(Weeks 2011) The problem with work

Weeks, Kathi. The problem with work: feminism, Marxism, antiwork politics, and postwork imaginaries. Durham, North Carolina, USA: Duke University Press; 2011.

From a Marxist feminist perspective, Weeks attacks the work ethic and the idealization of paid work as an inherently valuable human activity. She emphasizes the artificiality of the connection between paid work and what are normally thought to be its positive features: self-reliance, production of valuable goods and services, fulfillment of individual ambition, and furtherance of the common good. The work ethic is a form of internalized control, allowing capitalists to extract more surplus value from laborers than they ever could by Taylorist external supervision alone. The work ethic also serves as a divide-and-conquer tactic by privileging certain workers, and certain forms of work, over others, thus justifying racist and sexist exploitation. In particular, the work ethic defines housework as something other than genuine work, governed by a family ethic that requires its performance without pay.

The Left has often attempted to reform the capitalist work ethic, challenging its inequitable features while accepting its basic premise, valorization of paid work. The labor movement has denounced bosses as parasites and demanded fairer pay for workers; anti-racist movements have demanded an end to racial discrimination; liberal feminism has demanded equal employment opportunities and pay for women; the sex workers’ rights movement has demanded that sex work be recognized as work; and the feminist wages-for-housework movement has demanded that the value of housework be quantified and compensated in the same way as for other productive activities. Weeks acknowledges the positive contributions of these efforts, but sees them as inadequate, in part because management can grant most of these demands while still expanding work hours and intensifying exploitation: “Feminist calls for better work for women, as important as they have been, have on the whole resulted in more work for women” (pages 109–110).

Instead, Weeks adopts the approach of autonomist Marxism, which rejects the work ethic altogether. This branch of Marxism defines the revolutionary class not by their role as workers within the capitalist system, but by their subjection to the domination of capital, and their struggle to overcome that domination and become autonomous. Autonomism is closely linked historically with feminism. The fundamental political demand of autonomist Marxism, the call for a livable “basic income” independent of work (ULI), is a logical successor to the feminist wages-for-housework movement. The demand for a basic income recognizes that capitalist wages can never fully account for the role of productive activity throughout the “social factory”; the capitalist (and classical Marxist) conception of surplus value as created (and extracted) solely on the factory floor is a serious distortion of reality. Housework is only one component of the social factory; the collective labor of what Marx called the “general intellect” is also included. ULI is, in part, a payment for labor in the social factory, above and beyond any wages that may be received for labor within a capitalist (or state socialist) framework. The demand for ULI is an unabashedly utopian project; it reconceives productive activity not as directed primarily toward the production of capitalist value, but toward the production and reproduction of rewarding and fulfilling human life itself.


ULI   Unconditional Livable Income


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Last revision: April 9, 2013