Denouncing the false god of Work

Before you read this blog, I’m going to ask you to take about five minutes to watch a short video and read a short newspaper opinion piece.

First, check out this brief video. It’s called ‘Max’s Story’ and it featured in a big publicity campaign throughout Singapore earlier this year called ‘The Best of You’ run, oddly enough, by Julie’s, a local biscuit manufacturer!

Next, just read this very short opinion piece taken from ‘The New Paper’ in Singapore.

Right, so what feelings and thoughts have these two items aroused in you?

With regard to the video, clearly what you’re supposed to be feeling is a sense of admiration; admiration for the young boy coping with adversity and for his father working so hard to keep them afloat. Clearly, we are supposed to admire this family’s resilience. ‘Resilience’ is a big word in Singapore – something that the government wants to instil in its citizenry from early on – a personal directive of the current PM Lee Hsien Loong. It was certainly mentioned countless times at my daughter’s school’s recent end of year presentation ceremony. The upbeat music that accompanies the film is also clearly designed to leave us feeling hopeful; that the immense sacrifices of these two people will eventually pay off; that resilience brings reward…

Personally, I find it hard to watch ‘Max’s Story’ without crying. Why? Because what I see is a story not just of personal, but of social tragedy, and at the heart of this tragedy is the issue of work. I see a father and son unable to be together because the father gets paid so little as a security guard that he needs to work long hours overnight to make ends meet. The only times we see father and son together, one of them is asleep! I see an 8 year-old boy so isolated and compelled prematurely into a life of domestic labour. I see a society so alienated and ruptured that no other person, no other family, no other organisation even is there to step in and give these two the support, the time, the love they really need. There is also another, perhaps less obvious, issue that this film seeks to naturalise. The father is a security guard. This means that, in reality, he is sat around all day supposedly guarding the property of those wealthier than himself: the shopping mall, the private apartment blocks, the corporate offices. In short, he does not produce anything of social worth, or ‘use value’. Instead, he is paid his pittance and deprived his family life in the service of inequality. Oh, and as for resilience bringing reward, Singapore is the place with the longest working hours, the lowest purchasing power, and the highest rate of inequality among all developed countries!

Zheng Yuan Ying’s death is equally a story of social tragedy. Here was an 86 year-old lady (86!!) having to shuffle around the streets in stifling heat and tropical humidity, picking up cardboard for SGD10 (£5) a day! There is no respite, no dignity, no possibility for rest in the twilight years. Instead, Madame Zheng and many, many thousands like her have to collect cardboard, clean toilets, and wash up dinner plates often for six days each week.

The author of this piece rolls out the usual tropes explaining this situation. Old people of that generation are stubborn and independent. Rather than poverty and desperate need pushing octogenarians into low-paid menial, physical jobs, many of those working in food courts, as cleaners, or as cardboard collectors are consciously choosing such work in order to stay active or to avoid depending on their families. These are the stories we tell each other and ourselves in order to avoid facing reality.

Even if it were the case that these elderly people were doing so out of choice (which surely can only be true for a few), what does that tell us about how this society thinks about work? It tells us that work is placed above all else – love, family, happiness, community. So clearly is work the point of life that it is not questioned; it is naturalised. This was Max Weber’s original insight into the jarringly different nature of capitalist society: the economic rationality that now rules us is ultimately totally irrational – we no longer work to live; we live to work! Furthermore, the invention of every labour-saving device perversely heralds a further extension and intensification of our labour!

Singapore is just an extreme example of a global phenomenon – the naturalisation and worship of work. Work is God. It doesn’t matter whether the work is socially productive or not. The extent of this deification is so great in Singapore that people can no longer ask what should be the most obvious, intuitive question: ‘Can we not see something seriously problematic with our society if we are required to work so hard and for so long that it causes such social isolation, community fracture, stress, mental illness, and even death?’ All we can hope for is to make the work of 86 year-olds a little easier.

This video, this article, and the responses they manufacture and anticipate are the products of a significantly dehumanised society. They are dehumanised, first, because they demonstrate reduced capacities for empathy. Second, they are dehumanised because, rather than recognising the social, collective tragedy these stories represent, they focus solely on the individuals involved. This is reflective of the ongoing process of the individualisation and atomisation of society, pursued not just materially by the relentless privatisation of the public sphere and commodification of previously non-commodified realms of social life, but by the dissemination of individualist ideologies in the cultural sphere; in education and in the media. In contrast, to be fully human is to recognise the fundamental connections between oneself and others; that there is a ‘me’ because there is a ‘you’, because there is a ‘we’. This is the ‘lifeworld’ that neo-liberal capitalism has been so successful at destroying.

All those who seek to collectively construct an infinitely more human society must not shy away from blasphemy: from denouncing the false god of Work. We should unambiguously reject this cruel regime and ethic of endless and alienating work. It is right that we champion the ‘productivist’ cause, demanding and building instead a society in which all have the opportunity to enjoy meaningful and creative co-operative work. Yet, beyond this, we must simply demand far less work! Our vision must be for a society in which we have ample time for leisure, laughter, and love!

In my next blog, I will explore how it is not technical, but solely political, factors stopping us from all working far less and how the ‘utopia’ I describe could readily be realised.

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