We shall overcome? The work ethic revisited

How will society frame its relations to work beyond production? In recent debates on the potential for a post-work society, work ethic has become the point of departure for a critical political theory of and against work. Political interventions seek to redefine work ethic in a counter-hegemonic project to overcome ‘existing ideas about the necessity and desirability of work, and the imposition of suffering as a basis for remuneration’, as Srnicek and Williams put it. The latter contention completely abandons any work ethic and underlying socially constructed norms focussing on individual effort. Among post-work advocates the society of the future is one without a work ethic. According to this account, with automation on the horizon, work is no longer necessary for many tasks. With the increase in free human labour, the present work ethic would lose its basis. The suggestion seems to be that we focus on post-work politics, and not on post-work ethics. This might in part explain why political demands like the Universal Basic Income, discussed elsewhere in this issue by Anton Jager and Daniel Zamora, have occupied public debate for decades, whilst some of the core assumptions of work ethic, as it relates to what Max Weber called the ‘spirit of capitalism’, have been utterly broken down.

Weber’s Protestant ethic is today little more than an empty signifier.  For Weber, the development of capitalism in Western Europe stemmed from a specific religious understanding of work and wealth creation. Weber tried to explain the specific ‘subjective sense’ religion would have for individual entrepreneurs and company owners when undertaking economic action.  The key insight of his Protestant Ethic was that Calvinism framed this economic action for Northern European capitalist entrepreneurs, granting them ‘moral energy and drive’ by instilling in believers an ‘iron consistency’ maintained by the ‘bleak discipline which it demands of its adherent’. The capitalist entrepreneur strives on the assumption that their success will be reflected after life and even though they cannot be sure of their place in heaven, they can have no doubt about their calling. Any doubt would undermine their eventual status among the chosen and the hard work needed to sustain it.

The French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello follow this line of study in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism. For them capitalism depends upon a set of justifications that actors follow. This set of beliefs helps to justify and legitimate capitalist order, whilst practically sustaining the forms of action and day-to-day predispositions compatible with it. These justifications are to be understood – like Calvinism – as answers to moral criticism of the social inequalities capitalism produces. Just as nineteenth-century devotional literature justifies social hierarchies based in vocation supported by hard work and success, twentieth century management literature rationalises the necessity of hierarchy. The core idea of the work ethic is therefore influential in two directions. The ‘spirit of capitalism’ on which the work ethic hinges grants legitimation to the actions of management. At the same time, it frames what is and what is not legitimate criticism by workers with regards to their working conditions. The first of these frames restricts the work ethic to work already transformed into wage labour. In other words, work is a calling and a duty – but only when connected to productivity and economic efficiency. Secondly, the pay stemming from work is seen not as a necessity for survival but as a reward to enable consumption. This is important since, in a third aspect, workers become independent in their social life by work only.

We clearly see here the difference with the Marxist notion of the ‘double freedom’ of the worker. In the Weberian analysis, the worker’s freedom is not ‘double’ or dialectically trapped. Work binds the worker so that after work they can enjoy the fruits of their hands and minds. Here another layer of the work ethic emerges. Work is seen as an individual task, not collective. It is the worker and their own effort that will allow them to engage with consumption and other social relations. In the realm of the work ethic, the exploiter and the exploited agree that good work – hard and dedicated regardless of type – will pay. In The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks reminds us of the work ethic’s twofold character. It actively generates the good worker and addresses them in such a way that they have few options to escape. Few workers actively attempt to be bad workers, as the long history of labour process research has shown. The outlined core functions proved to be stable over the decades. But there is a change in what type of economic activity is seen as good work, with a major shift occurring in the 1990s. Characteristics such as entrepreneurialism and professionalism became the new heart of the good worker. Weeks makes the important point that for the first time in history the work ethics of both exploiter and exploited seem to overlap. This is in line with the orders of justification identified by Boltanski and Chiapello. Success no longer depends on efficiency, but on activity and the potential to re-invent one’s own employability over and over again.

The work ethic, as its critics point out, is mainly framed within the realm of wage labour. However, the role of the state in regards to welfare policies and how state institutions frame the contemporary work ethic is rarely mentioned. This seems ever more important since it is precisely the state that has dramatically changed the notion of work in the move from welfare to workfare, with unemployment becoming a form of work itself. This important shift started in western European states in the late 1990s, has gained traction in the UK since the financial crisis and the rolling out of austerity measures after 2010. For a long time, the support mechanisms offered by the state for the unemployed followed the idea of insurance. The worker – typically white and male – was secured against any risk when losing his job. Today, the workfare system sees the individual not only made responsible for their status but also treated as workshy until proven otherwise. The separation between insurance and means-testing began in the 1990s under New Labour, as well as within other western European states, but this broke down completely over the last ten years under the Tory Government. Hours of compulsory job seeking, fit-for-work applications being rolled out to people with health issues, the extension of working life up to 67 years, and pressure on increasingly vulnerable groups to enter the active working population underline this trend. Work is no longer paid employment allowing you to participate in consumption and social activities, but its precise opposite. This is especially the case at the increasingly precarious end of the labour market characterised by growing in-work poverty, greater use of food banks, and increasing rates of death and suicide related to the workfare sanctions. We can see here a shapeshifting work ethic proactively driven by the state. As Isabel Lorey puts it, “precarious living and working conditions are currently being normalized at a structural level and have thus become a fundamental governmental instrument of governing”.

‘Governing’, here, is to be understood in the broadest sense. The state manages the working population through a workfare scheme based on constraint and compulsion. Meanwhile, companies govern by treating workers the same. The latest Skills and Employment Survey shows an increase in work intensification. The rise of performance management  bears a toll on health and wellbeing. The obsession with target setting and benchmarking means that, like jobseekers, employees face a computerised control system aligned with rude and immediate sanctions. The cruel reality for many is that you can lose your job for being off sick even with a doctor’s note – as demonstrated at Amazon. Work remains but a duty, with more and more evidence of its detriment to mental and physical health, the latter bearing an undeniable connection to the workfare system.

The idea that the work ethic simply needs to be overcome is misleading. Under the current system any ethics of work is breached, and in a sense overcome, on an everyday basis already. The current strike waves spreading through the gig economy and service sector – with Uber Eats, Deliveroo, McDonalds, TGI Fridays and Wetherspoons set to strike together – give strong evidence that workers can claim back an important part of what they have built up as their very own workers’ ethic. Many workers understand that their work might not make a contribution to society – a far reaching demand in the first place – but most workers know what a good job potentially looks like. This is one message that can be taken away from David Frayne’s book on The Refusal of Work. Some of his interviewees describe how the jobs that they have left were ruined by management methods seen as either unfair or rude. The testimony they give is far from their jobs being ‘bullshit’. The problem was that they were managed in a way that made them feel desperate or disconsolate about work.

Today’s state-led work ‘ethic’ is unethical in the first place, and we see more and more people acting collectively and in solidarity against their unfair treatment. Part and parcel of these struggles is a new definition of a work ethic – or ethics of work – based on collectivism and collaboration across sectors and workplaces. What we witness at the moment is the merging of the ‘social strike’,  and the care revolution, led by the young generation, by the most vulnerable and precarious migrant workers, and backed by grassroots and traditional unions.  The demand for schemes such as a universal basic income in this situation seems paradoxical. As much as it might allow some people in society to participate more in valuable action – whatever that would be – it relies on a state intervention and individualises decision making just as much as the state of affairs it sets out to replace. This is why it has drawn criticism from parts of the left. Of the many important political struggles today, what should be on our agenda is fighting the workfare system on the political level, and, at the level of the workplace, we should be challenging performance management schemes and the dehumanising use of people analytics. Instead of simply overcoming the work ethic, demands need to focus on a new ethics of work, based on collective and collectivised forms of recognition, remuneration, and respect.


Kendra Briken is Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation at the University of Strathclyde

Image credit: Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash