For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Real Freedom for All

by Van Parijs, Philippe (1995)

Key Passage

For an activity to qualify as work, it must be one that is geared to the production (whether pleasurable or not) of a benefit that is external to the performance of the activity itself—and is, therefore, also capable of being enjoyed by others. This benefit need not be a material object. It can consist of the songs one sings no less than in the potatoes one grows. And it can also consist of both consumption and production goods. But pure play cannot be work: one can only work when playing football if one does so, or trains for doing so, in front of an audience. Nor can pure consumption be work, even though consumers are occasionally said to be ‘exploited’. One implication of this characterization is that a paid activity can generally be presumed to be work in the relevant sense. This is not because the payment indicates that the activity would not have been performed without external reward: it might well have been, and in any case it is work, and not toil, that is required for there to be exploitation. The ground for the presumption is rather that if the activity had not been expected to produce some benefit of some use to others, no one would bother to pay for it. ‘Expected’ is important here, because it is the expectation of the benefit, rather than its actual production, that turns an activity into work in the relevant sense: a worker is working even if the goods she produces end up remaining unsold—or harming their purchasers. To be paid, on the other hand, is by no means a necessary condition for an activity to qualify as work and hence to be liable to exploitation. Work can also be rewarded by some income in kind, by prestige gains, by gratitude, or not be rewarded at all. (p.138)


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Van Parijs Citations, Concepts of Work



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