Myopic Views of Labor and Work
One of the assumptions held at the future of work summit I attended was that work is, or ought to be, such a great thing in our lives. I didn’t challenge the assumption during our two days together because I didn’t think it was appropriate. Following the improv teacher Keith Johnstone, I wanted to simply play along to see where the two days might take us.
In these pages, however, I cannot accept the assumption. I tried to show in the talk I gave that for most of recorded human history labor has been held in contempt (ancient Greeks) or has been regarded as a kind of necessary evil (medieval Europeans). It’s not for nothing that labor was relegated to specific classes of people. I believe the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution both, in very different ways, led to a epoch-changing transvaluation of values, the effect of which is that we’ve now unconsciously adopted a Gospel of Work (to use Thomas Carlyle’s words from the 1840s). Now we think it obviously a good thing that we should put all our eggs in the work basket. Now we feel that if we were poker players, we’d do well to push all of our poker chips to the center and place a bet on work being the best sort of thing in our lives.
But this is delusional. Even today, approximately 40% of people in the developed world are involved in “bullshit jobs” (David Graeber from his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Moreover, many people living in the underdeveloped world surely regard what they do as labor: that is, as toilsome effort whose purpose, at best, is to ensure continued human survival. The yearning for “fulfilling work” is, in short, an aspiration of the educated elite living in the developed world.
With this in mind, I can imagine at least two scenarios for the future of work.
In one scenario, total work wins by spreading certain ideas about work across the world. In this future, the wealthy become wealthier and the precarious more precarious (cf. Yuval Harari, Homo Deus). How so? More and more jobs are replaced by combinations of gigs, piecework, and project work; each precarious free agent needs to promote his or her own “personal brand” (as the CEO of Telecom put it in a panel I was on at Brain Bar in Budapest back in early June); he or she is always working in one form or another: to finish a project, to line up another gig, to update his or her “personal brand,” to network. It’s a vision of work that amounts to endless struggle masked by the façade of creative autonomy. Call this form of increasing precarity the victory of labor in the sense of ceaseless, burdensome toilsome effort.
Stewardship, Care, and Fineness
I realize that, since January, I’ve been critiquing total work and have not, as of yet, set out my own view of how work could be in a reimagined world. To be clear, I’m not in the anarchist refusal to work camp; I’m rather someone who, wishing to decenter work from its place of prominence, also wants to reimagine how work, having discovered its newfound modesty, could mean for us.
In a second scenario, then, people decide to decenter work from their lives. Work no longer occupies center stage; instead, it plays a supporting role in the life of a people.
And what role would that be? People would shift from seeking career success (and so would reject the trajectory we’ve been on since the middle of the nineteenth century to the second decade of the twenty-first century) to being stewards of the earth. In fact, the three key features of work would be stewardship, care, and fineness. Each person in this world would see him- or herself as doing the kind of work of stewardship. And when it came to the particular work he or she was engaged in, the basic idea is that he or she would care about the thing in hand and would also care about the individuals who are and will be affected by the product created, service offered, or gift given. To care for the thing is to be responsible for its being carried into the world.
Lastly, the focus of the work would be on doing it well for its own sake: that is, on making or doing something fine or excellent just because that is what the thing calls for. I call this fineness, almost a kind of love for making the thing beautiful or well-wrought simply but not just simply for the sake of its being beautiful or well-wrought.
And then, importantly, people would be able to set their work aside because they would know that leisure, rest, contemplation, and communal celebration matter much more to them than the work they do. The work of the day done (whether that be a few hours or part of a day), they would turn toward their greater loves, the things that matter utmost.
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to all my current patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.