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Care work, participation and the politics of time

  • 05 June 2018


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.

For 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."