Total Work Newsletter #8: Having Your Mind Blown

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 occlude 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.

Amazement: Josef Pieper once wrote, “God cannot be amazed.” Only humans can since we can behold what we cannot yet fathom. Well, let the amazement resume! In this issue, newsletter readers have pointed me to a defense of work spouses, to going to “prison” to find a reprieve from total work, and to the shifting metaphorics of marriage as work! Really, you gotta read ‘em to believe 'em. On a more poignant note, I’m including a song, a short documentary on a man returning to the work society, and a short document on a priest living like a Desert Father. All quite moving in different ways.


The Greatest Poverty

Paul Virno:

No one is quite so poor as the person who sees his relations to others or his language abilities reduced to the status of paid work. (Cited in Andre Gorz, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-based Society, p. 38)

The Good Ole Times

#1: ‘Thumbin My Way into North Caroline’

5 min. | YouTube | Music

Darius Rucker - Wagon Wheel - YouTube

I’ve heard “Wagon Wheel” on Pandora many times over the past three-odd years, and I’ve been quite moved by it each time (go figure: the chorus was originally written by that master lyricist Bob Dylan in 1973, I discovered). Recently, I decided to look up the lyrics and saw that the persona depicted is what I might call a “Southern Bohemian Hobo”: he’s a busker living hand to mouth, hitchhiking around the South, and in love with someone who’s also living precariously. Heroically, I thought, he “ain’t turning back to living that old life no more.” Amen, man.

But then I was rather disappointed (but then also fascinated) when, while watching the video for the first time, I saw that it can only represent this Bohemian way of life as a historical mash-up consisting of faux-nostalgia: the roaring 20s (?), the 30s (?), the 60s (?) all seem to be “mashed up” into this piece, with the result that it seems that we can only imagine an alternative to the bourgeois life by positing a good ole time when race and cultural relations were good, when strangers could count on one another, and when pre-Wal Mart, pre-Amazon small towns sporting general stores thrived. Back when unreal things were as they should be…

#2: Maybe, Maybe Not | The Workplaces of the Future will be More Human, not Less | 3 min. | WIRED | Opinion

Wired Sum: “Machines won’t replace humankind–they’ll be learning from us.”


Three Kinds: The author imagines three kinds of jobs, all related to AI: (1) trainers, (2) explainers, and (3) sustainers. I guess we’ll see. Even if he’s right, who are these people doing the training, explaining, and sustaining?

#3: Now I've Seen it All: A Work Spouse! | Why Having a Work Spouse is Good for You 3 min. | Marketplace | Feature HT Brian @ Digital Detach

Reaction: No words. Wow, just wow. You have to read it to believe it.

#4: The Last-ditch Monastic Maneuver... | In a Land of Workaholics, Burned-out South Koreans Go to 'Prison' to Relax | 3 min. | CBC | Feature HT Pete Sims

CBC Sum: “Many South Koreans are seeking reprieve from the pressures of modern life in a mountain retreat that specializes in solitary confinement, writes Matt Kwong.”

Seriously: Seriously, you gotta read it to believe it. Where is freedom to be found? Where and how can we ask, “Who am I?”

#5: Marriage is a Job? | What We Mean when We Say Marriage is Work 5 min. | The Cut | Book Review HT Pamela Hobart

The Cut Sum: “In her new book, the psychologist and author explains what we really mean when we say marriage is ‘work.’” This piece, rather shockingly, shows how difficult it is for us to leave behind work metaphors. Instead, we replace one work metaphor with another.

Weirdly: Sometimes it’s been held that our understanding of the mind tracks the science metaphors then in vogue (once clocks, now computers, etc.). Similarly, one could say that our understanding of marriage tracks the work metaphors in vogue. Once it was work as drudgery and now it’s “vulnerable” and “caring” creative class work.

Observe: The writer of the piece observes, “What feels perhaps most radical is de Marneffe’s reclamation of the work involved in marriage as creative and worthy.” Radical? What are you nuts? That’s just creative class metaphorics. She concludes: What if those things we think are the tough part of the job — navigating holidays and finances and child-rearing, using “I” statements, buying flowers — aren’t the job? What if de Marneffe’s right, and the work of marriage isn’t the strategic deployment of date nights and chore lists, but rather a far greater challenge: continuing to care about the other person’s feelings?”

#6: Johnny’s Home: The Story of a Man Released from Prison after 13 Years Inside

2 min. | Vimeo | Short Documentary

Johnny's Home | ACLU commission on Vimeo

A man returns to the work society after 13 years in prison. Very poignant. Nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Precarity Repackaged as Privilege

Andre Gorz writing in 1999:

“Fear and tremble.” The ideological message [after we we made the move from a top-down Fordist model to a post-Fordist, everything’s flat, knowledge worker model–AT] has changed. Where once it was, “Never mind what work you do, so long as you get paid at the end of the week,” it is now, “Never mind what you’re paid, so long as you have a job.” In other words, be prepared to make any and every concession, to suffer humiliation or subjugation, to face competition and betrayal to get or keep a job, since “those who lose their jobs lose everything….” Work is a commodity, employment a privilege. And a rarer and rarer privilege, for “there is going to be a shortage of work” and, whatever your skills, there’s a danger you’ll have to “go without” it before long. (Reclaiming Work, pp. 56-7)

Just listen to that stirring, heart-aching truth: “those who lose their jobs lose everything.” Over the years, I’ve heard stories from people that corroborate Gorz’s view.

Getting Your Mind Blown

This past week I read Andre Gorz’s Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society. In my opinion, it’s up there in profundity and brevity with Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In fact, it’s mind-blowing.

While reading, I was struck by many passages but most especially by this one:

The imperative need for a sufficient, regular income is one thing. The need to act, to strive, to test oneself against others and be appreciated by them is quite another. Capitalism systematically links the two, conflates them, and upon that conflation establishes capital’s power and its ideological hold on people’s minds. It admits no activity which is not ‘work’, done to order and paid for by those ordering it. It admits no regular income that is not earned from 'work’. The imperative need for a regular income is used to persuade people of their 'imperative need to work.’ The need to act, to strive, to be appreciated is used to persuade people that they need to be paid for whatever they do. (p. 72)

This short essay, I decided, will be an explication de texte. I’ll be going almost line by line through this text with a view to revealing what it shows about us. I believe it’s extraordinarily relevant, especially for millennials inasmuch as the maxims tend to be “Do what you love!” or “Follow your passions!” have become common sense. Could Gorz be advancing a subtle, if profound, critique of that view? Could he be piercing the veil of the work society?

Follow Your Passions

When we interpret “Do what you love” or “Follow your passions,” we come to see quickly that it means something like this:

  • Try to get paid (if possible, to get paid well) for doing what it is you love doing.

Or, more adequately put:

For quite a while, I thought that this was true, but I don’t any longer. Now I find it quite concerning: delusional, questionable, and, for very many, unattainable. Well, what’s Gorz implying that could be mistaken about this view?

His Two Chief Statements: Needs and Competitiveness

To see what he’s up to, we need to clarify the argument. Call the first statement 1:

  • 1: We all have “an imperative need” for a “sufficient, regular income.”

Put more simply (and leaving out the word income as I think that is a confusing term to use in this context):

  • 1’: Each of us needs to have a way to survive that regularly and sufficiently meets our material needs. (The regularity condition refuses to countenance the precarity of gig work and of freelancing. The sufficiency condition has been nicely defended by Harry Frankfurt who has advanced a “doctrine of sufficiency.”)

Let’s take a look at the second statement:

  • 2: We all need to “act, to strive, to test” ourselves against each other and to be “appreciated by them.”

This statement looks a lot like a Nietzschean one about the importance of the agon. Each of us wants to struggle, to be tested, or–to put it in the contemporary social entrepreneurial language–to be “stretched” and “challenged” and to “tackle issues and solve problems.”

In sum, Gorz believes that each of us needs to find a ready and reliable way to survive (1’), and each of us wishes to engage in forms of challenge, in contests that win from others recognition of our strengths (2). We wish to show ourselves, to show something of ourselves, to vibrate with the vitality of life.

So far, so good.

So, Where’s the Rub? Part 1: Gettin’ People to Bite Down on Gainful Employment

Gorz is bothered by the conflations and the invalid inferences made by capitalism. So:

Capitalism systematically links the two [1’ and 2], conflates them, and upon that conflation establishes capital’s power and its ideological hold on people’s minds.

Notice the last, very Marxist part: that power shows up most acutely in the “ideological hold” these ideas have “on people’s minds.” You might say that we come to take certain things as common sense, as highly desirable, or as “the way things are.”

But what have we come to taken as “the way things are”? Gorz again:

It [namely, capitalism] admits no activity which is not 'work’, done to order and paid for by those ordering it.

Call this the Basic Total Work Thesis. Any activity whatsoever, in order for it to count at all, is subsumed under the category of work. Recall my opening thesis from Issue #7: “In the work society, if you want to convince somebody that something is good or valuable or important and so is worth taking seriously, then call it work.” Gorz is actually making a slightly stronger claim: in order for something even to “show up” or “be counted at all” in the social domain, it needs to be categorized as work. This is how being a mother, in order “to count,” must now be regarded as a “fulfilling full-time job,” one she chose over a “high-powered, well-paid career.”

I’m going to skip one line and come now to the first punchline:

The imperative need for a regular income is used to persuade people of their 'imperative need to work.’

Remember that Gorz was happy with 1’. What he’s not happy with is the invalid inference in evidence here. Just because we all have “the imperative need” to survive in such a way that regularly and sufficiently meets our material needs doesn’t entail the conclusion that such needs must be met by means of having a job. (And when he puts the word work in single quotes ('work’) in Reclaiming Work, he is referring to wage labor and specifically to 'a job.’)

Read it again. We really need to soak up this thought because it should start to feel dizzying. Finding a way for me, for us to survive doesn’t necessarily imply having to have jobs. In other words, we needn’t live in, or abide by, the dictates of the work society. Some other kind of society could have existed or could still exist, one that would enable us to meet our material needs without our having to bite down on gainful employment. [1]

So, Where’s the Rub? Part 2: Gettin’ People to Bite Down on Gettin’ Paid

We’ve already seen Gorz trying to drive a wedge between one conflation, one faulty inference. Just because we individually and collectively need to survive doesn’t mean we had to create, nor that we have to continue to abide by, a “wage-based society.” I really can’t underscore his point enough.

It’s time to move onto his second objection:

The need to act, to strive, to be appreciated is used to persuade people that they need to be paid for whatever they do.

He clearly has in mind Greek arete. Virtue, excellence, fineness, or “outstandingness” (to go with Alexander Nehamas’s translation) is very human. To be outstanding or excellent is to rise and dilate to life, to be all full up with it. (Consider Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”) I want to wrestle with this passage (as I’m doing now); my wife wants to get her hands dirty with painting; you want to have your entire being creatively called forth by the thing itself; we want to grapple kindly and intelligently with one another. This might even be called Good Competition (from the Latin competere: “to strive or contend for something.”) Hey, there ain’t nothing wrong with effort, with pressing yourself to your limit. [2]

Gorz is trying his best, in this highly compressed passage, to bring out how damnably bizarre it is, not to say also how damaging to the human spirit, to take this competitive urge and to “use it” to “persuade people that they need to be paid for whatever they do” (my italics). More: that getting paid is the major sign that one is talented (enough) in some chosen endeavor. What’s mistaken is the proposal that you can’t call yourself an artist (or whatever) unless you can make a living at it, i.e., get paid by others to do it. Isn’t that damnably bizarre?

Must my excellence at something seduce me into believing that I must be paid for it? Must others so seduce me into believing that if I’m going at something, I ought to get paid for it? Must I be seduced into believing that I’m not excellent at something unless others will pay me to do it? How very strange is the thought that I would compete FOR getting paid or that I would take pride in getting paid for being good at something I’m passionate about? Payment, if it occurs, should really be regarded as an epiphenomenon. [3]

Putting It All Together

Gorz nailed it. Here’s how we can string his argument back together:

  • 1’: Each of us needs to have a way to survive that regularly and sufficiently meets our material needs.

  • 2: SO, each of us needs to get a job. (First invalid inference)

  • 3: Each of us wants to be outstanding at something and to be recognized for this outstandingness.

  • 4: SO, each of us needs to get paid for what it is we’re outstanding at. (Second invalid inference)

As an alternative to 2, Gorz will argue for universal, unconditional basic income. As an alternative to 4, he’ll argue for “cooperative circles,” which are also called Local Exchange Trading Systems. Whether these proposals win you over is, for now, a moot point.

For what he has elegantly done is to lift the veil on a couple of the most fundamental assumptions and inferences governing how we live our lives. Once what he’s saying, as if were a spiritual or intuitive message, pierces us to the core, shaking us out of our stupor, we just can’t go back to what we had believed or to how we had lived, and, what’s more, we should feel within ourselves both awe and gratitude. Even if we have a “cool, creative job,” it should lose the “aura” it once had. And even if we get paid for something, it should lack the significance it once had, the “fever” we once felt. Things that we once took to be “big deals” will seem pallid now. We long for more.

Endnotes

[1] I’ll try to show, probably in a future Work at Quartz piece, how the “right to life” came to entail the “right to work” after World War II.

[2] This is but another place where I think we misunderstand genuine leisure. Leisure, I believe, is the condition that makes possible our apprehension of ultimate reality. But apprehending ultimate reality is wu wei (“trying not trying,” “spontaneous acting,” etc.). Whatever this form of smooth, energetic attention is, it’s decidedly not just sittin’ 'round like a bump on a log.

[3] Here’s what I’m not saying: that tomorrow we should all go out and become unpaid interns. In many cases, unpaid internships, provided that one must work full-time as an intern while also trying to survive, say, in New York City, are exploitative. Rather, what I’m trying to bring out is the contingency of getting paid, and, in so doing, I’m trying to drive a thick wedge between arete and pay.

A Moving Extra

Ethiopian Cliff Church Gives Priest Daily Test of Faith | 3 min. | BBC | Documentary

BBC Sum: “In the remote mountains of northern Ethiopia, a lone priest scales a 250m cliff each day to reach his church and study ancient books containing religious secrets.” A very moving depiction of this priest’s life. Cf. Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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