Does every salary deserve work?

Sunday June 5, 2016, Swiss citizens could have decided to live without working, for the rest of their lives, by receiving from the State 2 euros per month without compensation. The rejection of this prospect was clear: 76,2% of voters said no to "the establishment of an unconditional basic income" to "enable the entire population to lead a dignified existence and to participate in public life".

PIn the past, Swiss voters had already sharply rejected the possibility of moving from four to six weeks of vacation per year, reduce working time 40 to 36 hours per week, or even to advance theretirement age 65 to 62. The view that existence should not be devoted to seeking and carrying out an activity that is increasingly difficult to find, but necessary to survive, is not on the rise.

Sad political destiny that of the partisans of the utopia of remuneration without work. In France, Benoît Hamon in paid the price in the last presidential elections, with a disastrous result - the lowest score in the history of the PS.

According to an IFOP survey conducted at the end of 2016, 73% of French people consider universal income to be utopian and 65% fear that this will "encourage people to stop working and be satisfied with their universal income". However, 85% of those polled said that if the measure was adopted, they would continue to struggle "to earn more money, because they do not imagine that they are not working" .


The sociological, economic and philosophical divide between supporters and opponents of this kind of income could not be clearer. The starting postulate itself is divisive.

For proponents of universal income, work as we have known and imagined it until now is over. There are many metamorphoses. On the one hand, its nature: work is less and less confined to a place, determined schedules, and more and more intertwined with aspects of existence that were not necessarily involved in this activity before (emotions , feelings, interpersonal skills, network ...)

On the other hand, the shortage of labor is growing exponentially and inexorably, and this trend also applies to creative and innovative activities, increasingly threatened with replacement by the progress of digital and intelligent machines. From this diagnosis follows, logically, a political proposal. This is a change in the hierarchy of values, or even a revolution, in the relationship between individual and work: guaranteeing the subsistence of the individual, even in the absence of the sale (partial or total) of his own labor force, with his life in exchange for a salary.

From its inception, capitalism has placed the right to live and the right to work in competition.  Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr, CC BY

The rejection of utopia

Why does such an attractive utopia, based on solid arguments, in tune with contemporary issues, meet such stubborn resistance? What is the basis for this refusal to imagine the possibility of a life without work, so far manifested by the majority of Western citizens (it is only them that we are talking about, it should be remembered, when evokes this type of scenario)?

These questions are not new. They are, in reality, old like capitalism. From its inception, this has inevitably placed the right to live and the right to work in competition. Capitalism is constantly creating and destroying, in a more or less balanced way, jobs; it exploits the workers like an ordinary commodity; it breeds both wealth and poverty. For these structural reasons, from English laws on work in the XNUMXth centurye and XIXe centuries, we fiercely debate the following question: disconnecting work and salary is it appropriate - introducing the issues of charity, assistance / assistantship, patronage, _welfare _- or unthinkable, with the figure of working poor as the only mass economic subject admitted by capitalist labor?

Work as self-realization

During the XIXe and XXe centuries, the main cultural responses to this dilemma have converged on a form of apology, worship or sanctification work.

There is the Protestant-bourgeois version (the work as a sign of election and salvation of the soul) and the socialist-proletarian version, where the work is a weapon of revolutionary emancipation. In either case, this ideology assigns to work the role of a vector of self-realization from a moral, economic and political point of view. This gives an essential function to the labor market: that of a major social integration device.

Resistance to the prospect of a universal income - corollary of a social stigmatization of those who do not work or of those who aspire to live without working “really” - find their source in this “labor” culture. This crosses the borders of the traditional class conflict between capital and labor, bosses and workers (with significant differences between North and South of the Western Hemisphere).

However, this dimension is a blind spot in the arguments of the supporters of the utopia of a life without toil. They do not understand that, until now, the experience of work has been essential for most Westerners, because of their condition: isolated, powerless, free only to consume and enjoy endlessly. They forget that the work experience has a dual nature. Condemnation to earn each day its bread, torture, torture (as indicated by one of its possible etymologies: trepalium in Latin), labor is also childbirth, creation and realization: a horizon of light that can produce concrete transformations.

This experience of self-realization despite the difficulties has a very strong affinity with what one might call "the capitalist utopia". It's everyone's dream of freedom self-made man : to create a better life, with your own strengths, therefore with your work. In Robinson Crusoe, bible of this kind of dreams, industry is the most common word.

Faced with this prospect, so laborious, the universal income project, as it is articulated today, has very little chance of being imposed. The utopian hope of billions of self-made men / women can hardly be replaced by that of a life without work, with an income distributed in a paternalistic way by the state.

Enrico Donaggio, Resident 2017-2018 at IMéRA, IEA Aix-Marseille, member of RFIEA, Professor of philosophy, University of Turin

La original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.

Image credit: Flickr / CC - Andrew Hart

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