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work less, live more

October 29, 2015

I had a rather crazy train of thought yesterday.

It started with the realization that one of the things that irritates me the most about the majority of the jobs I’ve had (predominately in manufacturing and retail) is the way management perceives and treats their employees, not so much as people but as robots. It’s all about things like coming in on time and efficiency. You’re punished if you’re late. You’re punished if you’re not productive enough or if you don’t pick up the slack for someone else. You’re punished if you socialize too much on the one had, and you’re talked to like a child on the other, like each day you forget how to do your job and have to be reminded again and again what it is you’re supposed to be doing. The list goes on.

It’s even more apparent where I currently work, because managers and supervisors are explicitly forbidden to fraternize with workers outside of work, where workers generally feel like themselves because they can actually be themselves. Any kind of real human-to-human contact in that sense is strictly taboo; and I hate not being treated like a person. I’m not a fucking robot. I care about doing my job well and being recognized for it. I care when I’m being overworked and pitted against my fellow co-workers so that someone else can make more $. I care about the way someone talks to me, whether they’re telling me what to do or about their day, just as much as I care about being able to interact with other human beings even when that interaction doesn’t include a monetary a transaction.

I’ve been reading one of the books Katya, a professor at PSU, gave me called Station Eleven; and there’s one part that I read this morning which kind of perfectly (and I suppose sadly) sums up my daily experience. Clark, a corporate coach of sorts, is interviewing Dahlia, the employee of a certain CEO who Clark is trying to help be a less shitty boss, and Dahlia is musing about how “adulthood’s full of ghosts”:

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”
“You don’t think he likes his job then.”
“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep? He was nodding, taking down as much as he could. “Do you think he’d describe himself as unhappy in his work?”
“No,” Dahlia said, “because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction. You know what I mean?”
“No, please elaborate.”
“Okay, say you go into the break room,” she said, “and a couple of people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word? You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens in your life.” (163)

Clark realizes that she’s describing his life for the past couple of years, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life; and I realized I’ve definitely felt like that, too. In fact, that’s pretty much how I feel most of the time. And thinking about that, I can’t help but recall passages like this from Marx:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

And within this economic structure, there exists a number of contradictions and inequalities that I think ultimately lead to the indignity of labour vs. capital, conditioning most work into drudgery and most workers into ‘sleepwalkers’ because capitalism not only estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the products of their labour, but it estranges and alienates the worker’s relationship to the act of production itself.

As Marx discerned with such clarity, the worker’s labour becomes “external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” As a consequence, the worker “only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).

In a similar way, our value system as a society (at least in the West) is geared towards consumption and how much stuff a person can buy, as well their efficiency in the production process, not so much the value of the person themselves. In the end, we tend not to even value ourselves. Rather, we value symbols and representations of value, of status and material gain, instead of our intrinsic worth as individuals. We’re judged more by what we do and how much we get paid to do it, regardless of whether or not we’re actually happy. And I think people often ignore, or else fail to realize, the tremendous role our ‘social existence’ plays in conditioning our culture, our values, and, ultimately, our very sense of happiness and self-worth.

It makes me realize that one of the things I like about monastic life (aside from the spiritual aspects, of course) is that it reflects in many ways the kind of classless society I want to live in: where everyone is of one heart and mind, holding everything in common and distributing to each according to need; where a person’s time is unmortgaged and one feels free to do nothing without feeling guilty; where, from the rising of the sun to its setting, I truly feel at home and connected to the world around me.

Then today, I read this article in Open Culture, which touches on a lot of what I was thinking about yesterday:

Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have an answer, according to their political or theological bent. One economic bogeyman, so-called “trickle-down” economics, or “Reaganomics,” actually predates our 40th president by a few hundred years at least. The notion that we must better ourselves—or simply survive—by toiling to increase the wealth and property of already wealthy men was perhaps first comprehensively articulated in the 18th-century doctrine of “improvement.” In order to justify privatizing common land and forcing the peasantry into jobbing for them, English landlords attempted to show in treatise after treatise that 1) the peasants were lazy, immoral, and unproductive, and 2) they were better off working for others. As a corollary, most argued that landowners should be given the utmost social and political privilege so that their largesse could benefit everyone.

This scheme necessitated a complete redefinition of what it meant to work. In his study, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements, historian W.E. Tate quotes from several of the “improvement” treatises, many written by Puritans who argued that “the poor are of two classes, the industrious poor who are content to work for their betters, and the idle poor who prefer to work for themselves.” Tate’s summation perfectly articulates the early modern redefinition of “work” as the creation of profit for owners. Such work is virtuous, “industrious,” and leads to contentment. Other kinds of work, leisurely, domestic, pleasurable, subsistence, or otherwise, qualifies—in an Orwellian turn of phrase—as “idleness.” (We hear echoes of this rhetoric in the language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.) It was this language, and its legal and social repercussions, that Max Weber later documented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Karl Marx reacted to in Das Capital, and feminists have shown to be a consolidation of patriarchal power and further exclusion of women from economic participation.

Along with Marx, various others have raised significant objections to Protestant, capitalist definitions of work, including Thomas Paine, the Fabians, agrarians, and anarchists. In the twentieth century, we can add two significant names to an already distinguished list of dissenters: Buckminster Fuller and Bertrand Russell. Both challenged the notion that we must have wage-earning jobs in order to live, and that we are not entitled to indulge our passions and interests unless we do so for monetary profit or have independent wealth. In a New York Times column on Russell’s 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Gary Gutting writes, “For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well. But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.”

In far too many cases in fact, the work we must do to survive robs us of the ability to live by ruining our health, consuming all our precious time, and degrading our environment. In his essay, Russell argued that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what has always been preached.” His “arguments for laziness,” as he called them, begin with definitions of what we mean by “work,” which might be characterized as the difference between labor and management:

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Russell further divides the second category into “those who give orders” and “those who give advice as to what orders should be given.” This latter kind of work, he says, “is called politics,” and requires no real “knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given,” but only the ability to manipulate: “the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.” Russell then discusses a “third class of men” at the top, “more respected than either of the classes of the workers”—the landowners, who “are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.” The idleness of landowners, he writes, “is only rendered possible by the industry of others. Indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.”

The “gospel of work” Russell outlines is, he writes, “the morality of the Slave State,” and the kinds of murderous toil that developed under its rule—actual chattel slavery, fifteen hour workdays in abominable conditions, child labor—has been “disastrous.” Work looks very different today than it did even in Russell’s time, but even in modernity, when labor movements have managed to gather some increasingly precarious amount of social security and leisure time for working people, the amount of work forced upon the majority of us is unnecessary for human thriving and in fact counter to it—the result of a still-successful capitalist propaganda campaign: if we aren’t laboring for wages to increase the profits of others, the logic still dictates, we will fall to sloth and vice and fail to earn our keep. “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do,” goes the Protestant proverb Russell quotes at the beginning of his essay. On the contrary, he concludes,

…in a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity.

The less we are forced to labor, the more we can do good work in our idleness, and we can all labor less, Russell argues, because “modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all” instead of “overwork for some and starvation for others.”

A few decades later, visionary architect, inventor, and theorist Buckminster Fuller would make exactly the same argument, in similar terms, against the “specious notion that everybody has to earn a living.” Fuller articulated his ideas on work and non-work throughout his long career. He put them most succinctly in a 1970 New York magazine “Environmental Teach-In”:

It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest…. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.

Many people are paid very little to do backbreaking labor; many others paid quite a lot to do very little. The creation of surplus jobs leads to redundancy, inefficiency, and the bureaucratic waste we hear so many politicians rail against: “we have inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors”—all to satisfy a dubious moral imperative and to make a small number of rich people even richer.

What should we do instead? We should continue our education, and do what we please, Fuller argues: “The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” We should all, in other words, work for ourselves, performing the kind of labor we deem necessary for our quality of life and our social arrangements, rather than the kinds of labor dictated to us governments, landowners, and corporate executives. And we can all do so, Fuller thought, and all flourish similarly. Fuller called the technological and evolutionary advancement that enables us to do more with less “euphemeralization.” In Critical Path, a visionary work on human development, he claimed “It is now possible to give every man, woman and child on Earth a standard of living comparable to that of a modern-day billionaire.”

Sound utopian? Perhaps. But Fuller’s far-reaching path out of reliance on fossil fuels and into a sustainable future has never been tried, for some depressingly obvious reasons and some less obvious. Neither Russell nor Fuller argued for the abolition—or inevitable self-destruction—of capitalism and the rise of a workers’ paradise. (Russell gave up his early enthusiasm for communism.) Neither does Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, who in his New York Times commentary on Russell asserts that “Capitalism, with its devotion to profit, is not in itself evil.” Most Marxists on the other hand would argue that devotion to profit can never be benign. But there are many middle ways between state communism and our current religious devotion to supply-side capitalism, such as robust democratic socialism or a basic income guarantee. In any case, what most dissenters against modern notions of work share in common is the conviction that education should produce critical thinkers and self-directed individuals, and not, as Gutting puts it, “be primarily for training workers or consumers”—and that doing work we love for the sake of our own personal fulfillment should not be the exclusive preserve of a propertied leisure class.

I couldn’t have expressed it any better myself.

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