After an instructive, introductory first week, we started the second week with a lecture on the topic of “work”. Therefore Ernest Aigner, research associate at the Institute for Law and Governance and the Institute for Economic Geography and GIScience, both WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business), joined us. Recently, he has joined the Austrian Kompetenzzentrum Klima und Gesundheit in the function of Health Expert.

After a brief historical overview and development of the definition of “work”, we learned about the origins of the work-centred societies that we live in. Central to this is the understanding of wage labour as the basis for workers' subsistence. The value of work in neoclassical theory stems from consumption: work as commodity and theory of labour is concerned with prices and hence mediated through markets. Also, we learned that work in neoclassical theory is still considered as an unsatisfactory activity for the worker, which is unpleasant but necessary to create income for consumption.

As we try to question and criticise common economic convictions and theories during our summer school, we then explored different economic critiques of work in work-centred societies. The Marxist critique aims to socialise means of production to overcome exploitation. In his essay “What Do Bosses Do? The origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production”, published 1974 in The Review of Radical Political Economics, Stephen Marglin elaborates the capitalist reasons for the division of labour with his “divide and conquer” hypothesis. According to him, bosses gain their power by placing themselves between the market and the final work product, detaching the workers from the final work product. In other words, the division of work in the industrial chains deprives the workers from the product of their labour (since they don't produce the whole product like craftsmen would do), and they are thus unable to sell it themselves on the market. The form of the factory and the associated localisation plus the possibility of control of work in a fixed place creates another position of power for bosses. Finally, capital accumulation also results in political power for the bosses, which stands in stark contrast to collective control over production. This is just one example on how the exploitation of workers is analysed in the Marxist critique.

The ecological critique of work in a work-centred society focuses rather on the environmental resource dimension in the history of work. In this context it could be for example interesting to analyse why the British cotton industry did switch from waterpower to coal-powered steam. According to Malm (2013), this transition happened not due to initial superiority of coal-powered steam engines, but due to the possibilities they offered for the organisation of work (e.g. centralised production sites and fixed work hours independent of natural conditions).

The feminist critique deals with unpaid work (mostly done by women and other marginalized population groups) which is undervalued but often the primary source of real value in society! Due to its “honorary” nature, unpaid work is often not considered as “real” work and thus excluded from the working society. This can be observed, for example, through the fact that some mothers only work part-time and provide care work at home, which is unpaid. In the common it is said that "the father puts food on the table", whereas the real value for society (of raising the children) is created by the unpaid work of the mother (in a very heteronormative idea of family, which of course is only meant to serve as an example here).

In the last major part of his presentation, Ernest Aigner explained to us why political opposition to full employment has been established over decades and centuries. His main argument was that unemployment is recognised in neoclassical theory as an essential component of society. A certain buffer of unemployed is necessary to escape a wage-price spiral and also to ensure political stability: It is through the possibility of unemployment that the social value of employment is created; comparison with “the unemployed” gives the large class of working people a sense of belonging together.

To conclude, it is important to question our common understanding of work and labour. Reproducing the above mentioned neoclassical understanding of work and labour leaves us short of our potential to create a truly inclusive society where everyone gets a job he or she likes, which serves the common good and is fairly remunerated. By creating a buffer of unemployed, we neglect a resource that can be used efficiently: work. Proposals for job guarantees or work time reduction in order to give work a new inherent value and to separate it from pure capital accumulation and subsistence are already on the table. Now it is up to politicians to implement them.

Based on the lecture "Work" by Ernest Aigner during the AEMS 2022.
Written by: Tobias Welck

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