Total Work #53: Anonymous Letters On Total Work

Plus: The Seeker and the Skeptic Podcast & some choice quotes from Ernest Junger


To Subscribers: The scholarly book I’ve been waiting for, that on status in Classical Athens, just arrived. I plan on writing the next chapter of The Total Work Manifesto, on chattel slavery in (well) Classical Athens, in the coming weeks.

To Everyone: I think you’ll really appreciate the genuine honesty as well as, at times, the emotional rawness of those who have written anonymous letters in which they detail their experiences with Total Work (below).

And to all Patreon supporters, old and new: Very sweet of you—thank you.

The Seeker And The Skeptic Podcast

The Age Of The Worker

I’m currently reading Ernst Junger’s The Worker: Dominion and Form, a book originally published in Germany in 1932 and one that left an indelible impression on Martin Heidegger and Josef Pieper. Ernst Junger and I agree that the bourgeois ethos must be critiqued. “[W]e must,” writes Junger, “grasp the bourgeois as the one who sees security as the highest value and conducts his life accordingly” (p. 29). Really, he could not have defined the bourgeoisie any more pithily or accurately. The bourgeois is decadence itself, a decadence terminating in the Last Man.

Yet then he turns to a new figure and toward a new age, which he heralds as the age of the worker. The worker, he asserts, is not a sociological or economic category but a metaphysical one. Presumably, the worker is the one who takes his or her stance in the world as a worker, as one whose indomitable will strikes out in danger. And so, what will smash the old older of the bourgeoisie is the power of the will wielded by the worker. Junger:

To be able to grasp this [namely, that the worker shall be autonomous and shall achieve dominion—AT], however, one must be capable of a conception of work different from the traditional one. One must know that in an age of the worker, if he bears his name properly and not in the sense, for instance, in which all [political] parties today designate themselves as workers’ parties, there can be nothing not understood as work. Work is the rhythm of the fist, of thoughts, of the heart; it is life by day and night, science, love, art, faith, religion, war; work is the oscillation of the atom and the force that moves stars and solar systems. (p. 40)

Written in 1932, these lines feel all much truer—and much more ominous—in 2020.

Mindfulness-based Business Shelved

J. and I corresponded back in December 2019 after I gave a public talk in Florida, one that he had attended. He wrote shortly thereafter to ask about a startup idea he had, and I very gently expressed my reticence about the idea. I had no idea how what I’d written had “landed” until I heard from him a few weeks ago.

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Andrew. Let's mostly ignore the fact that my reply is coming to you four-and-a-half months later [in late April 2020], and carry on as if it's perfectly normal to have an eon-spanning conversation. And why shouldn't it be?

I read [Ron Purser’s book] McMindfulness on your recommendation. Having already invested in several months of generating marketing collateral, legal paperwork, partnership agreements, and other trappings of building my mindfulness-based business, I was naturally resistant to the thesis. My initial reaction was to classify Purser as a curmudgeon who maybe had some personal bad blood with Kabat-Zinn, given how savagely he goes after him.  

Like waves against the rock, however, the book wore down my defenses and laid bare the inherent defects in my business model. I was trying to win a meaningless side-quest in a massive, destructive video game, and all while convincing myself I was somehow hacking the code of the system. After finishing the book, I couldn't un-see the plain fact that my "meditation room" marketing efforts amounted to selling a cog-cleaning system which would only result in The Work Machine having shinier and more well-adjusted parts.

A little background: the idea for the company came to me after I abruptly quit a lucrative job to take a 3-month sabbatical. It only took a single week of stillness and contemplation to see the mindless pattern I had been playing out, and to become disgusted with myself for having bought so fully into the over-culture's notions about success. I became determined to spend my sabbatical finding a way to bring it all down. In my attempt to help others snap out of their default hamster wheel settings I simply didn't dig deeply enough. I was still a fish who didn't realize it was wet [this is likely a reference to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This is Water.”]

After several weeks of soul-searching and conferring with close friends, I decided to pull the plug on the business. I can't help but wonder whether a single book would have sufficed to knock me out of my trajectory if I'd been much more invested. What if I'd already begun making sales? What if I had multiple employees whose families depended on the income from my business? What if I was piling up accolades for my efforts—getting invited to speak with Terry Gross on the air, receiving a trophy of some kind, halfway through writing a publisher-commissioned book? How readily would I have walked away from it all after having the fundamental flaws within the idea thrust in my face? The question is a haunting one, and serves to remind me to be empathetic toward figures like Kabat-Zinn.

I know there are various people, groups, co-ops, etc working in silos around the world, all building the modular components of an escape vehicle meant to withstand off-roading from the highway of our current flavor of capitalism. I have great hope that the mass awakening after we pulled the emergency brake on the economy will help these siloed groups find one another. As a friend recently quipped, "The coronavirus has been a blacklight shone on the hotel bedsheets of capitalism."

Anyway, thanks again for your part in helping me realize that the path I was on wasn't going where I thought it was going.



Constipation, The Disease Of Civilization

I’ve known D. for a number of years. I asked him to write about the relationship between Total Work and his gut health. He has some serious gut issues. I asked him to write something I could post anonymously because I’d really like you, dear reader, to understand how much our work culture deforms and compromises simple, natural bodily functions.

D. writes:

I once heard that constipation is the disease of civilization. I've never felt the truth of this statement more viscerally than when I shifted to working from home due to COVID-19. 

I have chronic gut issues. That means my body doesn't always cooperate with the timing of the work day. Accordingly, working from home has significantly improved my quality of life. I now have significantly more responsiveness towards this basic biological function.

I'm starting to realize just how bizarre it is that office life limited my freedom to use the bathroom. How I had to essentially schedule my bowel movements. How I couldn't listen to my body.


Setting Up Our Contemplation Room

I’ve known C. since he started reading the Total Work Newsletter in 2018. C. left behind a private equity career, went on a long sabbatical with his girlfriend, and has since started two new companies. On a daily basis, he’s been living viscerally with the reality of Total Work. Below, he discusses how he and his girlfriend set up their contemplation room.

C. writes:

The bright spot of our quarantine setup has been our contemplation room. I've gotten into a nice routine of sitting in there, first thing in the morning with my coffee, and reflecting on four mantras (for lack of a better term). They are:

  • Undefer

  • Non-Action

  • Let Go

  • Trust

Right now, those mantras are simply words I've hand drawn with colored markers onto heavy sheets of paper and Scotch taped to the wall.

As I ponder the mantras, I'm periodically transported back to memories of places I've been, so I think M. [his girlfriend] and I will have prints made of our favorite landscape shots from our adventures [during the sabbatical and after it]: Thailand, British Columbia, Peru, Santa Barbara, Healdsburg, Calistoga, Asheville, etc.

These are all places where we enjoyed a certain tranquility, which is why I think these visions come to me in the first place. My theory is that adorning the walls with those landscapes will just enhance the vibes. Onto these prints, I will watermark the mantras in faint white lettering. 


While I sit first thing in the morning, I reflect on "What would I be doing if I weren't waiting for X [related to a certain startup’s benchmarks] to be so? What's stopping me from doing Y right now? etc." Not exactly Tantric meditation on the question, but getting somewhere.

Next I move onto Non-Action, which is obviously an English translation borrowed from wu-wei and Daoism. This is the Total Work prompt for me — put work in its proper place. That doesn't mean not working. Work in its proper place means work hasn't displaced life [specifically, the good life], just like non-action doesn't mean doing nothing, but instead doing everything, only effortlessly.

Next I move onto Let Go, which needs little explanation. For me, it's the point at which I reflect on what the stoic proponents might call the trichotomy of control. Basically, I don't have that much control, if any, over the outcomes of things, so I might as well let go and go with the flow.

Finally, I move onto Trust which reinforces Let Go. It's all good to Let Go of outcomes because no matter what happens things will just work out.


After this reflection (and my coffee), I then go into an actual self-guided meditation and gentle morning yoga. For a few weeks I meditated half-lotus on the yoga mat, but we just got zafus [meditation cushions] and zabutons [flat, rectangular cushions upon which the zafus are traditionally placed] which is like upgrading to a Tempur-Pedic from an air mattress.

It's a solid routine. The room is clearly gathering some positive vibes. We also got some incense, which adds to the ritual.

In addition to the morning routine, I've managed to incorporate an evening yoga class every day too, which reverses some of the effects of sitting. As I'm sure you can appreciate, when you get a good yoga streak going, the body really starts to unbend and loosen in interesting ways.



Tales of Total Work: Dispatches From The Public Sector

The following is written, well, by someone I know who teaches in the public sector. B.’s report is very poignant.

B. writes:

I am sick of work. I cannot stand work. I hate work. 

I can’t take this anymore. I can no longer bear the burden of working 60+ hours a week; often into the small hours of the morning, sometimes until 4.30am, and then getting up to work a 16-hour day. I can’t go back to the headspace where I’ve sat in my car with tears in my eyes texting my wife that I hope I fall asleep at the wheel and crash or pass out at work and crack my head open on a desk just so I can get some time off. 

Why are people shouting at me? Work! (some minor mistake) Why is there shouting at home? Work! (no time — the house is a mess, no time to sit with my wife and just talk, my kids plonked on screens — so ashamed) Where do social and interpersonal interactions make me feel low? Work! (“You need to do this, you’re an embarrassment.”) All of these bad things are emanating from the workplace. As I’m writing this, I have tears in my eyes.

But is this the world of high-finance or multimedia start-ups? Of bruising commerce or the animal spirits and brutal bear-pit of the stock exchange trade floor? No, it’s just the usual working week of one Further Education teacher in the UK. 

How did I get here?

Over the past several years, my relationship to work has become ever more consuming, to the point of near collapse: the result of a phenomenon I feel is particular to the public sector, and which I shall call “competitive caring,” coupled with the deepening of already present quasi-market forces acting within Further Education and an even wider cultural zeitgeist in which we do not even question the notion that ever harder work should come to embody the innermost sense of one’s self-worth.

Whilst in the public sector, one may not be under the same kind of pressures to meet the bottom line as one would experience in the world of business, a different but no less corrosive dynamic of Total Work is at play: competitive caring. Under competitive caring, one comes to identify ever more closely with the professional identity of The Teacher, wherein the natural and good impulses of the individual towards wanting to be a helpful and inspiring facilitator of young people’s learning becomes leveraged into an ever more anxious feeling of needing to be always available for student questions, an ever greater number of field trips, ever fancier lessons and ever more detailed marking feedback, to the point where the aforementioned 60+ hour work week with all its trappings is still not enough time to get on top of it all and some kind of nervous collapse is in the offing.

Modern teaching is actually three jobs: that of teacher, social worker and bureaucratic administrator. The FE [or Further Education—AT] teacher might find their average working day consisting of three shifts. Firstly, the actual teaching day for which they are paid from 8am to 5pm. Secondly, the early evening shift in between arriving home from work and eating dinner, say 5.30pm to 8pm; this consists of dealing with various administrative emails and the completion of statistical data on student attendance, retention and achievement. If the teacher has children, the third evening shift will then begin after they have gone to bed and is made up of marking work and/or preparing/improving lessons for the next day. This shift starts at 10pm and finishes at midnight at best. Did I mention that I am only actually part-time (true, partly through choice) and for all this work I earn £25,000 a year [just over $30,000 USD based on the present conversion rate—AT]?

I suppose I should feel lucky that I have any form of stable income at all, but maybe I shouldn’t feel lucky, maybe I should feel angry: precarity goes hand in hand with hyper-employment. Thankfully, in the UK my family and I are protected from the vicissitudes of working poverty by the existence of Child Tax Credits, a kind of proto-UBI which is a significant amount of money. You can imagine the sales-pitch now: “Get your discount burnt-out teacher here, will work 60+ hours a week, available all hours day and night; a steal for only 25k per annum. Self-actualising! With government handouts feeds a whole family too! 40 years old, a bit grey now but with plenty of miles left on the clock.”

In this way the supposedly lazy workers of the public sector are induced to part with their time and energy. I wonder how many thousands of hours of unremunerated labour my colleagues contribute towards our genuine desire to further our students’ educations as much as we can? Extrapolating from my own experience, it must literally add up to tens of thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds of unpaid work. This surplus value is the value of our love, of our honour and our sense of duty towards being the best capital T Teachers we can be. A label, an identity, to which we strap ourselves and blast ourselves into the firmament of work and which is in danger of combusting us like so much fuel.

To the personal pressures that FE teachers feel in striving to work as hard as possible are also added the work demands placed on individual teachers by FE colleges as quasi-businesses. In the English Further Education sector, the government allocates funds to colleges per student, each of whom is worth several thousand pounds. In such a framework, students come to be seen as commodities and the classic economic idea of perverse incentives rears its head. Instead of a system in which a natural number of enthusiastic students are able to choose to study courses in which they are genuinely interested, tutors [college instructors comparable to assistant professors in the US—AT] are encouraged by management to shoehorn as many students (representing funding streams) into courses in which they have only expressed the slightest interest and which they know deep down they will not really enjoy. Such a situation soon leads to conflict in the classroom as students become bored with a course that they quickly realise is indeed not to their interest.

To the burden of preparing lessons, teaching, marking coursework and looking out for the pastoral needs of our students, the modern FE teacher must also add the task of marketer. The teacher is now a hustler, too, appealing directly to clients through college monitored social media (“Have you reached your Tweet quota this month?”). The individual teacher is made to feel that it is primarily down to them to attract new students to the college and if x amount do not then their job is at risk. Upon the teachers’ shoulders is placed the very burden of their future employment. Instead of the job of attracting new students to the college being a collective effort, one is left feeling that risk has been privatised to the individual tutors themselves.

As I come to the end of my little dispatch, I must remind the reader that although it may not have sounded like it from the above, I do actually enjoy teaching. I’m by far from the best at my college, but I can hold my own. Many students have commented over the years that they’ve enjoyed my lessons. I love it when the ice breaks with a class and you get to know them, when a natural break in the teaching arises and you can have a laugh with the young people in the classroom about what they’re into. It is also truly wonderful to hear students say that they didn’t understand something before and because of your teaching they now do. Indeed, one of the best things one can receive in teaching is a heartfelt thank you card from a student at the end of the academic year. Sometimes I’m so elated by such a gift that I have to go and have a walk around outside.

However, I cannot go on with the workload I have put myself under this past several years. In the coming academic year, I am greatly reducing the number of extra teaching hours and extra-curricular activities I have taken upon myself. I will still be able to offer my students good quality lessons and a good package of extra-curricular activities and field trips. I will also continue to improve my existing lessons and teaching skills. But I will no longer be engaging in competitive caring with myself. I’ve had it with that.

‘The Working Day Spans 24 Hours’

Junger one more time from The Worker: Dominion and Form (1932 original/2017 trans.) on the work-character of the figure of the Worker:

Work is thus not mere activity, but the expression of a specific being, seeking to fulfill its space, its time, its lawfulness. It therefore knows no opposition outside itself; it is like fire, consuming and transforming everything combustible, that can only b countered through its own principle, only through a return of fire. The work space is unlimited, just as the working day spans twenty-four hours. The opposite of work is certainly not some rest or leisure; rather, from this perspective there is no situation that cannot be grasped as work. A practical example is the manner in which people now busy themselves [my italics—AT] with leisure. Leisure either bears—as in sport—an entirely obvious work-character, or it represents—as in entertainment, technical festivities, or a stay in the country—a playfully colored counterweight to work, but in no way the opposite to work itself. On this, then, hangs the growing meaninglessness of the Sundays and feast days of old—that calendar which corresponds ever less to a changed rhythm of life (p. 56)

For New Readers Looking For An Overview