By Peter Frase
Oct 13, 2015
Recently, a friend of mine became the object of the Internet’s daily Two Minutes’ Hate. An artist who’s been unemployed and down on his luck, he had the misfortune of appearing in a story which Salon decided to call “A Hipster on Food Stamps.” The article followed some college-educated but poor and underemployed people trying to eat tasty, nutritious meals while relying on food stamps. To me, it was a poignant commentary on both the failure of American capitalism and the deep pathologies of our food system.
But what the article seemed to call forth in its readers was unending bile and rage directed at people deemed insufficiently deserving of a public benefit.
The title certainly didn’t help. Calling someone a “hipster” is a license to spew all kinds of demented hate. Since the term carries connotations of slackers and trust funds, the image of “hipsters on food stamps” is designed to provoke the conclusion that someone is lazily taking advantage of the system. Certainly that was how things played at the blog of the libertarian Reason magazine, which mocked the notion that someone might both deserve economic assistance and make art and wear odd clothes.
One wouldn’t expect any better from libertarians, who have built an entire ideology around the worldview of twelve-year-old boys. But they aren’t the only people who react to stories like this with rage or contempt rather than empathy. Consider the following comment, left under my friend’s response to the article about him:
I’m sorry but you are a selfish, whiny leach. I can say this because I a middle-aged woman and have been trying to find work for two years without success though I have a masters degree in a fairly desirable field. I have dwindling savings and two kids. Because I stayed home with them for a few years I don’t qualify for unemployment and that has also damaged my marketability in the job world. Despite all of this I have never resorted to public assistance and will not. In addition, I have a back problem that surgery did not correct so I am in physical pain 24 hrs a day. Still I have taken temp jobs and we have cut back in many ways. I am proud of my fortitude and resourcefulness, because we will make it through this time and my kids will learn valuable lessons from me about self-reliance.
Here we have a person who has been marginally employed for two years and suffers physical pain twenty-four hours a day — and rather than demanding something better for herself, she demands that other people suffer more!
Vicious and unhinged discourse is widespread on the Internet, but this example is worth noting because the sentiment it expresses is by no means unique. This attitude — a petty and mean-spirited resentment — is depressingly common even among the working class. It sometimes seems to amount to no more than the sentiment that justice consists in everyone else being at least as miserable as you are. At one level, it’s an attitude that reflects diminished expectations, and can be partly blamed on the weakness of the Left and the defeat of its historical project: when you don’t believe any positive social change is possible, there’s little left to fall back on but bitterness and resentment.
This resentment is also at the heart of a lot of hating on “hipsters.” People see others whom they perceive to have lives that are easier, cooler, or more fun than theirs, and instead of questioning the society that gave them their lot, they demand conformity and misery out of others.
But why? The false (but not without a grain of truth!) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but even if it were accurate it wouldn’t make the attitude of contempt any more sensible. For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.
The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hardworking or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification.
This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?
The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class.
After years of struggle, discipline was imposed on pre-capitalist people who rejected regimented “clock time” and were prone to take a holiday on “Saint Monday’s day” whenever they had been too drunk the Sunday before. In America, a Protestant ethic equating work, salvation, and moral virtue arose in an economy full of artisans and small farmers, and was maintained only with great difficulty through the transition to more grueling and alienated forms of industrial labor.
In the twentieth century, perpetual war and labor’s Fordist compromise with capital provided a moral and material justification for the work ethic: during wartime (hot or cold), work could be equated with the patriotic struggle for national preservation, while the postwar golden age rested on an understanding that if workers submitted to capitalist work discipline, they would be rewarded with a share in the resulting productivity increases in the form of rising wages.
Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The Right, including its latest Tea Party iteration, presents itself as the defender of the hardworking many against the slothful and indolent. To take just one recent example, a Republican candidate for governor of South Carolina has proposed mandatory drug testing for recipients of unemployment insurance, echoing an early proposal from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
On the Left, the rhetoric of “working people” and “working families” is ubiquitous; indeed, in the wake of Clinton’s assaults on the welfare state, it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.” So New York State’s social democratic quasi–third party calls itself the “Working Families Party,” and the union-led One Nation march in Washington promotes the slogan “Putting America Back to Work.”
Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political left and right is ambiguous.
But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages.
With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.
Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs — food and shelter — are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to — and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than — betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl.
This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.
Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system. He may well have contributed more than our anonymous commenter in her temp jobs, if they were anything like some of the temp assignments I’ve had: entering rejected applications for health insurance into the insurance company’s computer, for example, a tiny step in an inhumane decision made by an industry that should not even exist.
Note, moreover, that the commenter’s defense of her worth was based on her temp jobs and refusal of public assistance, and not on one of the few activities that is widely agreed to be valuable and necessary human labor — raising children.
In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work.
And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.
The threads of a different ethic are all around us, if we begin to think of all the subtle ways in which our activities contribute to social wealth outside of paid labor.
Feminists were the pioneers, showing how all of capitalism, and all of human history, was predicated on a vast and invisible structure of reproductive labor performed mostly by women, mostly not for wages. The rise of new ideologies of communal production, like Open Source and Creative Commons, have revealed how much is possible without the wage incentive. Even the great new robber barons of the digital age, Google and Facebook, are instructive. Their value rests, on the most basic level, on the work of millions of users who provide content and information for free.
If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself.
The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like food stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic — whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the nineties or hipsters on food stamps today.
Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked.
Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.
If you like this article, please subscribe to Jacobin or donate.