Total Work Newsletter #33: De-proletarianizing Everyone

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: (1) My wife Alexandra and I spent five days last week rock climbing (bouldering for those climbers out there), hiking, and trail running in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Hence, the three weeks between the last issue and this one. (2) I resume my discussion of Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, turning to Section IV below.


As Seen by Alexandra Taggart

Inemuri, The Perceived Threat Of Generalized AI, And Idleness

#1: INEMURI | Napping in Public? In Japan, That’s A Sign Of Diligence | 3 min. | NYT | News

NYT Sum: “The practice of ‘inemuri,’ or 'sleeping while present,’ is common. People sleep on the job, but also in cafes and on commuter trains.”

Total Work & Inemuri: Sleeping less than 6 hours a night, working to the point of exhaustion, and wanting to seen as diligent all have inemuri as their release valve.

#2: GENERALIZED AI | How The Enlightenment Ends | 10 min. | Atlantic | Opinion

Atlantic Sum: “Philosophically, intellectually—in every way—human society is unprepared for the rise of [generalized\ artificial intelligence.”

My Sum: Kissinger points to four issues related to generalized AI: (1) the likelihood of unintended consequences; (2) the matter of human values; (3) the mystery as to the rationale for generalized AI’s actions; and (4) the fear of loss of genuine human cognition. Though this piece is not ostensibly about work or the future of work, it is about technology and future of society, and this newsletter, I’m coming to see, is as much about these things as it is about work.

It's Definitely Getting Tighter

HT Alexandra Taggart

#3: LEISURE | In Praise of Mediocrity | 5 min. | NYT | Opinion HT Alex Hardy

NYT Sum: “The pursuit of excellence has infiltrated and corrupted the world of leisure.”

Two Quibbles: In fairly broad strokes, I agree with Wu. Two quibbles, though. (1) He plays fast and loose with very different terminology (free time, leisure, hobbies, etc.) where I think conceptual clarity is called for. This has been my approach in this newsletter. (2) His most important point–“The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits”–fails to find expression in the opinion piece itself. Yes, what are those higher pursuits? Glory, immortality, wisdom, truth, enlightenment: to speak about these and others is to speak about what leisure might really be oriented toward.

A Call For The Sabbath

Maya Angelou (HT Paul Millerd):

Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.

#4: IDLENESS | Idleness As Flourishing | 10 min. | Public Books | Book Review HT Rober Dam

Public Books Opening: “It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle….”

Key Quotes: (1) “What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place.” (2) “O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap. Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle.”

Andrew Ng Discusses AI At The Atlantic Festival 2018

Andrew Ng - YouTube

De-proletarianizing Everyone

Fundamental Assumptions

I’m particularly fond of a brief excerpt from Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925):

When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.

Philosophy of the kind I’m interested in practicing (and here I’m thinking of what I call “public philosophy”) is not concerned with getting into the debates of the day. Rather, it seeks to bring up “fundamental assumptions” that seem so obvious, commonsensical, and self-evident that almost no one would think to put thing differently.

I like one-liners about what philosophy is. Here’s one: philosophy asks questions others wouldn’t think to.

Unless we start from Whitehead’s claim about “fundamental assumptions,” we’ll miss what Pieper is up to in Leisure: The Basis of Culture. He wants to show us what has become so plan that we can’t even see it. In my phraseology: we are all, and only, workers now.

In Review…

What might be a way of showing us, if only impressionistically, how we became workers? Pieper proceeds as follows.

In Section I, he tries to bring us to a state of awe as we discover that labor was the worst sort of thing for the Greeks (one non-leisured in order to leisure, as Aristotle put it) and that, somehow, work became the best sort of thing in modernity (we live just to work, as Max Weber put it). How does this epochal shift mean for us today?

In Section II, Pieper zooms in on a neologism, “intellectual work,” in order to bring out the three key features of the Worker: (a) a thoroughgoing autonomy and therefore a failure to be susceptible to grace and the gift; a fetishization of effortfulness on the assumption that effort just is the Good; and © a surrender of oneself to the “social function.” His proposal is that the intellect used to be about as far removed from the world of work as posisble. And now, he thinks? “We have maintained that the expression ‘intellectual worker’ contains an especially concise formulation of the totalitarian claims of the world of work” (p. 39).

In Section III, Pieper goes back to the medieval period. Why? (1) To show us the “transvaluation of values,” i.e., the way in which the medieval ethos was radically overturned by the Protestant work ethic. (2) To offer us a diagnosis, which is that acedia, a kind of restlessness of spirit, an inability to be at one with oneself and the world, is at the root of total work. (3) To unfold the spirit of leisure as essentially the restful, alert contemplation of ultimate reality.

Let’s come now to Section IV.


In Section IV, Pieper discusses two forms of resistance to total work. He discloses his question in the opening paragraph:

[W]ill it ever be possible to keep, or reclaim, some room for leisure from the forces of the total world of work? And this would mean not merely a little portion of rest on Sunday, but rather a whole “preserve” of true, unconfined humanity: a space of freedom, of true learning, of attunement to the world-as-a-whole? In other words, will it be possible to keep the human being from becoming a complete functionary, or “worker?” (p. 37)

The first option, the Marxist one he rejects, is to “proletarianize” everyone (p. 41). The position he defends? That we “de-protetarianize the proletariat (p. 41).

To clarify what he means (remember that it is just after WWII when Pieper is writing and Marxism is a real force in the Eastern bloc), he analyzes the concept of the proletariat–but from a metaphysical, not a sociological, point of view.

What is the Proletariat for Pieper?

The concept of the proletariat does not pick out 'the poor’ (p. 41) since the beggar was not a member of the proletariat in medieval society. (Just so: bums, tramps, and vagabonds are not members of the proletariat in modern society.) Nor does the concept pick out a particular social class since engineers are undeniably proletarian (p. 41). So what is the proletariat? "Being proletarian is being bound to the work-process” (p. 42).

But then what is the work-process? It is “the comprehensive, task-distributing process of usefulness, through which and in which the 'common use’ is realized” (p. 42). And so, “To be bound to the working process is to be bound to the whole process of usefulness, and moreover, to be bound in such a way that the whole life of the working human being is consumed” (p. 42).

In other words, someone is proletarian (in Pieper’s sense) just in case he or she is confined entirely to busying himself or herself with whatever is useful. He essentially knows no other way to live and has never lived otherwise. Such a life is a bubble, a confined space, a prison. Hanging over her head is the pressing demand of the task, the project deadline, the work-related goal and this without end. No end in itself, no abiding peace, no contemplative stillness is therefore possible and, in consequence, the proletariat so conceived must remain a nihilist–without ever knowing it.

Political and Spiritual Remark

From here, Pieper points to the possible causes of proletarianism. One is the lack of ownership: a Worker must be “wage-earner without property” (Pius XI, quote on p. 42) and therefore must always sell his labor-power. Another is the coercion of the modern state, which needs to produce more and more Workers (pp. 42-3). A third is “the inner poverty of the person” (p. 43), a bitter condition defined by the belief that “meaningful action that is not work is no longer possible or even imaginable” (p. 43).

From the vantage point of 2018, we can appreciate all three remarks. Millennials and Generation Z-ers, thrust into the gig economy, know nothing save for selling their labor-power and hustling. Disturbingly, therefore, one also hears of people venerating “side hustles”, the venerators not realizing that doing so perpetuates the cycle of total work. Additionally, the American state incentivizes individuals to take on debt while completing their formal education with the result that they become wage slaves in order, in key part, to pay off their debt. Lastly, many people suffer from the “inner poverty” of being incapable of imagining a meaningful life where work is decentered. Witness the extraordinary cultural anxiety surrounding some future of work scenarios in which more and more white collar work is automated.

Option 1: Proletarianizing Everyone

There can be no doubt that Pieper will resist with every fiber of his being the proposal that, in different language today to be sure, everyone be made into Workers such that there be no zone of human life outside of the operations of total work. Such, as I argued recently in a Quartz piece, would mark the death of the liberal arts. But this is precisely what equality could mean from a particular leftist point of view! It could mean that we’re all equal in the sense of all being enslaved to the work-process!

Take a certain leftist perspective on the poor (say, the Native American poor). The proposal is that they should receive public education and college education so that they can then become jobbers with careerist ambitions. In this way can they be inaugurated into the world of total work. Now, what I’m not saying is that we shouldn’t care about the poor among us, but what I am saying is that we should take care with what measures we take because “development,” as Ivan Illich pointed out in cases of indigenous Mexicans, can mean the destruction of an indigenous culture and the supplanting of that culture with total work.

I considered the example of the indigenous poor because I believe it reveals a failure of imagination on the part of social policy makers and activists, a failure to imagine a viable form of life where work plays an infrastructural rather than a leading role. I return to Pieper, who eloquently puts the point this way: “What happens is actually the effect of the inhumanity of the total world of work: the final binding of man to the process of production, which is itself understood and proclaimed to be the intrinsically meaningful realization of human existence” (p. 45).

The reductio ad absurdum of proletarianizing everyone is mass enslavement justified by cultural insanity.

Option 2: De-proletarianizing Everyone

Exchange vs. Gift

Pieper introduces a distinction between the exchange principle and an honorarium to discern whether we still can recognize that a kind of non-market relationship can exist beyond the purview of exchange.

To see what he means, I think it’s helpful to translate “honorarium” as “gift.” Then we can ask whether we still can countenance the idea that not every engagement in human life can be reducible to exchanges (as Yanis Varoufakis would have it, modern capitalism emerges as society shifts from having markets to being a market society) or whether, indeed as I think, some relationships are bound by gifts. You see a gift is not a service because you don’t give someone a gift in exchange for anything in particular he or she has done (for you). Rather, gifts of the kind Pieper is speaking of here are intended to meet the recipients’ material needs and that gift is in no way equivalent to payment.

Why does this matter? Because surely we could conceive of gifts as ways of supporting, say, artists who are not expected to be productive or useful but whose way of living artistically is inherently laudable and whose artworks–whether arriving often or only occasionally–are gifts offered to the community. Or take shamans. Indigenous community members support the life of the shaman who, when needed, provides healing for other members of the community.

Or go deeper still: imagine a world in which certain people were not expected to be useful or productive because they were deemed to be gifts to the community from which they sprang and to which they belong. Or imagine a world in which every person could set aside the work of the day and enter wholeheartedly into the Sabbath. We can, can’t we?, imagine all kinds of societies that do not resemble our work society, societies in which work exists at the peripheries and not, therefore, at the center.

A Political Theory of Rest

You might think it odd that Pieper agrees with Proudhon, an anarchist, that we should “'consider a legislative program based on the theory of rest’” (Proudhon quoted on p. 48), but Pieper, a Catholic Thomist, is happy to make alliances where he can find them. Indeed, he advocates for a political theory of rest:

[W]hen 'being proletarian’ means nothing other than being bound to the work-process, the real key to overcoming the condition–that is to say, a true de-proletarianization–would consist in making available for the working person a meaningful kind of activity that is not work–in other words, by opening up an area of true leisure. (p. 48)

This is a political question, a question of how a political community or the state can create law with the intention of “opening up an area of true leisure.” We’re beginning to see, to a lesser degree, how laws in France and Germany are restricting employers’ access to white-collar employees outside of the workplace and under certain conditions. Does this go far enough for Pieper? No, it does not. It still falls under the sign of “the break” (before the resumption of productivity), but it is a crack.

What Pieper wants, as we’ll see in Section V, is for there to a Day of Rest. But is this just a political question?

Reclaiming Spirituality

No, it is not. Politics cannot touch the inner condition of the human being. It can only open up a zone of possibility. This is why the decisive question for Pieper is spiritual or religious. There must be a form of worship, which enable human beings not to be open to leisure but to actually be at leisure (pp. 48-9) in their souls.

Remember that, for Pieper, true leisure is energizing passivity, celebrating spirit, and genuine contemplativeness. How can something–possibly forgotten, surely neglected–within us drink so deeply from the spring of true leisure that we discover our true selves, the face we had before our mother was born?

This is the question that Pieper takes up in Section V, and his answer may surprise you.

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What I’m Reading…

1.) Recently finished:

  • George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology (1988). A beautiful extended analogy on how the evolution of technology resembles, in some respects but not others, human evolution.

  • Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works (2016). This book, which discusses the “subjective science” of (mostly Eastern) meditation and the “objective science” in the West, is sure to become a modern classic. It reveals an original mind seeking to describe how concentration, sensuous clarity, and equanimity may very well lead one to liberation and ends with speculation on what a true science of enlightenment could mean for future generations of human beings.

  • Louise A. Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (2011). A very dull but helpful account of the ways in which American corporations drew on pastoral imagery after WWII in their construction of (a) corporate offices, (b) corporate campuses, and © corporate estates.

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (1959). Largely about Frankl’s time in certain Nazi concentration camps from 1942-5. I found the narrative more poignant and important than the theory of logotherapy. Still, in the attached essay, Frankl argues (a) that logotherapy is concerned above all with each human being’s search for meaning, (b) there is no such thing, he believes, as “the” meaning of life (only this meaning in my life), and © there are three common ways in which I can detect meaning in my life: through accomplishments, through love, and/or through my attitude toward my own suffering.

2.) Currently reading:

  • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934/2010).

  • Eugene Gendlin, Focusing (1978/1981).

  • Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018).

3.) Up next:

  • Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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

If You’d Like to Become a Patron…

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For Newcomers

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 <>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <>. Lastly, visit my website, <>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.