Friday, July 11, 2008

Work or anti-work?

Can a consistent politics be derived from liberalism? Here's yet another reason to think that the answer is no.

Liberalism begins with a view of society as being made up of millions of individual wills, each competing to enact their own desires. Therefore, a key question for liberals is how you best regulate society so that these competing wills can be harmonised.

The answer given by right liberals is that the market can do the job. The idea is that individuals can act selfishly for their own profit and the market will ensure a beneficial result overall, one which creates freedom, progress and prosperity. It's no surprise, then, that right liberals focus on a certain vision of Economic Man - of man viewed in terms of his economic role within a market.

Left liberalism emerged in protest at this market-oriented politics. Left liberals decried the unequal outcomes created by the market, and they criticised the irrational, inefficient outcomes created by the free market. They preferred society to be regulated by a benevolent, neutral, reforming class of government bureaucrats. They asserted a vision of Social Man against the right liberal view of Economic Man.

But there is a contradiction in the left liberal position, one which tends to split left liberals into different camps today. If, as liberals believe, the good in life is to be autonomous, so that we are free to enact our own individual wants, then we will naturally seek the power, status and money required to achieve this.

How do we get power, status and financial independence? Through careers. In fact, it is a common feminist complaint that women have been oppressed because they have not had access to power, status and independence through careers to the same extent as men.

So you might think, then, that left liberals would strongly promote access to careers as a path to liberation - and many do. In the Scandinavian countries, for instance, left liberals have succeeded in making this an explicit government policy.

But there's a catch. Left liberals define themselves against a vision of Economic Man; how then can they promote participation in the market as the path to individual liberation and human equality?

So left-liberals are caught between a work and an anti-work position. If they take the "work" position, they are giving credit to the market, which runs against their leftism. If they take an "anti-work" position, they have to accept inequalities in what they see as the key public good, namely individual autonomy - in particular, they have to leave intact the "power structures" by which they believe some groups in society oppress others.

It's not easy for left liberals to bridge the two positions. I've recently read Catherine Deveny try to do this. Here she is putting the "anti-work" view:

I watch office workers, jolted out of their slumber by the alarm clock, who have shovelled in their breakfast, thrown on their clothes and rush to catch the train to a job they hate.

This is not a view of careers as liberation. But she still keeps to the idea that women are oppressed by a lack of autonomy provided by careers. So her solution is to suggest that women who don't choose careers should nonetheless be paid and given career titles to increase their status:

Considering there is no status in being a parent or carer, let's at least give these skilled and dedicated individuals wads of cash and a fancy name, such as 'domestic engineer' or 'early childhood development specialist'. Seriously. And let's stop discussing maternity leave and go in swinging for paid parenting, paid grandparenting and paid caring.

There is still a logical inconsistency here. She wants women to have career status and financial independence without having to participate in the market. Her solution, though, involves "commodifying" motherhood - redefining motherhood as a market type activity, rather than valuing it in non-market terms. So she is advancing a view of "Economic Woman" - of women valued in terms of market activity - which contradicts her left liberalism.

I expect that left liberalism will continue to generate two different positions. There will be the downshifting, anti-materialist, hippy type rejection of careerism and market values. Alongside this will be a more dominant and public view of careers as integral to personal liberation, social success and human equality. There won't be a stable view bridging the two positions.


  1. Confusing indeed. Trotsky touched on this paradox as well. He described Utopia as full of people who only need to work 4 hours a day and spend the rest of the time reading philosophy. Men and women were in the same type of positions in the work force and this he celebrated as great. But work is also miserable and other activities more desirable (never mind that often people with much free time tend to fritter it away rather than enriching their brains.)

    "Considering there is no status in being a parent or carer,"

    As opposed to writing agitprop columns?

  2. On this issue, Conservatives seem to have the same problem that feminists do - class bias. Since the industrial revolution working class women have always had to work as well as fulfilling their traditional family role just for the household to get by. It's only in recent years that even middle class families can no longer survive on a single wage and are finding they have as little choice as their working class sisters.

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  4. "And let's stop discussing maternity leave and go in swinging for paid parenting, paid grandparenting and paid caring."

    How about we go in for paid reasoning, that these things might take care of themselves by more natural means. What comes next, paying people to love and have feelings toward one another? In another era we might have laughed off this moribund articulation of socialist dreck but nowadays irony is often difficult to second guess.

  5. I think that a left-liberal response to your question might be that, by keeping several paths open, there is more of a chance for "succcess" and "liberation" for more people. Although those that choose what you call the "hippy" path will never accumulate the same amount of material goods as those who choose the "careerist" path (and will thus not be "equal" to them in that sense), their relatively relaxed and stress-free life style, which contains more leisure time to pursue creative, experiential and educational activities, might allow at least as much chance for "liberation" and "success" as does the careerist path.

    Not everyone sees "success" and "liberation" in the same way. Some people don't feel successful or free unless and until they have accumulated enough material resources to last them the rest of their lives. Others might find the lifestyle necessary to achieve that goal to be a form of slavery and failure in and of itself--even if it paid off in the end.

    Why not let a hundred flowers bloom and let every man and woman choose their own path? For some people, work is liberating, for others, it's slavery. It should be for them to decide, within reason, which way they look at it.

    I say "within reason" because I do not believe in that nonsense about paying people to love and take care of their parents or children or spouces. But I do sympathize with the disheartening description of the office workers shoveling in their breakfast and getting on the train to nowhere each morning.

    Why can't the hippy work in the coffee shop and live in a studio apartment on the outskirts of town, and have those extra hours to do what he thinks best with his time and energy, while the yuppy gets to work early and stays late because she wants to make vice president. Why does there have to be a one-size-fits-all attitude to work?

  6. Ruddyturnstone, I've got no problem with people being more or less careerist.

    I don't think it's easy, though, for left liberals to remain neutral on this issue.

    There is an anti-market aspect to left liberalism which encourages the downshifting, anti-materialist types. Because they are acting on a political principle, they don't tend to see it just in terms of what suits someone's personality. They think the principle should be applied generally.

    Similarly, there are left liberals who think autonomy is the principle to follow and that it is a career which generates autonomy and which breaks down power structures which deny autonomy and equal status to some groups.

    Therefore, these left liberals won't just see the issue as one of individuals following what best suits their own personality.

    As I mentioned previously, the Scandinavian governments have taken autonomy via careerism as the highest principle - one in which government coercion is justified. It is the view of these social democratic, left liberal governments that all Scandinavians must follow equally a careerist lifestyle - with society being organised to facilitate this grand aim.

  7. Lol, there is a way to square the circle. Work for the public service and/or not work very hard (No offence to any public servants reading this).