Charles Fourier: Labour as Play

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Fourier is one of the fathers of the theory according to which labour can become play and as such a pleasure. In «German Ideology» Marx claims that Fourier wanted to «put, instead of today’s travail repugnant (repulsive labour), travail attrayant (attractive labour)». (6) Engels speaks similarly of Fourier’s view on labour in his work «Advance of the Movement for a Social Reform on the Continent»: «Fourier is trying to prove that everyone was born with a disposition to some kind of labour, that absolute inactivity is nonsense, something that has never existed and cannot exist: that the essence of the human spirit is to be active itself and move the body towards action and, therefore, there is no need to force people to be active, as it is the case in the current state of society, but only to properly direct their natural activity. He then goes on to argue that  labour and pleasure are identical and shows the absurdity of the present social system, which separates them, turning labour into torture and placing pleasure out of the reach of most of the workers; he then shows that in a rationally constituted society, labour can be what it is supposed to be, that is to say, pleasure, and everyone should follow their own personal inclinations …» (7) In his work «The Basis of the Critique of Political Economy» Marx criticizes Fourier for trying to reduce labour to play: «Work cannot become play, as Fourier wants it, who is greatly credited for declaring as the ultimate end the overcoming not only of distribution but of the way of production into a higher form.» (8) For Marx, «travail attractif», which appears as the «self-realization of an individual», is by no means a «sheer joke, sheer amusement, as Fourier, somewhat naively, like a grisette, would have it. A really free labour, for example, composing, is at the same time a highly serious matter, the most intensive kind of work». (9)

Fourier takes labour seriously, though not as a torture, but as a pleasure. Instead of trying to view play in the light of labour, Fourier tries to view labour in the light of play as a festive form, not as a frolic. While Marx insists on changing the nature of labour and thus on changing man’s relation to labour, Fourier insists on changing man’s relation to work by changing the form in which work is executed and by changing the meaning it is given. Fourier does not try to abolish work as a physical exertion, but to obtain for it a respect by creating such working conditions and atmosphere which will give it a «festive» character. Fourier: «And thus the customs and the policy of Harmony seek to bestow on the productive work all the illustriousness, all the support of luxury that is now applied only to non-productive jobs; while agricultural labour and workshops remain in the worst of misery». (10) He continues: «Workshops and agricultural labour should attract the worker by elegance and cleanness»… (11) The festive atmosphere, «illustriousness», «luxury», «elegance and cleanness» indicate that it is not only about the change of the worker’s relation to work, but also about the change in the ruling value-related model which is to enable work to be valued in the same way as non-working activities, and this should change the social position of workers. Fourier claims that «attractive work does not lead to exhaustion or spiritual pain. It is an amusement to a manual worker, free exercise of his abilities». (12) He sees in work a free activity of a free «Harmonian»  who is aware of the necessity of work, but is employed by nobody and nobody forces him to work: work is voluntary. Fourier does not say that explicitly, but it follows from his conception that man himself determines the length and intensity of work, which means that he works as long as it gives him pleasure. Instead of degrading him, work affirms his freedom and is a way of gaining respect.

According to Fourier, man’s nature is not determined by the nature of labour; it is man’s (erotic) nature that determines the nature of the relation to labour and thus the nature of labour. In antiquity, eroticized physical exercises in gymnasiums and fights at the Olympic playing grounds were a way of «winning over the favour of» the gods and a form of the Hellenes’ spiritual integration. With aristocratic manners and war (oppression), Nietzsche tries to turn the “new nobility” into an organic (physical) community. Huizinga sees in the war tournaments of noblemen and their bloody fierceness a supreme erotic stimulus and a means for the class integration of the aristocracy. For Fourier, labour is the most important means of social integration: society is the community of working people, while the working movement, which realizes man’s erotic nature, is the basic movement of one man towards another. By arguing for «work becoming sport», whereas the meaning of the term «sport» is closer to the aristocratic desportare (entertainment through competition) than to the modern conception of sport (record-mania), Fourier proposes the establishment of an (agricultural) «working tournament where each athlete will show his strength and agility, show off before the beauties who, at the end of the shift, will bring him lunch or snack». (13) Fourier does not speak of changing the nature of labour, but tries to make labour attractive and give it a playing form. Thus, man’s playing being expresses its superiority over labour as a limiting activity, and labour turns into «festivity» and «pleasure». A need for labour expresses man’s need to realize his erotic being. Labour is a way in which men can express their masculinity and impress the girls: the working community becomes the erotic community. The real result of labour has nothing to do with the purpose and aim of labour (to ensure existence as an existential necessity); it has to do with a reward acquired by labour, which is to win the favour of girls and affirm one’s masculinity. Essentially, the role of the «vestals» is to draw man’s attention away from work as an arduous activity. In Fourier, women are instrumentalized in the working process similarly to the way «noble ladies» were instrumentalized in chivalrous tournaments. The very presence of women gives an erotic charge to labour which is the essence of its «festive character». The need for a woman (erotic desire) is manifested as a working activity: work becomes a peculiar (fore) play where the erotic charge turns into a working enthusiasm. The festive atmosphere that should accompany the work is an eroticized ritual, while work releases the suppressed sexual energy. This is the main reason why man does not experience it as a physical and spiritual suffering, but as a pleasure. Fourier’s conception of sport is not marked by the principle of «natural selection» and the absolutized principle of performance, nor by the principle of idleness which is characteristic of the aristocratic desportare, but competition through a cultivated productivistic activity where everyone can freely express their human powers and where there are no winners or losers.  Instead of garlands and fanfares, a shy but motivating smile of girls represents the biggest «award». Chivalrous tournaments are festivities dedicated to the oppressive power of the aristocracy; Fourier’s working tournaments are festivities dedicated to man’s life-creating powers.

In «Harmony», nature is not experienced as the object of exploitation and destruction, but as a living space. Work is a form of man’s immediate relation to nature. It is dominated by life-creation: the transformation of nature becomes its cultivation (fertilization) and this becomes a symbolic projection of a (desired) relation to the woman. In Fourier’s agricultural labour there is no machine which represents the «technical civilization» as a mediator between man and nature; the mastered powers of nature do not appear as a means for man’s submission, for mutilation of his erotic nature and exploitation (destruction) of nature; there is no working technique which alienates man’s working skill from him, nor is there a productivistic movement based on the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance. In the industrial labour man is part of the machine and his working rhythm follows the rhythm of the industrial process of production, which destroys the biological rhythm of organism. Man is depersonalized in work above all by being denaturalized: his body loses biological properties and becomes a machine. In Fourier, the rhythm of bodily exertion is conditioned by man’s biological capacities and, in that context, by his working skill. Work is not dominated by a technical mimesis, but by a natural movement cultivated through work. This work does not mutilate man’s erotic being turning him into a mechanicized freak, as is the case with the capitalist form of industrial production. There is no technique (alienated from man) as a mediator between man and his own body and girls, and the dominant skill is working skill with the erotic nature. Work is a cultivated natural activity; the body is a cultivated natural body, while the relation between men and women is a cultivated natural relation. Fourier does not speak of one-sided physical work as if it were a conflict with man’s erotic (playing) being, as Marx does when he speaks of the industrial work, but of the manual work as a demonstration of masculinity and provocation for a sexual fantasy. Instead of work being impersonalized by machines, which reduces man to the working tool and force, Fourier insists on such a manual work which will express man’s libertarian and erotic nature through physical motion. Eroticized relation between men and women is the basis of working dynamics and its dramatic. Work does not destroy individuality and does not reduce workers to impersonalized working force; it is rather that man realizes his personality through work as a specific physical being – by way of a specific working activity through which he expresses his peculiar human qualities in a specific way. Unlike the festivities of the aristocracy, where the esthetics had a decorative character and served to glorify its parasitic (looting) exclusive class character as against the working «masses», Fourier’s esthetics is grounded on the erotic nature of man as a being who ensures his social existence through work and has a festive character. Work, body, nature, Eros, interpersonal relations, esthetics – all that is given in unity. Agricultural labour is not dominated by a playing motion, and therefore the playing body is not produced. It is deformed by work, sense-based mobility which enables the development of soft movements and the creative body is mutilated… Fourier tries to establish such a relation to work which will give it a human dimension and thus a playing character. By insisting on the «festive» character of work, Fourier suggests that bodily (working) movement itself should be suited to the nature of work, which means that it should be marked by a cultivated bodily posture and a motion expressing «masculinity». This conditions the dramatic character of the bodily expression and its rhythm. Work does not change its nature; what is changed is man’s relation to work which enables him to express (experience) through work his human being. One of the most important characteristics of Fourier’s theory is that it offers a possibility of a change-oriented relation to work based on a need to realize man’s playing being – without which there is not any true humanization of work. Instead of appearing at the existential, work appears at the essential level: it is not only the «primary life necessity» (Marx), it is the primary human necessity. Work produces sociability in an immediate form: work is not only the production of material goods; it is the production of interpersonal relations, which means of society as the community of happy people. The «Harmonians» work with a smile on their faces.

Erich Fromm recognizes play in the crafts from the XIII and XIV centuries: «There is no dichotomy of work and play, of work and culture.» (14) When he speaks of play, Fromm thinks of art – which makes craftsmanship closer to the ancient techne as the art of shaping guided by virtue. Craftsmanship is play in the technical sense, but not in the essential sense. Fromm overlooks the position of the craftsman (worker) in the working process and in society, the evaluation of work and his experience of his own working activity. The work of a craftsman is not voluntary, especially not spontaneous; he is not guided by the artistic passion, but by existential needs; a craftsman does not work as a free man, his work is commissioned in a society in which people’s work is not valued according to its creativeness but according to their wealth; where «cultural» status is not acquired by the development and realization of one’s cultural being, but by the acquisition of works of art: a work created by a craftsman is alienated from him and is the private property of the members of parasitic classes and as such is a means for proving their elitist status and degradation of workers (craftsmen). As far as skill is concerned, it is not only a «technical» part of play; it involves the development of man’s physical and spiritual (creative) powers. Unlike the crafting skill which is limited to the manual work that proceeds in a limited (closed) space and does not enable a harmonious development of physical (playing) capacities, the acquisition of the playing skill involves a complete development of the body, senses, emotions, spirit, in a natural environment, the only place where man can attain his natural being. There is no play if man does not express spontaneously and freely his playing being and thus experience himself as a playing (free) being. Play is dominated by the esthetical, which means man’s endeavour to express his authentic creative personality. At the same time, play has a social character: it is dominated by a spontaneous interpersonal relation based on the movement of one man towards another. The immediate product of play is not an object, but the development of man’s playing being and of interpersonal relations.

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