A Marxist, pro-labor critique of “Work Ethic”

Celebrating and acknowledging the importance of work doesn’t mean turning work into an ethical principle. If anything, turning work into a virtue is, paradoxically, a tool of the capitalist class.

Christian Patterson
2019-12-09
Underground Mall

Recently, I saw a facebook thread, where a leftbook page posted a meme that an anarchist made, mocking Marxists. The meme said something about how “authoritarian leftists” are pro work ethic. People in the comments were refuting with “of course work ethic is good” and “we shouldn’t be anti-work” and “we should fight the notion that leftists are lazy”.

I completely agree that the left shouldn’t be anti-work. Work is important, and the idea of socialism, to me, and Marx, and most of the left, means acknowledging how important work is, and integrating that into our collective lives in a democratic, fair, fulfilling, and non-exploitative way. We should fight the notion that leftists are lazy, even though conservatives will say that no matter what.

I also understand why a Marxist might say “work ethic” is good, because I understand they’re conflating work ethic with workerism or being pro-work in general. But if we take the historical uses of the phrase “work ethic,” we’ll realize it’s not actually a Marxist value.

In this post, I’ll explain why work ethic, on face value, is antithetical to the Marxist understanding of work. I will go into the history of work ethic, and I will give an alternative way to conceptualize “work ethic” from a Marxist lens.

If you were to be reductive, you can reduce modern socialist discourse into two camps. The more anarchist position is a desire to abolish labor, to reduce the need for labor, to make labor more voluntary, etc. They essentially desire to liberate ourselves from labor, not just compulsory and coerced labor, but ideally if possible, all labor.

The other camp would argue that labor is immensely important. Labor has been the driving force throughout history, enabling the overclass to live their rich lives. At the root of all political and economic conflict lies a laboring class that has been exploited. Everything around us is the product of labor. The goal of this camp is to reformat the political economy to best maximize the societal benefit of labor.

Of course, these are both reductive views and most people lie in between, or don’t think about it in those terms. Personally, I find the anti-work camp short-sighted. The simple fact is, no matter how much automation there is, there’s still a tremendous amount of labor fueling our existences.

I think in the US, it’s easy to feel like there’s so much automation because there’s a lot of visible, consumer-based automation. We go to the grocery store or pharmacy and see that every check-out is automated, and only one person is handling all of the self check-out. Now there’s touch screens for placing your order at fast food places, etc

But, our existence in this world is predicated, and depends on, more labor now than at any point during human history. We just don’t notice because most of that labor is performed in factories in countries Americans have never heard of.

So hopefully I’ve made myself very clear that I think labor is of the utmost importance. I would argue it’s the singular foundation for a society to exist.

But “work ethic” isn’t just valuing work, or taking pride in work, it’s treating work as an ethical value.

Max Weber wrote heavily about work ethic. He believed that with the Reformation, there was a reconfiguration of Christian values. No longer did Christians have to commit good deeds to get into heaven. Instead, who was saved or not was predestined. Because of this, Protestants believed that the way to get into heaven was by demonstrating ethics in a day-to-day basis, namely through their work. This led to a paradigmatic shift in ethics, that led to capitalism.

In this sense, work ethic is a bourgeois value. The bourgeois don’t work, or if they do, they still passively accumulate profits from the work of others. But it’s a bourgeois value because work ethic reifies capitalist values.

This is why one of the only reliable ways the bourgeois class can justify its existence is by insisting rich people just work so dang hard!

Work ethic is also a bourgeois value, because it enables them to demonize and neglect disabled people and people who otherwise can’t work.

The Marxist position isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – to treat work as an ethical principle. The Marxist position is that every society is dominated by a class, and when the working class is dominant politically, once and for all, classes would “wither away”.

That doesn’t mean work is a virtue. Workers are much more understanding about people with disabilities than the capitalist class.

But more importantly, a worker dominated governing system is simply that. There’s nothing magical, metaphysical, or utopian about it. Its not a government that emobidies certain virtues or ethics. There would still be plenty of issues and conflict under socialism.

So the Marxist position should be to celebrate workers, compensate them fairly for their labor, and acknowledge that everything around us was created by workers.

And none of that requires turning work into a virtue. In fact, celebrating work in its most tangible and material forms is the opposite of treating work as a virtue.

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