Get to Work: Reflections on Class, Capitalism, and Purposeful Activity

First published on ZNet, August 9, 2013.

“Those Unwilling to Work…” 

Driving around Chicago with my car radio on recently I had the misfortune to hear the ranting of the arch-reactionary Rush Limbaugh. The target of Limbaugh’s venom during the 3 minutes I could stand of him was a standard right-wing whipping boy – all those ne’er-do-wells who “don’t want to work” but who still insist that they have the right to eat. Maybe, Limbaugh argued, the threat of starvation would push some of these “lazy bums” to “get off their butts” and start “contributing to society” – by working. 

I was instantly reminded of how United States Representative Steven Fincher (R-TN) justified the U.S. House’s vicious elimination of the former Food Stamps program (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from the Farm Bill – this in a piece of legislation that granted billions of dollars in public subsidy to big corporate agriculture – by citing scripture to the following effect: “Those unwilling to work shall not eat.” [1] 

For what its worth, the actual quote from the Bible, spoken by leading Jesus enthusiast Paul, runs as follows: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that are some which walk among you disorderly, not working at all, but are busy-bodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (King James Bible, II Thessalonians, 3:10). 

Also for what its worth, Fincher has himself received millions of dollars in farm subsidies. 

What is Work? 

What exactly do Limbaugh, Fincher and the rest of those who like to threaten poor people with starvation mean when they say that people should “work” and thereby “contribute to society’? Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition (Simon &Schuster, 1986) gives twelve definitions of the word “work.” The first five read as follows: 

1. physical or mental effort exerted to do or make something; purposeful activity, labor, toil.

2. employment at a job or in a position.

3. occupation, profession, business, trade, craft, etc.

4. (a) something one is making, doing, or acting upon; (b) the amount of this (a day’s work).

5. Something that has been made or done; result of a specific kind of activity or way of working: (a) an act or deed; (b) [pl] collected writings; (c) [pl] engineering structures, as bridges, dams, docks, etc.; (d) a fortification; (e) needlework, embroidery; (f) same as WORK OF ART

When Rush and Fincher denounce those who supposedly refuse to work, they are of course defining work primarily under definition #2 – as employment, that is working for a wage. They would probably also claim to be speaking in terms of #3 (the predominant meaning of which is either salaried professional employment or self-employment in a business or craft) but that would be a little disingenuous for they surely know that most of the poor people they love to complain about are not going to become independent professionals or business-owners. Folks who depend on welfare attach themselves to the American economy primarily at the bottom rungs of the labor market.

 Manufacturing Surplus People 

Now, forget for a moment that most working- and lower class Americans prefer employment to welfare and want to contribute to society. 

Forget that the United States’ remarkably weak social safety net – never very strong and whittled down by decades of relentless pressure from the right – falls far short of the requirements for a decant standard of living. 

Forget that the same can be said for the painfully low wages and largely non-existent benefits offered in the in low-skill labor markets where most of those who rely on welfare and/or private charity are most likely to find paid work. 

Forget that at $7.25 an hour, the current federal minimum (minimal) wage, many workers qualify for Food Stamps/SNAP and can’t afford to pay rent. Or that the current minimum wage would be near $18 an hour if had continued to grow at the same as U.S. labor productivity during the last three-plus decades as it did for 25 years after World War II. 

Forget the savage jobs gap – the huge mismatch between the large number of the unemployed job-seekers and the comparatively small number of jobs being created in the contemporary U.S. economy. 

Forget the intimate relationship that exists between the nation’s stingy safety net and miserly wages at the bottom of the labor market. Forget, that is, that workers who can count on little income and support beyond wages have less bargaining power in that market than do those who can rely on stronger social protections. As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward noted at the height of Ronald Reagan’s attack on the U.S. welfare state, income maintenance programs were “coming under assault because they limit profits by enlarging the bargaining power of workers with employers.” By reducing the desperation of the jobless and the costs of joblessness, strong public income and nutrition maintenance programs restrict employers’ ability to limit or reduce wages by threatening to fire and replace employed workers with unemployed workers.[2] That’s why “relief” has always been a sore spot for the bourgeoisie, facing attack from capitalists from the earliest days of the a largely wage-based labor system in Elizabethan England. 

Forget that many of those atop the United States’ steep economic pyramid have made their once unimaginable fortunes in no small part by dismantling the nation’s once thriving manufacturing economy, liquidating millions of “homeland” jobs along the way of creating a global “neoliberal” order. As left sociologists Charles Derber and Yale Magrass note: 

“Profit today has become inseparable from the manufacture of American surplus populations [groups of people whose labor and purchasing power is deemed unnecessary for the nation’s economic system to function – P.S.], already representing a majority of the American people…U.S. corporations now seek profits and become profitable largely through mechanisms that increase…surplus groups….The elites never acknowledge their surplus strategy even as they downsize and outsource with frenetic enthusiasm. Their talk is all about creating jobs, jobs, jobs….Meanwhile, all the leaders are carrying out precisely the policies that are undermining the prospects for job creation at home. They are destroying jobs in the name of creating them.”[3]

A Narrow Definition 

Disregard all that that and more (like employers’ rampant psychological and physical abuse of low-wage workers [4]), if you can, and reflect for a moment on what a socially and historically narrow definition of work Limbaugh and Fincher embrace. As a student of mine once observed, reducing work to work for wages – a common American practice, in all honesty – is like equating sex with prostitution. It also makes it hard to understand how the human species got anything done in the way of purposeful activity and great works for anything but a relatively small slice of its history on the planet. It is probably only in the last century that most working age adults in the world have had to rent out their labor power in order to earn their daily bread. Class inequality is itself a relatively recent development over the long stretch of human experience, covering at most 10 percent of the species’ history to date. Wage labor and the employer-employee relationship as the dominant form of workplace organization is even more recent, of course. [5] Jesus’ apostle Paul was hardly admonishing the Thessalonians to send their “busy-bodies” into a modern job market, the outlines of which he could hardly have begun to imagine in the Middle East of Roman times. 

History aside, do I engage in work when I dig and plant an organic vegetable garden in my own backyard, in my neighbor’s backyard or in a community growing space? When I shop for and cook up a meal for my family and/or my neighbors or for a local soup kitchen? When I record a homemade CD of rhythm and blues music in my attic? When I make phone calls and knock on doors as part of a public campaign against industrial pollution in my neighborhood or in anyone else’s neighborhood or town? When I research and write a paper on possible cures for acne or autism or cancer or on solutions to global warming or poverty or…whatever. When I help form a girl’s rugby club or write a critique of the King James Bible or of the Chicago White Sox’s dismal performance in the summer of 2013? When I help my cousin form a union at the bus company where she works? When I write and publish a ZNet essay on capitalism and climate change [6] (or on any other topic)? 

All of this and infinitely more in the way of purposeful activity clearly qualifies as work under Webster’s definition #1. Some of (the CD it qualifies under definitions 4 and 5.

But to qualify as work under the dominant capitalist definitions 2 and 3, the activities and products involved in, and resulting from my purposeful activity need to be connected to a market payment. And under the most relevant of those definitions (#2), that payment is a wage. If I organize my neighbors against toxic waste or against economic inequality or if cook someone a meal, I am not working by that definition unless an employer hires me to do so. (Of course, even with wages attached [I did work for a year in the mid 1980s as a paid door-to-door canvasser against toxic waste], the first two activities would probably strike Limbaugh et al. as the “disorderly” activity of a “busy-body”)

 Surplus Value 

It makes sense that the second Webster’s definition – employment – would become the leading definition and certainly the primary political meaning of the term “work” under the profits (capitalist) system. Capitalism means the private ownership of the means of production and other key assets and their operation for the profit of the owners. People who work for wages under capitalism are expected to create or transfer more value for or to their employers than is returned to them in their wages. This is pretty much by definition: where is the profit in hiring workers if the capitalist pays them the full value produced or garnered by their labor? The difference between what employers pay workers and how much value workers generate for and transfer to employers is what Karl Marx called “surplus value” – a critical (in fact the critical) ingredient of profit. 

People working alone or together in cooperative community vegetable gardens, community kitchens and neighborhood bicycle repair and rental co-ops do not provide surplus value for investors. People working as wage-earners in privately owned growing fields and in privately owned canning and bicycle manufacturing factories do provide that extra value to capital. No wonder business-friendly ideologues and a business-saturated culture tend to elevate Webster’s second definition of work over its first. 

The rich today, it should be recalled, are capitalists for the most part, something that makes their relationship with the so-called free market very different from that of the working class majority. As the Marxist political scientist David McNally explains in his important volume Global Slump (2010), most of us engage with the market primarily by renting out our core human capacity for work to more privileged others in order to survive – to purchase the use values that make life possible. The main purposeful activity in the work we perform in the act of employment – work that is designed by the employers and their labor coordinators in accord with their own interests, not ours – is simply to get by and, if possible, to build some comfort and security. Capitalists are different, by economic definition. Economically speaking, they and (above all) their highly organized concentrations of profit-seeking capital – corporations – care about little beyond exchange value and profit. They engage the market in order to exploit the world and its people and are in a competitive race to do so more effectively than their capitalist rivals. There would be no capitalist point to their investment without exploitation. There would be no point in paying us wages and salaries without surplus value – extra labor value going to them beyond the commodity price of our labor power or in lending us money without interest or in selling us good or services without a margin. When profit and its critical ingredient surplus value are deemed unattainable, they toss us into the metaphorical and sometimes the all too literal gutter where, as members of the “reserve army of labor” (Marx’s still-relevant term), we help them bid down the commodity value of labor. Here are McNally’s reflections (utilizing Marx’s famous “money-commodity-money prime” schemata for illustrating the inner logic of exchange and production under the profits system) on the difference between capitalists and the rest of us when it comes to how and why we engage the market: 

“As a rule, when capitalists enter the market, their purpose is entirely foreign to the motivations of most people. For most of us, money is a means to get commodities that sustain life. We sell a commodity (usually our labor [power]), get money in return, and use that money to buy commodities to consume. Put as a simple formula, we are regularly engaged in the cycle C-M-C, where C represents commodities and M stands for money. The whole point of engaging in the market, therefore, is to procure the commodities that make life possible. But things are very different for a capitalist enterprise. For a business, the operative formula is M-C-M’. The capitalist begins with money (M) then buys commodities, such as machines, raw materials, and labor power, with which to produce new commodities (like bread or jeans) that are sold for money (M’). Money, not commodities for consumption, becomes the end goal of production. But that only makes sense for a capitalist if the second sum of money is bigger than the first, which is why it is designated as M’. Otherwise the capitalist would be simply going through the whole cycle of investment only to come out with the same sum of money with which he began. Clearly, something else is going on: the drive for profit, the drive to accumulate greater wealth.”[7]

 The Real Command, Translated 

There’s a useful translation for the contemporary command that people must “work” in order to eat and should not rely on welfare. “Working class people,” the translation runs, “must enlist in the wage labor force, either in its active (employed) or reserve (jobless but seeking employment) army. They must subordinate themselves to the work and compensation regime built by and for capital, at whatever wages and with whatever degree of exploitation and at whatever duration the investor-employer class sees fit to impose.” Behind the citing of Biblical passages written at a time long before wage-labor and capitalism became prevalent anywhere on the planet, this is the real point of Limbaugh and Fincher’s admonitions to the poor. When they say “no work, no eat,” they hardly mean that people should be growing and preparing their own food and manufacturing their own necessities and other goods on at once cooperative and highly efficient, labor-saving basis in democratic, self-managed, and egalitarian basis, as imagined near the end of the third volume of Marx’s magisterial Capital

“ In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases…Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature….achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions [of shared abundance] most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature….Beyond…begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”[8] 

No, when rightists and others say “those unwilling to work shall not eat,” they mean that working class folks should earn their keep by subordinating themselves to employers. They mean that workers should give over their distinctive human capacity for intelligent and planned work to the external and supposedly higher authority of capital, granting it also the privilege of controlling and dividing the surplus generated by that work[9] They have no problem with the elite business class’s enjoyment of massive public subsidy and protection (corporate welfare) obtained through the legalized bribery of campaign finance (and many other forms of big money influence) or with the ubiquitous and giant upward transfer of value from employees to employers that is central to the profits system. 

Contribute to Society? 

What about the call for the working class poor to “contribute to society” by working for wages? It is laughable. Wage-earners work under the command of capital and social contribution to the greater common good is the last thing capital cares about, notwithstanding all its disingenuous fake-empathic/faux Samaritan [10] talk of corporate social responsibility and the like. “U.S. Steel,” that company’s former Chairman David Roderick once candidly commented in explaining why his firm was laying off workers and closing plants, “is in business to make profits, not to make steel.” That is a candid statement of the cold reality of the profits system. “Rarely is the reality put with greater clarity,” notes McNally: “under capitalism, use is irrelevant; profit is king. Capitalist enterprises have no particular attachment to what they turn out, be it flat-rolled steel, loaves of bread, or pairs of jeans.” [11] Or drones and missiles used to incinerate villages and people in the Middle East and Africa. Or a steady flow of obesity-, diabetes-, and cancer-generating foods and drinks that contribute significantly to the fact that “the world’s richest nation” ranks 33rd in lifespan.[12] (One can certainly sympathize with the McDonalds’ workers who recently protested and marched for $15 an hour, but it is hard, however, to see any particularly social contribution in the fast-food industry). 

Key financial outposts of capitalism, it should be added, have no particular attachment to turning out anything material or tangible in any particular country. Purely financial and largely parasitic instruments like credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other “financial weapons of mass destruction” (Warren Buffett in 2002) are normal capitalist productions no less than a ton of steel produced by a multinational corporation in Gary, Indiana or central China. 

One could, I suppose, argue that poor people should work for wages to support their families or even to boost the overall purchasing power of the national economy. But a family’s purchasing power or that of a national economy does not have to be fed by wage income any more than it has to be fed by welfare payments, technically speaking. Why should a poor woman or man get the money to meet her or his children’s needs by working as a wage-earner – perhaps even as a daycare provider for other peoples’ children – instead of being paid directly by society for the work involved in the care of her or h is own children? And wouldn’t it be better to fuel the nation’s purchasing power by paying young working class people to study and carry out community solutions to problems like violence, drug addiction, obesity, and pollution than by paying them to hand high calorie heart attack meals to aggravated commuters through drive-through windows at McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken? In any event, the purchasing power of the working class is under constant and relentless assault by capital, torn as capitalism has always been by the fundamental contradiction between (a) its drive to reduce wages and thereby increase surplus value (b) its need to realize surplus value through the sale of commodities to a mass market made up primarily of wage-earners. 

Contributing to American society – is that what the supposedly hard-working ultra rich [13] do in their positions at the top of the United States’ “free market” system, now so savagely unequal that six Wal-Mart heirs together possess more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the population? Not exactly, to quote the old Hertz car rental commercial, Even as it has steadily poisoned the nation and world’s air, water, climate and food supply across the modern (and if you like post-modern) era(s), the nation’s investor class has been dismantling the nation’s productive base and infrastructure ever since the 1970s. Prior to that pivotal decade[14], the United States “had been,” in Noam Chomsky words, “with ups and downs…a developing society, not always in pretty ways, but with general progress toward industrialization, prosperity and expansion of rights.”[15] During and since the Seventies, however, the U.S. has moved from “several hundred years of progress towards industrialization and development” toward what Chomsky called in the fall of 2011 “a process of de-industrialization and de-development… a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise – producing things people need or could use – to financial manipulation.”[16] Ever since, the financial elite has been hard at purposively active work alright, feeding its own pockets to create a New or Second Gilded Age while manufacturing millions of “surplus Americans.” 

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached at

 Selected Endnotes

1. Paul Krugman, “Hunger Games, U.S.A,” New York Times, July 14, 2013. 

2. Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 13-20. The “income maintenance programs mentioned and listed b y Piven ad Cloward at the time: Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, federal retirement and disability, railroad retirement and disability, military and veterans retirement and disability, Supplemental Security Income, Black Lung payments, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, School Feeding Programs, Supplemental Feeding for Women, aid for Families with Dependent Children, Energy Assistance, Housing Assistance, Unemployment Insurance, CETA public service jobs and training.

3. Charles Derber and Yale Magrass, The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making Us Redundant (Paradigm, 2012), 14, 16-17.

4. See Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan, 2001), for a harrowing account of this abuse and much more. “When you enter the low-wage [U.S.] workplace – and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well – you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship,” Ehrenreich writes (p. 210).

5. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World (London: Verso, 1999), 3-9, 319-322.

6. See, for example, Paul Street, “Less Than Zero: The 1% and the Fate of the Earth,” ZNet (December 9, 2011), 

7. David McNally: Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011), 73-74.

8. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole (New York: International, 1976 [1894]), 820.

9. For an analysis and definition of capitalism that places special emphasis on elites’ appropriation and division of the surplus produced beyond wage payments to workers, see Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012). See also Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 818-820 among many possible citations in Marx.

10. See Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer, 2013), 53-69.

11. David Bensman and Roberta Lynch, Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987), 88; McNally, Global Slump, 70.

12. “List of Countries by Life Expectancy,”

Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book (2012), “Life Expectancy at Birth.”

“Life expectancy at birth,” the CIA notes, “is also a measure of overall quality of life in a country” – a curious commentary on the American exceptionalism it and other leading agencies of the U.S. empire are expected to uphold.

13. For the observation/assertion that the current global financial elite is a very hard “working rich,” see Chrystia Freeland’s useful volume, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (New York: Penguin, 2012).

14. Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance During the 1970s (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

15. Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012), 302.

16. Noam Chomsky, “The Plutonomy and the Precariat: On the History of the U.S. Economy in Decline,” Huffington Post (May 8, 2012), read online at

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By | 2013-08-13T12:30:39+00:00 August 13th, 2013|Articles|