Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

5 thoughts on “Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

  1. I suspect we can learn much about the nature of paid labor in the individual case (with perhaps implications for wider generalizations) from examining how one chooses to spend one’s discretionary time. I’ve lived in “subcultures” in which “working hard” and “partying hard” (of course there are other and perhaps less debilitating means to relieve the pain, suffering, boredom, insecurity, fears, etc.) were thought to be complementary and mutually reinforcing activities (and this can transcend class distinctions). Alas, that is a biographical part of my “lived experience.” Were it that we were socialized by worldviews that motivated us to dedicate at least some of our discretionary time to figuring out how we can transform the structural (i.e., prevailing socio-economic system: capitalism) nature of work and employment into an activity identical or at least conducive to self-cultivation or self-realization (in the Marxist sense or …). Some people have the good fortune or luxury or privilege to have working lives that are essentially creative or fulfilling in a manner that suggests work has become virtually indistinguishable from “leisure time” (in which case one may require less of what we term ‘discretionary time’). No doubt these examples can in part inspire us to contemplate what might be possible–generalizable—for all of us: at least they suggest we need not be “fated” to the dominant state of affairs. Insofar as there may always be what we call “necessary labor” that is arduous, perchance “boring” (I happen to find freely chosen ‘hard’ physical labor like digging ditches, grounds keeping, and the like quite satisfying, but I grant that others may not share this perspective), repetitive or routine, work, in other words, forms of necessary labor that we are disposed to avoid or frown upon (i.e., would rather others perform it), it should follow from an egalitarian and distributive justice ethic or principle that such work is shared (ceteris paribus, hence there would be exceptions for those ill, too old, physically or mentally unable, etc.). As it is, those with sufficient capital can always find vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals to do the “dirty” work for the rest of us (even those in the working class acquiesce in this state of affairs insofar as they do nothing whatsoever to change or ameliorate such conditions, although their liability is nowhere near that of those who directly benefit from such exploitation).

  2. I am fortunate in ‘working’ in scientific research, a luxury financed by the government. As Bertrand Russel said, the excitement of walking on an untrodden path, the disappointment as well as accomplishment are similar to the adventures of previous age. I hope this human venture continues…

    1. Yes, I think this sort of work — like teaching and research — is genuinely reinvigorating. New possibilities everyday, new encounters with one’s own ignorance.

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