Total Work Newsletter #43: This Is A Story About Metaphysics

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.

Announcements: I’m excited about this issue because it feels to me as if we’re really going deeper now.

  • I’ve included an in-depth look at UBI.

  • Below that, you’ll read “This Is A Story About Metaphysics,” which is about an Argentine man who has discovered the contemplative life.

  • And don’t forget to read the wonderful excerpt “below the fold” about a posttheistic religious opening.

  • Next, those who are a bit out there (like me) might want to check out my recently launched series on Medium called “The Weirdness of Nonduality.” The next post, “The Weirdness of Nonduality #2: Can I Die?,” is coming out in a couple of days, if not before then.

  • And finally, thank you to all of those who’ve helped to support my philosophical life. If you’d like to do so, you can over at Patreon.

The Construction Of Economic Man

P.D. Anthony from The Ideology of Work (1977):

We are concerned here with the construction of economic man. Economic men, as we have concluded, have always existed but the construction of economic man as a concept was new. The concept and its survival explains [sic] why the boundaries of our own perception and the values which underlie our own society are almost entirely set in economic terms, why even the most radical critics and the most conservative advocates of capitalism have, for the most part, no difficulty in understanding each other because they share an economic vocabulary and economic values. Communists [remember that the book is published in 1977, 12 years before the the fall of the Berlin Wall–AT] and capitalists merely disagree about control of the machine and the distribution of its product. The transcendence of economic man required an enormous shift in attitudes and beliefs. It required the almost total dismantling of the mediaeval and classical system of thinking, their concepts, understanding, and perceptions. In order to change the world it was necessary to change men’s understanding of it (p. 39).

Burnout And Job Creation

#1: HEALTHCARE BURNOUT | The Business of Health Care Depends On Exploiting Doctors And Nurses | 5 min. | NYT | Opinion

NYT Sum: “One resource seems infinite and free: the professionalism of caregivers.”

Argument: The doctor and author argues that clinics and hospitals have become more corporatized. As they seek greater profitability, they bloat their administration while also requiring doctors and nurses to pick up the slack by drawing on their ethic of care. This, the author suggests, can’t be sustained and has already caused burnout rates and suicide rates to increase.

#2: JOB CREATION | Where Do Good Jobs Come From? | 5 min. | Project Syndicate | Opinion

PS Opening: “Many regard the falloff in the creation of high-wage jobs as the inevitable result of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. It isn’t. Technology can be used either to displace labor or to enhance worker productivity.”

Hmm…: Daron Acemoglu (whom I take to be a keen analyst of AI and therefore whom I otherwise like) makes the standard assumption early on: “Prosperity comes from creating jobs that pay decent wages. And it is good jobs, not redistribution, that provide people with purpose and meaning in life” (my italics). A Total Work mistake. How hard it has become to imagine human beings outside of the paradigm of homo faber and hence without explicit reference to purposeful and meaningful work? Clearly, when I critique the view that work is or ought to be meaningful, I don’t mean to imply that work should be uninteresting, taxing, and socially unbeneficial. I mean, rather, that work can be interesting and potentially socially beneficial, yet neither interestingness nor social beneficialness is or can be identical with ultimate meaning or purpose.

The Paradox Of Alienation

P.D. Anthony again from Ideology of Work (1977):

The paradox of alienation, like all the best paradoxes, is therefore inescapable, because it resembles a logical loop. It illuminates the unreality and the unreasonableness of regarding work as the essential and characteristic human activity [as Marx does and as Marxists after Marx do–AT]. The consequence of exaggerating the importance of work is that it magnifies, in the process, the de-humanizing characteristics which have always accompanied it and the magnification requires a further exaggeration of the importance of work [so often in the form of the ideology of work–AT] which leads to still greater emphasis on its alienating features. (p. 145)

Call “ideology of work” the dogmas and myths circulating throughout modern culture, all of which together trick us into believing that work is of the utmost importance, that it is so central to what we do and to who we really are that it could hardly be otherwise.

What, then, shall we then make of Anthony’s argument about the “paradox of alienation?” If a human being just is a homo faber destined to situate work as the primary concern of her life, then at some point she will be confronted with a bald and perchance disturbing fact: it is that the work as she knows it is alienating her. She may, of course, deny this bald fact, yet what is more likely is that she will double down on the ideology of work she has long been indoctrinated in by searching for whatever she files under the header of “more fulfilling work.” If she is successful at this endeavor, such, however, will in time reveal its essential unsatisfactoriness. At which point, she will need to embrace a “further exaggeration of the importance of work” in the form of the ideology of work. In brief, she shall be caught less by the actuality of work today and more by the ideology she has imbibed together with the inability of work to be what she’d like it to be, indeed to be what she was promised that it could be. All this, I say, unless and until she wakes up to the possibility that (a) a human being may not be essentially homo faber and therefore also that (b) this ideology of work is frankly a bunch of bunk. In other words, she would need to revisit the most basic assumptions she, and the rest of us, are making.

UBI In-depth

#1: REPUBLICANISM | A Republican Right to Basic Income? | 10 min. | Basic Income Studies | 10 min.

Overview: In this academic paper, the political philosopher Philip Pettit argues that republican theory can provide a suitable justification for UBI whereas utilitarianism and liberalism, by his lights, cannot. (Don’t confuse republican theory with big R Republicanism.) He only hints in the essay at whether he thinks UBI is desirable (his fictional examples seem to suggest as much), and, on purpose, he leaves off the question of feasibility. The basic argument, you might say, is that UBI could provide each citizen with protection against “unreasoned control,” a form of domination–be that by the state, employers, or spouses.

The Argument: “The argument is straightforward,” Pettit writes. “Others will control me, if only in the merely invigilatory fashion [meaning: in the style of surveillance–AT], only to the extent that the division of powers between us means that they can interfere with me at will–that is, without prevention–and at tolerable cost, i.e. with a degree of impunity. If I am not assured a basic income, there will be many areas where the wealthier [or more powerful–AT] could interfere with me at tolerable cost, without their being confronted by legal prevention of that interference.” UBI, on this account, provides each citizen with a buffer against certain forms of domination and therefore could be construed as a “basic right.”

#2: SOCIAL DEMOCRACY | Basic Income in a Just Society | 20 min. | Boston Review | Essay

BR Opening: Each week, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which automation renders workers unnecessary. Is a basic income the solution?”

The Author’s Proposal: The author argues from a social democratic point of view that “three policy shifts” would make our society more just: “a basic income and other economic security guarantees, vastly expanded social programs, and new rules to encourage social bargaining.” He concludes: “A basic income is a simple and elegant way to redistribute resources. But there are no simple, elegant solutions to complex political and economic challenges. A decent future of work and welfare requires a basic income—and much more.”

#3: NEGATIVE INCOME TAX | Why Universal Basic Income Is A Bad Idea | 3 min. | Project Syndicate | Opinion HT Paul Millerd

PS Opening: “One should always be wary of simple solutions to complex problems, and universal basic income is no exception. The fact that this answer to automation and globalization has been met with such enthusiasm indicates a breakdown not in the economic system, but in democratic politics and civic life.”

Argument: (1) UBI is too expensive. (2) It’s an unnecessary and undemocratic top-down solution, amounting to supplying “bread and circuses” to the discontented masses. (3) We already have a suite of social welfare options that can support the young, elderly, and disabled, one of those being a “negative income tax” (a.k.a. “guaranteed basic income” for those deserving).

#4: BAD ARGUMENTS | Basic Income’s Backers Complicate Their Cause With Some Bad Arguments | 3 min. | The Salt Lake Tribune | Opinion

SLT Opening: “Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and philanthropist from New York, has drawn less attention than most of his counterparts. But he has been noticed for one big, bold proposal - a universal basic income, or UBI, which would give every American $12,000 a year with no strings attached. Yang has thus become the most public champion of an idea that is gaining currency in some corners of the left and the right.”

Bad Arguments: Noah Smith suggests that Yang makes some poor arguments. (1) “Yang, for example, claims that UBI is necessary to save people from the penury they will experience once automation makes them obsolete as workers.” Smith doubts that technological unemployment will come to pass; he doesn’t buy it: “The problem is, there’s no indication that automation is going to make human workers redundant anytime soon.” (2) “The second dubious reason to support UBI is the idea that it can replace traditional forms of welfare spending, like food stamps and housing vouchers.

The Potentially Good Idea?: Smith: Basic income, unlike minimum wage and the earned income tax credit, provides money for those who are unable to work.“ Upshot?: "UBI is a form of welfare that doesn’t require people to be able-bodied but also doesn’t incentivize them to be indolent.”

This Is A Story About Metaphysics

An Argentine Man

Certain events in the life of an Argentine man with whom I’ve been having philosophical conversations have caused him to swerve. This is a story about metaphysics.

For the past two years, this business executive and I have been speaking largely about what I’ll call “ordinary life.” When we began, he was a COO at a startup while he was also finishing an MBA. Up until that time, he had taken as his goals those of becoming much wealthier, higher status, and more successful.

And in time? Being an especially reflective human being, he took my critiques of Total Work to heart. He had already begun to de-center work from his life even before the startup he worked at imploded; after its implosion, he was temporarily out of work. He had shifted focus toward well-being, his family life, and the possibility of having children with his wife. Since that time, he has become more highly sought after in the world of work even as he cares less about it. This paradox is one I discussed over two years ago now.

Here, we see the commitments to ordinary life, albeit with different weightings. If the first domain of ordinary life is work, then the second one is family. Today it is assumed that the end of work is (if we apply Occam’s Razor) success, and it is held that the end of the family is love. Where before this man had over-indexed on success, since then he has weighted familial love more highly. I see this often: an entrepreneur pushes himself to the point of burnout, only to realize that running a successful company may not be the highest goal in life. At which point, he wonders, now that he is in his late 30s, whether he would be happier were he to have a family (and whether, at this stage, he is able to have one). Others in a similar position might shift toward the secular concept of well-being. (And some make the Total Work mistake of shifting from a first career in finance to a second career in lifestyle.)

The picture of ordinary life is not yet complete. The third domain is–to use cybernetic language with which we’re by now all too familiar–“connections,” the aim of which is pleasure or, more clearly still, pleasure and mutual benefit.

And what is a happy life? According to the account offered by ordinary life, it is to be successful at work, to have a loving family, and to have pleasant and mutually beneficial connections with others. As a consequence of how well one has put his life together, one may be esteemed, sought after, and, for a time, remembered.

The happy life I’ve described is, you see, the life urged upon us by secularism. The goods it provides–success, familial love, and mutual benefit–may indeed be goods worth pursuing, yet is what I’ve described enough for the human spirit longing for great heights?

Therapy and Coaching

Not surprisingly, the ordinary happy life has attracted a set of experts whose goal is to teach us how to realize such a life in all its fullness. Therapists can enable one to see where one is not yet capable of unconditional love due to unresolved conflicts stemming from childhood, false or unhealthy beliefs, or misshapen understandings of self and other. Through therapy, one may come to achieve a healthy sense of self and, in consequence, she may now be ready to enter into loving relationships that don’t simply repeat destructive patterns owing to her past conditioning.

Meanwhile, coaching, a pretty recent invention, is experiencing a boom because Total Work had already paved the way for thinking that work is central to the lives we lead. Said differently, coaching has capitalized on the opportunity presented by Total Work: coaching is self-help with the help of another. Hence, it makes no difference whether one is a life coach or an executive coach or any other kind of coach. Each is committed to doing the work with the client in order to help the client become successful (or, to put it in a more roundabout way: to help the client self-actualize herself in such a way that she can now be successful in her life).

The figures of the therapist and the coach support ordinary life, helping individuals achieve happiness in these terms.


Therapy assumes that a self exists, coaching that a certain kind of society exists. Basing what it has to offer on the first assumption, therapy is then permitted to ask: “How can you be a healthy self? How can you have a healthy self-image? How can you be the author of your own thoughts and feelings, the creator of your values? How can you be put in touch with your actual feelings so that you become ‘truly authentic’?”

Meanwhile, coaching accepts society, the current economic order, as its starting point so that it can ask: “How can you be your best self at work? How can you navigate through this social world–with its games and hierarchies and all the rest–and, in so doing, be successful? How can you work to become–by a series of DIY activities–who you want to be in terms of what you do? And what indeed is blocking you from being an authentic worker?”

If my Total Work arguments in past issues are right, then we should continue to expect an explosion in the number and kinds of coaches in the coming years. Perhaps we’ll see life-hacking coaches, gigging coaches, AI coaches, remote lifestyle coaches, and more. Since our ways of working are changing around us and since work has become central to who we take ourselves to be, it stands to reason that coaching will continue to be a personalized way of making sense of a bit of it with another.


And yet, something may come to upset all that I’ve described above, and usually (but not always) that something is death or loss, especially of the unexpected kind.

So it was with the Argentine man I mentioned earlier. Recently, his 8-year-old dog and his therapist (I believe of over a decade) died. He was very attached to both. His dog, which he had expected to live at least six more years, died all of a sudden. His therapist had alluded to a personal matter or perhaps to an illness some months ago. Only later did he find out that she had had cancer and that this was what ended her life. A second sudden loss, therefore.

He was, and still is, shaken up by the death of both important beings in his life. His dog played an important role in the vitality of his family, and his therapist clearly helped him understand his negative emotions and his patterns of behavior that he might have otherwise felt shackled by.

To see the death of others may mean to swerve.


Convulsive experiences have opened him, just as they can open us, to the domain of ultimate matters. Paul Tillich, according to Dale Wright in What is Buddhist Enlightenment?, suggests “an image of being grasped by an ultimate concern, the deepest dimension of concern that connects us directly to the very meaning of life” (p. 60) as the starting point for religion. I believe, rather, that Tillich’s description is the starting point for philosophy (as a way of life), for religion, and for spirituality. It is this shared commitment to being held by ultimate concern that breathes life into, while providing energy for, all three. Their similarity, less so their differences, is what matters to me here.

In the face of death, first reflexive questions about my stance toward ordinary life come as they did for this Argentine man. If the beings I’ve come to rely upon can die, then cannot death also come for family members and for others I hold dear? What does the imminence of my own death tell me about the claims of ordinary life? As I age, do I not feel more strongly the unique tug of finitude? What do I want to accomplish while here? Do I wish to have and raise children? Do I want to devote myself more to family and less to work? What do I want to finish before I die? What legacy leave?

These, of course, are the questions of someone who takes himself to be a self–an agent–and whose domains are circumscribed by ordinary life. This, though, should only be the beginning of the inquiry for those of us who are held–really held– in the grip of ultimate concern, in “the Great matter of life and death,” as Zen so aptly puts it. For soon enough we can also ask or, even, cannot help but ask: is the self real? Is society to be taken for granted as the arena in which the self, qua agent, fulfills its work-centric desires? What responsibilities toward sentient life do I have? What is reality and therefore what really real? What death? What life? What love? What God? What is it that would fulfill and redeem all this anyway? And what would be, sans me but including me, ultimate peace?

An Uncanny Blessing

Above and beyond ordinary life, therefore, is the contemplative life that convulsive experience entreats us to join. Philosophy (as a way of life), art (of the kind concerned with imaging ultimate things), religion (which has given itself up to reflexive questioning), and spirituality (provided it’s singularly focused on seeing, as Nisargadatta once said, who I really am) beckon us to climb the latter. To hear the call is not, nor should it be, to spirit away ordinary life, yet henceforth in contemplative life new heights can be discovered, new depths plumbed. Death, it turns out, is an uncanny blessing, and–to return, in these final words, to the beginning–Total Work the shameful denial of what could save us from ourselves.

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Below The Fold: Secularity And Posttheistic Religion

The following is an excerpt from Dale S. Wright’s book What is Buddhist Enlightenment? (2016), pp. 66-8.

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Secularity–our particular moment in history–is the age of human self-assertion, the epoch of science and technology. To the extent that we consider ourselves secular, we no longer experience ourselves as being observed from above, overseen by powers beyond our own. In this sense, modern subjectivity is secular insofar as we experience our own human agency as supreme and strive toward greater and greater control. Hence Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” is maturity–growing up to capitalize on the rational powers in our own hands so that, standing on our own, we submit the world to deliberation and rational reformation. No one today is unaffected by this significant turn of human history into the epoch of humanism.

One danger that we all vaguely sense in this historical development, however, is that our modern drive to control everything is precisely what we can no longer control. Our modern identity may be so thoroughly directed toward the acquisition of human power that our own will to power may already be out of control. We almost inevitably see the cosmos as being at our disposal, something there for us that we can manipulate toward our own ends and desires. Furthermore, by aligning itself so closely with science, secular thinking tends to identify truth with the empirical, the calculable, the measurable, and thus the spiritual dimension of human life–questions about the very meaning of human life–begin to seem illusory or just vaguely insignificant. Because no other vision of “the Good” has yet arisen to replace “afterlife in heaven” or a “cycle of rebirths/final nirvana,” consumerism and other more subtle forms of acquisition have tended to become our default mode of fulfillment, and this is now perhaps the global faith of our secular world.

Nietzsche refers to this development in his famous “death of God” passage in The Gay Science. In that potent masterwork, Nietzsche shows how the madman who proclaims the death of God is clearly distraught–he cares deeply about the absence of solid foundations provided by divine oversight and fears the repercussions of this loss. He assumes that, with this loss, the grounds for higher values have been undermined and destroyed. The jeering atheists who just laugh at him are thoughtless, smug, and blindly self-assured in the secular life that they have already adopted. They are perfectly content not to strive for higher values or test their lives in view of stringent ethical ideals. They seem content neither to strive for deeper forms of self-awareness nor to seek new forms of freedom. And in explicitly religious terms, they are quite content not to discipline themselves to ponder the meaning of birth and death. They much prefer their current pursuit of poisonous greed, disdainful aversion, and pleasurable delusion. Although Nietzsche’s madman is crazed and disabled by the enormous implications of his cosmic insight, the secular atheists are worse off–they are already dead to any value beyond the most banal forms of self-satisfaction.

In response to the death of God–that is, to our human inability to assert the existence of divine guidance or any other absolute foundation in view of the modern practice of critical thinking–two paths have opened up. The first is reactionary, a form of nostalgia for the premodern past that manifests in fundamentalist, dogmatic attempts to live as though we still reside in some earlier epoch, as though we could still live medieval lives, as though a static conception of human nature can still be taken to sanctify static values. The second path is secularity, which simply accepts the inevitable, rejects the religious past, and tries to make due by focusing elsewhere, like on the “economy” that can only strike us as truly real.

Both reactions cannot help but adopt modern modes of thinking and talking about religion. Both theists and atheists assume that faith is a certain kind of belief–certainty about the truth of otherworldly, supernatural propositions. They both proceed as though the question of the existence of God is ultimately an empirical hypothesis about what really does or doesn’t exist “out there,” and, like all good modernists, both pursue empirical evidence for their convictions about belief and disbelief. While the hopelessness of the theistic effort may be obvious, we should recognize that contemporary atheism is equally immersed in an untenable, uninspired vision of who we are as human beings. It has nothing to say about the meaning of our lives, nor about the values that we should affirm, since all such talk is thoughtlessly dismissed as “subjective” and “relative.”

In the midst of this standoff between theism and atheism, a new and as yet vaguely formed possibility has emerged–the possibility of posttheistic forms of religious life. While atheism is still caught in the grasp of what it must deny–caught in an oppositional relation to theism–posttheism steps onto new ground. Stephen Bachelor’s groundbreaking work in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and After Buddhism is, from my point of view, really that of a posttheistic Buddhist, where, as he says, Buddhism’s “theistic” leap of faith entails afterlives, afterworlds, and other forms of imagined escape from the her and now. Although he does proffer a few arguments against a Buddhist afterlife, mostly, like me, he shrugs his shoulders and confesses that he isn’t really interested and has more important issues to address. He is “post” wanting to think about it, so that “rebirth” isn’t even a serious candidate for belief or disbelief.

Nietzsche’s death of God narrative drops the first posttheistic hint that as we come to imagine our real situation on this planet as dependent products of biological and cultural evolution, new forms of enlightened life will emerge. This hint, taken up a half-century later by Heidegger, is that the death of God might allow for a deeper, richer, postmetaphysical sense of spiritual life than any found in traditional religions and that, ironically, this “death” clears the ground for new, revolutionary forms of spirituality that were unimaginable so long as the life-negating, otherworldly structures of theism and the afterlife were the primary religious concerns.

That, it seems to me, is our historical assignment, our calling: to affirm the religious dimension of human life by reenvisioning and reformulating spiritual sensibilities at the cutting edge of contemporary thought, practice, and experience. In contrast to the triumphalism and dogmatism that characterize both theism and atheism, a thoroughly posttheistic religious sensibility would necessarily be experimental, moving forward in humility and openness of thought toward a range of new possibilities for enlightened human life, rather than a search to find the one correct view or practice. It would begin in contemplative practice to build habits of mind and body attuned to openness and inclined to question the instrumental character of current common sense, which imagines ever-new means but never ends, leaving us without ideals and goals suitable to our time.