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People have value because they’re people, not because they work.
This was published in Arc Digital back in 2019. It still seems relevant, so I thought I’d reprint it here.
In America, one of the first questions you ask someone is “what do you do?” Jobs serve as one of our primary identities, almost as basic as gender. Your job title is who you are, and, in more ways than one, what you’re worth.
This isn’t just social convention; it’s a political truism. Politicians and pundits love to talk about American workers and American jobs, even as they demonize unions and oppose workplace safety provisions. The ideal worker — the hard worker, the virtuous laborer who never tires or complains or shirks — is a cudgel used against the human being on the job who occasionally gets sick, bored, tired, or distracted. Honoring workers as workers is a way to control people. We might call it workerism.
suspicious of all issues that are not “pure” working class issues. What is more, the approach tends to have a very narrow idea of working class concerns. It tends to think mainly of factory-based struggles over wages and working conditions. These are the really important problems for workerism. Insofar as other issues, beyond the point of production (beyond the factory) are taken up, these are seen as secondary matters.
Workerism is hardly confined to the left, though. In the contemporary United States, glorification of manufacturing workers is widespread. It’s a big theme for Trump, who presents himself as a champion of coal miners and industrial laborers. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, he declared “I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country.”
Factory workers aren’t really forgotten, though. They’re insistently remembered. What America ignores is the majority of workers, who aren’t in manufacturing. Decades ago, factory work dominated the economy, but in 2018, manufacturing made up only 7.9 percent of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 0.4 percent worked in mining. 12.2 percent work for state and local governments (cops, teachers, etc). There are 1.17 million more workers in retail alone than in manufacturing and mining combined. As a whole, the service sector employs 80.2 percent of American workers.
By highlighting and glorifying a small minority of workers, politicians and corporate-friendly pundits can paint the majority as inadequate, lazy, entitled shirkers. The vitriol directed at teachers unions, for example, is enabled by the widespread sense that teaching isn’t real work, and that labor organizing outside of manufacturing is an inefficient aberration. “Union negotiators in the private sector know that if they insist on protecting incompetent workers and cling to outdated work rules, especially in the global economy of the nineties, the company will begin losing market share, and union members will lose their jobs,” a typical 1990s anti-teachers union argument put it.
Similarly, politicians rail against government waste and tout cutbacks in the public sector, blissfully tripping over the fact that those cutbacks mean laying people off. No politician would boast about shuttering auto factories. But because auto workers are the workerist ideal, people who work at the DMV can be fired without fuss. The U.S. was slow to recover from the 2008 recession because, in part, governments never rehired public sector workers. But you don’t hear Trump lamenting their loss at the RNC.
Part of the reason Trump doesn’t care about public sector workers is they’re disproportionately black women. The traditional manufacturing worker in the imagined MAGA past was white, able-bodied, straight, and male. People who are not white, able-bodied, straight, and male, therefore, aren’t real workers — they’re lazy freeloaders, stealing resources from the true virtuous laborers. Workerism is an effective dogwhistle for racism and sexism.
That’s why public discourse often treats “working class” and “white working class” as synonymous. After Trump’s win, even Bernie Sanders spoke about his victory as if he’d won laborers as a whole, rather than pointing out that his core constituency was predominantly white.
Similarly, workerism is part of the logic behind Trump’s attacks on immigrants, who mostly come to the U.S. to find jobs. Because they aren’t white, though, they aren’t visible as workers, and are instead criminals and “rapists,” as he put it.
The broad, bipartisan consensus that sex work should be illegal and closely policed follows this logic as well. Workers are men making stuff; sex workers are (mostly) women providing (stigmatized) services. Therefore, they aren’t really workers, and don’t deserve respect or labor protections.
Sex workers are viewed as unvirtuous, in part, because they do the wrong kind of work. Under workerism, virtue and labor are intertwined. Your value as a human being is linked to what you do, and whether you do it correctly. For example, J.D. Vance, in his widely acclaimed memoir Hillbilly Elegy, writes about working at a tile company where he was paid $16/hour to lift sacks of tile onto a pallet. But Vance doesn’t criticize the company for paying a low wage for back-breaking labor. Instead, he sneers at one of his fellow workers, Bob, a 19 year old who was frequently late and took a lot of bathroom breaks. Vance says that Bob is indicative of a lower class white culture “that increasingly encourages social decay.” Bob is not working hard enough at his boring, strenuous, dangerous, ill-paid job. He has failed the workerist ideal, and so must be censured.
Vance is a conservative, but you can find similar contempt on the left too. Amber A’Lee Frost, in an unusually confused article at the socialist magazine Jacobin, recently argued that Andrew Yang’s universal basic income plan is dangerous because it makes people give up on work and workers. Frost caricatures fans of UBI as unsexy, downwardly mobile young men, whose lives are filled with meaninglessness, comparing them to 1950s housewives. Frost sees UBI proponents as feminized because they aren’t engaged in traditional labor; if you’re not a workerist worker, you lack value, moral character, and sex appeal. “Ladies love a workin’ man” Frost writes.
UBI is bad, she argues, because it denies people their opportunity to be happy, fulfilled, swaggering laborers, producing and joining unions. In Frost’s vision, nefarious capitalists want to deny people the chance to be workers.
This is silliness, of course. Capitalists want people to work. More, they want people to see work as a moral imperative, and as life’s only source of meaning and value. Capitalists who support UBI do so because it can be a way to justify cutting other social services, not because it prevents people from laboring. For that matter, the problem second-wave feminist Betty Friedan faced wasn’t that she was denied work. It was that she was being forced to perform domestic labor for free.
There’s nothing particularly ennobling about work. Loading pallets of tile without a bathroom break, or conscientiously entering data for 8 hours at a clip, doesn’t make you a better person than someone who spends the day playing video games or having sex (for pay or otherwise). There are many ways to find value and fulfillment: caregiving, art, building organizations and relationships. Capitalism declares certain ones money-making, others worthless, and then sets about ensuring that workers and non-workers both end up enriching someone else.
Bosses want you to think that it’s immoral not to work. But morality is about how you treat other people, not what you do for a living, or how relentlessly you grind yourself down to make a profit for someone else.
Workerism tells us that work is what gives people value. But people are valuable in themselves. The goal of capitalism, and of workerism, is to make us forget that.
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