Rethinking the Work Ethic: On Elizabeth Anderson’s “Hijacked”

By Helen HesterJanuary 29, 2024

Rethinking the Work Ethic: On Elizabeth Anderson’s “Hijacked”

Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back by Elizabeth Anderson

INSIDE THE WORK ethic, there are two wolves—or so says political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. In her recent book Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back (2023), she argues that the work ethic has always been imbued with conflicting tendencies, even in its original Puritan form. Built upon the core virtues of “industry, frugality, [and] ascetic self-control,” the Protestant work ethic asserted that everybody, regardless of status or social position, had a responsibility to make the fullest possible use of their human capacities, thus tethering hard work to moral value. But such premises proved capable of generating multiple interpretations, some more emancipatory than others. Indeed, they have “been put to opposing purposes—some in favor of workers, and some against. Both sides have had profound effects on the history of political economy and public policy in Europe and North America since the seventeenth century.”

While the work ethic contained contradictory tendencies from its inception, it was in the late 18th century that it split definitively into what Anderson calls its “progressive” and “conservative” forms. The former “offered a promising vision for workers to enjoy a free, proud, and decent life by vindicating the claims of workers against the idle and predatory rich who tyrannized over them.” It insists on the dignity of all workers, regardless of social station, and argues that workers deserve the fruits of their labor. The progressive work ethic “culminated in social democracy, a political program devised by the social democratic political parties that formed in many countries of Western Europe in the late nineteenth century.”

The conservative work ethic, meanwhile, adopts an alternative perspective. It blames the poor for their own poverty, attributing to them a lack of drive, determination, and self-discipline—and it celebrates the wealthy for having earned their way to riches via hard graft and prudent forward planning. Hence, “readiness to resort to harsh and coercive treatment of the poor, and to praise the income and wealth maximization of the rich, expresses key attitudes of the conservative work ethic.” By way of example, Anderson points to the 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus, whose work “set the terms of virtually all subsequent conservative critiques of the welfare state: he blames poor relief for creating a culture of poverty.” It is the poor in particular onto whom the dangers of idleness are projected here (the wealthy would seem to be largely inoculated from critique), and it is the legacy of this conservative tradition that we are largely living with today. While Anderson associates the progressive work ethic with social democracy, she connects the conservative variant with neoliberalism.

At the heart of the book is a cry to reclaim the work ethic—to wrestle it back from vested interests and allow it once again to become a weapon for workers. There is much to admire in this endeavor. Hijacked is a substantial achievement—scholarly, rigorous, and rich in detail, with the author’s learning evident on every page. It gives an assiduous account of the history behind the crisis of work, as well as an accurate characterization of what this crisis involves today. I agree with much of Anderson’s assessment of the problems with work—that it is “being degraded to serve neoliberal shareholder capitalism, at the sacrifice of human welfare, capabilities, autonomy, and justice,” and that “we have good reason to be concerned about how the organization of work, and the nature of work processes, profoundly affect workers’ well-being.” I would even join her in celebrating some of the key positions she associates with a more emancipatory version of the work ethic—to “organize, recognize, and reward work so as to promote the welfare of the whole society in ways that promote the freedom, dignity, and welfare of each, along multiple dimensions of well-being.” Who could argue with that?

There are, however, certain elements of Anderson’s argument that I find somewhat less convincing. The first is her framing of the rise of the conservative work ethic as a hijacking (with its more recent resurgence as a “second hijacking”). According to this analysis,

in late eighteenth-century Britain, lazy and predatory capital owners—the original targets of Puritan critique—hijacked the work ethic and turned it against workers. […] These were people who got rich not from hard work, saving, and prudent investment in the real economy, but from merely passive ownership of property, state favoritism, market manipulation, financial speculation, and oppression of the less advantaged, especially of workers, tenants, and needy borrowers.

The idea of hijacking, of course, implies the forced deviation of something from its rightful trajectory. It is a perversion, a departure, a commandeering.

This framing is deliberate, according to Anderson:

[While] two versions of the work ethic developed in parallel […] they are not equally valid developments of the Puritans’ underlying normative vision of our duties to our fellow human beings. The progressive work ethic embodies a logical development of that vision. The conservative work ethic emerged from the ways the original targets of Puritan critique—the idle and predatory rich—hijacked the work ethic and turned it against workers, while letting themselves off the hook of its requirements.

This is helpful in terms of allowing her to push for a collective reclamation. Such an effort would not be an act of appropriation—it would simply be a restoration of the work ethic to its rightful status and an effort to set it back on its proper, progressive course.

At the same time, however, the two wolves have always been present, and “the divorce of the conservative and progressive work ethics was never absolute.” From the start,

it contained the seeds of its own corruption, in its epistemology of suspicion toward the poor and excessive credit toward anyone who is busy accumulating wealth, on the mistaken presumption that their business is adding to rather than merely extracting wealth by manipulating the rules of the system, exploiting others, and plundering the environment.

As such, we might be tempted to ask if hijacking is really an appropriate metaphor. Surely what we’re talking about is the successful development of one nascent framework inherent to the work ethic. Given that the framework in question is the one favored and actively cultivated by the more socially and economically powerful, it seems somewhat unsurprising that this is the version that triumphed. Given the in-built conservative dimension here, I am disposed to question why progressives should seek to leverage the idea of the work ethic at all. What can we do with it? What claims does it allow us to make that couldn’t be made via other, less compromised frameworks? I’m not sure.

A second query I have is whether Hijacked’s account of the progressive work ethic is really about work at all. It seems to me that it is just as much an exploration of other values—which would certainly explain why I (as an avowedly anti-work feminist) am able to find so much in its vision to which I could feasibly subscribe. Curiously, that which Anderson labels as the work ethic is often explicitly about resistance to work or the transcendence of the work ethic itself. Hence, she argues that progressive work-ethic theorists believe that “once society reaches a level of productivity sufficient to end poverty, policy should favor workers’ leisure over relentless toil, freeing workers to spend their time as they please and participate in the national culture.” She can also frame it as grounded in the conviction that human flourishing “requires ample opportunities for the exercise of a wide range of human capabilities, including judgment, intellect, imagination, autonomy, and diverse virtues—such as sympathy, public spirit, and courage—beyond those extolled by the work ethic.” This is a vision of a more-than-work work ethic, then—or, indeed, of a work ethic beyond (and even against) work.

This comes through particularly clearly in Anderson’s claim that theorists in the progressive tradition:

look forward to a society in which everyone can enjoy a life beyond the work ethic, one that recognizes a broader set of virtues and goods than those extolled by the work ethic. Such a society would offer plentiful goods for all to enjoy. It would not condition access to the goods fundamental to a dignified life, or to sharing in the common life of society, on “earning” them through individualistic striving. Such a society would be so arranged that individual fulfillment is inseparable from promoting the good of others, in which individuals are recognized for their contributions and take satisfaction in their contribution to the good of others.

Hear, hear! But how can such a vision realistically be framed as an argument for the work ethic?

Similarly, many of the achievements of social democracy celebrated here—including “rights to education, health care, housing, child allowances, and even legal aid, along with social insurance for unemployment, sickness, disability, retirement, and survivors’ benefits”—are hard to understand as simple by-products of the progressive work ethic. They do not particularly lend themselves to being thought of as celebrations of diligence, industry, and hard graft. And conversely, many of the ills of neoliberal capitalism that Anderson denounces are not directly related to work, either. We are told that neoliberalism is not only degrading work:

[I]t is also degrading the autonomy and capabilities of people in its design of welfare policies, its reliance on carceral institutions as a means of addressing poverty, indebtedness, addiction, homelessness, mental illness, and other social problems, its dismantling of democratic state capacity through outsourcing, and its support for oppressive, negative value-added business models.

As such, one wonders whether the emphasis on reclaiming the work ethic is really sufficient or appropriate; is there not something of a mismatch between the problems at hand and the conceptual tools being proffered here?

I’m not entirely sure that Anderson is convinced, either. Much of her defense of the work ethic seems, at best, tangentially related to the concept. She suggests that David Graeber’s influential critique of bullshit jobs can be squared with the progressive work ethic, for example, given that it condemns much contemporary work for “consigning people to uselessness.” Work is to be valued because it gives people an opportunity “to do something useful, work in a good environment, help the community, and learn valuable skills.” On the one hand, this is a fair point: wage work under capitalism can indeed be a source of personal fulfillment. It really does, for some, provide a sense of social connection, individual purpose, and collective organization. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. On the other hand, however, it would be equally foolish to pretend that what is being discussed here is simply work itself. Rather, we are dealing with a suite of other pleasures and virtues that are marginal to work—often obtained in spite of it, in the fissures of its organization—rather than intrinsic to it.

These qualities are also not exclusive to work, be it waged or unwaged. Meaningful collaboration can just as readily be experienced in playing music or sports; a sense of purpose and challenge can be achieved in learning a new language, speed-running a video game, or honing one’s artistic skills; we can get out of the house by coordinating with others in the neighborhood or interacting with those who share our interests. The fact that work has been one of the major avenues via which these social goods have been obtained does not mean it is the only or best mechanism for providing them. Indeed, in some ways it seems a particularly poor means of distributing these benefits, given that we have relatively little freedom over whom we come into contact with in the course of our working lives. You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family or your colleagues.

As ever in these debates, a great deal hinges on how we are defining work. If one characterizes it as “disciplined activity that involves the exercise of human excellences in ways that promote the flourishing of our fellow human beings,” one will reach different conclusions about its place in the social world than if one defines it primarily as a political problem—a social activity characterized by personal and impersonal domination. This may well be where I find myself talking at cross-purposes with Anderson, given that some of the things she considers to be real work I would consider to be (under the right social circumstances) more like freely chosen activities. I am just not sure what is to be gained by framing effortful activity in the pursuit of collective development, individual fulfillment, and autonomously chosen goals in terms of the work ethic.

From my point of view, it just doesn’t make sense to position explicit critiques of work and its harms in terms of some version of the work ethic. After all, the work ethic was, in its original Protestant form, a paean to self-control, extolling the virtues of “industry, frugality, temperance, chastity, and prudence.” To attempt to claim it for leisure, play, self-directed exploration, and the good life feels like as much of a hijacking as anything the conservative work ethic ever pulled. Rather, it would seem more helpful and accurate to position the progressive tendencies that are lumped together with the work ethic here as being critiques of work and assertions of other values. What other qualities might we give social weight, then, and what kinds of ethic might emerge in response?

The philosopher Martin Hägglund (drawing on Marx) argues that the less time we must devote to activities that are merely a means to an end, the more time we can devote to activities that we experience as ends in themselves. Our aim should be, in other words,

[to] decrease our realm of necessity (the time required to keep ourselves alive) and increase our realm of freedom (the time available for activities that we count as ends in themselves, which includes time for engaging the question of what matters to us and which activities we should count as ends in themselves).

While many of the kinds of things we currently associate with work could, under different conditions, be pursued as ends in themselves, it is nevertheless clear that this kind of perspective is an uneasy fit with the work ethic, even in its more progressive forms. Rather than attempting to reclaim the work ethic, as Anderson would have us do, I would suggest that it be ditched in favor of alternative normative frameworks—ones grounded not in a lionization of work but, first and foremost, in the celebration of individual and collective freedom.

LARB Contributor

Helen Hester is a professor of gender, technology, and cultural politics at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of social reproduction, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Helen is the author of After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time (with Nick Srnicek, Verso, 2023), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018) and Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014). Her latest book, Post-Work: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How We Get There (co-authored with Will Stronge) will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!