Total Work Newsletter #36: Political Theory And Total Work

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 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.

Announcement: (1) And here we are at the end of the first year of the Total Work Newsletter. Thanks to all of those who’ve read it, who’ve taken the time to comment on certain issues, and who’ve pointed me in some fruitful directions. (2) My wife Alexandra and I will be going on sesshin, a Zen Buddhist meditation intensive, in early January, so expect the next issue to arrive around the third week of January. (3) This next year I’ll be focusing in earnest on writing the book on total work, so there may be special opportunities (e.g., giving some talks via Google Hangout) for you to learn, participate, and respond. Stay tuned. (4) And finally thanks to those who’ve contributed via Patreon during the last year. If you’re feeling called to help support my life, you can do so here. See you all in the New Year!

The Four Endeavors

Courtesy: Wikipedia

In answer to the question “What is right effort?,” the Buddha proclaims that one should guard against the arising of unskillful, evil qualities; should abandon the unskillful, evil qualities that have already arisen; should arouse the skillful, wholesome qualities; and should maintain the skillful, wholesome qualities that have already arisen. In so doing, the practitioner can move from (let’s say) the unwholesome, unskillful habits of mind to the wholesome, skillful habits of mind. One needn’t be a Buddhist to recognize the psychological truths limned above.

Universal Basic Support Avant La Lettre

Yuval Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) imagining one quasi-post-work scenario that sounds to me rather like a sketch of the liberal arts:

To really achieve its goals, universal basic support will have to be supplemented with some meaningful pursuits, ranging from sports [WTF] to religion. Perhaps the most successful experiment so far in how to live a contented life in a post-work world has been conducted in Israel. There, about 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men never work. They dedicate their lives to studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals. They and their families don’t starve partly because the wives often work and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies and free services, making sure that they don’t lack the basic necessities of life. That’s universal basic support avant la lettre.


As robots and AI push humans [i.e., more humans; not every human] out of the job market, the ultra-Orthodox Jews may come to be seen as the model for the future rather than as a fossil of the past. Not everything will become Orthodox Jews and go to yeshivas to study the Talmud. But in the lives of all people, the quest for meaning and community might eclipse the quest for a job (pp. 42-3).

Silicon Valley Ideology And Broken Dreams

#1: IDEOLOGY | Silicon Valley Is Undermining Democracy With Its Dangerous Ideology | 10 min. | Salon | Interview

Salon Sum: “Salon’s Keith A. Spencer lays out the case for why Silicon Valley is a scourge on democracy.”

My Brief Take: While I’m sympathetic to critiques of Silicon Valley, this interview struck me boilerplate leftist critique followed by boilerplate leftist proposals: (1) Silicon Valley exploits workers and the rest of us (so, it’s a story of mutually exclusive haves and have nots, of perpetrators and victims); (2) Silicon Valley uses excellent PR and marketing to make us believe that it’s giving us utopia (“ideology,” then, in Marx’s sense); (3) We could rectify things by moving toward worker-owned and worker-run cooperatives (but in The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, Daniel Rodgers points out that this was tried in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries yet it failed); (4) And we should tax Silicon Valley companies and thereby redistribute the wealth more equitably.

#2: SHADOW SIDES | ‘I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless, and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life’ | 20 min. | The Cut | Advice HT Alex Hardy

The Cut Sum: “In this week’s Ask Polly, the Cut’s advice columnist, Heather Havrilesky, answers a question from a reader who feels like she’s broke, friendless, and has wasted her whole life.”

My Brief Take: This post is best read through the prism of liberalism (in Patrick Deneen’s sense from Why Liberalism Failed [2018]) and total work. According to Deneen, liberalism involves a two-fold development: the birth and rise of autonomous individuality alongside the growth of the Deep State. The endgame is a woman, shorn of family, of neighborhood, of community and thrown into nomadic escapade of empty careerism. And according to total work, since we are all Workers, a woman is not inclined to contemplate having children until she is nearing a time in her life when doing so could be more difficult. I’d suggest only reading Haunted’s story and not paying mind to Polly’s therapeutic (i.e., overly individualized and not attuned to the contours of the modern world) advice.

#3: IT'S BROKEN | 1 Big Thing: The Trouble With Work | 2 min. | Axios | Newsletter

Sum: Oren Cass’s thesis is that the “system is broken”: “His new book, The Once and Future Worker, rejects the usual explanations–that the problem is robots and automation. Rather, he says, public policy has pushed many workers away from physical labor, to which most are suited, and meanwhile taken whacks at the industrial economy, including extraction industries, that might employ these workers.”

#4: MUSK SHAKEN | Axios - Elon Musk Interview | 10 min. | Axios | Interview HT Daniel Doyon

Sum: Elon Musk argues (1) that AI poses an existential threat to humanity and (2) that his company Neuralink is attempting to mitigate that risk by allowing human beings to (let’s say) cooperate at a deep cognitive level with AI. In the final minute, Musk speaks, in his own Silicon Valley way, rather poignantly, if disjointedly, about how working too much hurts his “brain and heart.”

#5: POST-CHRISTIAN? | The Return Of Paganism | 5 min. | NYT | Opinion

NYT Sum: “Maybe there actually is a genuinely post-Christian future for America,” though it has not come yet.

My Take: Readers may be rather confused about why I’m linking to this piece, which is ostensibly about the status of organized religion in America. No need, however, because this newsletter is as much about work as it is about the fundamental dimensions that go beyond work. One subject of deep fascination for me has long been secularization together with the erosion of organized religion. Rarely, if ever, remarked upon is the part that work and technology has played in this development. I would bet that it’s a rather major one, and unlike the Sam Harrises of the world, I’m unpersuaded that human beings can live flourishing lives without some deep metaphysical commitments (which may also mean some religious commitments) to what All This is all about and therefore to how a human being fits himself or herself into the order of the cosmos.

#6: OH, STEM... | The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century | 7 min. | The Atlantic | Case Study

Atlantic Sum: “Wisconsin built a public higher-education system that was admired around the world. But it may not withstand a tech-hungry economy.”

Key Distinction: The author suggests that the chief issue is whether the “search for truth” will trump workforce needs or vice versa: “The ‘search for truth,’” he writes, “would be cut in favor of a charge to 'meet the state’s workforce needs.’” And he implies that the State of Wisconsin could serve as a case study or bellwether as we think about the status of higher education in the twenty-first century.

Religious Man And Psychological Man

From Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (1966):

Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when “I believe,” the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to “one feels,” the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psychotherapist will be his secular spiritual guide. (pp. 24-5)

Political Theory And Total Work

Part 1: Liberalism

Over the past year, I’ve written precious little about the relationship between total work and political theory. I was reminded of this gap in my thinking as I was reading Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), a fine polemic against some verities on the left and the right. (See “Recently finished” below.) This last issue of 2018 could be an opportunity to fill in that gap, if only partway.

Consider that the twentieth century saw the competition between three political systems: fascism, communism (better called state socialism so as to distinguish it from Marx’s dream of a true communist society), and liberalism. Two of these systems collapsed, leaving liberalism as the last man standing. Francis Fukuyama (who always gets cited at this point in an article of this kind!) argued, in 1989, that we have reached “the end of history” just because the specific facilities of the human person fit neatly with, and therefore are satisfied by, the spheres of activity on offer in liberal democracy. (Few commentators notice that Fukuyama’s point of departure is Plato’s Republic, whose aim, from a methodological point of view, is to show that the just soul would need to be fitted with the just polity.) Deneen takes a contrarian view, arguing that liberalism failed because it succeeded.

And what is liberalism’s success, in Deneen’s eyes? It is two-fold. In the first place, the birth and hegemony of the sovereign individual goes hand-in-hand, Deneen avers, with the birth and hegemony of the deep state. In other words, disagreeing with classical liberals and libertarians who argue that the nation-state is, at best, a necessary evil whose scope should be limited as much as possible, Deneen urges us to see how the sovereign, or expressive, individual required the support of the deep state just as the deep state required the disembedded, unencumbered individual as its basic atom of social life.

In the second place, as the individual came to throw off his empirical predicates more and more, he came to eviscerate the intermediate social institutions that Hegel once called “civil society,” the “social glue” that has tended to insert the individual into a thick social nexus.

The results of this development are nothing if not stunning:

  • The individual, enclosed in a kind of insular privacy, has come to see herself as the basic unit of social life. In this sense, the individual is on her own, her life being up to her.

  • The intermediate social institutions are largely gone. I’m referring to intergenerational families of support, genuine neighborhoods, thick social groups, thick volunteer associations, charity groups, religious affiliations, and so on.

  • When in need and when incapable of fulfilling that need himself, the individual finds it necessary to appeal to the Market or the State, not to neighbors, family members, or friends. (Living alone, he calls Lyft or Uber to get to the ER, which is covered by his private or public health insurance).

In a word, we’re witnessing the death of citizenship as well as the loss of deep sociality. It’s not surprising, then, that (e.g.) Facebook would try to create an ersatz global community where six billion people would be bound together by thin “connections,” yet none of whom would come to my sickbed, let alone drop by for tea. Social media is the ersatz technological solution (i) to the success of liberalism, which has made us believe that we are each special, sovereign, self-expressive individuals, (ii) to the collapse of religion (see Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option on the rapid decline of organized Christianity in the United States), and (iii) to the loss of face-to-face, intergenerational, tactile communities.

To see what I’m talking about, ask yourself some simple questions. When you meditate, whom do you largely think about? Do you live alone? How often have you moved in your life (and how many friends helped you move as you continued to get older)? Where do you turn when you’re faced with an emergency? The hospital? The market? When was the last time you volunteered? How many social groups, the kinds that have a tangible social mission, do you belong to? Are you affiliated with a church, a synagogue, a temple, or a sangha? Apart from your significant other, how many close friends do you have? When you think of politics, do large, abstract political parties come to mind (as opposed to polis life)? Would you say that you’re self-reliant and politically independent? I could go on…

Deneen’s case is a strong one.

Part 2: Total Work

But what does a discussion of political theory have to do with total work? Quite a lot, I believe.

Over the past year, some readers have suggested that when I speak about total work, I’m really only talking about capitalism. That isn’t correct, however. Fascists and state socialists both had their heroic, and tainted, versions of Workers. The slogan, Arbeit macht frei (“work sets you/makes you free”), was posted above the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the Soviet Union was attracted to the Stakhanovite figure, a symbol of a remarkably hard manual laborer who, for a short while, was the pride of the USSR. (Eat your heart out, Taylor.) So, the emergence of the figure of the Worker cannot be traced simply to the birth of capitalism, though it is surely as a result of capitalism (or better: the liberalism/capitalism matrix) that one species of this figure, the one you and I are most familiar with, came to dominate the social field.

I’ll jump to the punchline: my very provisional hypothesis is that one reason liberalism may have won out over fascism and state socialism is that it is the political system that is the most amenable to the transformation of human beings into Workers as well as the system that could most benefit from the hegemony of such a figure. It could be that sovereign, or expressive, individuality is simply better than organicist or holistic social ontologies (where the individual is to the country or state what the hand is to the body) at paving the way for the idea that each human being just is a Worker. It could be.

Could it also be (if we now look at the other direction) that the Worker is a great fit for liberalism? (You scratch my back, Liberalism, and I’ll scratch yours, sayeth the Worker.) How helpful is it to the liberal project that human beings, as they come of age, learn to sever their ties with home, family, place, traditions, and faiths so that they can appear as “authentic, self-fashioning” private individuals trying to “make it” in the world and without any sense, therefore, of their being zoon politikon (political animals) caring about the common good or of their being religious creatures hungering for a “communal purpose” (Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic) and the numinous?

The claim that each human being is a sovereign individual dovetails nicely, via a denuded Hero’s Journey, with careerism, the view according to which each human being ought to pursue a career, that first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences as well as a staid identity upon an individual. Do we see what little we have left? It ain’t much.

Coda: The End of Celebrations

Josef Pieper wrote that true celebrations or festivities require worship of the divine. Everything else, he thought, was mere ersatz. This could be no more evident this year as my wife Alexandra and I have come to discover when we took to asking various people what they were planning on doing for the holidays. Many, to our surprise, are going on vacation, which means being away from their families. Some will be on their own. Almost everyone saw it as a time to bear.

We are living during a perilous post-communal time during which individuals are floating along without religion, without festivity, without family, and on their own. On their own, to be sure, save–yes, yes, of course–for the work they continue to plunge themselves into perchance for dear life.

History, my friends, is fast upon us: we no longer know how to celebrate. This is the endgame. Therefore, our hope for ourselves and our children, born or unborn, rests on the birth of a new counterculture.

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What I’m Reading…

1.) Recently finished:

  • Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018) HT Khe Hy. A wonderfully contrarian book in which Deneen seeks to overturn the verities of the left (the state) and the right (the market) by suggesting that (a) the birth and growth of the autonomous, expressive individual goes hand-in-hand with (b) the growth of the deep state. Additionally, it’s a countercultural book (or, as he writes, counter-acultural): he follows Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) and Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option), insisting that one seek to “live in exile” in a small community.

  • Yuval Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). A pretty disappointing book. Sapiens, the result of perhaps a decade of research, is by far his best; Homo Deus a passable second; 21 Lessons a distant third. Still, the final two chapters on meaning (chapter 20) and meditation (chapter 21) are well worth reading.

  • Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Though not beautifully written, the book provides a fascinating countercultural take on how to rescue Christianity from a secular culture, which is increasingly, Dreher, believes hostile to it. His recommendation? That Christians live according to Benedict’s Rule. In case you’re interested, I’ve been enamored with Benedict’s Rule for about 7 or 8 years.

2.) Currently reading:

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

  • Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (1984/1999).

  • Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012).

  • Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (1966).

3.) Up next:

  • Stephen Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (2010).

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…

Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <>.

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.