Total Work Newsletter #10: Total Work is No Joke

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 work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to occlude all other aspects of life. 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.

Announcement: My friend Dougald Hine, teacher, writer, and co-founder of Dark Mountain, and I will be teaching a 5-day course this summer in Sweden. Here’s more about it:

Byung-Chul Han, in his evocative book The Burnout Society (HT Peter Limberg), suggests that our hyperactive achievement society is leading many to deep fatigue and burnout. Not that long ago, Ivan Illich urged us instead to find hospitality in the face-to-face relationships that emerge when we take the time to eat and think with one another.

In “Finding Our Way Home,” we invite you to exit the burnout society by putting away your mobile phones, laptops, and other technology and to welcome the contemplative conviviality to be found among those choosing to devote themselves to speaking earnestly about what truly matters.

Come join us for 5 days in Ängelsberg, Sweden, a small village a short train ride away from Stockholm, as we take part in slow conversations, deepen our understanding of our world, and learn practical skills and vital practices that we can take home with us.

We’ve already received 18 serious inquiries and we only have room for 25 people, so if you’re interested, we encourage you to send us an inquiry without delay.

A School Called HOME

White House, Angelsberg, Sweden

"Pour le CGT"

A poem by Rod Smith (HT Pete Sims):

We work too hard
We’re too tired
to fall in love.
Therefore we must
overthrow the government.

We work too hard
We’re too tired
to overthrow the government.
Therefore we must
fall in love.

Play, Christianity, and Facebook in Hard Times

#1: Can't We Just Play to Play? | Child Development: Kids that Play more often are better Prepared for Employment | 5 min. | Quartz | Opinion

QZ Opening: “Fears about automation displacing workers around the world ranked high on the list of Things to Be Very Worried About at the World Economic Forum in January. ‘At the end of the day, we have to fire a lot of people,’ said Ursula Burns, chairman of the supervisory board at telecom group VEON, and former CEO…”

Quote #1: The writer is advocating for children’s play FOR THE SAKE OF their being viable workers. “But the World Economic Forum isn’t focused on kids, or even education; its focus is on capitalism and its component parts, including workers. So the Real Play Coalition cast kids as future workers, championing the radical idea that if we train children in the skills they need to survive automation now, we won’t have to worry as much about re-training them as workers later” (my underlining).

Quote #2: “There’s no doubt that kids need to learn math and science. But they also need to learn how to be human.” Amen.

Mixed Message: Now, I get her parental anxiety over her children’s ability to support herself. Still, she’s arguing that (a) play teaches us how to be human (hurray!) and (b) play is an instrumental good, i.e., good for the sake of transforming us into future workers (hmm…). Of course, it’s possible that (a) and (b) are compatible and in some possible worlds they would be, yet it’s also possible that in this world they’re not, at least not in some kind of pre-established harmony sort of way. What if being a full human being weren’t necessarily compatible with being a competent future worker in the knowledge economy?

#2: My Latest Quartz at Work Piece | The 70-hour and 4-day work weeks are both rooted in Christian philosophy 5 min. | Quartz | Essay

QZ Sum: “Modern workers in general, and workaholic Americans in particular, cannot escape working as if it were a calling.”

Overview: I try to show that the longer hours vs. shorter hours debate has little to do with the number of hours worked and much to do with two competing conceptions of the good life.

Phub, verb

verb (used with object), phubbed, phubbing

1. To ignore (a person or one’s surroundings) when in a social situation by busying oneself with a phone or other mobile device: Hey, are you phubbing me? I hate to see a mother wheeling a stroller while phubbing her baby.

verb (used without object), phubbed, phubbing

2. To ignore a person or one’s surroundings in this way.

First recorded in 2010-14; ph(one)1+ snub

(Source: HT Alexandra Taggart)

#3: Because Working is Better than Slowly Withering Away | The ‘Unretired’: Coming Back to Work in Droves 5 min. | FT | Feature

FT Sum: “Rising numbers of older people are swapping pensions and hobbies for corporate life.”

FT Quote: “After stepping down, Mr Roy devoted time to fishing and writing. But he felt ‘something was missing. I thought, ‘what is my purpose in life?’ Work had been diverting. 'You went to work, your day was defined. You remove that, all of a sudden, what did you replace with it? What’s next? What do I do?’”

Remark: It makes a bunch of sense to me that many retirees would return to the workforce because the work society has failed to provide them with no genuine alternatives, no good ways of engaging with life otherwise.

#4: A Day in the Life of a WeWorker... | Sriracha Is for Closers 20 min. | Esquire | Feature HT Alex Hardy

Esquire Opening: “Welcome to WeWork, the eight-year-old, $20 billion “shared space” nerve center of the New New Economy—in which the corporate ladder has been replaced by a rent-a-desk, the benefits package consists of free WiFi and La Colombe, and the retirement plan is IPO or bust. But hey, at least there’s no one to boss you around anymore, right? Eric Konigsberg clocks in to find out just what the hell people actually do there all day.”

Eye-popping Quotes: (1) “Soon, the company anticipates, large enterprises will outsource their office buildings to WeWork, which will draw from its increasingly sophisticated data to ensure that enterprise clients get the most productivity possible for the least amount of money,” the magazine reported.“

(2) “We were looking for a problem we could solve [states one of the WeWork founders], and we realized the real-estate model for start-ups didn’t work. You should be happy to spend ten to twelve hours a day wherever you work. There had been a revolution in inexpensive boutique hotels and chain restaurants, but not for office space.”

(3) "WeWork appears to be creating a twenty-first-century version of the Pullman company town, but with virtually connected outposts across the globe, so that tenants—sorry, community members—might soon rise at WeLive, drop off their children at WeGrow, labor at WeWork, and socialize on site with like-minded people after hours” (my underlining).

Ergophobia, noun

1. an abnormal fear of work; an aversion to work.

(Source: HT Alexandra Taggart)

#5: Going about Things the Wrong Way | This Calculator Puts a Value on the Invisible, Unpaid Work Done by Women | 1-2 min. | Quartz | Calculator

In Brief: The idea is “to highlight women’s invisible labor.”

QZ Excerpt: “Gbowee asked him to get up and go to the room’s blackboard, and write down his salary on it. “What does your wife do first thing in the morning?” she then asked him. He said she made hot water. Gbowee asked him to write down how much he’d have to pay someone to do that. They then went through all of the chores the pastor’s wife completed on any given day and estimated a monetary value for each. “He calculated it and [multiplied] it by 30 or 31 days, and by the time he looked at the figure, the wife made more than him.”

My Take: While I appreciate Gbowee’s attempt to illustrate to men that their housewives are contributing to their shared life, I’m deeply concerned about the manner in which this experiment is performed. The assumption is that what really counts, what is recognizably valuable is paid work. I drew this assumption into question in Issue #8, and I believe it’s another manifestation of the spirit of total work. Also dangerous is the assumption that what counts are exchanges, not gifts. Cf. my blog post on the difference between exchange and gift.

#6: Just So Fascinating | Inside Facebook's Hellish Two Years—and Mark Zuckerberg's Struggle to Fix it All | 1 hr. | WIRED | Investigative Journalism

Wired Sum: “For two years, Facebook has been hijacked, vilified, and besieged. Here’s the inside story of the struggle.”

Quick Take: I’m not on Facebook (I signed up in 2009 and de-activated my account at the end of 2012) and with good reason. I find unpersuasive FB’s mission “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” Still, since 3 billion-plus people use it daily (and since I speak with those at FB), I find it important to follow its development. And this story is a wonderful take on how FB has been compelled to grapple with the question: “Is it a platform, a publisher, or both?” This, in brief, was really a marvelous piece, a really fine, beautiful example of investigative journalism.

Get Paid to...

Courtesy of Daniel Doyen

… until you no longer love what you do….

Total Work is No Joke

Notwithstanding how arch and playful I’ve been in Issues #1-10, I hope it’s clear already that, to me, total work is no joke. Since April 2017, I’ve been spreading the word in many different ways (this newsletter is but one of them) in the hope of diminishing unnecessary suffering and of inviting us to think deeply, and quickly, about how our lives could go if they weren’t focused singularly on work.

Below, I include two poignant letters. The first is from an older woman who wrote to me after having read one of my recent Quartz at Work piece. I found the letter so moving, so tender that it made me want to cry.

The second letter is even more heart-wrenching. The writer is someone I’ve been having philosophical conversations with since March 2011. He is a Cornell-educated poet, a Columbia law school-educated lawyer, and a dear man. In 2014, due to the overwhelming demands of his legal career, he was prescribed a cocktail of medications for his depression. Tragically, one of those medications caused severe pancreatitis. One night he was rushed to the ER, he fell into a coma, and later on–thankfully–he was revived. Since that time in 2014, he has undergone a number of major surgeries in the hope of repairing the extensive damage done to his major arteries and the surrounding nerves–all with very limited success. Each day he experiences severe abdominal pain, and usually he has no more than 2-3 hours of energy. It’s no exaggeration to say that total work nearly killed him.

Both individuals have given me permission to republish these letters. I leave you now with their words.

- - - - -

No Leisure with Dignity: Letter #1

I found your article, “Life Hacks are Part of a 200-year-old Movement to Destroy your Humanity,” illuminating. The amplified focus on work not only diminishes life in the ways you describe, but it also marginalizes the old and the sick, and robs the young of an imaginative childhood. As someone who is both old and sick, I very much appreciated your argument. Thank you.

I am an anthropologist who conducted research in a Himalayan village in Nepal, back when these villages still had many characteristics similar to medieval society. I then taught at the U. of X… and wrote [a certain book about that experience]. In 2010, the illness I have (lupus) worsened and I had to take medical leave, which proved permanent. In spite of that, the U. of X gave me a formal retirement last year, and made me Professor Emerita - an amazingly humane act in a productivity obsessed world. I now live in Los Angeles and still feel horrified by my uselessness, even though I know better. There are no cultural models in our world for leisure with dignity. [my italics–AT]

The Parasite and the Perfect Host: Letter #2

To a New York City lawyer, the phrase “total work” is a redundancy. It was always assumed, almost immediately, that work meant a “total” commitment–literally anything else, sleep, exercise, and even stranger things such as friendship, art, etc., were “extra.” The notion [of total work] followed me and the profession to smaller firms and to firms far outside the select/elect New York few.

[Over the course of my legal career,] my mind has been constantly engaged in a mind game, a brinksmanship in which both sides were eternally the losers: on one hand was the mandate of total work (or as it was known to me and my peers, “work”), and on the other was my withering, beleaguered vestige of a “self,” a paltry collective of non-work urges and desires (including anything from bare-bones health concerns all the way to doing art). There were urban myths that were probably true that the firm would hire a dog-sitter rather than have you leave a lucrative deal at 5 a.m. I had a sleeping bag always under my desk, but it was more of a last-ditch attempt by what was left of my humanity to fool myself that I was accommodating work and not the other way around.

What I’m about to write is not a lie: there were lively debates in the elevators of what constituted a true “all-nighter” and how many a human could truly do consecutively. In the end the all-nighters typified work–they were the norm and not the outlier. Soon enough, there was no room for my marriage, my children, my “outside” artistic endeavors, and, ultimately my health, which was eventually so thoroughly and permanently compromised that I could no longer “work.” In my life, work was a parasite that failed its host by destroying it. In most instances, however, work has become the perfect parasite and man the perfect host.

An Extra

Health IQ: Insurance for the Health Conscious 3 min. | HealthIQ | Website HT Jacqueline Jensen

Health IQ Startup Pitch: Work hard, play hard…. We work a lot of hours since this is a startup. However, we all leave at 5pm/6pm so we can go to the gym, eat dinner at a healthy hour, and see our kids before they goto sleep. After 8pm/9pm we get back on the computer and do conference calls if needed.”

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, touching stories, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.