How We Perceive Work & Why
In the United States, work is seen through a contradictory lens. It is both the bane of a person’s existence and that which defines them. It is also vital to the American economy that workers work hard, yet it is also necessary that there are those workers who are unemployed to serve as a pool of reserve labor functioning to keep wages low. This set of contradictions grounded in the material realities of American life has workers in this country working longer hours than their counterparts in other advanced industrialized nations. Why is this so? What is it in the nature of the circumstances in which the American worker works that has him/her working longer hours?The “People Are Greedy” Argument
The answer that we tend to hear in polite conversation (and that we certainly hear from the television) involves the human nature argument. “People are greedy” seems to be the most popular assumption about American workers, and even humanity in general, by those who live and work within this seat of the empire of international capital. This shoddy attempt to peg down in a sound bite the essence of economic discourse, the raison d’être of workers, and quickly explain why the world functions as it does tends to translate into an understanding of work as the product of culture. This argument goes: people work because they want things, and money is the way to get them. The culture of consumerism, commodity fetishism, as well as some other cultural factors concerning work ethic such as how those who don’t work are perceived are part of the argument made by those making the “human nature” claim. Others, who attempt to appraise the situation more soberly, would say that “human nature” is a result of the structure of society, of how institutions and larger forces shape the material realities that workers face.
Culture is the subservient factor that comes as a result of structure and serves the purpose of reinforcing that structure. With the fanfare and glorification that the exceptions to the rule in capitalism (those who “make it big”) are met with, working class people are themselves pushed to work more to be able to reach for the “American Dream” of material prosperity. The understanding for many then becomes that economic success and failure is dependent on “how one plays the game.” If you fail in capitalism, then it is your fault for not playing the game well. If you succeed, then you are a winner to be celebrated. This classic example of American “hard work and independence” cultural expectation becomes the mind-set of workers in American society and, as a result, they take economic success and failure personally.
Why Class Matters
This illusion that in capitalism a person is entirely responsible for their economic destiny has become an important dogma for the proponents of capitalism. Yet, all the “rags to riches” stories only prove to be exceptions that prove the rule when one attempts to understand the structural machinations of capitalism. Karl Marx did well to shed light on the class nature of production, on how workers are alienated from their work (their very essence, their species being) and are subjected to a system where their only means of subsistence is working in service of the profit ends of that class which owns the means of production.
In the Manifesto he writes “The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands” (Marx 1848).
This class antagonism, this dialectic of the exploiters and exploited, has not at all lost its meaning in today’s monopoly capitalism. In fact, as yet another crisis of overproduction has workers struggling to find employment and capitalists finding ways to cut costs and bolster their profit dividends, Marx’s understanding finds new relevance. Let us consider the implications of the class dynamic for the workers that William Julius Wilson describes in his article “Jobless Poverty.” Here we see unskilled workers in the inner city who have become ensnared into a cycle of joblessness and poverty as a result of larger factors, such as trade liberalization leading to a lower emphasis on recruiting unskilled labor by employers who can yield greater profits by sending those jobs overseas and suburbanization of employment (Wilson 1999). Larger forces that can be easily traced back to the profit motives of the capitalist class agitate for this condition. The class basis of social resources seeks to perpetuate this state of affairs and broaden the gap between those at the top and the rest of society.
Marx said it best in his work The German Ideology:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance (Marx 1845).”
A Culture of Overworking and Overtime
Culture, like the structure of capitalism itself, is subject to agency. In that society in which the means of production, the base of all economic power, are owned by a privileged few, it is this few who will undoubtedly have the farthest reach with their actions, their biases, their notions of the world, how it works, and how it ought to work. So, in a world where the economic success of the capitalist class, the modern day bourgeoisie, is dependent on people purchasing their products, working longer hours, and blaming themselves rather than the capitalists for the problems of capitalism, the culture that the capitalist dominates will follow suit with these needs.
The culture of capitalism is not an accident and cannot be viewed independently of the material and structural conditions that bore it. Americans generally work long hours to make ends meet, such as the minimum wage workers, while others work simply to have more possessions. When asking this question, the larger system of political economy, the machinations of capitalism as a system and the culture that emerges as a result of these conditions needs to be emphasized in that order.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1997. “There’s No Place Like Work” The New York Times; April 10, 1997.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engles. 1845. “The German Ideology”
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engles. 1848. “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
Wilson, William Julius. 1999. “Jobless Poverty: A New Form of Social Dislocation in the Inner-City Ghetto” Working in America: Continuity, Conflict, and Change. McGraw Hill Inc., New York, NY.