Work is an idol, albeit a fallen one. Its imposition is no longer of a moral or religious kind ("You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow"), but profane and down-to-earth. In some Asian countries, labour is now being disciplined better by the pressure of consumerism than by an appeal to Confucianism. In Tai-Peh as in Berlin, public concern is about creating and getting jobs, not suffering to enter some earthly or heavenly paradise. So work now calls for a critique different from the time when an aura of self-inflicted pain surrounded it. Mobility and self-empowerment are the present slogans of capital. We cannot be content with anti-work statements such as the ones that the surrealists were rightly making eighty years ago.
Gilles Dauvé To work or not to work? Is that the question?
Even so, there are still those in the communist milieu who profess their eagerness to volunteer for work. They argue that a couple of hours a day in a communist factory is nothing. They assume that the pathology of work is located in the meaningless necessity of value production and that once this has been removed, work activity may be reoriented towards use and need.
It seems reasonable to infer that within the capitalist productive relation, the continuous expansion of labour across society (for example more people are ‘in work’ in the UK than ever before) is driven by a structural imperative to realise wealth as value. However, it does not follow from this that the pathology of work is located solely within value production.
Even if one volunteers for work in a factory that does not mean the factory as a structure is thereby defined by voluntary relations. Of course, it is possible to volunteer for the most arduous and dangerous tasks but this says nothing of the otherwise compulsory and punitive nature of such tasks. On the contrary, there is something in the human psyche which compels the volunteer to identify with whatever is terrible if it appears disguised as necessity. The very act of volunteering indicates a structural compulsion.
Those who would volunteer for communist work, for necessary work, are something like eciton burchelli, the Army ants, which create living nests from the interlinking of their own bodies. Those who intervene in society through their physical work-activity as a means for demonstrating their communist commitment, are thereby unconsciously suppressing the appearance of something else inherent to their arguments. This something else would seem to be a more or less hidden association of communism with a planned economy, and the subsumption of human variety to the dictates of a surplus-necessity that is exemplified subjectively by the willingness to work. The Army ant humbly presents communism as the victory of purified necessity over culture but also secretly exults in the prospect of his own submergence into a generalised flow of useful acts.
It is at this point that we encounter a sharp divergence between the imagined and the imaginary – the imaginary stands for that compulsive repertoire of ‘fascinating’ conditioning images which the self fears is essential to its own continued reproduction. Wherever the category of the imaginary is introduced, we may ask ourselves what it is that is freely imagined in the arguments for communism and what it is that functions as a neurotic and compulsive image.
The immediate appearance of the argument for necessary sacrifice, for communism as a social relation that is inseparable from a prescribed and apportioned number of hours of enforced labour, and which is first presented in terms of voluntary service, immediately flags up an imaginary component. The involuntary image which presents a vindication of the self through application to useful labour and of volunteered good works, can be seen as an indicator of an anxiety concerning self-worth... if such a commitment is not made upfront the dependent individual conjectures, perhaps society will disengage and abandon it.
The rush to defend the factory, albeit stripped of its association with value production, demonstrates anxieties concerning realism and social reproduction which are overcompensated for by reducing communism to production. A corollary of the anxiety felt by the dependent individual for his own safety, is a projected anxiety he feels for the ‘parent’ of society. If one does not step in and volunteer, like a good Army ant, might not the kingdom itself be lost? If one does not insist on the reasonable proportionality of a certain measurement of socially necessary, planned, measured and enforced labour time – a couple of hours a day of pure use-production – isn’t the feasibility, the very reality of the project of communism discredited and lost? If there is no integrated, performative, bottom-line, how might anything imagined be realised?
Those who consider that the reproduction of communist society will be dependent upon the measurement of labour time and the voluntary sacrifices made by individuals in the interest of social necessity unconsciously locate another component in work activity which is violent and compulsory but which is not value production.
These would-be communist worker-volunteers, who desire to build the nest of communism from the piling up of their own bodies, seem unable to recognise what is intrinsically alien in the received representations of use and necessity which they enthusiastically distribute in their arguments. They seem unable to reflect upon a possible runaway logic in productivism, nor do they see any dangers in the likely mechanisms of domination which might be activated as an emotional manipulation of workers via the compelling image of the common good.
In the fantasy of imagined work-volunteering another pathology of production is uncovered... if the value form drives the expansion of capitalist work-activity, it may do so only by fixing onto and adapting other unhappy components of the work process. These adapted, psychological traits, will survive value’s suppression and perhaps come to dominate communist relations if these are grounded in the primacy of a productivist ideology.