Total Work Newsletter #46: The Five Phases People Go Through To Turn Away From The Full Implications Of Total Work

Plus: Noam Chomsky, Still Cheeky At 90


The first chapter of the serial publication of The Total Work Manifesto: A Critique of the Idolatry of Work is coming out for subscribers this Saturday morning. It contains, as will be true of the manifesto in its entirely, a good deal of new material.

The idea is for participants and me to have discussions over Substack and via Zoom and, in so doing, to see, over the course of some months, how our lived understanding of Total Work evolves. If you’d like to join 12 other intrepid participants in this experiment, you can do so here.

A Tyranny No Dictator Ever Dreamed Of

Ever the soft-spoken firebrand, Noam Chomsky speaks of “authentic left libertarianism” from about 12:55 to 14:24:

“Do you have a job somewhere? Well, if you have a job in a business or a corporation, you’re living in a tyranny so extreme that no totalitarian dictator ever dreamed of it…. You have 10 minutes to go to the bathroom. You have to wear these clothes. You’re not allowed to stop and talk to a friend for a minute. You’re monitored, say, at an Amazon warehouse…. That’s most of people’s lives…. The Republican position in the nineteenth century was that wage labor is indistinguishable from slavery except that it’s [i.e., wage labor is] temporary until you become a free person. Well, those ideas have been driven out of people’s heads, but I don’t think they’re very far below the surface.”

I elaborated on Chomsky’s ideas on Twitter:

And my claim is that every job, no matter how good it is, has at least some element of domination within it. We may accept that form of domination, yes, but we cannot deny that we are not entirely free persons as a consequence.

Abundance, The Old Religions, And Resentment Unbound

#1: A TIME OF ACTUAL ABUNDANCE? | “Some Economics of Abundance” | 10 min. | The Musing Mind | Long Form Essay HT Paul Millerd

Sum: Oshan Jarrow (1) argues that we’ve now entered a time of potential abundance. (2) Supports UBI on the grounds that it could provide the initial conditions for abundance: “The complexity of modern life calls for this pivot from designing outcomes to designing initial conditions.” (3) Suggests that tax reform could curtail capital’s tendency to beget more capital after it reaches a certain threshold. (4) Concludes: “An economic abundance would invert the logic of daily life. Utilitarian labor - that is, work not for itself, but for earning - would recede to the margins. Any further labor taken on would become increasingly voluntary, uncoerced by the imperative to earn one’s living that incentivizes commodified life-forms.”

More: Fairly recently, I spoke with Oshan on his Musing Mind Podcast.

#2: PRODUCTIVITY CRITIQUE | From Life Hacks To Listicles: Focusing On Productivity Misses The Point | 6 min. | Aeon | Video HT Roberto Bellon

Sum: I don’t think this video goes deep enough, though for new readers it may be worth watching because it may clue you into the cult of productivity.

Going Deeper: I try to go a bit further in this Quartz piece on the history of personal productivity.

#3: THE OLD RELIGIONS | Why Millennials Are Skipping Church And Not Going Back | 3 min. | Washington Post | Opinion

Sum: The polls cited are the most interesting parts. (1) “Analyzing 2017 data from the American Time Use Survey, economist Michelle Freeman of the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that while millennials are more highly educated and spend more time working than their older counterparts, they have stepped back dramatically from religious activities.” According to a Pew Research Center study, “In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services ‘a few times a year’ or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.”

Arguments: 1.) Secularism is, at best, a stage through which humans will pass before we come to new religions (a Second Axial Age). At worst and on its own, it’s a profoundly grave cultural mistake. 2.) Secularism must be analyzed alongside Total Work because while the former disenchants the world and thereby removes the divine, the latter, in lockstep, makes the human being sovereign inasmuch as it’s thought that the human being is now the world-historical Doer.

#4: RESENTMENT UNBOUND | Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working? | 10 min. | NYT | Feature HT Paul Millerd

My Take: This is a very curious article and this, I think, for three reasons. The first is that we do get a lot of quotes from the super-rich and from commentators on the super-rich. In this respect, we’re getting something of an enthrography. The second is that while I was reading it, it struck me that the author didn’t know what he was talking about. That is, he had no genuine clue why capitalism is breeding super-rich or what psychological, sociological, political, and economic reasons could have contributed to the production of the super-rich. His explanations, loose at best, fell well short. And the third, in keeping with the first two points, is that this NYT article is a textbook case of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. That is, the author doesn’t really want to know why this is the case; rather, he wants to hide his envy and cloak his resentment in a pseudo-rational discussion that is, in truth, a case of venting, presumptive superiority, and spleen. Read the piece through this lens and see what you think. It’s classic NYT.

What We See We Do Not See

The Five Phases People Go Through To Turn Away From The Full Implications Of Arguments About Total Work


Since 2017, I've been exploring the nature and significance of Total Work. I define Total Work as the process, starting at the end of the medieval period, by which human beings have been transformed into Workers as more and more aspects of life have been transformed into work.

My approach has been to offer a thoroughgoing critique of the value of work in modernity. By "critique," I mean both an honest assessment of the value of work and a deflation of its fetishization. I stand by the proposal that work, when properly understood, is not very important--it is somewhatimportantbut not terriblyimportant--in the overall conception of a good life. As a primer (helpful but not adequate), I include a short TEDx talk below. If you'd like to go deeper, check out the IHMC talk. In the final section of the latter talk, I discuss what role work could place in my utopia.

Now for the revealing part. Over the years, I've begun to track people's emotional reactions upon hearing about these ideas for the first time. Here's what usually happens:

Phase 1: Rejection

Typically, somebody gets upset and soon resorts to calling me a hippie, a lazy toker, or a trust fund kid. For the record, it turns out that none of these is true. What's fascinating is that, a la the Jungian shadow, someone is saying, "Not-me. Work is sacrosanct, this person is challenging what I hold to be sacrosanct, and thus he and his ideas must be resoundingly rejected. This is the ground upon which I stand, and so he is not-me."

I remember when I first viewed the YouTube commentsbelow the Big Think interview I gave. The early ones fell squarely in the rejection category. Wow, that was learning experience!

Phase 2: Misinterpretation

Suppose someone doesn't get angry; it may likely be that he or she has misinterpreted what I was actually arguing so that the message can be kept neat, tidy, and--distorted. One man I know often introduces me to new people as the "work-life balance guy." Yet from Day 1, I've argued that work-life balance, a post-WWII conceptual invention, is actually a species of Total Work inasmuch as it conforms to two central theses--the Centrality Thesis and the Subordination Thesis--of Total Work.

We could also call misinterpretation "domestication," "unwilling," or "taming" since it's try to turn down the temperature by tossing water on the fire.

Phase 3: Non-application; or, “Not I,” Said the Fox

Like misinterpretation, non-application refers to the fact that my interlocutor finds it interesting yet presumes that it doesn't apply to him or her. In this case, the person is not getting upset (Phase 1) and is not misinterpreting the main lines of the argument (Phase 2). And yet, my interlocutor takes these claims to be merely a matter of objective analysis (to wit, about how the modern world operates) and therefore not also, and at the same time, an invitation to introspect (to wit, to turn a question back on the questioner). Therefore, we could also say that this person "academicizes" the argument, not seeing it as an opportunity for genuine introspection.

Make no mistake; I include myselfin this examination. That is, one reason I began thinking and writing about Total Work was that I wanted to see where it resided within me. I have continued that self-examination over the past nearly three years.

Phase 4: Loophole-finding

Some precocious readers leap right into loophole querying. Significantly, this is the first thing their minds go to. In some sense, then, loophole-finding is a more sophisticated version of rejection (Phase 1) and of non-application (Phase 3). "What about therapy--isn't that 'inner work'? What about acts of service? What about social entrepreneurship? What about all these craftsmen ideals?"

The attempt to slice and dice and find the crucial distinction that will break in the reader's favor is amazingly telling. My question is often: "Why is that the first thing that comes to mind? Examine that within yourself and find out." I'm not persuaded that we're involved purely in rational discussion; I believe something is really at stake for my interlocutor. I think this person is not yet ready to turn the light back on his or her life to see by what standards and according to what aims he or she has lived.

(Am I saying that no such distinction exists? Surely not. I’m merely asking my interlocutor to ask why this is the first thought that comes to mind. What anxiety dwells here? What is behind it all?)

Phase 5: The Spiritualization of Work

In keeping with loophole-finding, people will start "spiritualizing" some special kind of work by dubbing it a "vocation" or a "calling." Perhaps there are such animals in the modern, secularized world, yet I think three replies are in order. The first is that most forms of work actually don't meet the requirements of a calling (see Total Work Newsletter #44: You Very Likely Don't Have A Calling). The second: by my lights, we really should begin by taking the Way of Purgation to its very end. Unless we actually trace out where—that is, every place where—Total Work still resides within us, we'll very likely repeat the patterns of Total Work in new forms as the rest of our lives unfolds. And the third: we spiritualize work because we fear something. 

What is it that we fear?

What is it that we fear the most?

What is it that is missing, lost, forgotten?

What, indeed, is gaping within us?

For New Readers Looking For An Overview

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