The Big Illusion

We try find our fulfilment in our workplace. It is not just a job anymore, your job is part of your identity, part of your self-expression Now it is time that we change the way we think about work. It’s time to start seeing our past illusions and into the future. 

Text: Zoé Volkmann, History
Illustration: Grace Wiegand

With the turn of the new century, Western society attributed a new meaning to work. When your job is part of your personality, you are ready to sacrifice your personal life for your job. Now, when we are approaching the potential „Roaring Twenties” of the 21st century, more and more people are struggling to find a job at all, never mind good working conditions. No vacation? Sure thing. Working overtime? Mandatory, after all you really care about this working project and want to come to see it to life. Very soon the job is not that much of self-fulfilment anymore. 

Nowadays we can find start-ups for everything, evermore young people try to become entrepreneurs and put their big dreams to practice. But can your work be the key to a happy life? And even if, should it really be this way?  

It is time that we change the way we think about work. It’s time to ditch our illusions and think radically different about our future – because only then we will be brave enough to fight for a better one. 

The Big Betrayal   

Agnoli once wrote in his essay on the transformation of democracy that freedom and equality is not secured in democratic states. In fact, in a capitalist world, democracies tend to „involute “, turn backwards. Instead of ever-growing liberty all over the world you will be able to observe states cutting liberties (which of course you only enjoyed in the first place when you had the according passport to be recognized as state citizen).  

As compensation for less political rights, people are seemingly getting a say in their working places – which means that employees aren’t actually given any real power in the direction of the companies or get a share of the surplus value that is being extracted from their work. But they feel like they are being listened to and identify with the company more strongly. You start to empathize because you feel more involved. But as soon as it gets rough and the company needs to cut staff or take other difficult choices the owners of the company will make the decisions without asking the people working for them first. 

This has nothing to do with neoliberalism 

The start-up culture and gradual cutting of social benefits and working rights all over the world is a phenomenon that started at the end of the 20th century and turned into a harsh reality in the 21st century – a period of time that is usually identified as the age of neoliberalism. After the end of the Cold War capitalist societies didn’t have a reason to pretend that capitalist economy is more humane than a socialist one. The role the welfare state played during the Cold War now became dispensable. But if neoliberal policies led us into this mess – does this mean we only have to embrace the politics of old, and Keynesian economic policies will bring us into a happier life? Unfortunately, the solution is not that easy. First of all, working conditions were bleak already in times of a roaring economy. Especially work without formal qualification which is often unhealthy and stressful. Such jobs are often so demanding that they leave the workers so exhausted, meaning that they will need their whole free time to recover again for work. But this is a pattern that you can find for every job, with varying intensity. Even if we implement more socially friendly policies the system that dictates of the way we produce will not change – and harsh working conditions and the coercion to work will stay. 

The purpose of a job 

As Marx explained, the vast majority is dependent to sell their workforce. Only when we work, we are getting paid a wage that allows us to cover the cost for our basic needs, and at best gives us access to „luxury” goods in a limited way. We, all the people needing to work, are offering our workforce as commodity to the companies on the labour market. Since everyone wants to enjoy decent living conditions everyone needs a job. Thus, we are all competing against each other involuntarily. To avoid being kicked out of companies or not being considered at a job interview we are ready to work for longer hours, being paid less, refrain from certain privileges (sick leave, vacations, …). At the same time, we think that getting a good job is wholly dependent on us as single persons, our creativity, our passion, our knowledge. This is what businesses and society suggest to you. Study hard as a kid in school, get top grades in university, do more unpaid internships than you can count, follow specific tips at job interviews etc. But this approach takes economic and social power hierarchies out of consideration. No, in this society you will hardly ever be able to escape the social class you have been born into. And this is the reason your chances to become an entrepreneur are relatively low if your parents are not rich. But having the mindset leads you to think that if you only work on yourself to gain money, status and a good life, lets you accept this reality as a seemingly good one. You submit yourself to living with hardly any say about the way you want to live, because maybe you will become one of the people exploiting their workers and living a luxury life (most likely not). 

It is time that we change the way we think about work. It’s time to ditch our illusions and think radically different about our future – because only then we will be brave enough to fight for a better one

In reality you will sell your workforce for a certain amount of time and the company rewards money for this time. Imagine you work for 8 hours and get 800kr, but in this time you created value for the company of 1600kr (by making toothbrushes or selling cake at a café). This difference between the value you created and the time you’ve been paid for working is the surplus value. This is essential, because it is this profit that the company derives from your and everyone else’s work. This phenomenon is the basis of capitalism. Every entrepreneur relies on creating profit whether they want to or not. This has nothing to do with bad character traits, the system requires them to take part in the game to gain profit or go bust very fast. And in the ever-changing market they are always required to adapt. Cut staff, cut wages, buy new machines that do more work in less time. The basis of capitalism is the basis of a shitty job we are all going to need. 

A brighter outlook? 

The present turns bleak when you realise that work is not going to bring you fulfilment but will only wear you down. You don’t have an actual say in the company you’re working in, but you are stuck competing for the rest of your life. And you always have to prove that you are stronger, smarter and better than everyone else. In the end it is a very lonely life. And what is your reward? If you are lucky you can hopefully afford a decent life, and if you are one of the few really lucky ones you can buy luxury goods on a more or less regular basis. Then why should we change the way we think about working conditions in the 21st century?  

We should change the way we think because our way of working is deeply ingrained in the system. If we do not want to affirm our own submission, we need to realize that this is not a society where everyone or even a fraction can live up to their full potential. All the side effects of the working conditions and the economic system cannot be fully explained here (even Marx wasn’t nearly finished after three thick books). There is not enough space to give a definite answer on a concrete solution. As Adorno once argued, theory doesn’t necessarily have to offer a step-by-step plan to utopia but state the negative conditions of life in a capitalist society.  A theory that rages against injustice is often countered by the question of the alternatives. It is a way to silence the critique by demanding positivity.  

However, it has to be said, that it won’t be enough to organize together to fight for better working conditions. This is just a mere starting point to think radically different by pointing out oppression. We cannot stop there. Once Herbert Marcuse tried to sketch a utopian vision on a liberated society, he was clear that a concrete construction cannot be developed today but will evolve in the process of change. Yet he still states that freedom “would become the environment of an organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the competitive performances required for well-being under domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life.” If we really want to shift from a bleak present to a bright future, where every single person can live a life worth living, we need to dismantle an economic mode of production that puts heavy strains on society. Only if we criticise the inherent injustice of the capitalist system, we can pave the way for a future where finally everyone is free. 

Illustration by Grace Wiegand.
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