The Problem with Work

Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries

The Problem with Work

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: Published: September 2011

Author: Kathi Weeks

Politics > Political Theory, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory, Marxism

In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks boldly challenges the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good. While progressive political movements, including the Marxist and feminist movements, have fought for equal pay, better work conditions, and the recognition of unpaid work as a valued form of labor, even they have tended to accept work as a naturalized or inevitable activity. Weeks argues that in taking work as a given, we have “depoliticized” it, or removed it from the realm of political critique. Employment is now largely privatized, and work-based activism in the United States has atrophied. We have accepted waged work as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining ourselves and others as social and political subjects. Taking up Marxist and feminist critiques, Weeks proposes a postwork society that would allow people to be productive and creative rather than relentlessly bound to the employment relation. Work, she contends, is a legitimate, even crucial, subject for political theory.


“[Weeks] convincingly shows how an imperative to be productive, at work, in the home, school and in life generally (’Five Top Tips for Productive Dating Profiles!’), is central to the way capitalism not only puts us to work but makes us want to be put to work. We think work is right and just and when we imagine another world, even a ‘post-revolutionary world’, we imagine a world of work. Weeks argues that we need to break the hold that work has on our imaginations.” — Nicholas Beuret, Red Pepper

The Problem with Work ... raise[s] key issues for feminism, including the question of whether capitalism can serve the interests of women today and in the future... Th[is book] should be widely read, discussed, and debated...” — Julie P. Torrant, Signs

“There’s no better way to spend the summer months than by thinking about waged labor, which is why I’m currently reading The Problem with Work, an inventive examination of how seemingly reformist measures such as universal basic income and reduced workweeks can be used as stepping stones toward a world beyond the daily grind.” — Frank Reynolds, The Nation

The Problem with Work . . . is bold for several reasons. Not the least of which is for its fundamental argument that work should be understood as a concern of political theory, that work is a matter of power and domination as much as it is productivity and economics. This academic provocation aside, Weeks’ book is bold in taking up the critique of work, in claiming anti-work politics. In doing so it breaks both with the dominant ideology that makes work a testament to one’s moral worth and with the center-left contestation of this ideology that demands more aggressive jobs programs to put people to work.” — Unemployed Negativity blog

“[T]his is well worth a read, as Weeks presents a set of imaginative and insightful ideas in a clear and thoroughly argued format.” — Ruth Lorimer, Socialist Review

“Faced with the neoliberal fiat that market values now define what is valuable as such, and that now, more than ever, work is the sole aim for which we all must live, Kathi Weeks stares back without blinking and demands something different. She urges readers to insist on less work and more money, and to do so in a self-consciously militant, utopian register. Combining an imaginative critique of neoliberalism’s warp-drive work ethic with a subtle and badly needed recuperation of the utopian as a mode of political theory and action, The Problem with Work makes a vital contribution to feminist theory, Marxist theory, and the growing political-theoretical literature on time and temporality.” — Paul Apostolidis, Theory & Event

“Finally, a well-reasoned and critical treatise on the nature of work has appeared that grapples with the work ethic and wrestles it into submission.” — Right to Be Lazy blog

“Weeks recognizes that what she proposes sounds, perhaps, too good to be true, or too radical ever to reach implementation in contemporary societies. Perhaps one of the most remarkable moves of the book, however, is that Weeks concludes her study not simply by acknowledging the utopian taste her argument may leave in the mouths of some readers, but that she tackles this notion head on through an examination of the psychology and theory of utopia and its links to feminist political imaginaries. The danger, Weeks concludes, is that feminists demand too little rather than too much change, and that a feminist response to the politics of work must be the refusal of work as it is discursively presented to—and constructed for—us and to demand and create alternatives to this normative notion of work.” — Nadine Muller and Claire O’Callaghan, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“The book makes a powerful case for radical feminism as the theoretical and political terrain in which the allegedly natural and objective values of work have been most cogently disrespected and demystified…Weeks’s book has the merit of grounding the collapse of capitalist work in terms of forms of life. In so doing, it opens new, possibly unsettling questions on the meaning of life as an activist project.” — Franco Barchiesi, Work, Employment and Society

“What Weeks affords us in her analysis are invaluable theoretical tools for exploring how the abstraction of labour proceeds in not only the practical existence of work, but its political existence…The virtue of Weeks’s treatment is the way in which she situates abstract labour in a radically repoliticized context open to contestation and struggle…”  — Frederick H. Pitts, Work, Employment and Society

"[The Problem with Work] is a useful introduction to Marxist thought on work while also critiquing it from a feminist standpoint." — Jennifer Woodruff Tait, Green Room

The Problem with Work is one of the most exciting and original works of social theory that I have read in a great many years. Kathi Weeks’s argument is daring and extremely well executed, and her book is remarkable for its clarity, compulsive readability, and insightful synthesis of critical social theories. This is a truly wonderful book.” — Judith Grant, author of Fundamental Feminism: Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory

“Kathi Weeks’s excellent book shows us that the project to build a postwork society is a feminist project, one that understands that the real liberation of labor must be the liberation from labor.” — Antonio Negri, author of The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor

“Less work or better work? Should alienated labor be a focus of political economic critique or is it more important to question the centrality of work to life and productivity to self-worth? Kathi Weeks builds a feminist political theory of work from these questions. The result is a provocative argument that not only sheds new light on second-wave feminism by putting the 1970s demand for wages for housework in dialogue with autonomist Marxism but reminds that tradition of its debts to feminist theory and activism.” — Lisa Disch, University of Michigan


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kathi Weeks is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Problem with Work 1

1. Mapping the Work Ethic 37

2. Marxism, Productivism, and the Refusal of Work 79

3. Working Demands: From Wages for Housework to Basic Income 113

4. "Hours for What We Will": Work, Family, and the Demand for Shorter Hours 151

5. The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope 175

Epilogue. A Life beyond Work 227

Notes 235

References 255

Index 275
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