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The Right to Work

From Silesia to Warsaw, Poland is protesting for the Right to Work to serve capitalist ends and revealing the sacrifice which has been quietly imposed.

  • May 28 2020
  • Agata Pyzik
    is a writer, contributes to Artforum & Calvert Journal, author of Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (2013) and a memoir A Girl & a Gun (2020). She lives in Warsaw.

A spectre is haunting the art world: that of needing to work. After the first two or three weeks of the lockdown, filled with terrifying reports on the spread of the disease and the victims number, another voice took over: that of 'the right to work’.

One should of course not expect any less from the hardcore neoliberals, the self-appointed ‘entrepreneurs’ (or more like the petite bourgeoisie aspiring to be the entrepreneurial class), who are protesting the lockdown – most grotesquely in Eastern Europe, where they got together with neofacists and nationalists, proclaiming the ‘entrepreneurs strike’.

But strangely, I hear this voice even from art-related progressive parties, such as the super-avant garde Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. In their Facebook event on ‘Overproduction and post-growth in times of pandemic’ on 18th May, they made peculiar statements such as „we all want back to work, we all want back to normality.” I was particularly struck by this statement, because as hard the period of quarantine can be, no - not all of us want nor should want to get back to work. This has no doubt been partly used in the context of the museum’s functioning, a public institution closed for almost three months now, in which its employees indeed desire to work, this discourse nonetheless registers something else: namely, the obligatory discourse in which one feels obliged to want to work. I cannot wait to get back to work! I cannot wait to return to prove my own productivity, to deserve the name of a culture worker!

Such debates sound peculiarly detached from the realities of anyone outside the cultural field. The Museum, which was supposed to open an exhibition concerning the postgrowth itself (‘Penumbral Age’) before postponing it due to the pandemic, has recently thrived in various Zoom-powered debates about the future of work. But it considered mostly the artists, some maybe scholars and knowledge-producers, and did not extend outside the where people can safely sit in their houses, ‘self-isolate’ and afford to have such debates in the first place.

As the intelligentsia discussed the world's future, the service workers and the working class worked.

And expectedly, in the areas, such as Greater Poland or Silesia where the majority of food and other industries are concentrated, the victims of the virus were growing- not only in ‘essential’ industries, such as food or energy, but also others, such as furniture. It could be said this occurs due to the ruthless employers and the nature of contemporary capitalism; a system needing to maintain the production line regardless of the actual needs of the population. The hotbed of Covid in Poland are the mining towns. „We can't stop working, we need to go down,”  said one miner from the Jankowice mine. „I just hope they'll catch the sick ones, we need to keep digging, otherwise the orogen will close and we will lose the wall, and therefore – our jobs.”

Nobody among the miners will complain about the ‘overproduction,’, as keeping the ’production’ is vital for their – and our – survival. Such pictures of workers, which refuse to stop working, could place them in the same rank as the hapless ‘entrepreneurs’ from Warsaw, staging a histrionic show to display their love of capitalism. There, in Silesia, the miners demand the ‘right to work’ not only because this is how they've learned to think in capitalism. The same stance is often assumed by the soft “social democratic” left itself, which posits the worker as a seller of his/her naked workforce and nothing more. If one becomes identical with his/her work, then the principle will always be to sell it as much as possible.

This way, the workers will always be the mere sellers of their work, which they have to sell to survive.

And therefore, his/her class interest becomes not separate or contradictory to the one of the ‘entrepreneur’. The commodified work becomes quantitative and perhaps in this way the worker might feel like the employer's/entrepreneur's equal. This approach is additionally powered by the neoliberal commodification of workers as ‘human capital’. Within this lingo, you not only need to maintain you’re always ready to sell some more of your work but to be your own ‘manager’ and self exploit, while you ‘maintain your image.’ Shortage of work is then not a ‘knock-off time’, welcomed by the worker, but is seen as a time lost, time calculated into lost profit.

That is why the mere work value must be challenged as a concept. If we are all just individualised sellers of our work, then we will remain so during the pandemic, atomised and alienated from our work even more, yet always pressured to be ready to display the willingness to work. Therefore, we need some values which would surpass the sheer work-value to be ever able to suppress the obligation of work. The success of French Amazon workers, which could cease their work and was achieved thanks to the unionisation, is symptomatic.

Perhaps in this way, the world of cultural workers shows its resemblance to any other workers of the world. What I resented the most during the pandemic, was the compulsory display of your productivity over the social media among the artistic-intellectual circles. (The fact that we are keen to even deepen the already omnipresent and penetrating ways of self-surveillance is, sadly, rather unsurprising). On the one hand, it served to accumulate the social capital. But on the other, it was signaling this morbid readiness-to-work, which can never sleep or display signs of apathy.

The freedom from work is in most cases a rather welcome development. For many this period of not being productive (or rather, displaying signs of productivity) has become the first moment they might think, reflect and stop the performance of the everlasting readiness-to-work. And even if this is a utopian claim, as few people can afford this lack of scrutiny over their productivity, this world of collective values above making work essential is a separate value, worth aspiring to.



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