The Dawn: Jul 17, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Work: social disgrace or self-objectification

Mushtaq Soofi 

Work in the widest sense and a multifarious form defines what we human beings are. It’s an ever-going process through which we self-objectify at two levels; individual and collective. The individual and the collective, though distinct, are inseparable in the totality of things. Individuals cannot act in isolation outside the arena of social interaction which creates a framework for the emergence of collective. And collective cannot come into being without the sum total of actions, intended and unintended, that individuals consciously and subconsciously undertake.

An unstoppable urge to self-realise is what makes us different from animals and our world distinct from animal kingdom. But the process of self-realisation and self-objectification operates within the parameters defined by the structures evolved by the social forces underpinned by aggressive power and urge to command, having propensity to appropriate what is not produced or created by them.

Manyfold problems related with and arising out of work have been subject of perennial debate and discussion. We cannot imagine the splendours of the world, the present and the past, without work and its cumulative effect that built, what we call, human civilisation. Besides, the fact that our civilisation has extracted immeasurably huge cost in terms of human labour and exploitation of nature, work itself raises some crucial and controversial questions which still remain unsettled.

To begin with, work is not something that is innate to human nature. It doesn’t come naturally to man as some of us suppose. Doing what is defined as work in human context is an acquired ability, a product of consciousness and imagination in a long and complex process of evolution. Even the simplest work requires expenditure of physical and mental energy which is quite distinct from the instinct-driven acts.

Man is usually most comfortable when not compelled to work. He loves being lazy and sluggish. When he works, he has to move with the burden of constraints imposed by exploitative structures. The hidden surplus in what he produces/creates or its real value is appropriated by politico-economic forces beyond his control through the constructed legal and moral instruments. So work, a creative human expression, instead of becoming a source of enrichment ends up being a source of impoverishment for the worker. Marx was not the first to discover this. Poet Shah Hussain (16th century) in his verses repeatedly talks of work as socially forced labour and its abandoning as emancipation.

“A wonderful thing happened/ I got my spinning wheels smashed/ it freed me from my tormenting agony”.

Work in a class society breeds alienation. It alienates producer from his produce and creator from what he creates. Work, his productive expression, once completed, becomes something other than his own. Once appropriated, it turn into its opposite; it functions a hostile entity, a negation of its own and of the one who brought it into being. This phenomenon, explored and brilliantly theorised by the young Mark, unmasked the ugly face of capitalism which stressed the workers to produce more and more at the cost of their spiritual and emotional health in the name of development and progress. Kafka exposed the myth of empowered individual by laying bare how the process of alienation, inbuilt in the capitalist society, resulted in the loss of individual’s control over his destiny.

In our society which relies on class as well as on caste, work is doubly problematic. Class is a social construct. So is caste. But caste has been made to carry metaphysical sanction and is thus transmitted from generation to generation as a divine reality while, in fact, if looked at historically, is little more than a garbled truth. It’s ugly fallout of wars between races and cultures. Caste system, in its historical process, started equating caste with the profession. Lower castes, the majority of which came from the vanquished people of Harappa civilisation, were forced to adopt professions that involved lot of physical labour and skill and were thought to be demeaning. A combine of class and caste, on the one hand, was deftly used by the parasitic upper crust as a lethal weapon to devalue the value of work appropriated while on the other, it was employed to demean and disgrace the worker to keep rigidly stratified society’s well-oiled social machine running. So work or skill, a measure of human dignity and creativity, was made out to be a social disgrace and denial of individual’s honour.

The meanings of work depend on the social structure within which it’s done and regulated. In a humane non-exploitative society, work can be a source of immense enrichment, individual and collective, while in an oppressive class society, it impoverishes individual alienating him from his potential. —

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