one of the ends of human life" because technology has made it possible to significantly reduce the amount of labor necessary to provide everyone with their necessities. Arguing that all human beings should still have to spend most of their days working, even though such work is unnecessary for society and often cruel to the individual, is irrational and immoral. Yet society has refused to recognize this in part because of the stubbornly persistent belief that work is, in its own right, some kind of reward.

That belief, not coincidentally, also allows a small fragment of our population to become extremely wealthy while the vast majority wastes most of its years in pointless toil. People buy into the pro-work ideology even though the moments people most cherish in their lives are usually those tied to pursuits that they choose on their own — whether they make money doing them or not — rather than because of tasks they are forced to perform in order to sustain life.

It isn't easy to figure out how to transition away from these assumptions. Russell suggested that "if the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day there would be enough for everybody, and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization." This did not mean that people should be encouraged to fritter away the remaining 20 hours of their work days, but rather that they should use their own judgment on how to create the best quality of life for themselves and other people. "Four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit," Russell posited. Barring that, we will continue to inhabit a world in which most of the population is miserably chugging away at pointless, menial jobs because they wrongly believe that misery is essential to survival. As this happens, our culture marinates in the toxic assumption "that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake."

Russell was not the only great thinker to arrive at this type of conclusion. In his 1880 essay "The Right to be Lazy" (revised in 1883), the Marxist writer Paul Lafargue (who was also Karl Marx's son-in-law) drew back on ancient philosophers from Greece and Rome to argue that free time, not constant work, allows us to realize our optimal selves. Lafargue believed that we flourish as human beings when we are free to think, to explore, to play, to indulge in our curiosities, to engage in stimulating conversations... and to decide for ourselves how we can best improve the world we inhabit.

"Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer," Lafargue wrote. "Its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks." He pointed out that it is inherently hypocritical for any ethical system to claim to value freedom and then consign people to spend most of their waking hours engaged in dreary toil. People have a right to recreation (something even Roosevelt acknowledged), a right to free time... a right, in short, to be lazy.

"The unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity," Lafargue concluded, hoping that one day "work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day."

Author Mark Twain — best known for writing "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" — perhaps most succinctly summed up this point when he told a reporter in 1905 that he had never "worked" a day in his life.

"What I have done I have done, because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn't have done it," Twain mused.

The beauty is that, when a person finds the work that he or she was intended to do, they wind up making the world a better place. Certainly they contribute more to society than if they are forced to sacrifice their hours to "bullshit jobs," a term that the late anthropologist David Graeber coined to refer to a special class of meaningless toil in an eponymous 2018 book. Four years before writing that book, Graeber told Salon that he was envisioning "a labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people."

Throughout his writings, Graeber found evidence that most people will naturally want to help others in order to keep society running. They do not need to be forced to work in order to survive for that to happen. In fact, society winds up wasting its potential for efficiency by requiring people to do that. We create jobs that do not need to exist, or exist solely to help extremely wealthy people engage in lives of leisure, when we operate from that ethic. Graeber observed to Salon back in 2014 that he was struck by how people who expressed support for the Occupy movement online (because they were too busy working to do so in person) made it clear that they wanted fulfilling jobs, not work for its own sake.

"The complaints were surprisingly uniform," Graeber recalled. "Basically they were all saying, 'I want to do something with my life that actually benefits others; but if I go into a line of work where I care for other people, they pay me so little, and they put me so much in debt, that I can't even take care of my own family! This is ridiculous!'"

This brings us back to Ocasio-Cortez and her "controversial" idea that people who are unwilling to work shouldn't be left to die. Only a few weeks after she posted that, Ocasio-Cortez indirectly returned to that belief when an audience member at SXSW asked her about whether automation would ruin lives by putting people out of work.

"We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work," Ocasio-Cortez explained. "We should be excited by that. But the reason we're not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don't have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem."

The good news is that this problem — of meaningless work and too much work — isn't unsolvable. What Lafargue and Russell observed in the late 19th century and early 20th century is even more true today: We have the resources to create a world in which people work for fewer hours and have more free time. We could put a cap on how much wealth any individual or institution could accumulate, establish a universal basic income so that no one would live in poverty and have a strong centralized government to address existential crises like climate change, pandemics and chemical pollution (an issue that gets overlooked: how plastics and other common products are making us infertile).

That path seems radical to us now, but only because we've been conditioned to believe that work is an absolute virtue and eliminating major class differences is unthinkable. Yet the truly radical proposition is that the vast majority of humanity should waste their lives working when they do not have to, just so a small fragment can indulge in excessive leisure because they are extremely wealthy. It is even more radical yet to claim that this should continue happening until, because the wealthy fail to address issues like climate change, they wind up destroying humanity altogether.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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