Total Work Newsletter #45: A New Counterculture

Announcing The Total Work Manifesto

Big Announcement

I’ve decided that I’m going to do a serial publication of a svelte ebook, The Total Work Manifesto: A Critique of the Idolatry of Work, via Substack. I talk more about this decision in the final section below.

Philosophy, Monasticism, And Counterculture

#1: PHILOSOPHIZING ABOUT TOTAL WORK | Total Work: A Conversation With Andrew Taggart | 1 hr. 8 min. | YouTube | Conversation

Sum: Philosopher Johannes Achill Niederhauser and I discuss not just the nature of Total Work but also what might be—indeed is—on the other side of Total Work. It’s just a damn good conversation as is the next one with Oshan Jarow.

#2: A NEW COUNTERCULTURE? | Finding a New Center | 1 hr. 42 min. | Musing Mind Podcast | Conversation

Sum: Oshan Jarow and I have a wonderful conversation about Total Work, consciousness, and politics on his Musing Mind Podcast. He’s a bright young man, and his podcast is concerned with the ways in which consciousness and culture are woven together. This one is very much worth listening to, in my unbiased opinion.

#3: TO KNOW, NOT TO BE USEFUL | You Don’t Exist Just ‘To Be Useful’, President Tells Young Philosophers. | 3 min. | Irish Times | News

Sum: “Mr Higgins, who has been a strong advocate of teaching philosophy in schools, as well as the retention of history as a core subject in the junior cycle, said ‘too many policy lobbyists have, often unknowingly, unthinkingly perhaps, accepted a narrow and utilitarian view of... education - one that suggests we exist to be made useful - which leads to a great loss of the capacity to critically evaluate, question and challenge.’”

#4: SUCCESS MACHINES | When The Culture War Comes For The Kids | 20 min. | Atlantic | Feature HT Alex Hardy

Key Quote (also HT Alex Hardy): "In his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, the Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits argues that this system turns elite families into business enterprises, and children into overworked, inauthentic success machines, while producing an economy that favors the super-educated and blights the prospects of the middle class, which sinks toward the languishing poor. Markovits describes the immense investments in money and time that well-off couples make in their children. By kindergarten, the children of elite professionals are already a full two years ahead of middle-class children, and the achievement gap is almost unbridgeable."

#5: TOTAL WORK AND THE DECLINE OF MONASTICISM | Germany’s Vanishing Monasteries | 5 min. | Spiegel | Feature

My View: As I argued in my IHMC talk, the rise and success of Total Work can be regarded as one of the causes of the decline of monasteries. In the near future, perhaps a good number of monasteries will be no more.

Key Quote #1: “Around 1960, there were still about 110,000 nuns and monks in Germany. Twenty years ago, there were 38,348. Now, there are about 17,900.”

Key Quote #2: “Monasteries are being disbanded and their buildings put up for sale. They can often be found on real-estate portals, listed as ‘property with character.’ Specialized agents can get prices in the millions for the old buildings. They are then turned into co-working spaces or luxury housing.”

Total Work Manifesto

Publishing Options

There are three basic book publishing options: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. Set aside hybrid for the purposes of this brief discussion. Since about November 2018, I’ve been collaborating with a New York City-based book agent whose responsibility is to get an editor at a major publishing house interested enough that he or she would be willing to offer me a contract so that I could write a well-researched book on Total Work, a book that bridges the academic and trade press divide.

I’ll level with you. From the beginning, I’ve had a number of reservations about traditional book publishing, and those reservations have only continued to grow as I’ve been going through this lengthy, byzantine process. Presently, my book proposal—like a pitch for the writers out there or a pitch deck for the founders among us—is in the hands of editors who have been taking their time in replying. Naturally, some have passed. Less naturally, many, seeing a virtual stack of these things, probably haven’t looked at it yet.

I’ve taken some time to think the matter through. My current approach is to let the traditional process unfold at the slow pace with which other writers are no doubt quite familiar while at the same time pursuing an alternative—namely, serial publication of a tight, punchy manifesto. Either, in the end, there will be two books (one self-published, the other, a weightier tome, with an imprint), or there will be just one ebook (namely, the self-published one). At this point, I’m equanimous about both possibilities.


I’m not persuaded that traditional book publishing has a rosy future in front of it, and yet I think it’s a standard entrepreneurial knee-jerk reaction simply to say, “Well, this way is terrible and, to boot, is moving at a snail’s pace; I can do it alone—or I can assemble a team—and with others or on my own I can do it much better.” While I’m more than happy to accept the assessment of many subpar existing approaches such as that taken for granted in traditional publishing, how often, I wonder, is this reaction the result of unexamined negative emotions—those having to do with rejection, insignificance, and the like? In this case, then, I’d like to see this process through to the end wherever that turns out to be.

That said, I’m not willing to just sit on my hands and wait for what may never come to pass. For, indeed, the Stoics would appreciate my unwillingness to outsource my autonomy to powers beyond my control. Moreover, the time is ripe for counterintuitive—nay, countercultural—discussions of the nature and future of work before the cultural opening, so precariously and gingerly widening just now, closes. This is a very timely subject deserving of a more coherent form than short essays, ad hoc interviews, and newsletter issues.

My creative solution, you’ve begun to see, is to split the processes off from each other: write a different, punchier ebook by drawing from the success of publishing during the Victorian period (see just below) while accepting that the other, traditional process shall along however it is that it goes along. You might call this a “Daoist approach.”

Why Serial Publication? And Why Now?

Perhaps some readers of this newsletter already know that in the Victorian period serial publication in magazines was one fairly good model that novelists then utilized in order to get paid and, in time, to write the book in its entirety. Each month magazine subscribers received the latest chapter of Charles Dickens’, Wilkie Collins’, or Elizabeth Gatskill’s novel. They read in suspense as The Moonstone, perhaps the first detective novel and a very fine one at that, was published chapter by chapter. What would happen next? Which turn would the novel take?

Sometime later, the culmination of this process would be a hardcover book called a “triple Decker”: that is, a three-volume novel not infrequently ranging from 500-800 pages. These were thick, elaborate, windy books indeed! Try reading George Eliot’s tour de force Middlemarch—and then, some years later, get back to me.

That was then, you might say, but why reintroduce serial publication now? For one thing, the infrastructure is now in place for such an experiment to be conducted in earnest. Substack is but one platform that enables the writer to write certain newsletters for all addressees and to write some other issues for only paid subscribers (I’ll go into this further below). Venkatesh Rao (HT Daniel Doyon) is currently publishing The Art of the Gig in serial fashion, and, I’m told, he has been quite successful at doing so.

For another thing, people are hungering for more intimate ways to commune with one another. (Notice that I didn’t use the cybernetic metaphor “connect” nor did I use the hackneyed, oft-illusionary noun “community.”) Imagine being the first readers of the first pages of a book as it’s being written. Imagine seeing the book, whose contents are as fresh to the author as they are to the reader, unfold in real time. Imagine too being among, say, 5-20 other readers who receive it, perhaps who discuss it, and who correspond with the author. This, in practice, looks less like a simple “one-to-many” relationship but instead resembles a “one-to-few-to-few-including-one” relationship. Whence the possibility of communion.

For a third thing, my intuition says that someone needs to write something along the lines of Total Work—and soon—or else the opening I alluded to above shall close. Here, I’m not referring just to “first-mover advantage,” though that, to be sure, is not excluded from what I’m saying. I’m also suggesting that, if my intuition is correct, something just now is almost afoot. The zeitgeist, that is: my sense being that the timing is now and that timing, though not everything, is almost everything.

And for a fourth thing, I’ll be able to try out my arguments on a first set of readers who will have a hand (see point 2 above) in shaping the manuscript into what it becomes. I’m curious to see what some of you will say.

How Could This Look?

The idea is to write a tight 2500-word chapter to be sent out to subscribers each month. By the end of the process, I believe that the entire ebook should be 75-99 pages. (Manifestos, intentionally, tend to be on the short side.) I’d like to try out some new material while weaving in some old bits here and there. For me, the most interesting challenge is presented by the genre of the manifesto: it’s meant to be charged, punchy, elliptical, suggestive, occasionally or more than occasionally hyperbolic. In Minima Moralia, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno once quipped, “Nothing is true in psychoanalysis except its exaggerations.” So too manifestos. They are sharp quips dressed up as books.

I’m not sure yet about what in tech speak is called other forms of “engagement.” Definitely not Slack (which is the shadow work side of Total Work). Possibly Google Hangout or living discourse over some other platform. Very probably correspondence through Substack. I’m open to suggestions, so feel free to send them to me at

If you’d like to subscribe, you can see that I’ve set the monthly subscription at $5, the yearly at $50. I believe I’ve set things up so that you should be able to subscribe at If you can’t subscribe, I’ll double-back and see where I may have made a mistake.

If you wouldn’t to subscribe, that’s fine; you can still receive the rest of the roughly monthly issues that I’ve been sending out since January 2018. Those, I trust, will always be free.

Bonus Highlights

Daniel Doyon and Tristan Homsi, co-founders of ReadWise, have said that they’ll showcase the finished manifesto as their “Bonus Highlight” to all their users. More about this in the future.