For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Work Under Capitalism

by Tilly, Charles; Tilly, Chris (1998)

Key Passage

Work includes any human effort adding use value to goods and services. However much their performers may enjoy or loathe the effort, conversation, song, decoration, pornography, table-setting, gardening, housecleaning, and repair of broken toys, all involve work to the extent that they increase satisfactionstheir consumers gain from them. Prior to the twentieth century, a vast majority of the world’s workers performed the bulk of their work in other settings than salaried jobs as we know them today. Even today, over the world asa whole, most work takes place outside of regular jobs. Only a prejudice bred by Western capitalism and its industrial labor markets fixes on strenuous effort expended for money payment outside the home as “real work,” relegating other efforts to amusement, crime, and mere housekeeping.Over human history, most work has taken place in one of three settings: household enterprises, such as farms or workshops; local communities, such as hunting bands or villages; and larger organizations, such as plantations and armies, run by specialists in extraction and coercion. In none of these settings does a labor market operate in any strong sense of the word. Even today a large share of all work—certainly a majority, in terms of labor-time expended—still goes on outside of labor markets: unpaid domestic labor, self-help, barter, petty commodity production, and more. Despite the rise of takeouts, fast foods, and restaurant eating, unpaidpreparation of meals probably constitutes the largest single block of time among all the types of work, paid or unpaid, that today’s Americans do. As “caring” work, ironically, its proper execution requires camouflage as something else: entertainment or devotion (DeVault 1991; di Leonardo 1987). According to a parallel logic, payment of a stipulated cash sum by one partner to another at the time of sexual relations marks the relationship as prostitution—hence market work—rather than friendship, love, marriage, or adventure.In forcing recognition of the genuine work women do outside the market, feminist scholars have in recent years drawn attention to the large portion of all work that women, men, and children all actually perform outsidethe world of wages, indeed outside the world of direct pecuniary compensation (Siegel 1994).Classifications of the labor force—active population as employed people plus people looking for employment—express the market prejudice. Employment for wages becomes the criterion of work, with the logically peculiarterm “self-employment” spread like a fig leaf to cover the conceptual embarrassment occasioned by unsalaried workers who strive for profit, rent, or some other form of income. As the constantly changing line between goods and services that are/are not commercially available indicates, however, no intrinsic difference sets off “real work” from the rest. Why should conversation, song, decoration, and so on count as work when performed as commercial services but not when carried on for the benefit of friends and relatives?To be sure, not all effort qualifies as work; purely destructive, expressive, or consumptive acts lie outside the bound; in so far as they reduce transferable use value, we might think of them as antiwork. To the degree that effort adds use value to goods and services that are available, at least in principle, to o th ers, w e co n sid er th e effo rt w ork. W e a d o p t a g e n ero u s criterion o f “use value”: a good or service that could sustain any activity carried on by a person other than its producer—whether or not we approve of the activity—has use value. To the extent, then, that (a) effort adds to the capacity of a good or service to sustain activities of other persons than its producers, and (b) those others could under specifiable circumstances lay claim to the good orservice, the effort qualifies as work. This definitional strategy has an ironic result: Where standard criteria exclude nonmarket efforts from the world of work, ours exclude nonsocial efforts; solitary weight lifting pursued solely for personal gratification does not qualify, whereas weight lifting for the pleasure of sports fans qualifies. (p.22)


No Keywords


Concepts of Work, Care Work



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