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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Work in Contemporary Capitalism

The argument of this paper is that work acquired its centrality as a source of value, creativity and entitlement under capitalism. In ancient world and feudal societies most labour was undertaken by slaves or serfs (or similarly disregarded women), and was assigned little positive significance. Work within capitalism has been defined in two contrasting ways. Within classical economics, it was regarded instrumentally, as a mere 'factor of production'. The 'free' labour contract was deemed to consist of a sacrifice of freedom and happiness in return for a material reward. The pains of work were supposed to be compensated by the satisfactions of consumption which became increasingly salient with enhanced prosperity. But in an opposing romantic or expressive tradition, work was regarded as of intrinsic value, as a form of self-expression and self-realisation. Advocates of this conception, such as Marx, Ruskin and Morris, drew on conceptions of medieval craftsmanship in their critiques of degraded forms of industrial labour. During the 1960s and 1970s, vigorous debates took place about the nature and quality of work, within contributions from many sources, from the early Marx to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. But instrumental conceptions of labour have been re-asserted during the ascendancy of neoliberalism since 1980s, now with especial force given the prevailing anxieties about the competitive viability of economies such as that of the UK. At a time when it would be highly desirable to re-orient debate towards more qualitative and expressive conceptions of work and well-being, dominant economic concerns are of a different kind. The paper concludes by asking what space can be found in contemporary society for a renewal of interest in the quality of working lives?'