Care work, participation and the politics of time

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According to Dave Graeber's new book Bullshit Jobs, a huge number of us (up to 40 per cent) are doing work that is essentially unnecessary. An anthropologist, Graeber uses case studies to theorise about these bullshit jobs, in ways that can be refreshing and illuminating.

Dave Graeber's Bullshit JobsFor example, he shows how the phenomenon exists in both the public and private sectors, and how a culture of longer working hours creates entire industries to facilitate the lives of workers captured by it. This analysis makes the transformative prospect of a 15-hour week seem highly possible, as well as addressing problems like climate change and endless consumption, for example.

But Graeber's approach also feels at times to be fiddly, and is more a starting point than a conclusion. He has applied a somewhat painstaking method for revealing something many of us instinctively grasp: that a huge amount of work currently done could be abolished with little impact on our wellbeing.

While it is useful to identify what jobs are unnecessary, there is a pressing need to consider the reverse proposition — a proper accounting of what work is necessary to reproduce ourselves, care for each other, and thrive materially, socially and spiritually. We need to develop a collective understanding of human dignity and the socially necessary work that is required to achieve this.

In his thoughtful and engaging book, The Refusal of Work, David Frayne alludes to this idea, with his call for a return to the 'politics of time': 'a concerted, open-minded discussion about the quantity and distribution of working time in society, with a view to allowing everybody more freedom for their own autonomous self-development'. The reduction and redistribution of waged labour is an urgent task to give us all the opportunity to live lives that are both productive and meaningful. It will also require us to rethink what we consider to be work.

What might the politics of time look like in practice?

To begin, if we want to talk about what kinds of work are essential to human dignity, is there anything more important than looking after the vulnerable, and educating new generations? We ought to start therefore with the work of social reproduction, which happens to be routinely underpaid or unwaged, and is often performed by women.


"Without a redistribution of time towards the work of collective decision making, politics will continue to be reserved for those with the time or money to devote to it."


For this reason, feminist politics has much to offer for sketching out a politics of time. Theorist Nancy Fraser undertook an assessment of the welfare state from a feminist perspective by comparing the two main approaches to empowering women — free childcare (allowing women to return to work) and a caregiver's allowance (paying women for care work). Her conclusion was that both models fall short in terms of what might be considered fair.

The ultimate ideal, according to Fraser, is for all people to do what women do already — that is, balance all family and wage-earning responsibilities simultaneously, but without the misery that has traditionally accompanied this kind of life. 'The trick is to imagine a social world in which citizens' lives integrate wage earning, caregiving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society — while also leaving time for some fun.'

A redistribution of work, particularly care work, is therefore essential to the dignity of those who perform this work, as well as the dignity of the young, old, ill and disabled who need to be cared for. It ought to be considered as important as productive work that helps us generate food, shelter, and scientific and technological innovation, which together sustain society.

Interestingly, Fraser also highlights the importance of making time for politics, the importance of which is routinely underestimated. Contributing to collective decision making and providing input on policy proposals takes up an enormous amount of time, which we need to make space for and not just expect that it will happen organically. Participatory democracy is an essential part of a just society and avoids creating public policy positions that favour certain classes. Without a redistribution of time towards the work of collective decision making, politics will continue to be reserved for those with the time or money to devote to it.

The same is true for artistic and intellectual pursuits — we must create room for play, reflection and relaxation, with an understanding that this is an essential contribution to society. This kind of work elevates our collective imagination, and expecting it to be done unpaid routinely means it is often materially immiserating or the province of the affluent. Karl Marx argued that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas'. To transform this requires that we create the conditions for creative and philosophical work to be done by the many, not the few.

Many people, including some on the left, like to talk about the centrality of work to our sense of purpose and dignity. Frayne argues that work is commonly understood as the method through which we acquire income, a sense of identity, make a contribution and find community — but for many, 'work has also become an extremely unreliable source of these things'.

One path through this nadir is to demand a reduction and redistribution of the time devoted to waged work, while expanding the idea of the nature of work to include things like social reproduction, participation in public life and fun. Rather than treat these latter pursuits as unremunerated side projects we squeeze in around the real work of waged labour, we should be thinking about ways to elevate the seriousness with which we treat these kinds of activities, culturally and materially. It would be a working life with less bullshit and more development of both the individual and collective sense of self.



Lizzie O'SheaLizzie O'Shea is a lawyer and writer. Her book on technology, politics and history will be published with Verso in 2019.

Topic tags: Lizzie O'Shea, jobs, work, underemployment, child care, parental leave



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Important & well discussed concepts, however remuneration needs to be considered to be as much as full time work, not part time, especially for women so that all can have the same living standards.
Maria | 12 June 2018


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