Why work?

11 May

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

[…]

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues’ (2011)

Why work?

It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? If nobody worked, we’d all die. Even in the simplest imaginable society – a deserted island, where there was no need for shelter or any other type of infrastructure – we’d still need nourishment, and that takes work. In our complex, advanced capitalist, post-industrial world, there’s no getting around it either.

But ‘why work so hard?’ – that’s a reasonable question. ‘Why work in this way and not that way?’ – also worth asking. And there are many different answers to each of these questions, depending on who you ask, and how hard you press for answers.

I found this out doing interviews for my dissertation, but you can find it too if you just ask your mom, your dad, your neighbour, the guy who sells you coffee, the woman whose kid you take care of. Or try asking yourself.

You will find that some people just ‘fall into’ particular jobs, and subsequently particular ways of doing those jobs. Sometimes their work just keeps ramping up, taking up more time and energy and concentration, until it’s just about all they have. Sometimes the rewards – psychological, material, even spiritual – are enough to make a work-dominated life appealing, and maybe justifiably so. In some cases, a person’s relationship to work has all the markings of an addiction.

When you ask these people why they work so hard, they can offer personal, idiosyncratic reasons – ‘I derive satisfaction from my role in the organization’ – but they can also draw on dominant discourses about the virtue of work and, conversely, the moral bankruptcy of idleness. Doing a job – and doing it to excess – is framed in this discourse as one of the only obligations anyone really has to the rest of society. Not doing it is irresponsible, deplorable even.

Then there are people who consciously resist paid work’s tendency to colonize other corners of life. I’ve written before on how these folks appear to confront their desire for resistance as a choice between two options: doing a job – any job – just until their basic needs are met, or finding a job that is so inherently satisfying it doesn’t feel like work. The goal, to paraphrase Andre Gorz, is either to liberate oneself from work, by not doing it, or keeping it confined to short hours and ‘easy’ tasks, or to liberate oneself in work, by finding some life-affirming vocation that just happens to come with a paycheque. The only thing to be avoided is imprisonment in a shitty job.

These were the people, in my interviews, who drank their coffee on the front porch during rush hour, watching, with a mixture of pity, empathy, and a touch of disdain, as the rest of the world inched toward its offices in the same traffic, day in and day out.

The rest of the world, for these people, was trapped: in cars, in cubicles, in careers, and in the unconscious and unquestioned pursuit of money and material things.

Sure, they admitted, many people threw themselves into jobs without any of the money or material rewards in mind. But such people were the exception, and we didn’t need to worry about them. The ‘liberated’ interviewees worried instead about friends and family members who had simply gotten caught in a current of unrewarding and in certain respects unnecessary labour, and were going to drift along that way until sweet, sacred retirement. Floating along like that, they were going to miss ‘what’s really important’.

***

The two extremes – embracing work unquestioningly and resisting it consciously – are ideal types, straw men who don’t exist in such starkness in real life. And there are plenty of different and equally nuanced points on the spectrum between them.

But in talking to younger people especially, it’s clear that these extremes are poles that exert considerable pull on those who are trying to figure out what to ‘be’. Many of my youngest interviewees (mainly the ones who didn’t have children yet – not to be confused with being financially stable) articulated two conflicting desires: first, the desire for a job they could happily work until they were sore, like the orchard in the song that opens this post, and second, the desire for paid work that stayed put, between the hours of 9 and 5, leaving them plenty of ‘off the clock’ time.

‘Conflicting’ might not be the right word – really these options are just different. The people struggling with them were either willing to take whichever came first or easiest, or they set their sights on one or the other and just went for it, because both led to the same end: some kind of liberation. What they wouldn’t do – couldn’t do – was settle for imprisonment in paid work.

***

Perhaps the foregoing seems trivial at a time when so many people are unemployed, or underemployed, struggling just to get by. Waxing about the ideal relationship to work at a time like this is sort of indulgent, isn’t it? And being picky about jobs – what a privilege!

But I want to argue that how we think about the purpose of work has everything to do with the unemployment rate, the economic system, the relative power of workers and employers, what and how we produce and consume, and the (re)distribution of wealth and other resources. Any change in the way we, individually and culturally, imagine the place of work in life, can have severe and noticeable political and economic ramifications.

To write such concerns off as impertinent is to confuse ‘the way things are’ with ‘the way things will be’, or worse, to confuse the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’. It is to assume that there are stable, ahistorical and therefore inarguable answers to the questions ‘why work so hard?’ and ‘why work in this way?’ I propose that there aren’t.

It turns out I’m not alone. Almost, though.

I’ve written before about Bertrand Russell’s observation about ‘modern’ life – namely, that its ‘methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all’ and yet ‘we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.’ This ‘insane’ arrangement seems to flow out of some equally insane insistence we have that only full-time workers should be able to afford to live full lives.

Historian James Livingston has been pounding away at a similar point for several years now. His slogan, which he’s been encouraging ‘the Left’ to adopt, is ‘FUCK WORK.’ He argues that the Left ‘is still too deeply, even emotionally attached to the idea and the agenda of productive labor,’ such that when it tries to reach for social change – to minimize inequity, to ‘level’ society – it focuses obsessively on ‘correcting the relation between effort and reward, between work and income.’ It always looks back, as Richard Sennett does in The Craftsman, or Bellah et. al. do in Habits of the Heart, for a time when work was soul-nourishing stuff you did with your hands. It wants everyone to have a calling.

When I first started researching for my thesis, I wanted that too. The whole thing was going to be organized around the idea of the calling. My assumption, going in, was that bettering the world of work meant linking every person up with the work they were meant to do.

But then one of my advisors issued a critique that was as devastating as it was short:

Not everyone wants a calling. Some people just want a job.

Some people, espousing what Max Weber called the ‘Traditional Economic Ethic’, view work as ‘necessary drudgery,’ ‘to be avoided as soon as customary and constant economic needs [are] met.’ And they’re fine with that. They don’t thirst for a calling, nor do they view work as ‘indispensable to life.’ If they could get away with not working, or working less, they would. And that’s okay.

This is what Livingston’s getting at, too. For these people, ‘true freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity, in the aftermath of hard labor—off the clock, as it were, and after hours.’ They know, as Livingston puts it, that

‘We don’t need work to fashion our genuine selves, to produce character and authenticity.  There’s not enough real work to go around, anyway, so we might as well get on with a discussion of why the relation between the production of value and the receipt of income can never again be understood as a transparently cause-effect relation. We might as well get on with a discussion of how to detach one from the other—income from work—and entertain, accordingly, the practical applications of the criterion of need, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.”  We’re already involved in this discussion when we debate so-called transfer payments and entitlements.’

***

From the stories I’ve heard in interviews and casual conversations, as well as from poetry, lyrics and prose written by people in my general age group, I’ve developed the rather unscientific sense that more people are toying with the question, ‘Why work?’ and maybe even adopting the slogan, ‘FUCK WORK.’

It conflicts with everything we were told, growing up, at least those of us in middle-class households where our customary needs were always met (and handily).

We were told that to ‘be’ something one had to choose a vocation, or be chosen by one on the basis of talent or fate or divine intervention. We were told we could ‘be’ anything we wanted, so long as it involved work.

Even now that we’re older, every introductory conversation begins with ‘so what do you do?’, and by ‘do’, we always mean ‘for a living.’

But in my personal orbit at least, there are signs that this is changing.

For instance, today I discovered the word ‘funemployment.’ It’s a term that emphasizes the joy of being free of work, but it’s ironic; everyone knows that unemployment usually means just barely squeaking by, and there’s nothing fun about that. (It has also been used, notably by the Globe & Mail, to chastise young people who are apparently out hamming it up instead of working a job – as though it’s entirely voluntary.)

Yet funemployment is arguably a good term, a necessary term, for a loose ‘generation’ of people who are more likely than ever to work short-term contracts with spells of unemployment in between. It allows us to laugh at ourselves when we should probably be distressed.

It could also be one tiny step toward acknowledging that unemployment is a chronic problem, one that doesn’t just happen to people selectively, when they mess up and lose their way. Like a disease, it’s not very discriminating. It isn’t, however, inevitable – only in our present system, where ‘the market’ ostensibly decides who works and who doesn’t, what we produce and consume,  and how many productive bodies are needed in order to meet our basic needs and our luxuries.

And really, let’s not kid ourselves – there is no apolitical market, chugging along on its own steam. As an exasperated Bertold Brecht put it, ‘the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions.’

In this way, the market, and the jobs it offers us (or doesn’t), is our market. It can be within our control. Just as we can be ‘functioning cogs in some great machine’, we can throw ourselves on the gears.

Heck, more of us have nothing but time. What are we waiting for?

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