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Labor Day: Finding value in our labor in a broken work culture is an act of resistance

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By Mavra Bari

· 7 min read

What did we want to be “when we grow up”?

Children worldwide get asked the same question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

Adults usually respond with gleeful amusement at declarations of becoming astronauts, pilots, doctors, dancers, actors, and filmmakers. But what kids really mean is “I want to do something big, something that makes a difference.” This amusement is not at the children's ambition but the world-weary realization that adults know too well: we don’t all get jobs where we are truly making a difference.

Children's creativity and defiance signal society's blind spots and socially engineered apathy, especially regarding 'work', simply because young children have not yet been socialized for the workforce. 

In a poignant and irreverent documentary by the Deutsche Welle, the late anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber is captured discussing the “value of labor for people” by using children’s first foray into self-realization as a metaphor. 

“Children first figure out that they are separate from the world around them when they realize that they can have predictable effects. Say there is a scenario where a child is flailing their arms and moving a pencil, then moves it again and realizes that this is great; it has an impact on the world. That’s the first time the child realizes it is separate from the world but can affect it…This is the basis of what makes us feel human,” says Graeber.

He adds that this is the sense of purpose and impact people crave in their work, and just as when children’s toys are taken away when people’s sense of purpose and impact is taken away, they lose their “sense of self.” 

Graeber, like many proponents of barefoot economics, degrowth, and decoupling, insists that we must “re-evaluate what we see as valuable in labor.” Indeed, the world is at a turning point, confronted with multiple socio-economic, political, and ecological threats coupled with the technological sea changes that AI is bringing. 

The past, present, and future of ‘Work’ and ‘Our Labor’

While the future of work is unpredictable for many within this poly-crisis, we are where we are because the past and present of work have been so fractured and dispossessed within industrialized and neoliberal ideologies and systems.

Labor Day is commemorated around the globe on 1st May as a celebration of laborers and the working classes. Historically, in 1889, the Marxist International Socialist Congress met in Paris and adopted a resolution for a "great international demonstration" to support working-class demands for the eight-hour day.

Every nation has its Labor Day story, but in the U.S., May 1st was picked by the American Federation of Labor to commemorate a general strike in the United States, which had begun on 1 May 1886 and culminated in the Haymarket Massacre four days later, when an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb to disperse the meeting, and the bomb blast and ensuing retaliatory gunfire by the police caused the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded.

It is hard to imagine that the 8-hour work day we take for granted today and now are looking to cut came at such a huge human cost. Now, people question the 8-hour day's relevance in the industrial age. The 4-hour and 4-day work week is slowly gaining widespread acceptance for the intellectual and capital elite (think Silicon Valley). Meanwhile, most workers often in the most essential jobs such as caretakers, teachers, nurses, and cleaners, have poor work-life balance and are on the brink of burnout.

However, one has to ask: Is it the time we spend doing ‘work’ or is it the ‘work’ we are doing that is leading to increasing levels of dissatisfaction? In the DW Documentary Burnout—The Truth About Work, on average, a mere 20% of the Global North reported feeling “engaged.”

During the peak of Industrialization, the working class was duped into believing that their increased productivity was working towards a lofty goal of progress, prosperity, and leisure when, in reality, the insidious systemic infrastructure and cultural hegemony were being laid to capture the imaginations and labor of generations to come.

For over two centuries, humans have been toiling endlessly and exploiting the planet to reach this promise-land of work-life balance. However, increasingly, the many are exploited for the benefit of the few in power, who are supposedly driving the world technologically forward.

This is, in fact ,the ‘Lauderdale Paradox,’ according to which private riches – the sum-total of the exchangeable value of goods – and public wealth – the sum-total of the use value of goods – vary in opposite directions. This idea, developed by the Earl of Lauderdale in 1804, references one of the most powerful tools in capitalism’s arsenal – artificial scarcity, which first by bodily coercion, then cultural coercion, works to perpetuate a survival need for the proletariat to work. What was once naturally abundant for communities to sustain themselves on such as food, is now heavily controlled in the capitalistic system creating scarcity and the need for wages. 

Within a neoliberal modern framework, wages are not just necessary for survival, but they are touted as a necessary good towards the “eradication of poverty” for equality and development. However, it is now very clear that an increase in GDP does not bridge income divides but actually widens them.

Society's awakening to engineered scarcity, which perpetuates artificial progress: as a system, it is vastly inefficient at solving inequality. Due to capitalism’s ever-strengthening gravitational pull, however, even counter-narratives and counter-cultures are getting recapitulated.

The work revolution?

Economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel posits that during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, to secure capital accumulation, “Labor needed to go well beyond need; it needed to become a total way of life”. While the elites of the 15th Century used physical violence and death on those who did not adhere to the demands of labor, in the 21st Century, the cultural pride and necessity of labor have truly made our work a “total way of life.” Especially for working populations in the Global North and privileged segments in the Global South who derive their sense of self and meaning from being productive citizens. 

As Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Today, it might be more fitting to say, “I do, therefore I am [worthy].” 

As Hickel points out, Descartes’ work was seminal in establishing Dualism between the human mind and body, elevating the former and dispossessing the latter to the realm of subaltern and profane. Thus, capitalists have the moral imperative to treat the laboring class as “something that can be separated from the self, abstracted, and exchanged on the market—just like nature” (Jason Hickel).

What Hickel calls “five centuries of cultural reprogramming” has brought us to a crossroads within this accepted framework. People and corporations are now realizing that the fracture between workers' minds and bodies is impacting health and productivity. Still, rather than trying to fix the root cause of the problem, which is the unbearable human and ecological burden of insatiable growth, the ruling classes are shifting the burden on workers by making them responsible for their mental and physical health. 

Mindfulness sessions, meditation, yoga retreats, and subsidized therapy cannot undo the intergenerational trauma of centuries of labor and land exploitation. This trauma is particularly deep-rooted in the epigenetics of workers in post-colonial contexts. Furthermore, practices like meditation are often not presented for their own sake. Rather, they are wielded by the creative class as a must-have tool and skill to be more creative and productive.

As it is said, we have become human doings rather than human beings—capitalism is ingrained in our sense of self.

Having said that, there are many movements worth celebrating that are embracing slowness, community cooperation, ecological rewilding, and, most importantly of all, defining the boundaries and value of their labor for themselves, to do work that feels meaningful and important—to stay true to the child within us all who dreamed of doing big things. 

We can all engage in meaningful labor when we embrace abundance, challenging a culture that thrives on the façade of scarcity. Happy Labor Day!

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

References and further reading

DW Documentary:

Gramsci on Cultural Hegemony: still relevant today? #antoniogramsci #history #philosophy #culture #m... | TikTok

How does degrowth apply to our minds? - by Erin Remblance (

Why do we work? - by Erin Remblance - Protecting the Future (

David Graeber: 'To save the world, we're going to have to stop working' - The Big Issue

Monthly Review | The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction

Decommodifying wealth: Lauderdale and ecological economics beyond the Lauderdale paradox - ScienceDirect

Less work for the same pay won’t fly – but here’s a four-day week that might | US small business | The Guardian

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About the author

Mavra Bari is a journalist, writer, communications specialist and sociologist with a keen eye on the global politics surrounding climate change and the intersectionality of resource equity. She holds a Master from the University of Amsterdam in Sociology, focusing research on urban narratives and geography, urban marketing, tourism, sustainability and right to do the city. Mavra has worked with several international organizations and projects with UNIDO, US State Department, USAID, Heinrich Boell Stiftung, University of Amsterdam, Snow Leopard Foundation, and Butterfly Works, and has written extensively for Deutsche Welle.

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