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Work as Fetish

Maria Wolflingseder | 30.04.2007 15:25 | Mayday 2007 | Social Struggles | World

What is good for the economy and what is good for people diverge more and more! Nevertheless the opposite is drummed into people.. Capitalism only knows the irrational end-in-itself, making more money out of money until the end of time.. Capitalism strikes its own limits.


Work by its nature is an unliberated, inhuman and unsocial activity (Karl Marx)

By Maria Wolflingseder

[This article published in: Streifzuge 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, ]

Everyone demands work, work and work! Some urge a need-oriented basic security, others an unconditional basic income. However no one questions the backgrounds of the absurd misanthropic relations that rule today in the world of work. Was it not an ancient dream of humanity to work less and have time for “real life”? The works necessary for survival should not be at the center but everything beyond mere satisfaction of needs: leisure, art, play, philosophy, everything that constitutes the human. Realizing this dream is possible today at last. On account of enormously increased work productivity, all people on earth could be well provided at trifling expense – in an historical comparison. Despite the dying off of work, work turns out to be a totalitarian power that endures no other god. Today we still worship work as a fetish and magic potion.


A glance at the etymological dictionary and books summarizing the history of work is enough to understand our slavish relation to work.

The term “work” (Arbeit) is connected with the German verb that means “toil,” “plague,” “inhumane activity” and “nuisance” (in Middle High German). The Latin “labor” underlies the English “labour”: “suffering,” “drudgery” and “hard effort.” The French “travaller” and the Spanish “trabajo” are derived from the Italian “tripalium”: a kind of yoke used for torture and punishment of slaves and other unliberated ones. The Russian “robota” comes from the old Slavic “rob” that means “slave” or “servant.”

The morality of work is a slave morality and no slavery is necessary in the modern world,” said the English scholar and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell.

Until antiquity, there was no term “work.” The word “work” first arose as a description of a foreign-determined activity under the supervision and command of other persons. Before that, there were only terms for concrete activities, not an abstraction like the word “work” meaning over-exertion of labor power irrespective of the goal and substance. Once this meant drudgery; today it is paid work, any activity for earning money.

While work was regarded as a necessary evil in pre-capitalist times, the beginning of the modern age was the start of its ideological transformation. Work was raised to an “anthropological constant” innate to people. The work principle or work ethos was drummed into people with all conceivable force. For centuries, people were not allowed their own rhythms of activities and forced to machine-like work in factories.

The development of the capitulation of resistance is interesting. The importance of time was drummed into the first generation of factory workers. At that time, no one lived “according to the watch.” Now people must submit to a foreign command and a foreign rhythm. The present-day identification of time with money had begun. The second generation fought for the ten-hour day; earlier people were forced to slave away up to 16 hours. The third generation finally accepted the categories of the factory boss and only sought an overtime bonus. Today applying pressure is not necessary any more in developed industrial countries; pressure is completely internalized and becomes “second nature.” Work mania and burn-=out have become problems that were never known before. Many 60-, 50- and even 40-year olds die of heart attacks and strokes – of overwork as relatives complain.

The connection between the development of capitalism and the development of firearms is illuminating. The destructive force inherent to both was combined in a fatal way. The tax burden drastically increased after the invention of gunpowder and the establishment of armies to maintain the gunpowder industry. An increased work burden was the result. The money- and commodity form is better than the customary feudal relations. Thus armies and the new destructive technologies are organized. Today four-firths of all natural science and technical research serve the military. Most high-tech products are by-products of war technology.

The machine and assembly line were invented to make money out of money, not to relieve human toil or encourage better relations with nature. Every human activity is measured in brining money and being financially useable. The person does not make products that are sensible (for example: toxic-free food, long-life and ecologically compatible useful objects) but rather the objects that make the most money. Thus capitalism has more to do with death than with life.

Immanuel Wallerstein writes: “The world population is undoubtedly working harder today – more hours per day, per year and per lifetime. Nevertheless the large majority of the world population is objectively and subjectively worse off materially than in past historical systems and is politically worse off than earlier.” (Historical Capitalism, Hamburg 1984)


Is only political will lacking – as always deplored? Can unemployment and all social problems really be solved? Is a basic income the solution? A (sufficiently high unconditional) basic income can bring a relief within capitalism. A basic income can help finally end the full employment myth. (Full employment only happened for a short time with us and only because a majority of the women were not gainfully employed.) People would no longer be harassed by the employment office and defined by paid work. However basic income would not change anything in the capitalist logic.

Everyone wants to make capitalism more just, humane and ecological. No one puts capitalism in question! No one questions the murderous commodity logic that constitutes capitalism. Making a profit, multiplying money by creating surplus value, is the supreme principle in capitalism. This necessitates endless growth and competition. Work does not make or perform what is meaningful and necessary for humanity. What sells is the only criterion. Whether there are human-friendly and nature-friendly products and modes of production is not debated.

The immanent laws of capitalism lead to the commercializing of all areas of life. Who would have thought it possible that the train, schools, hospitals, postal service and interpersonal areas must function more and more according to free enterprise criteria? This is because of the nature of capitalism, not lack of political will.

Why is this? Wealth in modern capitalist society always exists in two forms: as material-wealth (food, houses, clothing etc) and as money-wealth. However material-wealth only has a right to exist as abstract money-wealth when it becomes a commodity; it does not have its own right to exist. Providing enough goods for everyone is not a problem in capitalist society. Only transforming them into money, commodity and value is a problem (cf. “value-criticism,” “Wertkritik”). Everything has to be instrumentalized.

The sticking point is: the general financing crisis is not an invention of wicked rulers. It is the logical consequence of the uncoupling of wealth production from labor. In other words, all people on earth could be well-supplied without everyone having to work 40 hours. People earn little or no money while everything exists in abundance. Thus money or the pressure to have money is only the obstacle between people and their provision! Therefore what is good for the economy and what is good for people diverge more and more! Nevertheless the opposite is drummed into people.

The murderous commodity logic, the pressure that everything must first become a commodity and be purchased before it can be enjoyed has become totalitarian. Value is a total social system, a subject- and thought-form, not a crude economic thing. The demand that politics must take more responsibility reflects little knowledge about the nature of capitalism. What should politics adjust today? Politics and democracy grew up hand in hand with capital. They are chained firmly to one another. Democracy, market economy and (human-) rights are only the appendages of capitalism. Paul Valery wrote: “Politics is the art of hindering people from worrying about what concerns them.”

Modern democratic consciousness is an expression of commodity-oriented thinking that refuses to see its own limits and therefore can only imagine solving social problems on the basis of work and money in the scope of economic growth. For most people, a self-determined production and distribution of goods is unimaginable without exchange and pressure. What caused the panicky fear about thinking beyond the death-bringing logic of the capitalist system?

The demand for solidarity and sympathy can only mean two things today: attack on the domination of the present form of work and economy. Even with a basic income, the murderous commodity logic would not be broken because the money to be distributed cannot be simply printed. It must be gained by good management under capitalist conditions. For a long time, these conditions have only represented a downward spiral that nothing and no one can stop any more. Capitalism only knows the irrational end-in-itself, making more money out of money until the end of time. No emancipatory perspective is possible any more within capitalism. Capitalism strikes its own limits.


Are education and further training really of great importance so the unemployed can get a job again? The demands of the employment office for more employees and more continuing education for the jobless repeated like a prayer wheel only point to a crass loss of reality. Firstly, many unemployed persons – above all academics – are rejected as over-qualified. Secondly, how can further training create jobs – except for teachers? In reality, persons outside unemployment statistics are compelled to enroll in courses (the real number of persons without paid work is twice as high as the statistics show).

The often-quoted catchword “lifelong learning” becomes a coercion and less and less involves what someone wants to learn. The Munich pedagogy professors Karlheinz Geissler and Frank Martin Orthey see the success story of education in their tradition of enlightenment and emancipation. They urge scrutinizing the positive term “education.” In “Pedagogy – The Art of Making People More Foolish by Learning” (schulheft Nr. 116/2004), they write education is very attractive in crisis. Education becomes an “instantly available substitute meaning.” When real success – for example a job chance – becomes increasingly airy, education becomes more and more an end-in-itself. Time and again there is someone “saved” by schooling just as a lotto win keeps someone again and again from certain ruin. Therefore everybody “believes” in education and in gambling. Social problems are not solved while the individual is made responsible for his or her happiness or unhappiness. Education is a “lifelong standard way out,” Orthey stresses. The idea that the future will be better through education diverts from the present and its problems. The deficit is with the individual. If success does not occur despite education, I learned wrongly or learned what was wrong. Back to the start!

Geissler analyzes correctly. Adult education, especially adult education classes, represents an “arrangement for personal management.” “It serves as an orientation medium within the large number of lifestyles and values” to which people are often not equal. The adult evening classes do not clarify reality but produce reality that lives from appearance. The promises of happiness are not fulfilled in a market society (especially in a capitalist society) since money is earned in the promises and not in the fulfillment of these promises. For Geissler, adult education alongside television is “the greatest illusion enterprise in our republic.”

“Perhaps we only learn because we cannot stop working.” This casual sentence strikes a central nerve of the education terror. The ever-larger host of the unemployed does not only hope for a job chance from courses and retraining. All the education and further training often serve as their right to exist. This is denied to the unemployed as not full members of society. Firstly, retraining involves pure usefulness in the sense of the mad logic of the commodity world: I should learn what allegedly brings me occupational success. Secondly, the expensive education possibilities stimulate the economy. Thirdly, “employment” for the unemployed continues the senseless paid work treadmill with other means. Geissler concludes: “Lifelong learning is a form of avoiding life.”


What should we say about the demand of the Hessian minister of justice Christean Wagner (CDU) for foot-shackles for the unemployed? At the end of April 2005, he floated the idea of giving addicts and long-term unemployed under therapy electronic foot-shackles as a benevolent “help for self-help.”

The command in effect for persons with a job is diametrically opposed to the command for persons without a job. Total mobility is the ideal in the perception of work possibilities. This ideal is increasingly forced by the employment offices. On the other hand, the unemployed are prohibited from leaving their dwelling place or forced by the state to serve a lifetime in a certain place by so-called “measures.” In Austria – unlike Germany – there is no possibility of an annual three week travel during which unemployment benefits or emergency assistance continues. Nut leaving the living quarters to seek another place within Austria is increasingly risky. A subpoena could flutter into the house with the mail at any time. Whoever misses a deadline loses unemployment benefits for six weeks.

A glance at history shows this scenario in a weakened form in the 19th century. Massive migration movements already occurred at that time. In the search for work, the rural population streamed into the new industrial centers. When these persons become the burden of public assistance in economic crises, they have to return to their birthplaces. Only there did they have a claim to support. A contemporary parallel is striking, not only this historical parallel. Restricting the freedom of movement of the unemployed has its model in the treatment of persons without nationality or citizenship, asylum-seekers who already are limited in their freedom of movement. This equal treatment of unemployed and asylum-seekers has a certain logic if the status of the work subject and the legal subject are the two sides of the commodity-oriented subject form. In other words, a subject in capitalism must have work and a secure legal status. Asylum-seekers and unemployed, non-subjects, are immobilized while the subjects move to and fro in functional space.

As long as unemployment was not a mass phenomenon, the unemployed had a subject status, a honoris causa, an honorary title. However this status has become more brittle for several years. The long-term unemployed are increasingly denied rights as full subjects. While all people except prisoners and children subject to compulsory school may move freely, the unemployed are restricted in their freedom of movement. In the logic of capitalist management of non-subjects, the foot-shackles make sense for the long-term unemployed. The increasing “pedagogy” of the jobless is also an expression of their non-full subject status.


Positive thinking is the most effective means for adjustment in a world that perishes more and more where appearance has long counted more than anything else. In the past, slaves were brutally forced to work. Today everyone is his own slave driver; the lashing has a positive spin. In the last 25 years, the esoteric movement has beautifully hallucinated the inhuman conditions – by means of completely strange mental pranks. Today these mental whims are part of the common heritage. The fetish or magic word is positive thinking, Yin and Yang, holistic and spiritual and has a boom season in the economy. However positive thinking is not anything positive, beautiful, agreeable or humane. No, seeing the social insanity positively means seeing it negatively! The word positive means affirming.

In the past, it was still useful when the jobless undertook an education or further training. Today, self-marketing techniques and auto-suggestion are crucial, not that workers offer exploitation possibilities. Today when unemployment is a mass phenomenon, jobless managers pass on perseverance slogans, stamina slogans as in a long lost war. Who really believes there will ever be jobs for everyone?

Positive thinking or visualization may have a legitimacy in improving or regaining health for example. However in the world of work and in grappling with unemployment, such psycho-techniques only have the function of converting the most obviou8s social madness into private problems and making every individual responsible for their mastery.

That social conditions on the labor market are nothing and pure will is everything is sold officially as encouragement. Still this message has a prejudice as its real core. Failure proves the unsuccessful was not worthy of success. In positive thinking, a return of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is shifted to this life.

Positive thinking leads people back to the developmental stage of magical thinking. Seen psychologically, positive thinking is prescribed exercise in regression and infantile megalomania. A clinical symptom is promoted to a socialization goal.

Maria Wolflingseder
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  1. Why work ? — Danny