Mihailo Marković: What is Work?

Work is difficult to define. In the modern mindset, it has become synonymous with economic productivity — a primary cornerstone to progressing society: a kind of necessary evil.

Fundamentally, however, work does not implicitly have a negative connotation. Contrary to its function in today’s modern context, work is not objectively a burden nor a pleasure; It simply is. Work is indeed a necessity, that much is true, but must work be pursued and viewed as solely a negative aspect of one’s lifestyle and be downgraded to the point of dissatisfaction, hatred, and dissuasion? Yugoslav Marxist-humanist Mihailo Marković, in his philosophical work titled “From Affluence to Praxis” addresses this dilemma:

“Work is a neutral concept. It refers to an activity which is a necessary condition of human survival and development in any type of society” [65].

The indispensable nature of “work” is crucial to the praxis of Marxism. The elimination of the “free rider” issue is a paramount dilemma, and has to be properly discussed before goods are allocated accordingly. Specifically speaking, this requires a clear correlation between work done and goods received to be able to function fairly; however, the proper criteria and definition of work must be defined for such concepts to be handled.

The initial question that must be answered is — what is work, and how is it different from labor? Marković makes a stark distinction:

“In labor the worker uses only those abilities and skills which he can sell, which are needed in the process of commodity production… [Work] is the permanent exchange of matter with nature” [63].

“[Work] is the self-realization and satisfaction of human needs… [labor] might be maximization of income, or increase of power” [66].

Perhaps most importantly, work is a natural concept. It is not, by nature, exploitative nor negative. Only in the current mechanisms of the market, is “work” (better said as labor) defined by its productive forces — by its potential to produce more capital and profit. Realistically speaking, virtually all action that progresses the social being is work once this chained view of labor is broken. Leisure, which is seen as an valueless in economic terms, is indeed a form of work. It is used as an outlet to break from the routine of labor that is a commonplace in today’s age of modernity; an attempt to free oneself from the objectification of what he does.

The largest obstacle to the realization of pure work, the fullest self-realization and satisfaction of human needs, is the alienating nature of today’s labor. Marković defines it quite well:

“Alienated labor is the activity in the process of which man fails to be what he is, that is, fails to actualize his potential capacities and to satisfy his basic needs. Marx distinguished the following four dimensions of this type of alienation: (a) One loses control over produced commodities. The blind forces of market enslave man isnterad of being ruled by him. (b) In his struggle for more property and power man becomes estranged from his fellow man. Exploitation, envy, mistrust, competition, and conflict cominuate relationships among individuals. (c) Instead of employing his capacities in creative, stimulating work, man becomes an appendage of the machine, a iving tool, a mere object. (d) As no opportunity has been offered to him to fulfill his potential abilities, to develop and satisfy various higher-level needs, his whole life remains poor, one-sided, animal-like, his existence remains far below the real possibilities of his being” [63]. 

Although poetic in its definition, it is fundamentally true. Is it not human to become more inclined to work, if one feels involved in the final product? Is one not more inclined to work if he feels it is necessary for the community, which he has clearly learned, through praxis, that it likewise benefits him as well? The struggle, then, is to liberate work from being a status of wealth and power. Rather, it should be seen as a necessity for human conditioning and improvement. “Work” is not simply a commodity to be used and exhausted, to be stripped of creative spirit; it is has definite aesthetic qualities. If one realizes the beauty in work, the individual is more inclined to work to reach the means that was once outside its productive sphere. Work would develop beyond being a collection of one-sided mundane tasks for indefinite periods of time; it would serve as a necessary form of expression of one’s abilities and talents.

***
Labor’s Struggle for Supremacy by Eugene V Debs.
The Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue

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