Laboring in Vain

Issue 239

In two new books, the history and the nature of work are put under the microscope.

Lauren Kaori Gurley Sep 5, 2018

In early August, Kaniela Ing, a candidate for Congress in Hawaii, released a campaign ad that broke down the basic tenets of democratic socialism in just over two minutes. Ing, 29, who grew up working in pineapple fields of Maui and the aisles of Walmart before being elected to the state House at the age of 22, laid out a vision where ordinary people don’t have to “live just to work.” “Everyone’s working two jobs or three jobs and that’s a choice in politics,” he said, playing a ukulele on a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean — an activity he and his working-class friends rarely have time for these days. “Native Hawaiians were some of the most productive people on the planet. We were able to get everything we need within just four or five hours in the day, and then have the rest of the time to surf, to do art… that’s how it should be.”

Ing lost the Democratic primary Aug. 11, but his video went viral (The Cut called it the “chillest campaign ad you’ve ever seen”). Its message resonated with viewers, despite the fact that conservatives and progressives alike espouse the idea that a working society is necessary and desirable.

How did this “gospel of work” become so ingrained in modern life? That’s the question at the heart of two recent books, Work: The Last 1,000 Years by Andrea Komlosy and Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. American adults spend the majority of their waking hours working, and our jobs have come to be seen as inextricably linked to our identities and our self-actualization. But as technology has advanced far enough to automate hundreds of millions of jobs, the questions Komlosy and Graeber pose about work are important and timely. The current conditions under capitalism force most us to work while the owning class hoards the profits of our labor, but in a more equitable society where everyone had access to health care, housing and food, would a fully employed society be necessary, or even desirable?

In Work, Komlosy, an economic and social history professor at the University of Vienna in Austria, provides a sweeping overview of how ideas and definitions about work have evolved over the last 1,000 years, calling out the very limited conception of work offered by traditional labor studies and Marxist perspectives. She lingers on the shortcomings of the grand narrative of labor history that focuses on the production of goods, but excludes the informal economies of “shadow work,” (prostitution, peddling illicit drugs, playing the guitar on the subway platform) and social reproduction (raising children, washing laundry, cooking dinner). “Unpaid labor,” she writes, “whether domestic and subsistence work or social and political activity — played no role in the work discourse of industrializing European countries.”

Komlosy’s book is ambitious in its brevity: she condenses a millennium of global history into just 225 pages, justifying her far-reaching geographic and historical scope as necessary for avoiding the Eurocentric and patriarchal biases in traditional conceptions of work. The book travels from the Silk Road to the Balkans to the Third Reich, with a particular focus on Central Europe, her area of expertise. While the ancient Greeks looked down upon work as a distraction from higher pursuits, she writes, our attitudes about it are largely defined by the strong work ethic developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Middle Ages, which would later evolve into the Protestant work ethic.

In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber, the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and an anthropologist by training, takes his critique of work closer to home — honing in on the proliferation of a massive sector of “bullshit jobs” since the 1980s. Telemarketers. Middle managers. University administrators who have so little to do that they end up making cat memes and listening to podcasts to kill time. Marketing consultants tasked with creating services like “airbrushing” that only exist to make the public feel ugly and inadequate.

Graeber defines “bullshit jobs” as those deemed to be “so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good enough reason for him to be doing it.” A self-identified anarchist, he argues that the so-called efficiency of capitalism is a falsehood, that the proliferation of bullshit jobs “appears to have everything to do with the growing importance of corporate finance” and the rise of the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sectors in the latter half of the 20th century.

Graeber estimates, based on a YouGov survey, that one in every two jobs today is a bullshit job or in service of a bullshit industry. “One might imagine,” he writes, “that those being paid to do nothing would consider themselves fortunate, especially when they are more or less left to themselves.” But the results have been devastating, leading to high rates of depression and anxiety, according to hundreds of testimonies that he received, nearly exclusively from white-collar workers. He attributes this to the fact that humans are driven by their ability to influence others. Tasked with filling out paperwork ad nauseum, writing progress reports that no one will ever read and passing the time in office cubicles “pretending to work” — we lose a sense of purpose, an experience Graeber describes as “spiritual violence.”

“We could easily all be putting in a 20- or even 15-hour workweek,” he writes. “Yet we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes or sit in cafés arguing about politics and gossiping about their friends’ complex polyamorous love affairs.”

Graeber believes many workers — elementary school teachers, sci-fi novelists, bus drivers, hair stylists, rappers, farmworkers — add social value to the world. But perversely, the jobs that contribute the most social value often receive the least compensation, or no compensation at all. “The more one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it,” he says. By challenging the value of work for work’s sake and eliminating these bullshit jobs, he argues, we could devote more resources to the jobs that add actual meaning and social value to people’s lives, while letting more people pursue their interests outside of the constraints of the 40-hour workweek.

Graeber’s vision looks a lot like the utopian world that Ing describes in his campaign video. Both challenge the reactionary view that humans are lazy couch potatoes who need financial incentives to create anything of value in the world. “There’s this conservative myth that says that if everyone had their basic needs cared for, that they would just sit around all day,” Ing says, “but that’s just not the reality.”

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Photo credit: TRVELER/Unsplash.

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