Excerpts From and Analysis of “A Conversation With Kathi Weeks” (Viewpoint Magazine)

Credit to Viewpoint Magazine for the image

I’ve never read Viewpoint Magazine before and honestly, this interview didn’t leave with much of a solid impression.

The text often relied on previous knowledge of certain thinkers, it used a lot of jargon (particularly Marxist jargon) and spoke with the confidence of someone who expects to be understood, yet isn’t saying much.

As such, I had to glaze over some of the questions and sadly even some of the answers. The trouble isn’t that I think Weeks and her interviewer aren’t intelligent people, they surely are. But the way they express themselves in a good portion of the interview is simply hard to read and downright unpleasant at times.

Honestly, my biggest gripe with this interview isn’t the interview itself but the nine paragraph introduction itself.I almost didn’t even read it in full because it got so sluggish for me. It felt like I was dragging my feet through a bog of unverifiable words, associations, concepts and images that dragged me more than it lifted.

I don’t mean to be harsh, but I simply forgot how much I really dislike Marxist jargon.

Now, I’m not sure if I got a headache from the interview or the fact that I was blaring the progressive metal band Opeth at 63 (or so) volume on my laptop speakers.

…The jury is out on that one, I guess.

I do think Weeks brings up some great points though, namely she starts off the interview strongly by saying:

First of all, work monopolizes our life. We spend a huge quantity of time and energy at work: preparing and organizing our work, making sure our work is secure, and recuperating our spent energy; we are not only working, we become workers!

The second problem concerns the capacity of work to dominate our political and social imagination. Work is where we develop our identity, access social networks, and construct sociality. In the United States, work also establishes the way one accesses health services and other social rights.

Finally, work, that is, wage labor, is a problem because as a system of distribution of income and of social inclusion it is, at best, incomplete. As the feminist critique has highlighted, there are many forms of social productivity that are not tied to wage labor, and which are not taken into account in the redistribution of wealth.

The first point is why I’ve dedicated this entire blog to this topic. There’s perhaps no more personal, all-invasive and surrounding force in our society than “work”. Whether we’re doing our jobs or (as Weeks helpfully points out) preparing for it, work takes up much of our lives. If we’re going to have something take up this much time in our life then we should at least critically engaging with it and see if it’s a worthwhile part of it.

Both weeks and I would argue against such a proposition, naturally.

The second point is why I attack work from an individualist perspective.

Work is a great way to subjugate the individual, strip them of their merits and accomplishments and put them on some pseudo-equal playing field with others. But, of course, hierarchical relations in the firm make certain that individuals will, inevitably, be reduced to a less important piece of a total whole.

In other words, the individual becomes part of a system that is emphasized not because of the individuals that make it up but because of the end result. The individual is sacrificed for the good of the collective.

The last point Weeks mentions (she is a Marxist-feminist) ties back into some comments I made earlier last month about mothers and work. The work that women, mothers, caregivers, etc. give to children and in particular work that is unpaid, is often diminished in importance. And that’s if those involved in these types of labor are recognized at all for doing this sort of unpaid work.

Now, I’d agree with the post-Marxist Andre Gorz that this sort of labor is best thought of as domestic labor. Labor that, if shared more equitably, would likely improve in its virtues and lessen in its vices. I suspect Weeks feels similarily.

Weeks continues,

And then there is perhaps the most important problem, which is the hegemony of the work ethic. Today this ethic is even more central because in forms of post-Fordist production there is an enormous need for workers willing to invest their subjectivity and to identify with their work.

I think this is just a fancy way of restating her second point (“Work is where we develop our identity…”) but nevertheless it’s worth re-emphasizing. People identify with their work so strongly that when we ask the question, “what do you do?” we aren’t actually asking what do you do for fun. We’re asking, “what do you do when you don’t have spare time?”.

And similar to the nation-state, people subsume their identities to these roles. These things that, if we had more free time, we likely wouldn’t want to have as a part of our lives.

Obviously this isn’t true for everyone. But even people like writers, programmers, artists, etc. can go to the opposite extreme and totally disassociate from their efforts to the point that they hardly see themselves in what they do.

Or perhaps another side of this equation can be the person who identifies so much with what “they do” that they focus on it to the detriment of things like family, friends and so forth.

Whatever the case may be, work is a constant source of de-individualizing people.

Lastly, the other big takeaway I got from this interview was Weeks ideas of how we’ll get to a post-work world:

The demand for more work must still make up part of a political agenda, including, for example, the efforts to improve the lives of women who do not have an equal and unconditional access to work and to income.

Also the demand for better work should be part of the political agenda, especially if it can speak to the “double exploitation” of women at home and at work and an end to the gender division of this work.

We should also, finally, cultivate a demand for less work.

It is, however, difficult to combine all these domands together. Demands for less work, more work, and better work can be contradictory. My sense is that today less work should be given priority.  In short, a post-work imaginary must be informed by a rigorous anti-work politics.

To be frank (hey Frank!), I have no earthly idea how this would (ahem) work.

Is the demand for more work meaning specific kinds of work? Is less work is the inverse? What would better work specifically apply to besides domestic labor? And that’s not to say that’s not important, as a feminist (though of a different sort), I certainly agree with Weeks that this has particular merit. But if it has merit there then why not elsewhere?

I understand (as Weeks says) that she only (and intentionally) dedicated small parts of her book The Problem With Work to getting us to a better world where work isn’t as important. But it still seems like she should have more to say than these three demands and some very loose applications.

To be fair, it isn’t like I have some sort of grand master strategy for the abolition of work.

Let alone what society will look like once we got there.

Still, I’ve written pretty heavily on tactics that we can take within our lives (see here, here and the “Tips for Slacking at Work” series more generally) and right now so that we can at least improve our own lives, if nothing else.

Past that, as an anarchist, I admit I don’t have a design for a post-work society. I don’t find it too heavily in my self-interest to be designing far away futures that likely won’t benefit me now or anytime soon. That doesn’t make it pointless on the whole though. Life is, after all, largely built on the backs of those who came before.

But even still, I’m not content with being another back. I want to reclaim my own life as much as possible and by doing so ideally help others who want a similar sort of individual reclamation. In that way, I often shy away from “communities”, “movements” (especially of the “mass” variety) and vanguards especially.

I’m not particularly accusing Weeks of advocating any of those things or mentioning them specifically because of her. Nevertheless, I do feel like my individualist strategy is much more orientated to be successful than ideologies that tend to reduce people to their work, as Marxists tend to do so.

I mean, their philosophy isn’t called a “workerist” one for nothing.

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One thought on “Excerpts From and Analysis of “A Conversation With Kathi Weeks” (Viewpoint Magazine)

  1. Pingback: Our Lives vs. Liberal Feminism - Abolish Work

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