Total Work Newsletter #11: Just Work It (i.e., Everything) Out

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.

Announcements: First off, check out the new and refined logo (credit: Alexandra Taggart). Second, since I’ll be giving a couple of talks next week, I may not be sending out Issue #12 next Saturday. Let’s say: probably not, but possibly.

Ownership is Dead and Philosophers are Kings

#1: Is Ownership an Artifact of Costly Distribution? | When Delivery is Free, Will Ownership Survive? | 20 min. | Perspicacity Blog | Science Fiction

Perspicacity Sum: “With cheap transport, we could move our closets into the cloud. From there, things will get weird, kind of like the internet got weird.”

The Thought Experiment: Could ridiculously cheap distribution of goods (provided by autonomous cars) lead to the severe diminishment of owned goods? “When you follow this simple logic,” the author writes, “when distribution costs fall, goods disperse….” Also this: “Ownership is not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of distribution.” Lastly this: “A world of cheap distribution could be a world of fewer, better-designed things, ones that consume fewer resources, and leave more for humans.”

Implication: If this were true, are we back to technological unemployment in cases where individuals were formerly employed in the slow and costly distribution of goods? Or, again, will this be a “net benefit” as individuals are freed up to be retrained to do some other kind of work? Or would this sort of thing inaugurate a Golden Age of Leisure (or, quite the contrary, a deepening of the opioid crisis)?

#2: All the Rage | Why Your Board Needs A Chief Philosophy Officer | 5 min. | Forbes | Interview

Forbes Sum: “Where Silicon Valley goes, others follow. So are in-house philosophers about to become all the rage in the corporate world?”

Overview: “Some Silicon Valley-based companies, including search engine giant Google, have started to employ in-house philosophers. Others, among them the instant-messaging and telecommunications company Skype, use the service of philosophical counselors such as Andrew Taggart to engage teams of managers with philosophical questions related to their daily business. These practical philosophers are gradually entering the business world, where local executives employ them as de facto “chief philosophy officers” (CPOs). The job role appears to be a mixture of consultant, life coach and strategist. CPOs are responsible for helping the CEO or the business to tackle fundamental questions such as ‘What is a good and virtuous life?’, 'How can I be a good boss?’ and 'What should the purpose of my business be?’”

Remarks: A number of these stories have appeared over the past year (to give three: here, here, and here [in Italian]). I wonder what makes this kind of piece–about the philosopher and Silicon Valley–such a popular one. I came up with four reasons. First, I believe the long history of Western philosophy ordinarily puts it in schole (leisure) and the vita contemplativa and not next to negotium (business, the affairs of the day). So, it’s rather like one theory of humor–the theory of contiguity–in which there is a surprising juxtaposition of asceticism and worldliness. Second, the story brings into play another surprising juxtaposition, this time between wisdom and power. And even a third surprising juxtaposition between the liberal arts and the mechanical or technical arts. And a fourth: philosophy as theoria is, through another surprise, rubbing shoulders with philosophy as praxis.

#3: There Goes Harari Again! | Reboot for the AI revolution | 5 min. | Nature | Opinion

Nature Sum: “As artificial intelligence puts many out of work, we must forge new economic, social and educational systems, argues Yuval Noah Harari.”

Confusing: In a Guardian piece, Harari had wondered whether, owing to AI’s creating a “useless class,” we would all be hooked on Augmented Reality. Here, he’s following a more standard line of argument: since AI will wipe out many jobs, create new, more interesting jobs; pursue lifelong learning; and I guess we’ll see.

High Stakes: Harari concludes, “The challenges posed in the twenty-first century by the merger of infotech and biotech are arguably bigger than those thrown up by steam engines, railways, electricity and fossil fuels. Given the immense destructive power of our modern civilization, we cannot afford more failed models, world wars and bloody revolutions. We have to do better this time.”

#4: Don’t Write (Just?) for Money When You’re Just Starting Out?

5 min. | Media Lens | Tweets HT Paul Swann

Media Lens


Forget it. Don't write for the 'mainstream'. Don't write for money. Don't write for prestige. Just 'follow your bliss' by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free.

3:43 AM - 28 Feb 2018

Remark: The replies are very interesting, perhaps more so than the longform essay that Media Lens wrote in defense of their position. I would suggest that you read the replies until you get a gist of what’s going on.

I follow a principle: whenever I see people getting disproportionately angry about something, there must be something worth investigating here. (To get a sense of what the debate could be about, see my essay on Gorz in Issue #8.)

#5: More on Income Inequality | Robots are Shifting Income from Workers to Owners | 3 min. | Axios | Newsletter

Axios Sum: “MIT study shows owners are getting extra share of the pie.”

Key Quote: According to David Autor, an economist at MIT, “Automation is redistributing income from workers to owners.”

The Free Lunch Vending Maching

Old New Yorker Cartoon

Just Work It (i.e., Everything) Out

“No Free Lunches”

One reader of this newsletter asked whether I could elaborate on the proposition that almost everything is now work. Sure.

It might help if we begin by considering a popular adage: “There’s no free lunch.” Once you begin thinking about it further, you realize how churlish, and inaccurate, the statement is. The thought is that since you don’t get something for nothing, you’ve got to work for whatever it is you do get or achieve in this life. If you haven’t worked for it, then you shouldn’t expect to reap the rewards. In a certain range of cases, the claim is true, but in all cases? What of gifts, grace, and luck? The older I get, the more I realize how much good fortune has played a role in my life become what it is.

But never mind that because we’re trying to understand the proposition that almost everything is work.

The adage above neatly packs within itself a number of important assumptions:

  1. That almost everything (i) takes work, (ii) resembles work, (iii) is work, or (iv) is in the service of (more) work.

  2. That a human being is, metaphysically speaking, an individual agent who is tasked with acting on the world.

  3. And that the end in life is success: making it, leaving a mark on the world, making a valuable contribution, etc.

Consider each in turn.

Takes, Is, Resembles, or Is Subservient to Work

Here’s a game: take anything you like and see whether it requires work to have or maintain it, resembles work (is work-like), is work, or is in the service of (more) work. These days moving one’s body vigorously is called “working out” (so, resemblance). Success is said to require work (so, takes). Thinking hard today or being diligently involved in something is called “working on” or “working through” (so, work itself or resemblance). (I can only think of “getting worked up” and “being worked over” as cases where work is regarded in a negative light.) Really, doing anything that requires a modicum of effort has been collapsed into work (NB: I believe that effort and work need to be prised apart since though all work requires effort, not all effort is tantamount to work. Playing, for instance, requires effort yet is not work). Quite interesting, “working on” oneself resembles work as does “working on our relationship.”

The only ordinary examples that don’t seem to be commonly regarded as work or don’t seem to require work, resemble work, or be put in the service of work are consumption, sleep, taking drugs, and sex. Of these four, two, however, are immediately questionable. To consume food or to go shopping, it is usually held that you need to make money. (Remember: “There are no free lunches.”) Of course, someone else can take you shopping or buy you lunch, but earning a living seems to be behind his or her capacity to do so. Additionally, as Ivan Illich has observed, “shadow work” is involved in a good number of prima facie non-work activities. Booking flights, for instance, usually feels like work while also requiring work.

Taking drugs, once a countercultural move par excellence, is now a way in which some people “work on” themselves. Here is a class difference, however: while the opioid epidemic is a sign of the ugly underbelly of the suffering of unemployed people in the Midwest, going on ayahuasca is, for some, a form of self-work.

And while sex itself is not work, maintaining a “healthy relationship” is said to require a certain amount of sex. And once a couple begins thinking about how much sex is instrumentally good for maintaining a “healthy relationship,” sex can certainly come to resemble work or at least lose its sense of mystery and playfulness.

Probably, the only outlier is sleep, though some total workers think that sleep is a means for the end of more work. (See the Forbes Relentless series, a 2-minute video, from Issue #1.)


I come back time and again to some remarks that John Passmore made in passing in his excellent The Perfectibility of Man (1969). In one passage, he is commenting on the Pelagian Heresy. As I recall, Pelagianism held that human works are sufficient for salvation. Ergo, no divine grace is required. While the heresy was put down, you might say that we’re living out Pelagianism in our largely secular world today.

For we are thrown into a world in which it is believed that each of us is on his or her own to act on the world as he or she sits fit (so long as this involves no harm done unto others). Ours is a picture of human agency shorn of the idea that any “superhuman powers” (to use the term proposed by the sociologist of religion Christian Smith in his book Religion: What It is, How It Works, and Why It Matters [2017]) act on the world or help to shape our lives. (NB: “Superhuman,” i.e., that which is beyond the ken of the human, should not be confused with “supernatural”: an earthquake is superhuman but not supernatural.)

It’s autonomy all the way down… Each of us is on his or her own to use whatever powers he or she has–to do what?

To Be Successful, Broadly Defined

I think it’s basically an instrumental picture I’ve been describing. Yes, work has become, at least in part, an end in itself (for Calvin, a “calling”; for us, “careers”). Yet, more important for my argument here, work has become the “chief tool” we use to achieve success. The claim is that we work on the world in order to “make it,” to make something of ourselves, to make a contribution to the world, or to leave our mark on the world. To the degree that success is very important to us and to the degree that no one is going to help us get there, to that degree work shall continue to be our chief means.

Why It Matters

Work matters to us because being an agent matters to us. And work matters to us also because success matters to us.

To critique the value of work, therefore, we could ask:

  • Are we fundamentally agents, or are we the kinds of agents we believe we are? Is this the most accurate picture of a human being? Or there be superhuman powers–such as the Dao, or Way of Things–acting on us and to which we respond?

  • Does success matter, or does it matter in the way we think it does? Or could success be a hindrance to our realizing what truly matters?

If success and agency didn’t matter so much to us, then presumably work also wouldn’t matter so much to us.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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