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Visions of Work

"After Work" and "The Unsettling of America"

After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time by Helen Hester and Nick Srineck is an exploration of domestic and reproductive labor: the work that we do outside of our place of employment that is socially necessary for our lives, such as childcare, maintenance of the home, cleaning, preparation of meals, and so on. The authors want to expand "anti-work" ideas to the home, arguing that domestic labor is a form of exploitation that should be acknowledged, fought, and overcome.

Its strongest and most interesting argument involves how social standards expand domestic labor: how expectations of cleanliness, home size, complexity of meals, consumption habits and so on mean that even as technology progresses, the amount of domestic labor remains the same. And these changes combined with the fact that most families have two working parents rather than one, the burden of domestic labor has actually increased over the last 50-100 years.

After Work's alternative vision for domestic work is drawn from experiments in living, eating, and childcare in the 20th century found in socialist states, utopian communities, and social democratic welfare states. These ideas involve, to one degree or another, collectivizing aspects of domestic labor: cafeterias, community care for children and the elderly, collective living arrangements, and so on.

These are not necessarily bad ideas, but by and large they are not new ones. They are experiments that have been largely abandoned, both through the collapse of Soviet socialism and the slow dismantling of the welfare state. The few positive contemporary examples that the authors provide are from Cuba and the Nordic states — the last vestiges of these two 20th century ideas.

The reasons that these systems were dismantled were political, a fact Hester and Srineck have surprisingly little to say about. They mostly analyze them as policy choices, rather than natural outgrowths of a broader left wing ideology, and their proposed alternative is to revive and expand these "better policies." They are not calling, at least directly, for a revolution, or a worker's state. They are advocating for a set of policies that would certainly emeliorate the burden of domestic labor, but require a different ideological framework than the one of the neoliberal governing parties of the West in order to be enacted.

Furthermore, and more concerningly, their argument appears to be essentially negative. Despite the occasional insistence of the authors otherwise, nearly all of their proposed social reforms are based on the idea that domestic labor (an extremely broad category, by their definition) is necessarily toil and ought to be minimized. They assume that in the absence of work, people are "freed," but I'm not so sure I buy this argument. It seems highly plausible that in America today there exists an additional problem of under-work, classes of people who are left out of society with, essentially, nothing meaningful to do, and who turn broadly to nihilism and despair.

An alternative critical perspective on work comes from Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America, who is much less interested in the burden of work, measured in numerical labor-time, but rather the nature of work:

We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them. [...] Good work is our salvation and our joy; [...] shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom.

The concept of "good work" is absent in Anti-Work. The authors are unwilling to accept that, under some circumstances, there could be something fulfilling or meaningful about domestic labor, or any kind of work. By vieweing work as broadly as they do, they portray, concerningly, a wide section of human life as necessary toil to be avoided.

Wendell Berry's perspective on work is more nuanced. One the one hand, he would agree that work under industrial capitalism, both in employment, and domestic labor, is terrible, alienated, destructive to mind, body and spirit. But he also has great contempt for the idea that human beings should not work, and would completely disagree with this concept of a "post-work" society, where, through automation, people are freed from the labor required for social reproduction and are able to live lives of total leisure. The reason is that this ostensible leisure in urban, industrial society necessarily requires invisible exploitation: exploitation of the land, or of people who are forced to do work that is considered base or undesirable. If the manner in which we live depends on undesirable or destructive work, rather than trying to maintain our lifestyle but eliminate the work necessary to maintain it (an impossible task), we ought to instead change how we live.

Hester and Srnick cannot conceive of work except through the lens of capitalism; they can only see capitalist work (including the domestic labor that maintains capitalist reproduction) and "post-work" or "anti-work." But this is a fundamentally negative project: it perceives post-capitalism as merely the absence of capitalism, but still framed and defined by the logic of capitalism. As such, they fail to propose anything truly radical, ie, a non-capitalist, positive vision of work.

This positive vision is strong and present in The Unsettling of America. Wendell Berry places a strong focus on personal ethics: he has contempt for the ignorant, passive industrial consumer, who is detached from his material condition and communitty and relies entirely on the exploited labor of others. He has contempt for the urban professional, who develops a single skill at the expense of all others. These people are (often by necessity) doing the wrong kind of work. But importantly, he posits that through work we can develop an alternative, convivial, ecological way of living. While Hester and Srnicek explains the way the world ought to be, Berry provides us with the tools, psychological and material, to live a genuinely different life, both for ourselves and our communities. "There is work to be done!", Hester and Srnicek say with dissapointment, but Berry says with vim.