Total Work Newsletter #17: What the Hell am I Doing Here?

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 obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.

Announcements: First off, some people have asked me about when the TEDx Talk on total work will be available. Um, I don’t know; your guess is as good as mine. Second, do make sure to read the personal essay at the bottom of this issue as it’s sweetly personal. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Some Russian Dystopia

The president of Bates College Clayton Spencer in 2018:

Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become. And I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.

Could you be any more Protestant? Work = who you are? You’ve been working–don’t you realize–all of your life? I resist these two assertions with every fiber of my being. #TotalWorkRightBeforeOurVeryEyes #RightToContemplation

The Death of the Liberal Arts, More Robots, and Anti-jobs

#1: Bates College has Designed a Liberal Arts Education Fit for the Future of Work | 5 min. } Quartz | Feature HT Paul Millerd

QZ Opening: “I consider work sacred,” Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, said over coffee in London a few weeks ago. She wasn’t talking about her own job, though she clearly loves what she does. She was explaining her conviction that helping students find meaningful work should be an integral part of a liberal-arts education. “If you get love and work right,” she said, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, “you’ve sort of figured it all out.”


Key Quote: “’Work’ is not something that is ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ waiting for you, while you’re ‘in here’ for the next four years ‘doing college,‘” Spencer said in a speech to Bishop’s University in 2015. “Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become. And I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.” Or, to quote Annie Dillard, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

My View: (1) Spencer’s view of life is essentially bourgeois. It’s not that work and love are unimportant, but the idea that the good life = getting love and work right is pretty preposterous. (2) Readers of this newsletter know that by now I’ve been vehemently rejecting this claim: “Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become.” I think this couldn’t be more false.

Chekhov's Three Sisters

One character named Irina says in Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1900):

“Man must work, work in the sweat of his brow. No matter who he is, that’s the whole point of his life. And all his happiness.”

Probably, Irina holds to a conception of labor in the sense of the travails of effort while Spencer to that of work in the sense of creating something purposeful. (Here see the last issue on the distinction between labor and work.) Still, it’s interesting to see how a pre-revolutionary Russian and a neoliberal (?) American at least sound similar, remarkably so. How can that be?

#2: THE VALUE OF REST | America is Obsessed with the Virtue of Work. What about the Virtue of Rest? | 5 min. | Wa Post | Opinion

Closing Sum: “I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth. Instead, we should focus more of our political energies on making sure that American workers have the dignity of rest, the freedom to enjoy their lives outside of labor and independence from the whims of their employers.”

#3: COMMUNISM REVISITED:Yanis Varoufakis: Marx predicted our Present Crisis | 10 min. | Guardian | Introduction

Guardian Sum: “The Communist Manifesto foresaw the predatory and polarised global capitalism of the 21st century. But Marx and Engels also showed us that we have the power to create a better world.”


In Brief: Yaroufakis discusses why The Communist Manifesto is still quite relevant today.


Key Quote: “Key to their analysis,” Yaroufakis writes, “is the ever-expanding chasm between those who produce and those who own the instruments of production. The problematic nexus of capital and waged labour stops us from enjoying our work and our artefacts, and turns employers and workers, rich and poor, into mindless, quivering pawns who are being quick-marched towards a pointless existence by forces beyond our control.”

#4: ROBOTS | Robots Ride to the Rescue Where Workers Can’t Be Found | 5 min. | NYT | News

NYT Sum: “Fast-growing economies in Eastern Europe have led to severe labor shortages, so companies are calling in the machines.”


Sanguinity: This piece takes a sanguine view of automation: human workers will find more interesting, complex work to do as the more routine tasks are automated.

#5: ANTI-JOBS | Your job is Killing You | 5 min. | The Week | Book Review

The Week Opening: “Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has actually been pounding away at the profound unhealthiness of the American workplace for years. He’s written a whole book about it, as well as conducted research with colleagues. ‘In total, workplace environments in the United States may be responsible for 120,000-excess deaths per year,’ Pfeffer wrote. That would make workplaces the fifth leading cause of death in the country, accounting 'for about $180 billion in additional health-care expenses, approximately 8 percent of the total health-care spending.’”

Remark: Here’s the article author’s very leftist social policy recommendations: “But what we really need to do is look elsewhere for solutions. A $15 an hour national minimum wage could fix a lot of the low pay problem. Reforms to labor law would strengthen unions, and mandating worker representation on corporate boards would give workers more say in their own workplaces. Better macroeconomic policy could take us back to the abundant jobs of the mid-century. Generous national paid leave policies could ease work-family conflict. And of course a national single-payer program would fix the health insurance problem.” How about critiquing the concept of the job to see whether there could be other, more humane means in which human beings can survive?

A Very Tragic Case of Shadow Work

Credit: Pamela Hobart

In his book Shadow Work (1980), Ivan Illich persuasively showed how unpaid service labor was a necessary, though unacknowledged form of work propping up gainful employment. Since the publication of this book, Illich has been proven right in more ways– performing self-check-out, booking flights, purchasing car insurance purchases, you name it–than he could have imagined. What’s especially sad is to see a man with a terminal illness writing an Amazon review of a pill splitter back in 2011.

I Don't Belong Here

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.

Radiohead, “Creep” (1993)

Of Solitude and Box Elder Bugs

I was alone a lot when I was a young boy. Or at least that’s what I remember. The long summers in a small town among the hills and dairy farms of southwestern Wisconsin. I had friends, other boys, who passed into and out of my life, but mostly I had solitude.

Summer days could be long. Both of my parents would be away at work, and both of my sisters — the middle child still living and the eldest one now gone — would be off doing their own things. The big gray house on the outskirts of town, therefore, would be very quiet.

The youngest one, I would pass the time alone.

Sometimes (often?) I would bounce a basketball. Or two basketballs. Or shoot hoops. Sometimes I would bounce a tennis ball off the garage door. Sometimes (maybe more often?) I would take a bat and hit a ball around the yard and into the pasture. There’s something truly lonesome about hitting a ball around a yard and into a pasture, walking or running over to fetch it, and then smacking it again. Lonesome to experience but also, I imagine, to watch. Thus would each long summer day wear itself down.

1989 brought us a terrible drought. Box elder bugs were just everywhere — knock on the side of any house and they’d fall out en masse—and the lawns were so parched and yellowed and prickly to the bare foot that cracks in the soil began showing up here and there. Now that I think of it, the whole scene feels something melancholic. That one could have been an even longer summer doldrum than the others.

Painting the House

My parents said, “Either you spend the day with your friends, or we’ll find you some work to do.” So work it was. In addition to my usual chores like cleaning the bathrooms and mowing the lawn, each summer I was assigned the task of repainting some exterior part of the house. I hated it.

My parents must’ve thought, “Better useful than idle.” I don’t remember them telling me this, but maybe they did.

Honestly, I was a pretty shitty painter (also: a slightly less-than-half-assed ironer of my father’s dress shirts). I worked slowly and found ways of excusing myself (though it must have been hard for me to persuade myself that watching TV or hitting a ball around and around was a far better alternative). And ours — my justification may have gone — was a big and awfully ugly house anyway. Which it was. But still.

I believe this assignation had the unintended effect of making me find labor contemptible. (This and discovering the liberal arts later on in life.) Life is funny that way. While the Protestant work ethic stuck when it came to schoolwork (for there I was assiduous: one reason why it took me so long to become “deschooled”), not so with regard to chores and, by implication, future jobs. The Ancient Greeks whom I met much later on life, they who disdained work and honored politics and contemplation, seemed to me to get it about right. Or enough of it right anyway.

I’ve never had a job for longer than three months.

And I’m glad there was no such thing as the Internet then.

I Don’t Belong Here

My mom recalls that, when I was a young boy, I used to play quietly by myself; that I didn’t give her too much trouble; that I didn’t say much; that I was quite quiet. Walking home from school alone made me a contemplative boy. The plum tree out front, each year as fruitless as the last, was ever a wondrous thing to behold.

A revision: a quiet, strange boy. Not an out-and-out oddball but just not quite. Didn’t quite fit in. Didn’t quite belong here. Wasn’t well understood. That whole thing.

Questions came from somewhere, elsewhere: “Who am I? What’s this all about? What the hell am I doing here?” Over the decades, this feeling of strangeness, of being not totally weird but weird enough was transformed into a desire to find out who I truly am.

Which made me, really, especially, quite truly and without false modesty, unfit for modern work in a wage-based society but, hey, surprisingly well-suited for being a seeker, for hungering to come to apprehend why I’m ultimately here, and — well, here we are today — for embracing a Zen Buddhist path in the hope of finding my “original face.” By which, I mean: home.

To find home and to abide there in peace.

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A Reader's Letter on the Educated Class

One reader, Paul Millerd, writes,

Through your writing, I have really become sensitive to the fact that the only people who seem to be pushing total work on others are highly educated people (usually high-paid full-time employees), those who had the advantage to just bounce around to all sorts of interesting high-paying jobs. It’s made me be a lot more hesitant when it comes to pushing terms like “meaningful work” or “the future of work” in my own writing.

Right, my working class aunts, uncles, and cousins living in rural Michigan would find this creative class meaningful work stuff unintelligible.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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

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