It is difficult to make the world of work tractable. When are we at work, and when aren’t we? Am I working when I’m writing this review? I won’t be paid for it, and I (mostly) enjoy it. Yet it involves effort and a sacrifice of time — but then again, the effort is mental, unlike the physical exertion of manual labor. Even when we know that people are at work, it is unclear what shared experience the term “work” refers to. Do the pharmacist, miner, janitor, and investment banker all inhabit the same social space, or do they inhabit different life-worlds? Perhaps there are just different human activities, none of which can stand up on their own if we lump them together as work.
But that doesn’t satisfy. A steady stream of books with titles like The Refusal of Work, No More Work, The Critique of Work, Work Won’t Love You Back, The Story of Work, and Bullshit Jobs are a reminder of the fact that there is some unifying social experience that allows us to hold some tasks apart from all the others. And, as the emotional pulse of those titles indicates, we don’t just hold those tasks apart, we are supposed to hold our noses while we do so.
So what allows us to distinguish work from nonwork? It is tempting to try to observe, gather, and define. We look out on the world, identify differences, and give those differences names, which allow us to speak in tidy categories about the social world. There is work and there is leisure; there is effort and there is rest. We can also divide up one experience — work — into subcategories: there are gigs, jobs, vocations, careers, and callings; there is service, industrial, agricultural, and domestic employment. That is the main approach of Raymond Geuss’s book A Philosopher Looks at Work, part of a series in which philosophers bring their minds to bear on a topic they do not typically write about.
Geuss proposes that work is defined by exertion, necessity, and objectivity. Exertion in the sense of involving some significant mental and physical effort. Necessity in the sense that, as individuals, we must do some tasks to survive and meet whatever goals we have, and as a society, we must maintain at least minimal conditions for the reproduction of our social order. Objectivity in the sense that this exertion satisfies our individual and social needs by producing objects or end states that we can observe and evaluate independent of the work itself. If we put this exertion, necessity, and objectivity together, we get an example like this:
Exertion: A farmer cultivates land and grows apples.
Necessity: The apples satisfy others’ hunger, and the money the farmer gets in exchange meets his need to pay the bills.
Objectivity: The work produces apples, whose qualities of sweetness and nourishment are independent of who and how they were produced.
Having defined work, Geuss then proceeds, through three more chapters, to tell us about the organization of work (it varies historically), the anthropology of work (people work because they’re forced to, they have an incentive to, or they feel some communal spirit or duty to do so), and then the “radical discontents” (the robots are coming). We learn that some people relate to their work as a job, a structured activity for pay, while others relate to their work as a vocation or even a calling, a form of self-realization or quasi-spiritual compulsion. We learn that a lot of people work because they have an incentive to do so. In one of the more interesting passages, Geuss takes us from Homer and Hesiod to his own father’s work history to discuss how some people are even moved to perform arduous tasks out of a sense of solidarity. While solidarity engenders greater motivation and therefore productivity, Geuss observes that “the solidarity of co-workers is a problematic phenomenon for owners and management . . . [because] the ultimate nightmare is that mutual aid might perhaps lead to a wider, eventually political, mobilisation of the workers.”
There is nothing objectionable about any of this. At times, there are flashes of real insight, often accompanied by educated references to Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Voltaire, or Dante Alighieri. But it is all rather bloodless. One might have imagined a bit more drama in a book that covers everything from William Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” to the existential torture chambers of white-collar paper pushers, to the coke-addled trading floors of the stock market, to the life-and-death corridors of the modern hospital.
Geuss is not exactly the conflict-avoidant type. In his more academic writing, he picks fights and relishes in the combat. We usually know exactly who his enemy is, what they’ve done wrong, how their mistakes appear in thought, and why their thinking is so bad. In political philosophy, Geuss is associated with the realist school, which prides itself on rejecting the gauzy moralism of those who think we come up with ethical ideals first, then try to apply them to political life. For instance, in his book Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss doesn’t just argue, he aggressively and polemically advocates a view that takes historically structured forms of power as the starting point for all political reflection. There are no ideals outside the arena of combat, which does not mean there are no justifiable ideals, only that we ought to be suspicious of forms of thought that present themselves as neutral, disinterested, and of diffuse general appeal. Nobody can read Geuss’s books on realism or liberalism and not feel in some way politically energized, that something important is at stake.
This is what makes A Philosopher Looks at Work all the more puzzling. Here and there, we are reminded that CEOs might engage various managerial strategies to keep their labor costs down; that, in our society, not everyone benefits from automation; that work can be alienating. But these come across as choice observations, rather than as a slowly accreting set of statements that draw back the curtains of power and conflict and drive us toward some sense of where the political action lies.
The closest we get is Geuss’s reflections, in the last chapter, on “radical discontent and the future of work.” At moments, this is some of his most compelling writing. In a few elegant paragraphs, Geuss offers the intriguing idea that those who wish to abolish work in favor of pure enjoyment actually wish to turn everyone into passive consumers, similar to Hegel’s masters, who never develop or control their own powers. But Geuss quickly follows this with the boilerplate criticism that Marxists seeking to overcome alienation are too caught up in “productivism” and the “mastery of nature.” This is all in haste anyhow, as Geuss is most concerned with explaining to us why the real challenge facing work is not just that most jobs will get automated away but that pending environmental disasters mean we have to learn to detach ourselves from the world of work itself. Geuss thinks we have to detach ourselves from because work is effort expended to produce useful things. Our need for ever-expanding consumption, and our commitment to working for the sake of that perpetual expansion, threatens to destroy the globe. “One thing we have to learn,” concludes Geuss, “is how to be meaningfully active while producing and consuming less, and while freeing ourselves completely from the pathologies of infinite growth and of the ever-increasing development of human productive powers.”
This is the moment when Geuss’s general observational approach and the lack of politics fail him, almost in unison. On the one hand, Geuss seems to imagine a generalized, cultural attachment to “infinite growth” and the “development of human productive powers,” as if those two things were the same thing. But they are obviously not. Infinite growth is an ideology of and specific to a capitalist economy. It is a concept that only makes sense when we have a single unit — money — that expresses a singular notion of value, which we can use to measure growth. It is that same notion of value that allows us to subsume disparate activities under a single heading: work. That is the truth, the social truth, of defining work as “paid employment.” Not because all paid employment is necessary or valuable when considered independent of the market, but because our institutions bind our activities together only in and through that one measure of value.
What is pathological about “infinite growth” is not that we are culturally attached to it, as a matter of values and attitudes, but that it is what all work is subjected to by the compulsion of the market, regardless of the attitudes toward work and production we might have. Amazon warehouse and Tesla factory workers might not care one whit about infinite growth. But it doesn’t matter what is in their heads — what matters is the conditions under which they are allowed to work. Workers need jobs. They cannot get a job and go to work if their work does not generate profits. Which means that, as a class, workers cannot work if their work does not serve the end of continual accumulation or growth. That’s a basic institutional fact, not cultural pathology. Geuss misrepresents the nature of our commitment to infinite growth, oddly by avoiding its politics: it is written into our capitalist institutions, root and branch, and guarded by the interests of those who benefit the most from it, the capitalists.
Meanwhile, the “development of human productive powers” is nothing nearly so sinister or socially determinate as Geuss implies. That is because the phrase indicates nothing about the direction in which we should develop those powers. “Infinite growth” is but one orienting purpose; it is currently the defining purpose, but there is no reason why it must be. We might entertain an alternative direction for the development of our productive powers: toward the creation of a society in which each person, equally, has the opportunity to develop their own powers and abilities. That would replace the pointless and nonhuman end of GDP growth with the universal purpose of human freedom. And it would be a permanent orientation for the development of productive powers, since each generation would want to give its own shape to the world. Given Geuss’s quite reasonable suspicion that those who wish to abolish work wish to abolish our capacity to control and shape our own lives, it is odd to find him retreating from the force of that insight.
It is, moreover, hard to imagine how a world in which we demand less of our productive powers and less control over nature could possibly address itself to the truly demanding, global task of a massive energy transition, let alone the activity of fully rebuilding global infrastructure. Surely we need a massive new development of productive powers in everything from power generation and transit systems to housing and basic goods production. Yet why would a population, in the grips of the idea that we need to demand less of our productive powers and retreat from reshaping the material world to our needs, imagine itself able to achieve such a heroic transformation? Why would the population not instead think that this is one more pathological act of a humanity believing too much in itself? The only “meaningful activity” compatible with the retreat from cooperative, human production is something more like tending one’s garden or reading books with special ardor.
But the deepest problem is that none of this is a question of what “we” think or could imagine. The obstacle that most directly and vividly appears, once we lay out an alternative vision of the emancipated powers of humanity, is the stiff opposition that most capitalists will put up to reorienting work in this way. The vision is meaningless if there isn’t a robust, democratic workers’ movement that can bear and impose it. From that standpoint, the problem is not romantic discontents, Marxian discontents, Heideggerian discontents, or those of any other flavor of cultural critic, but rather the absence of discontent. There is no mass, revolutionary workers’ movement capable of overcoming business and professional class resistance.
This absence of discontent is the problem — the primary, grounding political fact for any realist. Yet just where one might expect someone like Geuss to draw our attention to the realities of power, the possibilities and limits of collective action, and the institutional facts shaping the conversation, we get something more like an intellectual deus ex machina. The fact of climate change is simply supposed to determine what we ought to think, and our thinking should somehow float free of all the social determinations and limitations that any concrete vision will inevitably face. “We” must beat a retreat from work because now work isn’t work-under-capitalism but any and all attempts to master nature for the achievement of human purposes. For Geuss, the quasi-natural fact of climate change overrides anything historically specific about the way capitalism socially determines work. Work just looks like the objective effort people put in to producing things, rather than the activity we get when we are separated into classes, one class is subordinated to the other, and all are put under the compulsion to produce more value than was in circulation when we started. This is not just conceptually misleading; it is politically false. Absent major social changes, the wealthy will fare far better than the poor: the new kinds of work will be those helping the wealthy manage the environmental transitions. We are not all in it together, whether we are talking about climate change or any other aspect of the way work happens.
Geuss has written a “general interest” book about work for the reading public. But there is little that is generally interesting about work. There is not enough even in the generally concerning fact of climate change to hold together this otherwise learned book. The more seriously we take work, the more intensely and internally divided the activity gets. The intellectual effort we make to get to grips with work is inseparable from the political effort required to change it.