Total Work Newsletter #22: A Total Work Mistake and Two Future Scenarios for Work
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: AI’m just back from Pensacola, Florida, where I attended a surprisingly wonderful future of work summit held at The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). During the following months, I’m going to keep experimenting with the content of the newsletter as well as with the rate at which I send them out. In this issue, you’ll notice that the centerpieces are two short writings of mine: one on what I take to be the total work move par excellence and the other on two future of work scenarios.
The Total Work Move Par Excellence
A Critique of VGR’s Breaking Smart
My friend Alex Hardy brought to my attention one of Venkatesh Rao’s recent issues from his newsletter Breaking Smart. I want to critique a section of VGR’s argument to show how total work comes up in seemingly innocent places.
Survival, Aliveness, and Coming Alive THROUGH Work
11/ But underneath the complexity of business problem solving is a broader philosophical question: what do you generally solve for when you solve a business problem? And there are two basic answers that are worlds apart: money, and not-money. Survival or aliveness.
12/ The difference in the two kinds of answers is this. There is always a way to solve every business problem for money. And solving for money almost always amounts to solving for survival at the expense of aliveness. If you can’t solve for survival, solving for money defaults to solving for the most lucrative death: harvesting a market or breaking up and selling a business.
13/ Sometimes, survival IS at stake, but when you make solving for money your primary mode of operation, you will drain the vitality from the business, and it will no longer serve the human need: something onto which you can project your own need to come alive in a fertile way.
14/ The promise of the economy in a liberal democracy is not just “buy all you can buy” as a consumer, but “be all you can be” as a producer. As Edmund Phelps argued in Mass Flourishing, when work is challenging, people thrive.
15/ To come alive through work, you have to find a deeper motivation to work on business problems than money. You have to solve for aliveness rather than money. This is not easy. Not all economic activities satisfy the necessary conditions to allow solving for aliveness. (my underlining–AT)
Excursus on The Good Life and Sustaining Life
I begin my critique with a brief review of my ebook The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into our Great Vexation. I do so because it helps to show where VGR and I agree and where we diverge.
As I reflect upon that book written in 2014, I come to think that I was concerned with only a couple of basic questions:
Question 1: In an age marked by value pluralism, the view according to which there are multiple ways of live (or multiple final aims), how do I determine which way of life is best for me to lead? This I called the question of the good life (eudaimonia).
Reasonably, in this book I postulate that there must be a finite set of ways of life available to us in modernity. (Don Quixote reveals to us what happens when we try to live, say, a chivalric life during modernity. It’s—-quixotic, ergo impossible.)
Reasonably too, I claim that we must be able to distinguish between ways of life worth leading and ways of life not worth leading. Otherwise, we’re left with a sloppy relativism. It’s not that we’re trying to condemn others who aren’t leading lives worth leading; it’s rather that we’re genuinely hungry as regards the question, “How best shall I live?” So, sensible distinctions of this kind (worth leading/not worth leading) can help to illuminate the inner shape of our own lives.
Question 2: Leftists too readily assert that what matters most is whether someone has his or her material needs met (or, more generally: questions of justice and fairness are fundamental to the left). Those on the right foreground freedom. But is having one’s material needs enough, i.e., ultimate? And freedom to what end? I believe both are important, but are they ultimate?
Slipping between these two traditions, I ask, “Once (or if) we’ve attained to a certain level of consciousness, taking our lives to be the fundamental question, isn’t it true that logically and metaphysically speaking the matter of how we live should come before the matter of mere survival?” You can see evidence for this, e.g., in Scandinavian countries where the suicide rates are relatively high even though they have their material needs met. So, there must be a question of meaning (that of the good life) that some suicides have been, sadly, unable to answer to their satisfaction.
In what follows, I want to focus on Question 2 only. Succinctly put, I believe that the question of the good life (a) comes before that of sustaining life (in a logical and metaphysical sense) and (b) is analytically distinct from survival. VGR grants (a) but denies (b). Let’s see exactly where we disagree:
1. VGR begins with the same basic distinction: survival OR aliveness (Section 11 from his newsletter: hereafter just the number in parentheses). Survival and “coming alive” are comparable to sustaining life and the good life, respectively. So far, so good.
2. He goes on to argue that survival is secondary and, as such, oughtn’t to be primary; instead, aliveness should be primary (13). Here, we also agree.
3. But then he makes The Total Work Move par excellence. He does so by asking what I take to be the wrong yet exceedingly commonly asked question: “GIVEN THAT aliveness is central and survival secondary [here, again, we’re in agreement], how can I find aliveness THROUGH work?” (Cf. 15).
This is a wrong move, I think. It’s not that it’s impossible to find some fulfillment in and through work; this I don’t deny; indeed, there is plenty of evidence indicating that some people in the world do find some level of fulfillment through work some or more than some of the time. (Notice all the qualifiers: some people out of 7 billion people, some level of fulfillment, some of the time.) What I actually deny is that it’s possible to find ultimate fulfillment through work. My worry, then, is that we’re looking for ultimate fulfillment in a place where it can’t possibly be. (A bit like looking for love in all the wrong places.)
The only answer to the question of ultimate fulfillment is: God, i.e., whatever name we give to what is ultimately and really real. It’s not possible for work to be THAT for us. THAT it cannot be.
How Work Colonized Lunchtime
#1: ISOLATION | Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die? | 3 min. | Atlantic | Video HT Mostafa Ahmed
Atlantic Sum: “How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.”
My Brief Take: A cheeky yet also dark comic piece on how total work colonized lunchtime.
MIT Tech Rev Sum: “A Canadian province is giving people money with no strings attached—revealing both the appeal and the limitations of the idea.”
My Brief Take: I thought the author provided an interesting overview of the various reasons why UBI recipients endorsed UBI. I still think, however, that the conversation on UBI needs to be held in connection with total work. You’ll notice that in this piece, for instance, the author still holds onto the assumption that jobs are an unconditionally good thing. I don’t believe they are.
Two Future Scenarios for Work
Myopic Views of Labor and Work
One of the assumptions held at the future of work summit I attended was that work is, or ought to be, such a great thing in our lives. I didn’t challenge the assumption during our two days together because I didn’t think it was appropriate. Following the improv teacher Keith Johnstone, I wanted to simply play along to see where the two days might take us.
In these pages, however, I cannot accept the assumption. I tried to show in the talk I gave that for most of recorded human history labor has been held in contempt (ancient Greeks) or has been regarded as a kind of necessary evil (medieval Europeans). It’s not for nothing that labor was relegated to specific classes of people. I believe the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution both, in very different ways, led to a epoch-changing transvaluation of values, the effect of which is that we’ve now unconsciously adopted a Gospel of Work (to use Thomas Carlyle’s words from the 1840s). Now we think it obviously a good thing that we should put all our eggs in the work basket. Now we feel that if we were poker players, we’d do well to push all of our poker chips to the center and place a bet on work being the best sort of thing in our lives.
But this is delusional. Even today, approximately 40% of people in the developed world are involved in “bullshit jobs” (David Graeber from his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Moreover, many people living in the underdeveloped world surely regard what they do as labor: that is, as toilsome effort whose purpose, at best, is to ensure continued human survival. The yearning for “fulfilling work” is, in short, an aspiration of the educated elite living in the developed world.
With this in mind, I can imagine at least two scenarios for the future of work.
In one scenario, total work wins by spreading certain ideas about work across the world. In this future, the wealthy become wealthier and the precarious more precarious (cf. Yuval Harari, Homo Deus). How so? More and more jobs are replaced by combinations of gigs, piecework, and project work; each precarious free agent needs to promote his or her own “personal brand” (as the CEO of Telecom put it in a panel I was on at Brain Bar in Budapest back in early June); he or she is always working in one form or another: to finish a project, to line up another gig, to update his or her “personal brand,” to network. It’s a vision of work that amounts to endless struggle masked by the façade of creative autonomy. Call this form of increasing precarity the victory of labor in the sense of ceaseless, burdensome toilsome effort.
Stewardship, Care, and Fineness
I realize that, since January, I’ve been critiquing total work and have not, as of yet, set out my own view of how work could be in a reimagined world. To be clear, I’m not in the anarchist refusal to work camp; I’m rather someone who, wishing to decenter work from its place of prominence, also wants to reimagine how work, having discovered its newfound modesty, could mean for us.
In a second scenario, then, people decide to decenter work from their lives. Work no longer occupies center stage; instead, it plays a supporting role in the life of a people.
And what role would that be? People would shift from seeking career success (and so would reject the trajectory we’ve been on since the middle of the nineteenth century to the second decade of the twenty-first century) to being stewards of the earth. In fact, the three key features of work would be stewardship, care, and fineness. Each person in this world would see him- or herself as doing the kind of work of stewardship. And when it came to the particular work he or she was engaged in, the basic idea is that he or she would care about the thing in hand and would also care about the individuals who are and will be affected by the product created, service offered, or gift given. To care for the thing is to be responsible for its being carried into the world.
Lastly, the focus of the work would be on doing it well for its own sake: that is, on making or doing something fine or excellent just because that is what the thing calls for. I call this fineness, almost a kind of love for making the thing beautiful or well-wrought simply but not just simply for the sake of its being beautiful or well-wrought.
And then, importantly, people would be able to set their work aside because they would know that leisure, rest, contemplation, and communal celebration matter much more to them than the work they do. The work of the day done (whether that be a few hours or part of a day), they would turn toward their greater loves, the things that matter utmost.
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to all my current patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic and which is also still under construction.