Sunday, February 1, 2015

Does Work Undermine our Freedom?

Slaves in Ancient Egypt

Work is a dominant feature of contemporary life. Most of us spend most of our time working. Or if not actually working then preparing for, recovering from, and commuting to work. Work is the focal point, something around which all else is organised. We either work to live, or live to work. I am fortunate in that I generally enjoy my work. I get paid to read, write and teach for a living. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But others are less fortunate. For them, work is drudgery, a necessary means to a more desirable end. They would prefer not to work, or to spend much less time doing so. But they don’t have that option. Society, law and economic necessity all conspire to make work a near-essential requirement. Would it be better if this were not the case?

In recent months, I have explored a number of affirmative answers to this question. Back in July 2014, I looked at Joe Levine’s argument for the right not to work. This argument rested on a particular reading of the requirements of Rawlsian egalitarianism. In brief, Levine felt that Rawlsian neutrality with respect to an individual’s conception of the good life required some recognition of a right to opt out of paid labour. Then, in October 2014, I offered my own general overview of the anti-work literature, dividing the arguments up into two categories: intrinsic badness arguments (which claimed that there was something intrinsically bad about work) and opportunity cost arguments (which claimed that even if work was okay, non-work was better).

In this post, I want to explore one more anti-work argument. This one comes from an article by Julia Maskivker entitled “Employment as a Limitation on Self-Ownership”. Although this argument retreads some of the territory covered in previous posts, I think it also offers some novel insights, and I want to go over them. I do so in several parts. First, I offer a brief overview of Maskivker’s central anti-work argument. As we’ll see, this argument has two contentious premises, each based on three claims about freedom and justice. I then spend the next three sections looking at Maskivker’s defence of those three claims. I will then focus on some criticisms of her argument, before concluding with a general review.

1. Maskivker’s Anti-Work Argument
I’ll actually start with a mild criticism. Although I see much of value in Maskivker’s article, and although I learned a lot from it, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it. Large parts of it felt disorganised, needlessly convoluted, and occasionally repetitious. Although she introduced a central normative claim early on — viz. a claim about the need for effective control self-ownership — later parts of her argument seemed to stray from the strict requirements of that concept. This left me somewhat confused as to what her central argument really was. So what follows is very much my own interpretation of things and should be read with that caveat in mind.

Anyway, let’s start by clarifying what it is we are arguing against. In the past, I have lamented the fact that definitions of work are highly problematic. They are often value-laden, and prone to the sins of under and over-inclusiveness. I’m not sure that there can ever be a perfect definition of work, one that precisely captures all the phenomena of interest to those making the anti-work critique. Nevertheless, we need something more concrete, and Maskivker duly provides. She defines work as paid labour. That is, labour that is undertaken for the purposes of remuneration. This definition is simple and covers what is central to her own argument. My only complaint is that it may need to be expanded to cover forms of labour that are not directly remunerated but are undertaken in the hope of eventually being remunerated (e.g. work of entrepreneurs in the early stages of a business, or the work of unpaid interns). But this is just a quibble.

With that definition in place, we can proceed to Maskivker’s anti-work argument itself. That argument is all about the freedom-undermining effect of work. Although this argument is initially framed in terms of a particular conception of freedom as effective control self-ownership (something I previously covered when looking at the work of Karl Widerquist), I believe it ends up appealing to a much broader and more ecumenical understanding of freedom. As follows:

  • (1) If a phenomenon undermines our freedom, then it is fundamentally unjust and we should seek to minimise or constrain it.
  • (2) A phenomenon undermines our freedom if: (a) it limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) it limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and/or (c) it involves exploitative/coercive offers.
  • (3) Work, in modern society, (a) limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and c) involves an exploitative/coercive offer.
  • (4) Therefore, work undermines our freedom.
  • (5) Therefore, work is fundamentally unjust and should be minimised or constrained.

You could alter this, as Maskivker seems to wish to do, by turning it into an argument for a right not to work. Though I will discuss this general idea later on, I’m avoiding that construal of the argument for the simple reason that it requires additional explanation. Specifically, it requires some explanation of what it would mean to have a right not to work, and some answer to the question as to why it is felt that we do not currently have a right not to work (after all, we can choose not to work, can’t we?). I think time would be better spent focusing specifically on the freedom-undermining effect of work and its injustice, rather than on the precise social remedy to this problem.

What about the rest of the argument. Well, premise (1) is a foundational normative assumption, resting on the value of freedom in a liberal society. We won’t question it here. Premise (2) is crucial because it provides more detail on the nature of freedom. Although Maskivker may argue that the three freedom-undermining conditions mentioned in that premise are all part of the what she means by effective control self-ownership, I think it better not to take that view. Why? Because I think some of the conditions appeal to other concepts of freedom that are popular among other political theorists, and it would be better not to limit the argument to any particular conception. Moving on, premise (3) is the specific claim about the freedom-undermining effect of work. Obviously, this too is crucial to Maskivker’s overall case. The two conclusions then follow.

Let’s go through the two central premises in more detail. Let’s do so in an alternating structure. That is to say, by looking at the defence of condition (a) in premise (2) and premise (3); then at the defence of condition (b) in premise (2) and premise (3); and finally at the defence of condition (c) in premise (2) and premise (3).

2. Freedom, Time and the 24/7 Workplace
Condition (a) is all about the need for an ability to choose how to use our time. Maskivker defends this requirement by starting out with a Lockean conception of freedom, one that is often beloved by libertarians. The Lockean conception holds that individuals are free in the sense that they have self-ownership. That is to say: they have ownership rights over their own bodies, and the fruits of their labour. This fundamental right of self-ownership in turn implies a bundle of other rights (e.g. the right to transfer the fruits of one’s labour to another). Any system of political authority must respect this fundamental right and its necessary implications.

The problem for Maskivker is that many fans of self-ownership limit themselves to a formal, rather than an effective, conception of that right. In other words, they simply hold, in the abstract, that individuals have this right of self-ownership and that they should not be interfered with when exercising it. They don’t think seriously about what it would take to ensure that everybody was really able to effectively enjoy this right. If they did this, they would realise that there are a number of social and evolutionary imbalances and injustices in the ability of individuals to exercise self-ownership. They would realise that, in order to effectively enjoy the right, individuals will also need access to resources.

Now, to be fair, some writers do recognise this. And they highlight the need for things like adequate education and healthcare in order for the right to self-ownership to be effective. Maskivker agrees with their approach. The originality of her contribution comes in its insistence on the importance of time as an essential resource for self-ownership. Time is, in many ways, the ultimate resource. Time is necessary for everything we do. Everything takes time. Other skills and abilities that we may have, only really have value when we have the time to exercise them. Furthermore, time is a peculiarly non-manipulable resource. There is a limited amount of time in which we get to act out our lives. This makes it all the more important for people to have access to time.

You can probably see where this is going. The problem with work is that it robs us of time. We need jobs in order to live, and they take up most of our time. Some people argue that the modern realities of work are particularly insidious in this regard. Jonathan Crary, in his slightly dystopian and alarmist work, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, notes how work has colonised our every waking hour and how it threatens to colonise our sleep too. We are encouraged to make our time more productive, but also to be available to our workplaces at more times of the day, through email or social media. Indeed, the slow death of the regular 9-to-5 workday has, if anything, encouraged work to monopolise more of time. We have flexible working hours and our work may be more outcome-driven, but the marketplaces are open 24/7 and they demand more outcomes from us. The result is an infiltration of work into every hour of the day.

Some people may not resent this. They may feel that they are living the kind of life they wish to live, that their work is enjoyable, and that it gives them a sense of purpose. But others will feel differently. They will feel that work takes away valuable opportunities to truly express themselves as they wish.

In sum, access to time and the time-limiting nature of work, is one thing to think about when designing a scheme of distributive justice. An ability to opt out of work, or to have much less of it one’s lives may be necessary if we are to have a just society.

3. Freedom and Authorship of One’s Life
There is a related argument to made here about the ability to choose one’s time. It can be connected to Maskivker’s account of effective self-ownership, but it can also be separated from it. That’s what condition (b) is about. It appeals to a distinctive notion of freedom as being the ability to exercise true authorship over one’s life. This is a slightly more metaphysical ideal of freedom, one that joins up with the debate about free will and responsibility.

To understand the idea, we need to think more about the individual who truly enjoys their work. As I suggested at the end of the previous section, you could argue that there is nothing unjust about the current realities of work for such an individual. Granting them more free time, won’t really help them to exercise more effective self-ownership. They are getting what they want from life. Take me for example. I have already said that I enjoy my work, and I have been able to (I think) select a career that best suits my talents and abilities. I’m pretty sure I’m employing the scarce resource of time in a way that allows me to maximise my potential. I’m pretty sure there is nothing fundamentally unjust or freedom-undermining about my predicament.

Nevertheless, Maskivker wants to argue that there is something fundamentally unjust about my predicament. My freedom is not being respected in the way that it should. Despite all my claims about how much I enjoy my work, the reality is that I have to work. I have no real say in the matter. She uses an analogy between starving and fasting to make her point. When a person is starving or fasting, the physical results are often the same: their bodies are being deprived of essential nutrients. But there is something morally distinct about the two cases. The person who fasts has control over what is happening to their body. The person who is starving does not. The person who chooses to fast has authorship over their lives; the person who is starving is having their story written by someone else.

When it comes to our work, there is a sense in which we are all starving not fasting. We may enjoy it, embrace it and endorse it, but at the end of the day we have to do it. That’s true even in societies with generous welfare provisions, as most of those welfare provisions are conditional upon us either looking for work (and proving that we are doing so), or being in some state of unavoidable disability or deprivation. We are not provided us with an “easy out”, or with the freedom we need to become the true authors of our lives. (Maskivker notes that the introduction of a universal basic income could be a game-changer in this regard).

As I said, in appealing to this notion of self-authorship, Maskivker is touching upon a more metaphysical ideal of freedom. Within the debate about free will, there are those that argue that the ability to do otherwise is essential for having free will. But there are also those (e.g. Harry Frankfurt and John Fischer) who argue that it is not. They sometimes say that being free and responsible simply requires the reflexive self-endorsement of one’s actions and attitudes. The ability to do otherwise is irrelevant. So what Maskivker is arguing is somewhat contentious, at least when considered in light of these other theories of freedom. She claims that her theory better captures the normative ideal of freedom. But there is much more to be said about this issue.

4. Freedom and the Absence of Coercive Offers
The final condition of freedom — condition c) — is probably the most straightforward. It has its origins in the classic liberal accounts of freedom as non-interference by coercion. It is introduced by Maskivker in an attempt to address a possible weakness in the argument thus far. Someone could argue that the mere absence of acceptable alternatives to work is not enough to imply that it undermines our freedom, or that it creates a fundamental injustice.

An analogy might help to make the point. Suppose you are crossing the desert. You have run out of water and are unlikely to make it out alive. As you are literally on your last legs, you come across a man who is selling water from a small stand. He is, however, selling it at an obscene price. It will cost you everything you have to get one litre of water (which will be just enough to make it out). Because of your desperate situation, you hand over everything you have. Was your choice to hand over everything free? Was it just for the man to sell the water at that price? Many would argue “no” because you had no acceptable alternative.

But now consider a variation on this scenario. Suppose that this time the man is selling water at a very low price, well below the typical market rate. It will cost you less than one dollar to get a litre of water. You gratefully hand over the money. Was your choice free this time? Remember, you are still in a desperate state. All that has changed is the price. Nevertheless, there is something less disturbing about this example. Your choice seems more “free”, and the whole scenario seems more just.

The problem with the first case is that the man is exploiting your unfortunate situation. He knows you have no other choice and he wants to take you for everything that you’ve got. The second scenario lacks this feature. In that case, he doesn’t undermine your freedom, or violate some fundamental principle of justice, because he doesn’t exploit your misfortune.

How does this apply to Maskivker’s anti-work argument? Very simply. She claims that work, in the modern world, involves an exploitative bargain. There is no particular agent behind this exploitation. Rather, it is the broader society, with its embrace of the work ethic and its commitment to the necessity of work, that renders the decision to work exploitative:

Demanding fulltime work in exchange for a decent livelihood is comparable to demanding an exorbitant price for a bottle of water in the absence of competition. It leaves the individual vulnerable to the powerful party (society) in the face of the great loss to be suffered if the “offer” as stipulated is not taken (if one opts not to work while not independently wealthy) 
(Maskivker 2010)

5. But isn’t the abolition of work impossible?
Thus ends the defence of Maskivker’s central argument. As you can see, her claim is that the modern realities of work are such that they undermine our freedom and create a fundamental injustice in our society. This is because (conjunctively or disjunctively) work monopolises our time and limits our effective self-ownership; the absence of a viable alternative to work prevents us from being the true authors of our live; and/or society is presenting us with an exploitative bargain “you better be working or looking for work or else…”. You may be persuaded on each of these points. You may agree that a full (positive?) right not to work would be nice. But you may think that it is naive and unrealistic. You may think that it is impossible to really avoid a life of work. Maskivker closes by considering two versions of this “impossibility” objection.

The first, which we might call the “strict impossibility” objection, works something like this:

  • (6) We all have basic needs (food, clothing, shelter etc); without these things we would die.
  • (7) We have to work in order to secure these basic needs.
  • (8) Therefore, we have to work.

Maskivker has a very simply reply to this version of the objection. She holds that premise (7) is false. Not all activities that are conducive to our survival are inevitable. At one point in time, we had to take the furs and hides of animals in order to stay warm enough to survive. We no longer have to do this. The connection between survival and procuring the furs and hides of animals has been severed. The same could happen to the connection between work and our basic needs. Indeed, it is arguable that we no longer need to work all that much to secure our basic needs. There are many labour saving devices in manufacturing and agriculture (and there are soon to be more) that obviate the need for work. And yet the social demand for work has, for some reason, not diminished. Surely this doesn’t have to be the case? Surely we could allow more machines to secure our basic needs?

The second impossibility objection, which we might call the “collective action” objection, is probably more serious. It holds that while a right not to work might be all well and good, the reality is that if everyone exercised that right, society would not be able to support its implementation. After all, somebody has to pay for the system. Maskivker’s responses to this objection are, in my opinion, somewhat problematic.

She makes one basic point. She says that the existence of a right is not contingent upon whether it may be impossible to recognise it in certain social contexts, or whether universal exercise of that right would lead to negative outcomes. She uses two analogies to support this point. First, she asks us to suppose that there is a universal right to healthcare. She then asks us to imagine that we live in a society in which there is some terrible natural disaster, which places huge strains on the healthcare system. The strains are such that the available resources will not be sufficient to save everyone. Maskivker argues that the universal right to healthcare still exists in this society. The limitations imposed by the natural disaster do not take away people’s rights. Second, she asks us to consider the right not to have children. She then points out that if everyone exercised the right not to have children, it would lead to a bad outcome: humanity would go extinct. Nevertheless, she argues, that this does not mean that the right not to have children does not exist.

In some ways, I accept Maskivker’s point. I agree that a right may exist in the abstract even if its implementation creates problems. But I don’t think that really addresses the collective action objection, and I don’t think her analogies work that well. With regards to the right to healthcare in the disasterzone, I’m inclined to think that the limitations of the available resources would compromise or limit the right to healthcare. And with regards to the right not to have children, I think there is something fundamentally different about the problems that arise when we collectively head towards our own extinction and the problems that might arise if everyone stopped working. In the former case, no individuals would be harmed by the collective exercise of the right: the future generations who would have existed, do not exist and cannot be harmed. But in the latter case, there are individuals who might be harmed. For example, if doctors and nurses stopped working, their patients would be harmed. So I’m not sure that Maskivker has really grappled with the collective action objection. I think she tries to sidestep it, but in a manner that will be unpersuasive to its proponents.

6. Conclusion
That brings me to the end of this post. To briefly sum up, Maskivker presents an anti-work argument that focuses on the ways in which work undermines our freedom. She argues that this happens in three ways. First, work robs us of time, which is an essential resource if we are to have effective self-ownership. Second, work prevents us from being the true authors of our lives because there is no acceptable alternative to work (even in societies with social welfare). And third, because work involves an exploitative bargain: we must work, or else.

I think there is much of value in Maskivker’s article. I like how she focuses on time as a resource, one which should be included in any scheme of distributive justice. I also like how she integrates the anti-work critique with certain aspects of the mainstream literature on freedom, self-control and justice. Nevertheless, I fear she dodges the collective action objection to the anti-work position. This is where I think that technology, and in particular a deeper awareness of the drive toward automation and technological unemployment could be a useful addition to the anti-work critique. But that’s an argument for another day.

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