Total Work Newsletter #5: The Busy Woman and the Idle Man

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 “occult” all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I’ll be documenting, reflecting upon, and seeking to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and quite possibly well before then.

Update: I’ll be giving a TEDx talk on total work at SUNY-Binghamton at the end of March. If you have any total work stories or suggestions, feel free to share them with me via email.

A Modern Religion and a Modern Heresy

Writing about the aftermath of FDR’s New Deal in his essay “The New Deal: The Salvation of Work and the End of the Shorter-Hour Movement,” which appeared in the collected volume Work Time and Industrialization: An International History, the historian Benjamin Hunnicutt reflects,

Work stands today at the center of life; it is the self-justifying end of progress and economic development for which the rest of the economic, political, and social machinery have ben subordinated and brought into service. Work today has many of the earmarks of a modern religion, and increased leisure is a prime candidate for the modern heresy (p. 237).

That was written in 1988. It is still so 30 years later.

The Busy Woman and the Idle Man

#1: Chinese Hunger And American Decadence? Silicon Valley Would Be Wise To Follow China’s Lead 5 min. | FT | Op-ed

Update: This is the piece referred to last week in the TechCrunk article I mentioned.

Opening: Comparing China’s work ethic with Silicon Valley’s, Moritz observes, “In recent months, there have been complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience; debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances; and grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions. These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged.” He goes on, “These topics are absent in China’s technology companies, where the pace of work is furious. Here, top managers show up for work at about 8am and frequently don’t leave until 10pm.” He then lists other examples that will cause your eyes to get bigger.

Bottom Line, So to Speak: Moritz is a firm believer in, as well as apologist for, the work ethic–whether Confucian or Protestant–especially when it’s combined with extreme frugality. Reading this piece, I thought I was listening to a ramped-up Benjamin Franklin.

An Allegory of Hunger & Decadence?: Mortiz’s lingering suggestion, or implication, is that Western companies will soon be passed by by China’s extraordinary work ethic. This, I think, raises a deeper fear about the twenty-first century belonging to “hungry” China as “decadent” America rests on their laurels and soon after falls into decline.

The Limits of Consciousness

A 1980s vintage t-shirt as seen by Alexandra Taggart

On the back of the t-shirt, the creator suggests that he can now party all the time. The bourgeois worker quits so that he can become the everyday hedonist. Are these not the limits of our consciousness today?

#2: Ye Olde Educational "Pivot" A Grim Future For Workers Who Don't Learn New Skills 1 min. | Axios | Chart

Axios Sum: “In all, some 1.4 million Americans will lose their jobs to technological change in the next eight years, including 70 percent whose job type will just disappear. Without new skills, according to the report, 575,000 of them — 41% — will have either minuscule or no chance of finding other work. Women may be disproportionately affected.”

Hearts and Heads: In many of the charts I see (this one from WEF) and in articles I read, people continue to argue that those involved in the caring professions and those doing the big thinking will be secure as AI, ML, etc. come online. Maybe. Like ancient skeptics, actually, we just don’t know.

More Education: How soon we forget! This Wikipedia entry is really good. We forget that banning new technology (which virtually no one advocates for today), shorter workweeks (a popular proposal put forward in the early 1930s before FDR squashed it), UBI (which got trotted out in the mid-1960s), public works (the New Deal being the most prominent) used to be on the table. Now, I’m not advocating for any of these, but what I am saying is that the “more education!” mantra has, on the left as well as the right, won out. Could it be time to return to First Principles, asking the question again with fresh eyes and open minds?

#3: Oh, Crap, The Busy Woman Forgets Her Fire Tongs! Busyness: Selections from the Works of Kierkegaard | 3 min. | Ibot | Excerpt from Either/Or

Sorta Famous Quote: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy–to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” The American writer Jonathan Franzen picks up on the theme when he writes, “Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the ‘busy man’ for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning.”

The Rub: Kierkegaard seems to be making a two-fold critique. One, the busy person fails, in virtue of always being busy, to examine his life. (He likens the busy man to someone hurrying carrying around a mirror in his pocket–yet, for this reason, never uses it.) That’s the easy critique, one I’ve also been making in my own writings. I’ve gone so far as to claim that total work is the “chief enemy” of philosophy. Two, actually the busy person, when it comes to action, is ineffectual because she lacks the steadiness of focus needed to act with intention. So, the scattered housewife: “Are they not to be classed with the woman who in her confusion about the house being on fire carried out the fire tongs?” Presumably, the busy person too easily 'loses his head.’

#4: From Geeky Outsiders to Power Holders Andreessen Horowitz's Spin Master Built Silicon Valley As You Know It 15 min. | Wired | Profile

Wired Opening: “For decades Margit Wennmachers has quietly shaped the world’s hottest startups. Now Andreessen Horowitz’s secret weapon must reckon with the era of big tech.”

Looking Within: The author gives the reader a nice view into the inside of this popular VC firm.

A Shifting Narrative: What makes this article interesting is that it uses Wennmachers a protagonist in order, in large part, to tell a broader story about the changes in Silicon Valley. “The very premise on which Wennmacher has based her work—that the geeky outsiders are actually visionaries who are creating the future, and should be driving business—has come to pass. Or, as Wennmachers puts it: ‘Tech is becoming its own power center.’ She holds it up alongside our country’s other power centers, like Wall Street, Washington, and Hollywood. 'This tech thing was experimental. Now the companies are big. The revenues are real. Everybody has a smartphone, so they’re on the internet all the time.’” Now it may be time for Silicon Valley to take responsibility for the world it’s helped to create (here see the recent critiques of Mark Zuckerberg).

#5: Gettin' Us Hooked Never Get High on Your Own Supply 5 min. | Guardian | Critique

Guardian Sum: “Developers of platforms such as Facebook have admitted that they were designed to be addictive. Should we be following the executives’ example and going cold turkey – and is it even possible for mere mortals?”

Overview: The article is mainly concerned with how these platforms create “compulsions” in us, with how they’re addictive, and with how the “dealers” (Zuckerberg et al.) don’t, therefore, “get high on their own supply.” The strong suggestion (made here as well as elsewhere) is that the inventors ‘knew what they were doing all along.’ I think that very likely attributes to them greater powers and foresight than is humanly imaginable. As one expert puts it, “The companies that are producing these products, the very large tech companies in particular, are producing them with the intent to hook.” That may be true now, but it beggars the imagination to insist that such was true in the early days.

Notably: Regarding the use of social media, one man in the article states, “I was spending an hour a day not doing anything productive, just wasting time.” I’ll try to pick up the thread about “spending time” and about “wasting time” in a future piece.

A Bird’s-eye View: I don’t see how all these platforms could be so addictive had there not first been the secularization of the world. Without something higher or greater to believe in, we’re left with hedonic pleasure (see Issue #4) on the consumption side and with total work on the production side. The world is indeed flat, very flat.

#6: Eighteenth Century: The Age of the Aristocracy Aristocrats and Bourgeois 5 min. | University Webpage | Lecture Notes

Opening: “The eighteenth century was an aristocratic century, particularly in England. In all areas of western Europe, the aristocratic class gained economic and social stature. In England they even achieved political supremacy. Aristocrats were not the only class to benefit from economic and social transformations in eighteenth century. The bourgeoisie, that is to say the urban merchant and manufacturing class, also expanded in size and social significance. Aristocrats and bourgeois shared many values and interests in common, though they sometimes came into conflict. Indeed, this conflict played an important role in the French Revolution at the end of the century, while England avoided revolution because these two major classes found enough common ground and common cause to work together to maintain their constitutional monarchy established in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689.”

Takeaway: This article gives you some sense of how the aristocracy, in the eighteenth century, defeated the monarchs and of how they forged an uneasy relationship with the rising bourgeoisie. “The eighteenth century was in several respects the age of aristocracy.” As we turn toward the nineteenth century (a subject not addressed in this short piece), we’ll see how the bourgeoisie win out, relegating monarchs and aristocrats to the past.

Making Room for That Very Special Art

Here’s J.S. Mill writing in 1848 about the prospect that an end to economic growth could coincide with making room for an “art of living”:

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress as well; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed with the art of getting on. Even the industrial arts might be as earnestly and successfully cultivated, with this sole difference, that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labor. (Principles of Political Economy)

We’ll hear more in the next issue about the rekindled interest in happiness at Yale.

From Woodstock With Love

Credit: Monastery of Christ in the Desert

The Benedictine Moment

On Twitter, Julie Kelemen asked me whether I was a “closet #Benedictine? Sure sounds like it. #NotABadThing.” I replied, “Well, I’m a Zen Buddhist, but I think I see what you mean. I lean in that direction, yes. And I think the Benedictine view of ora, labora, et lectio implies something deep and important about human life.”

To pray, to labor, and to engage in contemplative studies: these were the genuine activities of the Benedictine monastery. What this doesn’t suggest, then, is that laboring came first, but it does state that laboring had a place in monastic place. Hannah Arendt, in her book The Human Condition, illuminatingly shows that, technically speaking, laboring differs from working: the former is endlessly concerned with meeting the basic needs of the cyclically understood “life process” whereas the latter produces artifacts and tools that have a certain kind of permanence. A vegetable to be consumed differs from a table that will persist for a time. Benedict, then, regards as part of the human condition the necessary laboring of monks themselves (as opposed to outsourcing the labor to slaves and peasants) in order for them to meet the “life process” where it is.

When I was living in New York City, I almost visited The Community of Jesus, a Benedictine monastery located near Cape Code, Massachusetts. The idea occurred to me, and I contacted someone there, after reading the final, stunning line of the last, stirring paragraph in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). Who was Benedict? And is he anything to us today? Here is MacIntyre:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (pp. 244-5)

That ending, so evocative, has stayed with me: “another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict” for our time…

Benedict’s Dharma

In August 2012, I wrote a review of Benedict’s Dharma (2002) for the APPA. “Not much,” I write,

is known about St. Benedict’s life apart from his birth into a prominent Norsian family around 480, his rejection of the Roman empire then in decline, his founding a dozen Christian monasteries near modern-day Enfide, and his devising a set of guidelines that have since been preserved by being put into practice in monastic institutions throughout western Europe and abroad. As Mary Margaret Funk, a nun and prioress for 40 years, tells us in the Introduction accompanying Patrick Berry’s marvelous new translation of St. Benedict’s Rule, three principles in particular have provided the intellectual scaffolding for this deeply religious way of life: stability, fidelity, and obedience. What place could these principles, which run in stark contrast to our feelings of uprootedness, waywardness, and disobedience, have in the modern world?

In his short, meditative book A Time to Keep Silence (1953), the young travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts his experience of staying in the Abbey of St. Wandrelle de Fontanelle shortly after the end of World War II. There, in 1953, he observed the monks chanting, reading aloud, and praying communally, he felt the reverence for a silence beyond words and for words beyond silence, the rituals and disciplines tying practitioners to a tradition, and, after a time of inner strife in gnawing seclusion, he achieved, if only transiently, a state of peace in the eternal present.

In August 2017, my wife Alexandra and I spent a week in Abiqui, New Mexico, staying not far from where Georgia O'Keefe used to paint. One day, which is also 36 years after the publication of After Virtue and six years after my seriously considering visiting the Community of Jesus, I went with my wife to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1964. Having pulled off the highway, we drove along an unwieldy dirt road, Forest Service Road 151, that is only sometimes passable. Travel at 15-20 mph, rambling on, dipping down, and then curling around and up as the river flows down below and down to the left and, after 30 minutes or so, there thankfully arises beneath the cliff in the distance the monastery.

I can’t convey to you here how quiet it was there. How quiet and how holy. During a short mass, my wife and I, who are both Zen Buddhists, heard that an older brother had died and was thus being mourned, also celebrated. I kneel down and look up through the stained glass at the bald face of the mountain. After the summer heat outside, I feel the coolness of the ground, the stillness, the deepest presence.

Who, or what, is this very different Benedict for our time?

Busy busy busy…

Whoever this figure is, it is not the busy man. Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, begins one paragraph thus: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy–to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Jonathan Franzen picks up on Kierkegaard’s critique of busyness, suggesting that the busy man fails to take stock of himself:

Credit: Khe Hy

This is no doubt true, but in the original text Kierkegaard goes much further. To begin with, it’s worth noting how he describes the phenomenology of the busy person: ever “brisk,” ever full of “haste,” ever “running” about, always “rushed.” Next, it could be said that he offers a three-fold critique. Firstly, the busy person is often ineffectual as the housewife who, having lost her self-control, forgets where she’s misplaced the “fire tongs” as her house is on fire. Could Kierkegaard be onto something? Could a busy person actually be less effective at completing tasks than the less harried, more focused person?

Secondly, he speaks of “the noise in which the truth continually slips more and more into oblivion, and the mass of connections, stimuli, and hindrances, these make it ever more impossible for one to win any deeper knowledge of himself.” I take this to be a separate point, though related to the failure of the busy person to examine himself. It is that the one who has cultivated a scattered, messy mind shall be unable to get a clear view of reality (a Buddhist twist on the Kierkegaardian argument).

Thirdly (and here is where Franzen picks up the thread), the busy person is rather like someone who holds a mirror in his pocket and who–the meaning is a bit ambiguous–either doesn’t know that the mirror is in his possession or forgets that he once deposited it there. The latter meaning seems the more likely one. Because of this absentmindedness, he can never come around to examining himself. In my own experience, what’s dangerous about this is that the unexamined person may be causing others to suffering in ways unknown to him.

Kierkegaard may want us to go in reverse, to recognize, that is, that contemplation is a condition of possibility for right action, metaphysical clarity, and self-knowledge. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that this is indeed the Socratic adventure as it comes to us in the early Socratic dialogues.

This sketch of the busy person needs to be connected up with total work, which I do now.

Busyness and Total Work

Busyness, I want to argue, is the chief status of the total worker. I think this point can be brought out in the following way.

Let’s say that the total worker’s busyness manifests itself in three basic modes:

  1. Tasks to be completed (“taskification,” as I’ve called it)

  2. Problems to be solved (“problematization,” as I’ve called it)

  3. Productivity to be enhanced (“peak productivity” and “life hacking,” a topic I wrote about recently)

Given this, we can say that the total worker just is busy in the mode(s) of tasking, problem-solving, and/or productivity boosting.

To be clear, it’s not that the total worker, whose busyness is expressed in one or more of these three modes, simply has a task or two to perform or regards part of her day in terms of tasks, problems, or productivity gains. No, as one conversation partner put it recently, he has an “endless list of things to do.” There is an “infinite email list.” Busyness, a state of being, is revealed in the intensity of each mode and in the quantity of all and is felt most acutely in the lived sense of time scarcity.

One grave danger of total work is that the total worker, so perennially occupied, turns away from the other, who remains unseen. One logical outcome of total work is burnout.

Now, let’s add one future concept: a stance. How does the total worker “stand in relation to” or “take up” these tasks, problems, or productivity obsessions? He or she either

  • copes with them or

  • seeks to optimize them.

With regard to coping, the busy total worker can be heard exclaiming about “being [so] overwhelmed,” “being stressed [or stressed out,],” or, more soberly, “having too much on my plate right now.” Hence, the stance this total worker takes is that of coping, of bearing up as best he or she can in the face of the excessive, of weathering the storm, of bracing for what’s occurring and for what could occur.

With regard to optimizing, he or she considers how tasks could be simplified, streamlined, or automated; how problems could be delegated or more easily solved; where efficiencies can be found; how multitasking can be achieved. The absurd tableaux: a man biking to work while listening to a podcast at five times the speed. (According to the writer who tried this out, “The speed ranged from 1.1x to 1.8x but mostly stayed at 1.3x. As I continued listening, I was able to increase the listening speed to an average of 1.8x.” Hurray for swifter consumption!)

Here, I can’t help but relate a story:

A scholar was visiting an old monk. The monk filled the scholar’s teacup full, but kept on pouring. The scholar finally exclaimed, “It is full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” said the monk, “you are overfull with your own opinions. I cannot show you the way of Zen.”

Coping, the total worker is “more passive” in the face of the world. Optimizing, he or she is “more active” and as such seeks to make the world amenable to his or her will.

To see the full picture of the total worker, imagine a day that, just after one has arisen from sleep, is entirely filled up with tasks to be completed (and with thoughts about tasks to be completed), with problems to be solved (and with thoughts about problems to be solved or “fires put out”), and with productivity to be improved (and with thoughts about how efficiencies can be gained, time saved, and processes streamlined). Feel the quantity of it, the intensity of it, the burdensome nature of it all. Now imagine the stance either as that of coping with all these things, as that of seeking to optimize all three, or as jostling back and forth between coping and optimizing.

The total worker reveres hard work and fears idleness, but is idleness really going to save us?


Busyness and idleness are two sides of the same coin. The busy woman, looking beyond her perch, can only espy the idle man, who only eyes the busy woman holed up in her office. Therefore, just as we shouldn’t valorize busyness, so we shouldn’t tout idleness.

To see why, let’s first turn to the ways in which “idleness” is used in Bertrand Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness” (1932). Next, let’s go back to Montaigne (1533-92) who wrote a couple of short essays on idleness.

Despite my sympathy for much of what Russell has to say in this popular essay, I find his conceptual miscues telling. The essay begins: “Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying ‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.’” It is not what idleness is but what it can enable–namely, wickedness–that Russell alerts us to here. Fair enough. I did so in my own way when I wrote about ennui in Issue #3. He then goes on to tell us a story:

Every one knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines.

Two points. Firstly, this case won’t suit his purposes well because, in the arguments he’s about to make, he holds that some amount of laboring to meet one’s material needs is necessary. The beggars too lazy to beg won’t do (NB: a history of begging, though, is in order, especially as it relates to the medieval period when beggars weren’t regarded as they are today). Secondly, this “Mediterranean sunshine idleness” just insofar as it’s not available, he says, to Northern Europeans construes this experience as one of simply lying about, pleasantly basking in the sun. Still, he will soon advance “my own arguments for laziness.” Huh? Arguments for laziness?

Again, I don’t believe that the arguments he ends up making actually favor idleness construed as do-nothing-ism, but I do think that it’s significant that he elides what is non-work into the idleness-as-lazy-sunbathing category. Despite himself, Russell reveals an anxiety, I think, about letting himself go more fully into whatever non-work is or could be. When juxtaposed with the lithe Laozi, he strikes me as altogether too uptight.

Montaigne’s essays, “Of Idleness” and “Against Idleness,” are likewise anxious about what could be on the other side of busyness. In the former, he’s concerned, now that he has retired from public life, about his mind wandering about and being unfocused. So, he sets about writing his essays. OK. In the latter, “Against Idleness,” it seems, he means to reject the flabbiness of those who would feign go to war and enflesh bravery as they ought. He concludes,

The most extreme degree of courageously treating death, and the most natural, is to look upon it not only without astonishment but without care, continuing the wonted course of life

Really, the second essay is most centrally about how to face death: manliness, Montaigne suggests, is the antidote to lassitude. How interesting, though, that idleness is akin to death. To be inactive is to fall into or to be near death. Montaigne would not have been keen on “floating,” as Alexandra and I did this week.

If we reject busyness, we ought also to throw out idleness. Supposing we do, could whatever is neither busyness nor idleness be something akin to love?

Woodstock, May 2012

“Silent of speech is nature’s course.”

-Laozi, Daodejing 23

For a week at the beginning of May 2012, Alexandra and I lived in a cabin on the outskirts of Woodstock. There we dwelled in seamless being, a time scarcely open for recollection because only one seamless fabric, the whole all seeming a single day that was filled with textures and rhythms and shades. The whole was enfolded in quiet calm, a mood of flowing sober joy.

It was then that we laughed at the sparrows and the dandelions; then that we hiked and rested on overlooks; then that we ate food made with chafed fingers and sewn into our souls; that we drank wine and were charmed with our giddiness and our ruddy cheeks; that we sat in silence, dangling our feet over opal rocks and bony froth; that we held each other closely and cried in joy and in longing; that we listened to loving words, ours so soft and caring, as steady as rubbing palms; that we slept when our bodies were aching for rest and could do no more for us; it was then again–a pail filling and refilling–that we awoke to morning mists and falling rains and birdsong calling down from the hillside.

There was, we knew, nothing extraordinary in this, nothing save the constant humming, the thrumming of life amid life, the sense of being our best and our most spontaneous, of living according to our heart songs and day chants, our night hymns and dawn stillness. We were falling in love, this is true, but we were in love most especially with this way of living, with this way of being in touch with nature. For our natures were following nature’s silent course and then love was all we knew.

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Comments, Suggestions, Articles On Total Work?

Feel free to send comments, suggestions, canards, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <>.