Yves here. KLG returns to the work of Raymond Geuss, which KLG covered last year in a review of Not Thinking Like a Liberal. Here Geuss, and KLG, both of whom came from working class backgrounds, ponder what work might amount to as broader economies look likely to face substantial relocalization, whether they embrace it or not. It does seem helpful and timely to approach this topic with some rigor. Having said that, talking to my inner toddler, I am not sure I buy the definition that good work serves the common good. How does making my bed daily serve the common good? More seriously, how much of the definition of good work is tied up with bourgeois norms?
I know this may sound petty, but a lot of impetus behind the women’s liberation movement was based on the anomie married middle class women felt being relegated to housework and [not sufficiently esteemed] childrearing. But women had to get married because the labor market didn’t offer jobs to them that would allow them enough independence. Even now, employed women still lack the economic leverage and perceived rights to typically get their husband to do his share of house and child care duties.
By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
Work, jobs, making a living, right livelihood. In this so-called modern world of Late Neoliberal Capitalism, there is no dearth of books and essays on what we (all of us) do for a living and how to navigate our political economy, especially in an era of forcible precarity. In fact, this flood can be overwhelming, at times comprising much nonsense. Thus, a good, readable treatment of work as a philosophical topic is much to be desired. In A Philosopher Looks at Work  by Raymond Geuss, we have that book. The author’s Not Thinking Like a Liberal was discussed here previously. In my view, both works have benefitted from Professor Geuss’s thoroughly working-class origins. An academic in any discipline whose father was a locomotive mechanic in a steel mill in Pennsylvania, especially a professor who worked at times during his college years in the same unionized environment, is very rare in my long experience (which includes similar work in a heavy chemical plant with a strong local and international union).
Raymond Geuss knows the world of work at all levels, and as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge, he is well positioned to treat the topic with the seriousness it requires. He does this in four focused chapters that repay close study:
- Chapter 1: What is Work?
- Chapter 2: The Organization of Work.
- Chapter 3. The Anthropology and Economics of Work.
- Chapter 4. Radical Discontent and the Future of Work.
In what follows I will summarize his philosophical bases of work and then consider where we are and where we should go from here.
Work, we know it when we see it and, just as importantly, when we don’t see it. By definition, work is a process that:
- requires expenditure of energy and is strenuous: the product is not produced effortlessly or by magic, but by human exertion
- is a necessity of life
- has an external produced product that can be measured and evaluated independently
And in the industrial world, work is:
- a distinct and almost self-contained activity, and thus (is) most appropriately conducted in its own space, a factory or garage, or mill (or eventually office) in order that it not be confused with anything else.
And due to the industrial nature of work, which would include office work that has accompanied the deindustrialization of North America and Europe, work is:
- almost invariably distinct from what one might do for fun, for pleasure, or as a joke. It is paradigmatically serious.
Physical work is most often thought of as “work.” It closely approaches the formal definition: “Work in physics is the measure of energy transfer that occurs when an object is moved over a distance by an external force at least part of which is applied in the direction of the displacement.” The common problem with academics and especially the PMC in general is that too many of them have never had to “work for a living,” either moving things around or directly serving their fellow citizens.
Work is a necessity, both individual and social: “What we attribute to people is the need to lead a life which satisfies at least the minimal conditions of what they take to be a human life, where that is culturally defined; sometimes this is called a ‘decent’ life…and what counts as an acceptable decent life is (culturally determined) and (has) varied enormously through time and in different places.” A social system that does not include meaningful work, i.e., work that is productive and useful, will collapse in on itself. Work has an objective product, in the form of a good or a service. Goods and services sometimes overlap but they are real and essential.
In the modern world, work is organized as jobs, careers, and professions, sometimes in succession for an individual. While work is often thought of in physical as well as moral terms, it is also a social construct. Work and employment are not the same thing. A lot of work is done that is not considered employment, such as in the home or work done by volunteers. Most importantly for the coming world that will get smaller of necessity, there are other ways of organizing work than the current industrial model. This reorganization will be essential in the near future.
Which brings us to the anthropology and economics of work. What makes people want to work? What makes people who would rather shirk? People will work because they are coerced or incentivized, but with diminishing returns. What social, political economic, and cultural characteristics are best at facilitating the good work that must be done? These have varied with time and place through history, and while we will probably not return to hunter-gatherer or pastoral modes, agriculture, properly practiced, and craft production for the people are likely to become more important in the coming world. The sooner we realize this, the better. The late, great anarchist anthropologist David Graeber was a leader in this anthropological approach to work in society and culture.
Discontent with the world of work is a given in our Late Neoliberal World. A point made, most often on the notional Left, is why don’t we just “abolish” work? The more intelligent and sensible question is, “How can work be transformed into something good?”
What is good and productive, useful and meaningful work? As with science, good work serves the common good. All other work is dispensable. This good work includes construction of the built environment and production of the artifacts that make human life possible and rewarding. This work includes the services necessary for that life. We all know this at a fundamental level, but the disorganization and purposeful obfuscation inherent in our political economy hide it well. It goes without saying that the most important and fundamental jobs are not paid in proportion to their worth: caregivers, cleaners; those who work in trades such as carpentry and plumbing; electricians and roofers; dockworkers and deck workers and truck drivers; railroad engineers, brakemen, and conductors. Their recognition and often their pay may be insufficient, but their essential nature is never totally forgotten by those who believe they coast above it all. Especially in an emergency.
[Digression: If Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has his way, the latter two jobs on the railroad will disappear if they have not already. I worked with railroaders just after graduating from high school and it is hard to keep up, but it took more than one to operate a train safely. The several railroads in the US and the Department of Transportation seem to think that a mile-long freight train needs only the person who “drives” the train. No. And the one thing I have never understood is the description of these laboring jobs as “unskilled.” They are nothing of the sort. I have worked in the “labor gang” in a heavy chemical plant at the lowest end of the wage scale. It takes considerable skill and ability to work at any level in heavy industry without hurting yourself or others, or much worse. I was taught well and learned much from the men (women were hired a few years later to work in production and maintenance) in that plant, now long defunct and currently a Superfund site (another lamentable but common story). I will also add that in the mid-1970s I was paid well as that young laborer: ~$49,000 a year (~$23.54 per hour) in current dollars, not including substantial but optional overtime at “time-and-a-half, double on holidays,” while on a regular and guaranteed schedule. This, as a high school graduate, which was the only absolute requirement for employment. Although we were all just skilled laborers in that plant, very few were noticeably alienated from their work. Most were proud to be producing chemicals that were essential in industrial applications. And the transnational chemical company whose name was on One Times Square at that time? It was profitable despite outrageous labor costs that had the highest paid (hourly, union) Relief Operator making more than $180,000 a year in current dollars. The CEO also undoubtedly knew he was wealthy. End Digression]
It is not only those with “mere” jobs who remain unrecognized, unrewarded, and often poorly paid. This includes people with what may be called careers and/or professions. Although not addressed explicitly in A Philosopher Looks at Work, this is kept hidden within the Neoliberal mantra “Do what you love!” This is more properly described as “You will get very little from us and you will like it, because your job is your life (no matter that it will also consume you).” See, for example, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary and his subsequent Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World. The message here also applies to those of us who have had the privilege of pursuing our vocation, or calling, a concept with a theological connotation that goes back to the premodern world. This includes innumerable teachers, nurses, social workers, scientists, architects, psychologists, and not a few physicians, pastors, priests, and professors.
From the individual and social perspectives, why work? Because we must, but there is much more than this. Work gives meaning to our lives, when properly required and pursued. But following Jon Elster, whose work in this vein is largely consonant with A Philosopher Looks at Work, work has been corrupted in capitalism by the following: (1) the best life for the individual is one of consumption, (2) consumption is valued because it promotes happiness, (3) but there are limits to who gets what, (4) what gets produced is limited by what can be produced at a private profit, and (5) who gets what depends on how much money they have. Elster argues to the contrary that “the good life is one of active self-realisation rather than passive consumption.”  He is correct. Moreover, humans are animals. To remain healthy, we must be active. On the other hand, the powers that be would prefer we continue Amusing Ourselves to Death. The PTB are winning.
Work is also and most importantly a matter of solidarity. This ethos goes back to the premodern world. Solidarity has been largely destroyed by the paths taken as a naked Liberalism attendant to the Enlightenment has become our regnant political philosophy (both liberal and conservative). Elevation of the individual above society is taken to be the root of all current political and economic evil by “Post-liberals” such as Patrick J. Deneen. As much as I heartily support his excoriation of Liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future (2023), it is not only Liberalism that has destroyed the solidarity that makes a truly human life possible. There were many choices taken along the way to the present that have little to do with Liberalism, and a postliberal future that is grounded in conservative Christianity instead of a legitimate social democracy, at the very least, is problematic. Michael Walzer considers these cultural critics in the current issue of the journal Liberties (paywall).
This brings us to work in the coming world if our discontent is to diminish. There will be no technological fix for scarcity in a full world or global warming as the inevitable consequence of the Industrial Revolution, contrary to the wishful thinking of the occasional apostate from the Chicago School, Deirdre McCloskey, who stated during an entertaining and enlightening roundtable discussion of Liberalism in Harper’s last year, “Global warming is already on the way to being solved by technological innovation, by the very capitalism that you (Patrick Deneen) think is so bad.” Actually, not so much. Our only real hope, which leaves no room for optimism, is for the economy to approach a steady state as described in the life’s work of Herman Daly. The solution is most certainly not to preen while tooling around in a Tesla. Much more is required of us.
Work as we have known it, for example during the Great Compression in the thirty years after World War II, cannot reappear but there is still much to be done. From the conclusion of A Philosopher Looks at Work:
One thing we have to learn is how to be meaningfully active while producing and consuming less, and while freeing ourselves from the pathologies of infinite growth and the ever-increasing development of human productive powers (impossible in a finite ecosphere). The elements that came together to make up the traditional conception of work – the idea that most of the population will be engaged in the strenuous production of necessities organised into a series of jobs – have now separated, dissociated themselves from each other, and dispersed, and many of them have changed so much that they are scarcely recognisable at all. Where we go now, if we survive long enough to be said to ‘go’ anywhere, is anybody’s guess.
We do not have to guess. As the world necessarily gets smaller (if we do not blow it up first, which is a pressing and frightening question this very day), The Idea of a Local Economy becomes more believable. Can we depend only on our local economies? No. We must rebuild our infrastructure (e.g., buses, trams, light rail, and passenger trains) so that the Tesla is not viewed as the entirely false solution of our distress. The age of the Global Standard Consumersupported by Global Standard Industry and its adjunct Global Standard Industrial Agriculture is coming to an end, no matter what science and technology “think” about our predicament. In living and acting locally we can begin to heal what has been ruined by thinking globally. Yes, some unavoidable drudgery will be required, but as noted in A Philosopher Looks at Work “drudgery” is just another word for work that must be done, by each one of us doing his or her part.
Any serious analysis of work as an individual and cultural necessity must address how to make work more humane. Raymond Geuss does this well from the philosophical perspective. And in this he echoes the work of others, mostly forgotten. Fifty years ago, the nature of work in late capitalism was described by Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Braverman worked variously as a coppersmith, pipefitter, and structural steel fitter before becoming Director of Monthly Review Press. He knew work, just as does Professor Raymond Geuss. Much earlier, John Crowe Ransom wrote in the Statement of Principles of I’ll Take My Stand  that labor saving devices don’t save labor so much as evict laborers from their land and their place in society. Where have we read and heard this before? Ransom also wrote that “it is a modest demand that work partake of happiness.”
Indeed, alienation is the most salient characteristic of work in the modern world. The artist and intentional homesteader Harlan Hubbard often said, “What we need is at hand.” No, we cannot and should not expect to live in Payne Hollowas he and Anna Eikenhout did. However, we can begin to pay attention, while using properly what we have at hand to do good work for the common good, where we live. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in his lesson for all people in all times, few are guilty but all are responsible. There is enough to go around for everyone. But time is short.
 A Philosopher Looks at Work is part of a series in which philosophers write about Sport, Science, The Religious Life, Architecture, Digital Communications, and Human Beings. I have read Science and Human Beings in addition to Work. So far, the series has been very much worth the time, easily ordered from Blackwell’s if not available in your local bookstore.
 Jon Elster, “Self-realisation in work and politics: The Marxist conception of the good life.” Reprinted in Alternatives to Capitalism, Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Cambridge, 1989.
 I’ll Take My Stand (1930) has been as willfully misunderstood as The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) and for the same reason by the same kind of people (rightfully called the Professional Managerial Class these days, or Caste as it has been aptly renamed by the NC commentariat). I’ll Take My Stand was followed in 1936 by Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. Remarkably congruent themes run through this work during the past 90+ years.