The work critique of millenials and A new universalism of emancipation

The work critique of millenials and A new universalism of emancipation
by Norbert Trenkle

The 4-Hour League, an alliance founded in 2016 to campaign for the 4-hour day is concerned with pushing back wage labor in order to have more time for a good life, for a gender-just redistribution of care activities and putting an end to the overexploitation of nature. Thus, it aims at breaking with the capitalist logic of efficiency and performance.
Meeting the target with more balance. The work critique of millenials
by Norbert Trenkle
[This article published on 6/17/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]
first published in Jungle World 2022/24 from 16.6.2022

Young people don’t want to work anymore! When towards the end of the seventies the first generation that had grown up in the so-called economic miracle, the baby boomers, poured into the labor market, the worries of the older generation were great. These children of the fifties and sixties, it was said, no longer had the necessary work discipline, were no longer willing to fit into the company hierarchy, had no performance ethos and generally preferred to enjoy their lives rather than work hard. Psychology diagnosed a “new socialization type” (NST) that was narcissistic, hedonistic and consumerist; and sociology spoke of a fundamental “change in values” (Ronald Inglehart) that was accompanied by a “post-materialist” orientation toward self-realization, individual autonomy and quality of life.

However, neither the gloomy forecasts of conservatives at the time (such as those of communications scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann), who once again feared some kind of demise of the West, nor the left-liberal hopes for a “humanization of the world of work” with the generational change or even for the development toward a humane society came true. On the contrary, it turned out that the needs of the younger generation were quite compatible with the new demands that the then emerging post-Fordist labor regime placed on the sellers of the commodity labor power.

It was no longer the type of company soldier who willingly repeated the same, monotonous sequences of activities that was in demand, but the flexible person who is also capable of making his or her own decisions, dealing with unpredictable situations and controlling complex processes. The fact that these people do not take working hours too seriously, but are happy to stay longer at the plant if they are given the feeling that they are working “independently” and “creatively” was a welcome side effect of this restructuring of production.

In this way, the rebellion against Fordist labor norms soon turned into a revolution in labor productivity that allowed capital to keep accumulating despite drastic crises. Labor pressure did not decrease, but increased, as more and more responsibility was shifted to individuals and performance measurement was further individualized. And working hours, whose reduction was still considered an important contribution to improving the quality of life and combating unemployment in the 1980s, have since been de facto extended again even in most sectors covered by collective agreements – not to mention the growing sector of precarious work, where 60 and more hours per week have already become the miserable standard anyway.

The disastrous consequences of this development are impressively demonstrated by a joint study of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was presented last year. According to the study, around 750,000 people worldwide die each year from heart attacks or strokes as a result of working at least 55 hours per week. “We have found the deadliest risk factor in the workplace. It’s not the machines, it’s not the particulate matter, it’s too many hours of work,” Frank Pega, the study’s director, is quoted as saying in Der Spiegel.

Against this backdrop, it is more than understandable that the generation of so-called Millennials, i.e. today’s 27- to 41-year-olds, is apparently no longer prepared to sacrifice their entire lives to their careers and to cut back in all other areas of life. At least, that’s what emerges from various studies that have been presented recently, for example the report “Working Better Together” by the Danish company Workday, which, among other things, develops interactive “feedback technology” that is supposed to help “increase employee engagement and productivity” in order to improve “business performance.”

However, it is also clear that this skeptical attitude toward work is highly individualistic. It is not gainful employment as such that is questioned, as was the case at least to some extent in the 1980s in the context of the New Social Movements; rather, the aim is to achieve a “work-life balance” – in other words, people still want to have time and energy for leisure and family in addition to work. In addition, work should be “meaningful,” although what is meant by this remains very vague. However, if the “meaning” seems to be given, Millennials identify all the more with their job and are quite prepared to work excessively long hours, as a study by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research (IfD) from 2020 found. There can therefore be no question of a fundamental rejection of the capitalist pressure to work and perform, even if this is criticized in part.

This attitude, which is as individualized as it is contradictory, is not really surprising. After all, we are talking about a generation that grew up in the era of neoliberalism and was taught from the very beginning that what they do with their lives depends only on their own performance. And in a society based on general commodity production, work is the central means of social participation and recognition. The post-Fordist upheaval in the world of work has not changed this. On the contrary, the general flexibilization and the intensification of competition and the pressure to perform have only thrown individuals back more strongly on themselves and their private interests.

Because the view of the social whole has thus been increasingly lost, discussions about the “work-life balance” tend to ignore the fact that the majority of people have hardly any serious choices within the work system anyway. They cannot choose a job that is perceived as meaningful, nor can they forego a so-called career in order to have more time for themselves; instead, they simply have to put up with lousy jobs at the supermarket checkout, in the cleaning crew or at the parcel delivery service, and accept excessively long working hours if they want to make ends meet at all.

At the moment, it does help them a little that in the capitalist centers the demand for labor is very high, so that they can more easily choose between various bad and somewhat less bad jobs. But first, this boom will end sooner rather than later. Second, labor shortages in the precarious sector can easily be mitigated by further immigration. And third, inflation is currently quickly eating away at relative wage increases.

However, there are also demographic reasons for the relative labor shortage and the declining motivation to work in the Western countries. As the baby boomers gradually retire, more jobs are currently becoming vacant, at least in the skilled segment, than can be filled by younger skilled workers. An entrepreneurially clever solution to this problem is currently being tried out in the UK. There, a large-scale pilot project to introduce the four-day week in 70 companies ranging from large banks to fish-and-chips restaurants began at the beginning of June. The idea came from finance and real estate entrepreneur Andrew Barnes, who founded the NGO “4 Day Week Global.” He is convinced that people can be just as productive in four days as in five, because they are more motivated and rested then. For this reason, pay should remain the same, but employees must also commit to doing the same things in the reduced time as before.

The British pilot project, which is being monitored scientifically, will now investigate whether this calculation actually works. If it does, it is clear where it will lead if the model becomes established: Gradually, the new productivity standard, based on further intensification and densification of work, could become generalized, while wages, despite promises to the contrary, are likely to fall successively, for example due to a lack of adjustment to inflation.

The concept of 4 Day Week Global therefore means the exact opposite of the emancipatory progress it promises. It does not represent a liberation from the dictates of work and performance, but rather intensifies them. The demand for a radical reduction in working hours, such as that made by the 4-Hour League, an alliance founded in 2016 to campaign for the 4-hour day, is something quite different. It is concerned with pushing back wage labor in order to have more time for a good life, for a gender-just redistribution of care activities and to put an end to the overexploitation of nature. Thus, it does not aim at a new productivity revolution, but at breaking with the capitalist logic of efficiency and performance. To the boomer generation, this critique of work may seem like the ghost of their own youth. In fact, however, it is more relevant than ever.


False front. A new universalism of emancipation is needed against Putinism

by Norbert Trenkle

Published in Jungle World 14/ 2022 from 7.4.2022
[This article published on 4/7/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The invasion of Ukraine is part of a large-scale offensive of an authoritarian regime that is driven by the threatening idea of having to change the world order in its favor. This offensive is directed not just against one country, but against everything that stands for the “depraved West” in Putin’s eyes and those of his followers. This includes, in particular, “sexual decadence,” i.e. homosexuality, and the so-called gender ideology, as well as the decomposition of “traditional cultural values. Behind this is an openly fascist ideology, as the Moscow sociologist Greg Yudin, for example, has traced.

For emancipative forces, it should be a matter of course to oppose the Putin regime. Of course, this puts them in the same league as those who equate the fight against authoritarianism with a defense of the so-called universal values of democracy, freedom and the market economy. This is problematic not only because this united front also includes forces that are not free of anti-democratic tendencies themselves, but also because it suppresses the fact that this much-vaunted universalism has long since been disgraced by reality, which is one of the main reasons for the global offensive of authoritarianism.

Liberal-democratic values are universal only in their abstract claim. However, their material basis, the commodity-producing society, is based on systematic exclusions and the social division into winners and losers. It therefore permanently denies this abstract claim. It is true that commodity-producing society is universal in the sense that it has imposed itself on the entire planet in a tremendous dynamic. But at the same time, it turned out to be a minority event: Only a relatively small portion of the world’s population can live a reasonably adequate and secure life and find rudimentary access to what the Charter of Human Rights promises. At the same time, this minoritarian way of life is based on the ruthless global plundering of natural resources.

The attempt made after the caesura of 1989 to establish a so-called New World Order under the sign of democracy and a market economy was therefore bound to lead to disaster. After the projects of catch-up state-capitalist modernization under the ideological auspices of socialism had already failed, the neoliberal offensive of the 1990s in turn left a trail of devastation in large parts of the world. In the ruins of these failed attempts at modernization, kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes as well as fundamentalist movements flourished, contributing their share to the disintegration of the respective societies. Attempts to control these tendencies militarily, where they became too dangerous for Western states, only made the situation worse. In particular, the 2003 Iraq war further devastated the already battered country, destabilizing the entire region and plunging it into a prolonged state of war.

Putin’s regime also emerged as a result of Russia’s disastrous market-radical transformation, but with the significant difference that he managed to stabilize the country again. Putin was able to rely on significant forces in the security and military apparatus and brought the so-called oligarchs under control, who had enriched themselves immeasurably during the wild privatization of the 1990s. Although they were allowed to continue doing business, they had to recognize the authority of the state and cede part of their profits for the purpose of producing legitimacy. After energy prices also rose, wages in the large state sector could once again be paid on time, as could pensions and certain social transfer payments. The infrastructure was modernized, at least in the centers.

This established Putin’s popularity, which continues to this day, and which he secured by suppressing opposition and authoritarian restructuring of state and society. But he also gained broad popular support by promising to make Russia a great power again, dominating a “Eurasian Union. Behind this is the urge for revenge for the deeply felt ignominy that the fall of the Soviet empire and the subsequent period of free-market transformation meant for many. This is the subjective underpinning of nationalist megalomania and deep-seated resentment against “the West.

Therefore, the attack on Ukraine should not be explained as a reaction to alleged provocations by NATO or the United States. It follows a very different, deeper-seated drive, which may have been reinforced by Western policy, but not generated by it. It is often precisely the losers in capitalist competition (or those who feel like losers) who mobilize the strongest regressive energies in order to restore their old status or at least to take revenge on the winners (or on proxy groups) – even if at the price of mutual destruction. This is also the reason why Putin is so popular precisely with the right and the extreme right around the world. Their resentment is fed by similar sources: It springs from an identitary grievance caused by the actual or perceived loss of a position of power in society.

The pronounced masculinism that Putin represents must also be seen in this context. For the loss of power touches the identitary core of the male subject status in bourgeois society, which is primarily defined by self-assertion in all-round competition and is secured by the construction of a subordinate femininity, which is supposed to represent the exact opposite of this form of subjectivation. Men around the world are reacting with the utmost aggression to the shaking of this binary and hierarchical gender order by feminist movements and economic structural change in recent decades. At stake here is the innermost core of their sense of self, which is bitterly defended, as can be seen abundantly clearly in the appalling increase in sexualized violence around the world. In this sense, too, Putin is the ideal identification figure. He represents a type of male loser who is fighting back against the dissolution of the bourgeois gender hierarchy and who is politically and militarily powerful enough to wage this struggle successfully.

This regressive worldview, in which authoritarianism, masculinism, and aggressive culturalism are combined, is not externally opposed to the much-invoked values of democracy and freedom, however, but forms, as it were, their irrationalist reverse side. This must be urgently recalled, especially in view of the current confrontation. If the Western public interprets the current confrontation as a clash of two value systems, the authoritarian threat appears as something alien that bursts into the world of liberal democracies from outside.

Such a view promotes several worrisome tendencies. First, the tendency toward a mirror-image culturalization of the conflict; the very talk of Western values is problematic because it suggests that these have a culturally specific character. Second, an even stronger isolation of the capitalist centers, i.e., an even more rigid guarding of borders in connection with a further increase in nationalism. And third, finally, the militarization of society (for example, through its own rearmament) as well as a concomitant remasculinization, as already expressed in the heroization of the Ukrainian resistance.

The confrontation with authoritarianism cannot be won in this way. Rather, the so-called Western societies thus become more and more similar to the seemingly external enemy, and the universalism of liberal-democratic values denies itself once again. The relative freedoms offered by life in the capitalist centers must be defended against the authoritarian threat. But this can only be done by taking them out of the logic of commodity society and thus pushing them beyond themselves. What is needed is a transnational solidarity of all forces that want to defend themselves against authoritarianism and at the same time put an end to the radical marketization of the world. What is called for is a new universalism of social emancipation.

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