If hard work is the route to success, why do the people that work hardest enjoy the least success?
We live in a society with a central mythology that offers hard work as the primary route to success. The myth contradicts the reality that the commanding heights of our political and economic life are occupied entirely by people who do not work, in the widely understood sense, but own assets which they can leverage in order extract wealth from people from people who do. Increasingly, those assets are not even part of the production/consumption cycle of the traditional market economy, but are essential resources which generate rental income for the owner — housing, intellectual property, utilities, transport infrastructure, healthcare etc. Often these resources are produced directly or indirectly by the public sector, only to acquired later by private capital, such that the route to extreme wealth is not even innovation, let alone work, but having initial access to capital with which to capture these assets in the first place.
Within this mythology of hard work is another contradiction. Our ability to work, to produce value, gives us value ourselves. Our personal value is tied into the dignity of our labour. This produces a situation where many of the hardest working, most driven people — people with the “CEO attitude” claim to value hard work in itself, what Max Weber famously described as the “protestant ethic.” However, it is also obvious that those same people who espouse hard work as value in itself do so in order to afford themselves the opportunity, ultimately, to work less. To take many holidays, to employ an assistant, to retire early.
So we are confronted with a situation in which hard work is purported to lead to success, but doesn’t, or that it is something desirable in itself, but only to afford the opportunity to avoid it.
This leads us to the most frustrating contradiction of all, which has existed throughout our modern political history but has been greatly accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crash economic restructuring it has precipitated. The things that we all clearly want, and clearly have the collective resources to achieve, are deemed nonetheless “impossible”. And yet, just the slightest shift in our social organisation turns the “impossible” into the “essential”. Although these shifts in consciousness usually play out over generational time, larges crises tend to accelerate the process and we are seeing something like that right here and now.
The traditional discipline of the white collar office environment has been shattered, and the impossibly utopian idea of decentralised working from home has proven not only possible but, for many employers, objectively more efficient. That is to say nothing of the benefits afforded to those millions of workers who have been relieved of long and gruelling commutes (and to say nothing of the new problems which arise from submerging your work life into your home life).
More recently, the idea of a rapid state-sponsored rollout of a high-tech infrastructure, universally available free at the point of use, has been transformed from an impossible “broadband communism” to a clear and present requirement to prevent the collapse of the education system.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the sharp focus suddenly placed on key workers has raised the implicit question: what work actually needs doing to keep society running? If all the people working at home are earning wealth that fundamentally relies on a minority of crucial workers, why are the overwhelming majority of those crucial workers the very lowest income earners? Why is their obvious hard work clearly not propelling them towards to the top of the social hierarchy? The happy conclusion that many have drawn from this stark revelation is that, perhaps, a more equitable distribution of both work and reward might not be a moral but impossible demand, but an absolutely essential one. If nothing else, the climate crisis shows us that we must learn how to transform desirable but impossible ideals into critical, practical priorities.
Personally, I hope the pandemic puts to bed the idea of “Universal Basic Income” based on a fantasy that some people will continue to clean toilets, because they want to, while others will make coffee art and others still may write a novel — or that perhaps everyone will do some combination of all three. I hope instead it affirms the idea that collective demands for more power to working class people will result in that work being shared out in a way that is both more productive and more just, so that we can all find value in our work, while all doing steadily less of it.