Total Work Newsletter #42: Death In The Time Of 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.

Identities, Burnouts, Climate Change, And Techlash

#1: DECLINE OF MANUFACTURING | With His Job Gone, An Autoworker Wonders, ‘What Am I As A Man?’ | 10 min. | NYT | Feature

NYT Sum: Rick Marsh worked in the car plant in Lordstown his entire life. Now that job is gone. What does that mean for his politics?”

My Take: In this feature article, automation and cheaper labor are hinted at as some of the driving forces behind the decline of manufacturing in the US. This is the poignant story of one man who’s caught in history, so to speak.

#2: CLASSIFICATION | Burn-out An "Occupational Phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases | 1 min. | WHO | Summary HT Eric Parkinson

WHO Sum: The WHO classifies burn-out “an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.”

My Take: As longtime readers of this newsletter know, I wouldn’t take burn-out to be either (a) an occupational phenomenon (what a vague term) or (b) a medical condition. I believe instead that it’s a fairly logical consequence of the spirit of Total Work.

#3: REPLACEMENTS | AI Is Replacing First Jobs | 1 min. | LinkedIn | Summary

LinkedIn Sum: “Brookings found that 80% of cashiers, waiters and retail salespeople will lose their jobs to AI.”

In Its Entirety: Some 49% of workers aged 16-24 are at risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence, according to the Brookings Institution. The group is the most vulnerable of all demographics, with more than 70% of their current skills deemed automatable. They represent about 9% of the workforce but are nearly 40% of the cashiers and waiters and nearly 25% of retail salespeople — with 80% of those jobs susceptible to automatic ordering kiosks, swipe-based payment systems and robotic dishwashers.

#4: A GREEN NEW DEAL? | Much Shorter Working Weeks Needed To Tackle Climate Crisis | 2 min. | Guardian | Study Summary HT Pete Sims

Guardian Sum: “UK workers must move to a nine-hour week if carbon levels do not change, says think tank.”

My Take: Until reading this short article, I wasn’t aware of the concept, “Green New Deal.” Wikipedia clarifies its meaning for those interested in learning more.

#5: HARD LOOK AT THE GIG ECONOMY | Why Suburban Moms Are Delivering Your Groceries | 7 min. | WAMU (NPR) | News

WAMU (NPR) Sum: “After two master’s degrees and three children, Hilary Gordon is one of the women who now make up more than half of the contractors at food delivery apps like Instacart. NPR spent a day with her.”

My Take: This was a good day-in-the-life piece on someone working in the gig economy. Astonishingly, the featured woman’s best day of selecting and delivering groceries involved making $255 in 12 hours; that still comes out to a little over $20/hour, which isn’t very much for a woman with two master’s degrees.

#6: TECHLASH | The Roots of Big Tech Run Disturbingly Deep | 3 min. | NYT | Graphic

NYT Sum: “Out of more than 350 mergers by Facebook or Google, none raised serious regulatory concerns. They should have.”

My Take: Tim Wu hints at the argument for anti-trust in the cases of Google (Alphabet) and Facebook. The charge of monopoly is part of the larger “techlash,” and as I argued in the last issue, it could be taken as evidence of tech’s philosophical point.

Death In The Time Of Total Work

A close friend of mine, a man about my age, recently discovered that he has a tumor measuring 2 inches (5 cm) growing on his brain. He will learn what his treatment options are soon and will likely have surgery in about a week.

I’m about that age–40 to be exact–when illness and death start to creep in on me. Growing up in the US in the twentieth century, I didn’t witness the deaths of babies, toddlers, or teenagers. I trust that is likely true for you. For if you’re anything like me, then death has been a fact of the human condition yet not one, while you grew up, that you were intimately acquainted with. At the edge of your consciousness, perhaps, you heard of distant grandparents or once-seen uncles who fell ill and then faded away, yet death has seemed to you and to me as an aberration, a deviation from the life script. Life is where it’s at and death but a rumor that never became a meme.

But then death sneaks up on you as you approach middle age. Slowly, inexorably you start to hear of people around your age, people dear to you who are badly injured, are especially ill, or perhaps are dying. My eldest sister, who’d never been sick before, was about my age when she found out that she had late-stage cancer; she would have but 12 more painful weeks to live.

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How does it happen that something with which we ought to be so tactilely familiar is precisely what remains a mere, almost absent abstraction for us? I know one reason and although it is not the only one, it is a huge one. It is Total Work.

You see if you wake up every morning with first, second, and third thoughts of To Do Lists to be populated, tasks to be performed, schedules to be adhered to, meetings to be attended, calls to hop on, fires to put out, deadlines approaching, and targets that must be hit, then you can’t but deny that you, ontologically speaking, are a human agent and that agency is expressing itself in the modes of work–in that of working on yourself (life design, life hacking, bio-hacking, etc.) and in that of working on the world. Succinctly put, your daily consciousness reveals to you that you are a Worker–or, in any case, such is what you believe to be the case. The modern world presupposes, even while it promotes in myriad ways, the Worker.

Yet putting human agency ontologically and epistemically first is dangerous because it must, as such, remain blind to whatever is not willed by the agent, to whatever simply arises, happens, and comes upon one. Divine grace is one such possibility; kensho (or waking up in Zen) is another; death most surely a third.

To the extent that we remain in the throes of Total Work, we shall persistently neglect, overlook, and forget one of the most existentially significant events: our own deaths. Blind to our own deaths, we shall remain blind to the contemplative dimension of human life that is precisely what redeems human life in the face of its own stubborn mortality. Blind to our own deaths, we fail to take up with the utmost urgency and earnestness the pressing, almost maddening nature of dukkha, the unsatisfactory, hardly bearable condition that the Buddha pointed us to. Translating dukkha as “suffering” hardly does it justice. Dukkha is the feeling, if only we attune our entire beings to it, of life being not quite as we’d like, of their being an uncannily, weirdly, painfully off. Dukkha is the great taint or stain that feels, once we see it, unremovable.

You see now why it’s utterly incumbent upon you to cease–today–being a Total Worker; why putting work in its proper, modest, humble place–today–can’t be put off; why waking up to what, at a fundamental level, you’ve taken for granted must begin today. It is foolish to wait for tomorrow–after you’ve finished this memo.

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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 <>.

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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 <>.