by Lothar Galow-Bergemann
„Work makes you free“ was written above the gate of the Auschwitz death camp. How did the Nazis come up with that? Isn’t work something meaningful, something good? What does it have to do with Auschwitz, of all places? A great deal. Because work and meaningful activity are, contrary to popular belief, two different things.
[This article published on 3/10/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet]
Published in Jungle World, 03/10/2022.
The work society
The highest law in our society is not written anywhere, but everyone knows it: We have to work all our lives to earn money so that we can live. This working and the positive reference to it seems to us like a law of nature. But even the origin of the word „work“ in different languages should make us wonder. The ancient Greek ponein (to work) comes from ponos (toil, burden), the French and Spanish words for work travail /trabajo derive from the vulgar Latin tripalare, which means nothing other than „to torment, to stake.“ In Russian, work is called rabota, which comes from rab, „the slave.“ And the Germanic arba simply means „the servant.
In ancient times, people thought quite differently than they do today. Social recognition was not given to work, but to those who did not have to work. Only then, according to the prevailing opinion, could one be a free and social being. Admittedly, only very few could afford to do so, and the vast majority were in a bad way. But it is simply not true that work has always been considered the ideal, as it is today.
That it came so far has a long prehistory. Christianity is one of them. Martin Luther, for example, was a real work fanatic: „Man is born to work as a bird is born to fly,“ he said, and: „Idleness is sin against God’s command.“ („To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,“ 1520.) The work we take so much for granted today also has much to do with the military and war. The first wage laborers in the modern sense were the lansquenets of the standing armies, to whom the absolutist princes paid wages – in other words, the soldiers.
The history of labor is a history of violence. If the wage was enough for the first factory workers for more than one day, they understandably did not appear in the 16-hour hell for as long as possible. But because capitalism cannot work like that, people were forced under the regime of labor by brute methods. Wage cuts forced even the children into the factory so that the family could survive.
To make people „learn to work,“ the judiciary imposed brutal punishments for the smallest offenses. Thus, delinquents were chained in holes that filled with water. In order not to drown, they had to draw water for hours without interruption. Others had to toil in treadmills under whip lashes until they collapsed. So-called penitentiaries were „forced labor houses for stubborn beggars and mean-spirited idlers, in which they are forced to work hard“ („Meyers Konversationslexikon,“ 4th edition, 1888/90). Much shocking information from the unfortunately largely forgotten history of the enforcement of labor can be found in Robert Kurz’s „Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. A swan song for the market economy“ (1999).
The people who created the labor movement in the 19th century, however, had abandoned opposition to labor. They even identified with it and were proud of it. Reasonable voices like those of Paul Lafargue were at a loss: „A strange addiction dominates the working class of all countries where capitalist civilization prevails, an addiction which results in the individual and mass misery prevailing in modern society. This is the love of work, the frenzied addiction to work which goes to the exhaustion of individuals and their offspring.“ (Paul Lafargue: „The Right to Laziness,“ 1880.) In the following two centuries, work was virtually canonized – throughout society and across all political camps. Nowadays, a poster with the inscription „We fight for every job“ can be from IG Metall as well as from the CDU.
And what can you expect in the coveted workplaces? Headlines reflect what very many know only too well from their own experience: „Burn-out. When work makes you sick“; „Every second person complains about time pressure at work“; „Heart attack due to overtime“; „Every fourth employee has to work on weekends, every sixth in shift work“; „Dissatisfied employees. Null Bock auf den Job“; „Raus aus der Mühle“; „Ältere Arbeitnehmer wollen möglichst schnell raus“; „Aus dem Alltag ausbrechen, weit weg reisen, etwas völlig Neues ausprobieren – viele träumen davon“. (See also Peter Samol, The Performance Dictatorship. How the pressure of competition makes our lives hell, 2021).
If it were up to people, only two percent of them would retire after the age of 65; most of them want to stop working much earlier (Die Welt, May 17, 2014). And what is the answer? Retirement at 67, at 68, at 70, at 75 – all of these are being seriously discussed. Anyone under 40 today knows: I won’t have a pension I can live on when I’m 80. That’s an open secret.
And it’s a huge scandal. Because robots and computers have been getting better and better for decades. Tomorrow, we will literally be able to produce even more goods with even less work. And yet we are expected to work longer and longer. What a madness. But this is not the fault of a German chancellor or a chairman of the Deutsche Bank, but of the absurd logic of „our economy.
Let’s do a thought experiment to understand this logic in more detail. Let’s assume that we have bought a pressure cooker and use it to prepare a delicious meal. Not only does it taste better than the old pot, it also has more vitamins and, most importantly, it’s ready in five minutes instead of 20, as it used to be. What do we reasonably do with the extra quarter of an hour? Lie down on the couch, water the flowers, call our girlfriend – whatever, we use the time gained for other things.
The logic of „our economy“ doesn’t go along with this. It commands us: „Don’t lie down on your bed, but make four delicious meals in the 20 minutes!“ – But why, I don’t need them, one is enough for me.“ – „But what you need is of no interest at all. You have to look for buyers, look for buyers, look for buyers!“
Why is that? Because the commodity is the germ form of our society. Here the everyday consciousness beats us the second snip. Because just as it confuses work and activity, it also makes no distinction between goods and commodities. But goods are simply goods. The form of the commodity, on the other hand, contains an entire social relationship. It presupposes commodity owners isolated from one another, who work not for their needs but for an anonymous power on which their weal and woe depend: the market. Most of them own only the commodity labor power and have to hope that the labor market will be interested in it.
The economy on which we depend is rightly called a market economy. Another word for it is capitalism. By the way, it would be better to speak consciously and pronouncedly of capital-ism. For one must understand the thing that gives this ism its name: capital. It has its very own inner logic, which no economic system has known before. It must grow unceasingly. If it stops doing so, it immediately falls into crisis. In the murderous elbow competition of the market, capital only prevails if it has enough investment funds to rationalize as much as possible, i.e. to save labor. Only in this way can it offer a price that beats out its competitors.
In order to generate the investment resources with which capital can be that decisive step ahead of its competitors, it must achieve the highest possible profit. But because each individual capital must do exactly the same thing under penalty of its demise, the system as a whole inevitably gives birth to an endless spiral of accumulation of capital. Limitless growth and maximum profit are the DNA of a market economy. The markets are the real rulers in capitalism.
But don’t some people always rule? It was like that before capital-ism, but then it became different. Yes, in capital-ism there are those who are swimming in money and those who are starving. There are „those up there“ and „those down there,“ the powerful and the powerless. And yet even the most powerful cannot override the logic of capital, even if they wanted to. Capital-ism is an abstract form of domination.
The former chairman of the board of BMW, Eberhard von Kuenheim, was once asked if he didn’t know that there are far too many cars and that the planet will eventually no longer be able to cope if more and more are built. His answer: „There may be too many automobiles in the world, but there are still too few BMWs.“ (Bayernkurier, March 7, 2016.) Unintentionally, he thus summed up the insane logic of capital ism. Of course, the managers of VW, Daimler and Toyota must also say the same.
And with them also the workers of the respective concern. Even if a worker should have gotten rid of her own car in an environmentally conscious way, she must be interested in as many BMWs as possible being built and sold. Her livelihood and that of her family depend on her work. The union and the works council know this, too. Not only profits but also jobs depend on the successful accumulation of capital.
The whole society is held hostage to eternal growth and maximum profit. Without these, of course, the state would also be incapable of acting, because it can generate its lifeblood of taxes only if the mega-machine hums ceaselessly. The logic of capitalist society is absurd and suicidal: we are racing towards the wall, but we cannot get off because we live from this frenzy. At the moment, the climate protection movement is making particularly painful experiences with this as soon as jobs are at stake.
The identification with work
For all the clashes of interests between capital and labor – in the end, both are in the same boat of capital exploitation. Labor is neither „activity“ nor „antagonistic (irreconcilable) contradiction to capital“.It is rather the ruling formal principle of a society of commodity producers and sellers. The starting point and goal of this commodity society is the self-interested accumulation of capital. In another society, whose starting point and goal would not be the abstract wealth of the accumulation of capital, but the satisfaction of human needs, the material wealth that we need to live would be the sole purpose of economic activity. So we would not be working and producing commodities – we would be engaged in meaningful activity and producing goods. Work and commodities are fetishes that dominate us. This fetishism, unlike, say, an ideology, cannot be overcome by thought reflection alone. But without reflected critique of capital-ism, we are not even aware of the fetish character of this domination, and we cannot imagine that it is man-made and can also be abolished.
But whether one sees through this fetish or not, the life and social status of almost all people in capitalist society depend on their work. Without my work I am nothing. The identification with work, especially since it appears as a kind of natural law, is obvious. Even if one secretly hates it. It’s no coincidence that when asked, „What are you?“ no one answers, „I’m a father,“ or, „I’m someone who likes to hike, make music, think, or dance,“ but rather, „I’m a saleswoman, a train driver, a teacher, a car dealer.“ I am my work.
Their identitarian reference to work prevents people from thinking outside the box of capital-ism. As long as they sit in this prison of thought, by the way, it doesn’t matter how much „the people“ have to say. In Switzerland, famous for its referenda, a large majority voted against six weeks of vacation for everyone. That would not exactly have been the transition to a classless society. But the argument was, „More vacation means fewer jobs.“ Grotesque.
Identification with work makes people decide against a better life. Constantly accompanying them is the fear of becoming „worthless“ to the market and falling into the bottomless pit. And yet the conditions seem to them to be natural and without alternative. If they feel something is going wrong in society, they blame individual „culprits“ and „bad policies,“ without giving the structural constraints of the economy a second thought.
If crises occur, they seem to have nothing to do with the rule of labor, commodities, the market and capital. People’s tunnel vision can then quickly mutate into conspiracy world views. They fantasize about dark forces with evil intentions that want to get at them. How great the potential for this is in very different corners of society and that even education and intelligence do not necessarily protect against it is currently demonstrated by the „lateral thinking“ demonstrations.
The conformist rebellion
One can rebel and be conformist at the same time. Not understanding capital, but running up a storm against the consequences of capital-ism, makes that possible. It’s like sitting in a prison you don’t know about. If this is combined with the idea of „guilty bad guys and conspiracies,“ the basis for a conformist rebellion is laid. This demands authoritarian solutions to crises and the elimination of the supposedly guilty. At worst, it sinks into anti-Semitic annihilationism.
Nazi Germany demonstrated that the thought prison of the labor fetish can produce true monsters in times of crisis. Nazism was a mass movement of conformist rebels. Their unconscious and unacknowledged longing for a life without work, while at the same time identifying with their work, was discharged in hatred of those who could afford such a life – be it real or only in the imagination of the rebels. By them, at any rate, they felt deeply insulted and betrayed.
That their hatred struck „the Jews“ was no accident. The history of the Christian Occident is riddled with murderous pogroms against Jews. For almost two thousand years, Christianity branded the Jews as „God-killers.“ They were considered „well poisoners“ and „child murderers.“ Of course, they were also „guilty“ of the plague. In the 12th century, the Church forbade Christians to engage in the „money business“ and assigned it to the Jews, whom it simultaneously prohibited from practicing many professions. This inevitably led to the fact that there were more Jews among bankers than in the average of the total population. The ground was prepared for the equation of „Jew“ and „money,“ a central topos of modern anti-Semitism.
Moreover, the canonization of labor was nowhere as pronounced as in Germany. This, too, had to do with Christianity, and especially with Protestantism, which left similarly clear traces in only a few countries. Martin Luther was not only a work fanatic, but also an ardent Jew-hater. It was no coincidence that the Nazis were big Luther fans. In their minds, too, the two went together seamlessly. A pronounced affirmative reference to „honest work“ was virtually constitutive of the NSDAP’s worldview.
Because of all these historical and substantive continuities, it was obvious that the Jews became the hate objects whose elimination the Nazi Germans desired. In the delusion that had seized most Germans – whether they belonged to „those up there“ or to „those down there“ – Auschwitz was the disposal of „rapacity“ in the name of „honest and cheated labor.“ The perverse motto „work makes you free“ above the gate of Auschwitz had its corollary.
Thanks to the Allies of the Second World War, the Nazi Germans were defeated. Nowadays, most people have „nothing against Jews.“ Nevertheless, anti-Semitism has not disappeared. This also has to do with the fact that it has never really been understood and dealt with. It ferments under the surface of a crisis-ridden society and increasingly dares to come out into the open again, for example at „lateral thinking“ demonstrations.
But even those who do not equate „the guilty“ by whom they feel oppressed with „the Jews“ can find themselves dangerously close to anti-Semitism without being aware of it. Since the financial crisis of 2008, which to this day does not really want to end and continues to take new forms, many feel threatened by „greedy speculators, banksters, locusts“ (and so on), whom they „blame.“ Social criticism is confused with anger at „pack of lies“ and „lying press.“
If there is a lesson to be learned from history, it is this: anti-Semitic exterminationism can spread furiously in times of crisis. In the Reichstag election of May 1928, the NSDAP received 2.6 percent of the vote. Less than 14 years later, in January 1942, the Wannsee Conference organized the „Final Solution to the Jewish Question.“ The monsters of the past can rise again.
Nothing has to remain as it is
We are living in a dangerous time of crisis. There is no certainty about how this will turn out. But there are also things that give hope. One of these is that nowadays there is a reflected critique of capital ism that understands it much better than the common „anti-capitalism“ from the left and the right. But it is unfortunately still too little known. Its dissemination is essential for finding ways out of capital-ism. It begins with the critique of labor and can therefore take a completely different look at things.
The real scandal is not that the enormous increase in productivity we are experiencing does not provide everyone with a job, but the other way around, that despite this increase we are supposed to work more and more and longer and longer. A better, nature and human compatible life with much more space for personal development would have been possible long ago – without capital-ism. (See also Lothar Galow-Bergemann and Ernst Lohoff, Gestohlene Lebenszeit. Why Capitalism Necessitates Renunciation and We Could Work Much Less, in Ernst Lohoff, Norbert Trenkle (eds.), Shutdown. Climate, Corona, and the Necessary Exit from Capitalism, 2020) But you cannot get rid of capital-ism until you really understand it. This is proven by the various failed attempts to overcome it. But there are not only failed attempts. There are also many smart and exciting practical initiatives and projects today that are learning from the mistakes of the past and trying out new ways.
This text first appeared in the critical labor brochure „Nine to Five – Perspectives on Work,“ published by the Leipzig group „Utopia and Practice.“ It has been slightly edited. The brochure is available online as a pdf file.
Translation published on Saturday, Apr. 16, 2022 in Los Angeles Indymedia : Activist News
With thanks to Marc Batko