Total Work Newsletter #1: Working Ourselves into a Frenzy

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as more and more aspects of life are slowly transformed into work. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.


Just Science Fiction?

My Aeon piece begins this way:

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive. No one would drink too much, some would microdose on psychedelics to enhance their work performance, and everyone would live indefinitely long. Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.

This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.


Working Ourselves into a Frenzy

#1: RELENTLESS SERIES: Total Work in Extremis Alexandra Zatarain: Sleep Is The Means To An End 2 min. | Forbes | YouTube Short Film

Forbes’ Description: “Alexandra Zatarain in the cofounder and CMO of Eight, a technology startup that makes a smart mattress that tracks your sleep, lets you adjust each side for temperature and more. This is a typical day in her life.”

My First Thought: Alexandra Zatarain (as well as others in the Relentless series) demonstrate what happens when total work is pushed to one of its logical conclusions. Hers is a day centered around work. Everything is to be monitored and optimized for the sake of greater productivity. Each part of the day is to ‘amped up,’ as she takes everything she does at full speed. The chief question, “What is next?,” occupies much of her attention. And in all this, it can be inferred, she cannot brook the void, the possibility that there would be nothing to be done.

Of Dissonance: The Relentless series, strangely, is without irony. There is here an odd mixing of styles: the epic heroine, here Alexandra Zatarain, involved in a Bourne-style action film juxtaposed with the bourgeois figure, also Alexandra Zatarain, trying to improve on the quality of a mattress bed cover. The disproportionality between the epic genre and the jejune, and very mundane, pursuit of sleep improvement should give us pause. How did the entrepreneur-as-hero making micro-changes to better the social world in micro-ways come into being and grab a hold of our attention? And how can one devote one’s life to something fairly trivial without considering, indeed doubting, whether this has any importance in the grand scheme of things?

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Ancient Leisure, Modern Work: The transition from an ancient aristocratic ethos emphasizing leisure to a modern bourgeois ethos emphasizing the centrality of work is evident in these two diametrically opposing quotes, the first from Aristotle, the second from Weber (both of which are cited in Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture):

Aristotle, Politics

The first principle of all action [he says] is leisure [schole]. Both are required, but leisure [schole] is better than occupation [aschole] and is its end; and therefore the question must be asked, what ought we to do when at leisure [schole]?


Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic

[O]ne lives for the sake of one’s work, and if there is no more work to do one suffers or goes to sleep.

#2: BBC CAPITAL: Total Work in Extremis The Boss who Doesn’t Believe in Work-life Balance 11 slides | BBC | Documentary

BBC Description: “Ross McCray is a purpose-driven boss who pushes the limits of human endurance, at work and play. Workers at his company say they thrive off the extremity of working long hours.”

Raised Eyebrow: In the eighth slide, we read, “Defying conventional wisdom about balancing personal time with work duties, McCray encourages an environment where his employees practically live at the office. They work, work out, dine and play together. It is a ‘bulldog’ lifestyle that may not be for all, but McCray believes his 'high-freedom, high-responsibility’ approach helps his staff unlock their full potential.”

A Textbook Case of Dukkha: According to one employee quoted in the thirteenth slide, “Most people who work here derive a lot of value from their work, and they cling to it. It’s an addiction to be productive.” Dukkha is a Pali term referring to the sense that life, as it is, is basically unsatisfactory. Some Buddhists argue that the cause of dukkha is clinging. Addiction, then, would be a compulsive form of clinging. Paradoxically, the good life advocated here is precisely an unsatisfactory life.

#3: NYT ASIA: Karoshi, Total Work in Extremis Young Worker Clocked 159 Hours of Overtime in a Month. Then She Died. - The New York Times 3 min. | New York Times | News

New York Times Description: “Miwa Sado, 31, a journalist for Japan’s state-run broadcaster, is the latest high-profile example of karoshi, or ‘death from overwork.’”

Eye-opening Quotes: “In a 2016 government report on karoshi [or death by overwork], nearly a quarter of companies surveyed said that some employees were working more than 80 hours of overtime a month” (my italics). That’s right: more than 80 hours of overtime. Later: “Her [namely, the deceased young worker’s] employer is considered one of the most prestigious companies in Japan, a country where exhaustion is often seen as a sign of diligence.”

A Puzzle: Within the “problem-solution” framework assumed by these New York Times journalists, the only considerations were (a) whether Miwa Sado worked too much, (b) whether her working too much was the cause of her death, and © how Japanese companies could more closely scrutinize limiting the number of hours their employees work. Left out are sundry philosophical questions. Such as: Could karoshi instead be another logical extension of a much larger social, cultural, economic, and political phenomenon, one that’s so close to us that we can’t seem to see it?

Thoughts of a Provisional Nature

I began this first newsletter, you gathered, with some low-hanging fruit. A female entrepreneur, starting her day with water and turmeric (no caffeine, she says pridefully), a workout, and a Vespa ride to cut the commute, believes that sleep is the “means to an end,” where that end, presumably, is either greater productivity or success. A male entrepreneur, here a bro in Santa Monica, argues for “work-life integration,” yet he fails to see that there is, in his life, no such integration: it’s just work all the way through–all the way through meditation and playtime and dinnertime. A Japanese journalist, devoted to her field, works herself to death. She was only 31. The first two endlessly repeat their days without stopping to wonder about the film Groundhog Day (1993), while the third, tragically, cannot.

Perhaps too, in this context, I should mention the drug-abusing lawyer working for a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm found dead by his ex-wife who pictured him, in his final moments, “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness,” and yet who “had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call” and then to die.

We could write these cases off as anomalies askant from the gold standard of “doing good work” or as ugly protuberances from an otherwise healthy, stout oak tree. Or, especially in the case of the lawyer, we could pull the requisite New York Times trick: forthwith provide a psychological diagnosis, feel a modicum of pity for the victim who, according to this interpretation, must have been “an addict,” and then, having finished with one’s moral accounting, summarily forget about it.

Suppose, this time, we didn’t do any of this. Suppose instead that we listened to Aristotle who, in his Poetics, urges us to see the two key features of tragedy as pathos and fear: a sadness arising from the feeling that the hero is more or less like us and a fear, a burning one, that his fate or hers could also, could still be ours.

Might these figures mentioned above be more than mere tableaux in our little psychic dramas? Could they be whispering truths to us about the nature of work today, truths so uncanny that they readily evade our notice? Could they be our cousins, our neighbors, indeed (if only we saw it) who we are?

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Let’s come back. It’s May 3, 2017, my wife Alexandra has just sent me a seemingly innocuous New York Times piece on the benefits of working after retirement, and I, notwithstanding my Buddhists commitments, find myself irate. I’m fuming. And so? So, I write a rant.

What happened to me? It was like a Gestalt shift: all these apparently disparate anecdotes, incidents, and episodes crystallized, somehow, into a whole. All the conversations with the male executive at Twitter who’s been, by his own account, obsessed with work. All the conversations over the years with creative class people who speak at great length of doing “meaningful work.” All the conversations with the female Agency Lead at Google about the unfulfilling nature of her work. All the young “change agents” who want to make the world a better place through the work they do. All the years of speaking with conversation partners from Scandinavia to Silicon Valley, from Central America to Wall Street about work and work and, well, work. Meanwhile, many of these knowledge workers aver that work is central to their lives and that they’re suffering as a result.

How could it be that of all the subjects we could inquire into–from the possibility of God and the nature of metaphysics to political theory and the dangerous entanglements of the heart–that work has been the subject that has most often come up? And that quite often has been the source of gnawing or nagging dissatisfaction. Our souls, quietly, ached–for more.

“OK, fella, but what else, what more is there to life?” This I mean to explore in this newsletter.

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When I think of what this newsletter is, and should be, about, I don’t call to mind yet another one about “the future of work.” (The Axios Future of Work newsletter I highly recommend.) Sure, I’ll get into the relevance of AI; of course, I’ll muse about technology, the gig economy, the more and more pressing and present precariat class, universal basic income; and no doubt Elon Musk will make a cameo appearance here and there. Yet the future of work is not my subject; the significance of work in modern culture is.

Nor is it about “overwork,” a mistake some have made when they’ve heard about total work. It is not, I think, the quantity of work that is at the heart of this epochal transformation that might as well be called the birth of the Bourgeois Era but rather the quality of outlook that has changed so dramatically yet so slowly and subtly as to have gone largely unnoticed. I’m not implying, then, that work itself is an unalloyed good and that we should, a la a Benjamin Franklinian call for moderation and prudence, merely do less of a good thing.

If this newsletter is not, therefore, about the future of work or about overwork, then what shall it cover? As I see it today, it will have three aims. First, it will, in a Nietzschean sense, unfold a critique of the value of work. To critique the value of work is to launch an onslaught of philosophical questions of this kind: What is the role, function, and location of work in modern culture? How central is it to human identity at this moment in time? How did people come to believe that work was meaningful? Whence this value? And what would life look like if a critique were to set work in its proper context?

Second, it is to follow, as best it can, in the tradition of Fernand Braudel, a French historian who, in the mid-twentieth century, sought to study the longue duree, the slow-changing, almost imperceptible structures that define an epoch. How can work, which exists almost everywhere and seems to us as if it were timeless and permanent, something as one Brazilian conversation partner put it recently will “always be there,” be brought into focus? How can we “get behind” these structures so as to perceive them operating in our lives as well as in culture at large? How can we shift our vision in order to bring this leviathan into perspicuous focus?

And, third, it is to trace, sometimes in fragments, at other times in images, hopefully with its own poetry, the history of the concept of work. At this moment, two examples of fascinating questions leap to mind. The first: The classical scholar Moses Finley writes in The Ancient Economy that Cicero (106-43 BCE) “calls a whole range of employments mean and illiberal, but he restricts the slave metaphor to those who work for wages, to hired labour” (p. 73). In antiquity, wage laborers were close to being slaves (hence the “slave metaphor”) in terms of status and thus, being unfree, lived well below the status of freemen. How, in our day, did wage and salaried labor come to take on such a positive connotation, indeed come to be something that if not laudable by all is at least highly esteemed by many? Calling this long historical development strange is surely a coy understatement.

The second: In Shadow Work, the social critic and historian Ivan Illich mentions offhandedly that unemployment is a “term first introduced in 1898 to designate people without a fixed income” (p. 16). Then, in 1967, in a speech discussing the political and economic conditions affecting people of color, Martin Luther King states, “We must create full employment or we must create [basic or guaranteed] incomes.” How did the concept of employment arise? How did that of full employment became a post-WWII US governmental commitment? And what would a world in which employment, as a concept, didn’t organize ‘work life’ look like?

These are but a couple of the cache of philosophical and historical questions on my mind.

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Could this newsletter contribute to lifting our imaginations out of the taken for granted while also revealing to us, almost without words, what has been lost, is now nearly forgotten, yet still could be regained? If, for us, the center of life weren’t defined by the necessary and the useful and by the desire for greater productivity, how would the stillness envelope us, how the light of day greet us, and who, above all, would we be?

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Special Thanks To…

Khe Hy (@khemaridh) for pointing me to the Revue newsletter; to Michael Coren (@MJ_Coren) who tweeted the MLK speech; to Peter Limberg for pointing me to the Forbes Relentless Series; to Daniel Kazandjian for pointing me to the BBC series; and to my wife Alexandra Taggart for designing the total work logo gracing this newsletter.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <drewtaggart@gmail.com>. The philosopher, not the lead singer of The Chainsmokers.