Total Work Newsletter #24: Q & A Issue
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.
Announcement: I’ll be away at a sesshin, “a period of intensive meditation (zazen) in a Zen monastery,” from July 10-17. For this reason, I won’t be sending out Issue #25 until two weeks from now.
Happiness by Steve Cutts
HT Paul Millerd
RadReads Opening: “I recently read about an insane time hack involving a microwave and a “ruthlessly” organized university chancellor. Instead of setting cook times of 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00 – this time hacker types in 1:11, 2:22 and 3:33, saving the their index finger one inch of travel time. I tried it out, it saves roughly 0.2 seconds, which compounded over my estimated lifetime microwave usage (once a week for the rest of my life) translates into 7 hard earned minutes over the next 40 years.”
My Take: My friend Khe Hy wrote this piece. It’s another go at thinking about what I’ve taken to call our “time famine”: our sense in which, in the modern world, time is “scarce” and thus “time hacking” springs up.
#2: SPIRITUALITY | Tech Elites Recreate Burning Man Inside Their Living Rooms | 5 min. | NYT | Feature
NYT Sum: “Like a modern version of a medieval minstrel, a singer named Jess Magic is helping A-list entrepreneurs get in touch with their inner child in private ‘songversations.’”
Ain’t Going Away: Secularization theorists had a “subtraction theory” (Charles Taylor): as secularism advances across the earth, religion would go away. But that spiritual impulse ain’t going away. It’s only getting weirder. Organized religion faces both declines in membership and new insurgents. Odd retreats, kundalini fests, Burning Man-like events, and more: all these are evidence that total work cannot win when something else in us hungers to rise above the mundanities of the workaday. Yet there’s also a cautionary tale here, for things getting weirder doesn’t mean they’re enabling us to come to grips with our egos and to transcend them. I worry that we’re losing the wisdom contained with religions such as Buddhism and Christianity as we embrace, all too facilely, a new form of what I’ll call “expressive spirituality” or “authentic spirituality”: just be as deeply as you can you who (authentically) are.
The 4-year Con and Indentured Servitude
Public intellectual Jordan Peterson commenting on the state of universities recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently:
Unsuspecting students are given free access to student loans that will cripple them through their 30s and their 40s, and the universities are enticing them to extend their carefree adolescence for a four year period at the cost of mortgaging their future in a deal that does not allow for escape through bankruptcy,” he [Peterson] complained. “So it’s essentially a form of indentured servitude. There’s no excuse for that … That cripples the economy because the students become overlaid with debt that they’ll never pay off at the time when they should be at the peak of their ability to take entrepreneurial risks. That’s absolutely appalling.
Appalling, yes, but also ideological support for total work, which uses student loans as a way of ensuring that human beings are Workers for Life.
#3: AUTOMATION | Silicon Valley Company Automation Anywhere Raises $250 million to Automate "Mundane" Jobs | 1 min. | Axios | Newsletter
Axios Sum: “15 year-old company raises its first round of outside funding, at a $1.8 billion valuation.”
Automation’s Argument: Automation Anywhere argues (a) that they’re just trying to replace mundane tasks and (b) that clients have been hiring more workers because such companies “move fast and create more jobs.”
Who?: In this discussion, I don’t hear a lot of people talking about whose mundane jobs are being replaced and who is being hired for higher-order jobs, those required greater cognitive abilities. Far be it for me to quibble with the automatization of mundane tasks. Only, let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the truck driver whose job has been replaced will swiftly pivot to coding.
Reader Questions And My Answers
1. Paul asks, “How do the people in your life react to your challenges to the idea of work?”
In one of three ways. Some misunderstand what I’m arguing. Others get very angry. A few totally get it and feel a sense of relief.
Consider the first. Some believe that I’m only arguing against overwork and that I’m calling for “work-life balance.” That was how the story got picked up after a Quartz piece I wrote (see this MSN news piece). In truth, I’m trying to understand, at the very least, how work came to be sacrosanct, especially given its long track record as something contemptible (ancient Greece) and as necessary evil (medieval Europe).
Now the second. I reviewed the Big Think video comments and found, there as well as elsewhere, a good deal of anger. To critique the work ethic is to be painted as “lazy” and “idle.” Plus, critiques of total work touch a nerve in some people, as when I argued that “meaningful work” is, in a strict sense, logically impossible. For many people, because work goes to the very heart of who they take themselves to be (few these days identify, say, as Christians or as Jews), the fast emotional response is to feel violated.
And the third. A few, such as readers of this newsletter, I presume, discover that they can finally let their hair down and stop feeling like an imposture; that they can have some breathing room, some time to think and mull; that, being let in on an open secret, they can choose to live their lives according to a new set of coordinates.
2. Kunal, a college student, writes, “I want to make it a priority to chase free-time rather than money in my work career (while balancing enough money to survive)…. If you were in college, what post-work major would you design?”
There’s a lot here, so I’ll take these assumptions and points one at a time.
First, apropos leisure vs. free time: I’ve been arguing, since Issue #2, that leisure is more important than free time. Free time either means (a) what helps to support paid work or (b) whatever measure time is left over once paid work and unpaid work is over. But leisure is more than and different from free time. Let’s assume we’re talking about free time in the sense of (b). Then leisure is precisely what arises when we lose track of clock time and immerse ourselves in art or aesthetic appreciation for its own sake, in religion or spirituality, in philosophy, and in love. (I talk briefly about these four contemplative domains in my TEDx Talk.) So, while free time in the sense of (b) makes possible leisure, leisure goes far beyond free time, leaping (so to say) out of it. Indeed, leisure is precisely what enables us to apprehend Reality.
Next, the career. I argue against careerism in this recent Medium piece. There, I try to show that any career is a bad and harmful thing. So, I don’t believe that any human life would do well to orient itself around the career. To see this, consider the following argument: the good life–that is to say, what’s most worth living for, is analytically separate from sustaining life (that is, how a human being or human beings in the collective are able to persist in their existence). Additionally, the question of the good life comes before that of sustaining life.
The argument above has immediate and practical implications. For instance, it’s enough to show that careerism, which implies that a good life = telling oneself a story about doing meaningful or fulfilling work, can’t be a correct doctrine because it muddles the distinction I set forth above.
Next, money. To begin with, making a living is not identical with making money. I show how this is so in How an Artist can Hack a Living. Making a living is, I argue, a broader category under which making money falls. Now, consider making money. It’s not true that someone who doesn’t devote himself to the singular pursuit of money can’t make good money. On the contrary, if one isn’t attached to having or making a lot of money, one may be able to enter into moneymaking matters with an air of playfulness. This Buddhist attitude I’m describing is close to what Nassim Taleb describes as having “f*ck you money.” Except that, in this case, it’s one better: it’s “f*ck you money” without needing to have “f*ck you money.”
Next, balance. I think “work-life” balance, a term only gaining prominence in and after the 1970s, is an erroneous conception. So too is the more recent “work-life integration.” It’s just not true that work is one thing and the rest of life, on this scale, is another, both of which need to be brought into balance. I gesture in this direction at the end of my Big Think talk.
Now to your question. First, I’m not sure that my future children will be going to college because I’m not sure that colleges will be a proper way of educating young people. In fact, I’m not sure that they’re a good way of educating young people today. I’m fairly sympathetic to Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, a book, published in 1971, that paved the way of the homeschooling movement. It seems to me that education, broadly understood, is a lifelong affair, and it’s something that occurs in a very wide range of contexts.
Reframing the question, then: “what sort of lifelong post-work education would I design?” I’m imagining that it would have the following features:
The Beautiful Exercise of One’s Body.– The foundation of this education would be the beautiful exercise of a child’s body. He would learn to be quick and strong; to develop functional power; to use his body with lightness; to be at home in his own skin. Perhaps he’d learn dance, climbing, yoga, and boxing all in the hope of training him not just in a set of skills (say, how to defend himself or how to develop physical flexibility) but also in a range of virtues (respect, brotherliness, prudence, moderation, compassion, and so on).
Liberal Arts as a Way to Understand the World.– The education I imagine would also embrace the liberal arts tradition. The liberal arts, which is now dead, once had as its intention that of cultivating free persons. So, I’d want my children to learn Euclidean geometry, first principles in chemistry, biology, and physics, literature, religion, philosophy, and so forth. And I’d want my children to learn about these things for their own sakes (for the sake of understanding the world), not for the sake of their “usefulness.” On my critique of usefulness, see Issue #5.)
The Skillful Use of One’s Hands.– Modern mass education, especially during the time I grew up, has been focused singlemindedly on the creation of knowledge workers. I missed out on the skillful, intelligent use of my hands (and Matthew Crawford makes a strong case for “the crafts” HT Jacqueline Jensen).
Immersion in the Natural World.– I’d also want my child to be able to go on long backpacking trips in the backcountry; to be able to identify and, more importantly, appreciate the flora and fauna; to care about the earth upon which she rests her feet and over which she moves her feet; to be able to forage for roots and herbs; and so on.
Resourcefulness.– To survive (recall my bit about “the sustaining life” above), I’d want my child (a) to learn whatever is relevant for survival (whether that means coding or that means working in groups) and (b) to learn how to learn and to think about thinking. As for (b), a number of people are arguing that philosophy will be important in an instrumental sense (a sense, by the way, I’m not altogether happy with) as we enter an age of automation. I’d like my child, then, not just to learn first-order skills but also to cultivate second-order, or meta-level, talents.
Reverence, Above All.– Above all, I’d like my child to see with her own eyes and with her open heart that what matters most transcends her own ego. I’d like him to be involved in forms of practice (I’m a Zen Buddhist, for example) whose intention is to reveal to the practitioner that the cosmos is far grander than any human endeavor, for more wondrous than any human effort. I’d like her to be filled with reverential awe.
3. One conversation partner asks, “Aren’t romantic relationships work?”
No, they’re not. That, to me, is a considerable cultural misconception. Sometimes romantic relationships enter a period when things are tough-going, yet in their hearts romantic relationships are anything but work, are anything but what is work-like. When you’re with the right person, it feels as if, notwithstanding the dark periods, there’s a sense of lighthearted, playful love. In fact, I would argue that you know that a relationship is over when you think that relationships must be work. I’ve witnessed this many time at this point in my philosophy practice.
4. Another conversation told me that four out of 15 members on his team at a large Dutch firm have “gone down with burnout.” Comments?
Usually, the response is to give those four members a sabbatical, and that is precisely what has happened in this case. Sometimes the public discussion goes one step further, urging that we think about workplace happiness and overwork. Which is what happened in this piece. Sometimes some shocking story about karoshi, or death by overwork, appears and is then forgotten. I think all these fail to plumb the depths of our predicament. The rise in burnout, anxiety, and depression in the developed world can, I believe, be traced back in key part to the success of total work. For once human beings take themselves to be Workers and nothing else, then it seems to me to follow as a logical consequence that some few hundred years later they’ll be talking of burnout. To see what I mean, have a look at the opening of my science fiction-inspired Aeon piece.
In brief, something fundamental ain’t right if (a) 40% of people in Northern Europe and in North America are stuck in bullshit jobs (I’m quoting David Graeber from his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory) and they’re quite depressed as a result and if (b) people are burning out at an alarming rate (four out of 15 on this conversation partner’s team).
5. Bryce asks, “How would you answer Christians who point to 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 as justification for total work?” He goes on: “As one summarized the Apostle Paul’s ‘law’ for me: 'if you don’t work, you don’t eat.’ Therefore everyone must work for their own bread, or they should not eat, they don’t deserve food, etc.”
While I’m no Biblical scholar, I’m going to risk the rather uncontroversial historicist claim that the context is key. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul is addressing early Christian converts, who are building a church in Thessaloniki, Greece. According to The Washington Post, Paul’s line has a two-fold meaning. The wider meaning is, according to “many” Judeo-Christian scholars, that “2 Thessalonians applies narrowly to people who can work but choose not to.” The narrower meaning seems to me to be more on point. The Post continues:
The passage, written by Saint Paul, was not addressed to the poor or hungry generally, said the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor and the president of the faith-based anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. It was written to a specific sect of early Christians, who had abandoned many aspects of their regular lives because they believed the apocalypse was imminent (my underlining).
Since these early Christians were millenarians who believed that Christ would soon return, they must have wondered, “Why bother working when salvation is near at hand?”
Let me offer a third interpretation, which I believe is in line with the second one. It would be that 2 Thessalonians does not provide textual support for total work. Quite the contrary, Paul is urging Thessalonian Christians to see work as a means only for supporting their broader spiritual quest. If this interpretation is correct, then it’s not that far from my own modest view of work. (On “Catholicism” vs. “Protestantism,” see this piece.)
6. In The Financial Times (the article may be behind a paywall), Tim Harford recently wondered whether, as AI comes, we’d be better off with “basic income” or “basic jobs.” What’s interesting about this?
What’s peculiar to me is that few asking this question seem to have a genuine historical sense. For in the 1930s and in the 1960s, questions of technological unemployment were very much being debated. (I talk a bit about Keynes, who coined the term “technological unemployment,” in Issue #3.) Indeed, I began one of my recent Quartz at Work pieces with a quote from Martin Luther King from the mid-1960s: “We must create full employment or we must create [basic, guaranteed] incomes.”
Those in favor of “basic jobs” believe that working, regardless of the kind of tasks routined performed, is dignifying. But I tried to show that the political philosopher John Elster had already blown this argument out of the water some years ago in his academic paper, “Is There (or Should There be) a Right to Work” (no hyperlink available)? There’s a reason why some people are in favor of automating “mundane tasks” (see the Axios piece above): it’s that such jobs would be “labor” in the strict sense of involving toilsome, perhaps relentless, or just tedious efforts in order to procure one’s means of survival.
And while I’ve yet to make up my mind about basic income (which should at least be called “basic gift” or “basic stipend” since it’s not, strictly speaking, income), it’s rather odd to me that few people are asking the following question: could there be a range of options that are neither subject to the “right to work” nor to basic income but that are, in actuality, more humane and humanizing? Answers to this question could be many and varied.
In closing, I can’t emphasize enough that I believe we’re at a critical moment in history when the “life script of work” (to quote Venkatesh Rao; HT Daniel Doyen) is unraveling and, if we’re lucky and open, we may espy countless flowers blooming.
- - - - -
Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <email@example.com>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to my new patron, Rob! 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.