Once you get through Wednesday, only two more days to go until the weekend… The weekend is real life — the work-week is its interruption. Work is what we do when we are not alive, when we stick our necks into the machine and the vampires suck our life for profit.
By Keith Joseph / The Rag Blog / April 1, 2009
Socialism is once again up for discussion, so I thought it was time to propose an answer to the question: why socialism? And my answer is: Wednesday. What is Wednesday? Wednesday — or as my old man used to call it: hump-day — is the third day in the work-week. Once you get through Wednesday, only two more days to go until the weekend. What is the weekend? The weekend is real life — the work-week is its interruption. Work is what we do when we are not alive, when we stick our necks into the machine and the vampires suck our life for profit.
On Wednesday mornings I wake up and think: “What day is it? It’s Wednesday. Oh, I’m halfway there.” Halfway to where? To the weekend, yes, but also more importantly, even if less obviously, halfway to celebrating the waste of my life, the waste of five beautiful days that cannot be gotten back so I can say on Friday with a foolish grin “TGIF.”
I first noticed the horror of work under capitalism when I finished celebrating the end of high school. On the last day of high school I thought like some kind of an idiot, “I will never have to get up this early again.” The memory of the alarm clock, my mother screeching my name as I ignored the alarm clock — it still makes me shudder — weighed on me, and I thought it was really over. Little did I know it had only just begun.
I painted houses after high school and worked my way through college and kept painting houses for a few years after I graduated college. I remember the feeling of sacrilege, of wasting something beautiful, holy, and irreplaceable as I sweated outside on ladders of various heights to earn a day’s pay ($60 a day at the beginning, when I finally quit painting I was making $140): I am trading a perfect day, in the perfectly healthy body of a twenty year old for $60. I will never have this day again and I certainly will never be able to buy it for $60. It is priceless and I sell it for $60. What kind of fool am I?
I still sell my days. The horror of it isn’t so biting. That is really how we are desensitized. Not through violence on TV but by our willingness to sell our days, our weeks, our months and our years — our lives for a mess of porridge and a plasma TV. Individual resistance is futile, revolution is necessary — the slow long process of dismantling capitalist social relationships and the horror of wasting lives for the profit of a few.
My daughter is only six years old — already she is in training. Every weekday morning she wakes up and gets ready for school and my wife or I drop her off on our way to work. She asked me the other day, “How long do I have to do this for?” (get up every morning and go to school). I answered her, “Honestly, it never ends. After school you have to go to work. They let you retire just after your body starts falling apart, just before you are about to die.” I tell her the truth so she will understand why socialism is necessary.
Socialism is necessary because work under capitalism is a life-sapping process that also infiltrates our lives outside of work. The most basic level of experience — our relationships to ourselves and others — is corrupted by capitalist social relationships. Marx covered some of this ground in his rightly celebrated 1844 Manuscripts (also known as the Paris Manuscripts). He explains that human beings are alienated in four main ways: from each other; from their own possibilities; from their activity at work, and from the result or product of their labor. Marx’s text is full of rich insights and each form of alienation has the possibility of sustained discussion. Indeed, plenty of ink has been spilt analyzing these texts.
I only want to add that work is drudgery because it is organized under capitalistic social relations. Our jobs are not to make, produce, or create anything; our job is to produce surplus value (surplus value is the source of all forms of capitalists’ income: profit; rent; and interest). As a head of U.S. Steel once boasted, “The job of US Steel is not making steel, it is making money.” And our job is to make money for one capitalist enterprise or another. But this is not the only way to organize work. The hatred that most of us feel for work under capitalism is not a hatred for work in general. Indeed, work under different conditions can be challenging, interesting, fun, creative and self-fulfilling.
One of the things that makes Marx’s 1844 manuscripts so fascinating is his discussion of work as the vehicle for self-realization. Work can actually become the opportunity to not only discover your self but to create your self and develop humanity as a whole at the same time.
One example used by Marx is the development of human senses through work. Musicians, for instance, not only create music but develop the human ability to hear –work holds the possibility to create not only objects outside of ourselves but the creation of ourselves. Many of us have had this sort of experience outside of capitalist work relations. For instance, I enjoy writing. It is not only an opportunity to put ideas on paper, but it also allows for the creation of the ideas. The work develops the self and its capacities and the finished product is then a way to understand ourselves and the world more deeply. But writing as a job would be quite different in most cases. I wouldn’t choose my topics, I would have to write in a style that conforms to someone else’s expectations, and I would have an artificial deadline — when, what, and how I write, under capitalism, would be dictated by another.
This is one reason many people don’t enjoy writing, because the process is learned in school settings that are very much intended to mimic, as training, the conditions faced by workers (the whole point of education under capitalism is to produce willing and able workers, i.e., people with skills capital needs and people who are willing to work under exploitative conditions enforced by illegitimate authority. You learn to accept authority and hierarchy as the norm — “Go to the principal’s office” — and you learn to have your most intimate activities dictated by outside forces, i.e., when to wake up, when to eat, when to use the bathroom, and when to go home).
When I tell someone I worked as a house painter they often will respond: “I like painting.” I answer, “That’s because you never did it for a living.” When you paint a room in your apartment or house, it is your own freely chosen activity. You determine when, how, and why the work will be done and you keep the product (the painted room) of your labor. This is non-alienated work. One way to know the difference between alienated and non-alienated work is through your experience of time. Alienated work is when you watch the clock with unimaginable longing: “Is it lunch time yet?” “Is it time to go home yet?” You don’t watch the clock when you are performing non-alienated labor, and time seems to pass quicker than usual. The surprising thing is that not only is non-alienated work far more enjoyable and fulfilling, it is ultimately “more productive.” You can get far more work done in non-alienated settings.
Under capitalism non-alienated labor, whether playing music, programming, painting, writing, or laying brick happens in between “work,” on the weekends (if we are lucky enough to have weekends off) or in the evenings (if we are working the first shift), but one of the main objectives of socialism is to transform work so that it is no longer the interruption of life but instead the activity that makes life most interesting and fulfilling.
Einstein had some ideas about “Why Socialism?” too:
by Albert Einstein
This essay was originally published in the first issue of *Monthly Review* (May
Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues
to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of
reasons that it is.
What a fabulous piece of writing, Keith. This is the best analysis of work and everyday life under capitalism that I’ve seen since Guy Dubord wrote La Société du Spectacle in 1967.