The Struggle for Meaningful Work

The Struggle for Meaningful Work

Socially necessary labor should entitle us to respect, decent pay, and safe conditions—not a duty to work relentlessly, without complaint.

Waterfront, Joseph Kaplan, ca. 1940 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In March 2020, most of the governors in the United States issued stay-at-home orders for all but “essential workers”—people involved in providing services necessary to support basic human needs. The public hailed essential workers as heroes and called for them to be given hazard pay. Many employers accepted this demand. Yet shortly after, harsh treatment of essential workers became the order of the day. Employers ended hazard pay. Hospitals fired healthcare workers for complaining about the lack of personal protective equipment. Slaughterhouse owners sped up disassembly lines, which forced workers to crowd closer together and increased the spread of COVID-19. 

This conflict over the proper treatment of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest battle in a three-century struggle over the political implications of the country’s traditional work ethic. Does the fact that workers are engaged in socially necessary labor entitle them to respect, decent pay, and safe working conditions? Or does it mean that they have a duty to work relentlessly, without complaint, under whatever awful conditions and low pay their employer chooses in pursuit of maximum profit? The first view I call the progressive or pro-worker version of the work ethic; the second, I refer to as the conservative work ethic. At various periods in European and North American history, one side or the other has held sway over moral thought and economic policy. 

The three decades following the Second World War marked the high point of social democracy and a triumph for the progressive work ethic. In the rich democracies of Europe and North America, the postwar period was distinguished by high rates of economic growth widely shared across economic classes, strong labor unions, a robust welfare state centered on universal social insurance, state investment in education and healthcare, powerful liberal-democratic institutions, and a general sense of optimism. 

Today, the denizens of Europe and North America are suffering reversals of these developments. Neoliberal policies are largely to blame. Financialization, fiscal austerity, tax cuts for the rich, harsh welfare restrictions, assaults on labor unions, and international trade agreements favor capital interests and constrain democratic governance. These policies have increased economic inequality, undermined democracy, and reduced the state’s ability to respond to the needs and interests of ordinary people. 

In my new book, Hijacked, I argue that neoliberalism revives the conservative work ethic, which tells workers that they owe their employers rel...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: