Faust founds his kingdom because he must do something; and his only ideal of what he hopes to secure for his subjects is that they shall always have something to do.
Work, work, work, work, work, sings Rihanna through the grocery store sound system. Why do we have to do it? What else do we have to do? The questions are staging a comeback. Old dreams of new deals and new dreams of old jobs wake and walk. David Graeber’s latest book, Bullshit Jobs, is one of many contributions to this rethinking. Slapdash and anecdotal, it reads like a parody of a pop-business manual, an anarchist take on Charles Duhigg or Malcolm Gladwell. The premise, which gained wide coverage following a 2013 article of the same title, is that many-to-most people in the wealthy world are employed in jobs not only unpleasant but purposeless: their days are filled with what amounts to busywork, however cleverly disguised, or they are filled with sitting around doing nothing.
Graeber’s scheme divides the working world in four. There are those who do actually necessary labor, like harvesting, manufacturing, cleaning and caring for children, the sick or the elderly. These jobs have clear value, tend to be low-status and poorly paid and are often performed by the most vulnerable. The upper echelon of meaningful and rewarding work—art, medicine, science, NGO administration, etc.—is reserved almost exclusively to those born into wealth, not least because such careers often require expensive degrees or long unpaid apprenticeships. Alongside them stand the better-remunerated but less obviously virtuous elite of bankers and corporate executives and such—roles with clear duties and goals, even if those goals are often at odds with public interests. Everyone else is stuck doing some sort of bullshit: work that’s not only of questionable utility in broad terms, but clearly pointless or redundant within its own organizational context. Personal reports from workers in this last group, which Graeber subdivides into the categories of flunky, goon, box ticker, duct taper and taskmaster, form the core of the book.
A tensile network of bitterness and sadomasochism holds the system stable. The useful resent that the money all goes to their useless overlords; those overlords resent the intrinsic rewards work brings their underlings; those in between resent everybody; and the well-paid and purposeful feel keenly, at some level, the vampiric nature of their satisfactions. Graeber calls this arrangement “managerial feudalism,” and is at pains to show that its paeans to efficiency are but a thin cover for a much weirder and more atavistic set of relationships. “The whole point,” he writes,
is to grab a pot of loot, either by stealing it from one’s enemies or extracting it from commoners by means of fees, tolls, rents, and levies, and then redistributing it. In the process, one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies (goons), or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.
None of this, of course, will come as news to anyone who has ever glanced at a Dilbert comic, or watched The Office, or Office Space, or Sorry to Bother You. Or had a job. In the words of the poet: Work sucks, I know.
Yet as much as we might hate our own jobs, work’s role as society’s organizing principle goes mostly unquestioned. Comedy is the reflective genre of choice here maybe because our feelings are so doubled; humor comes out of the friction between the absurdity of modern jobbing and that persistent sense of work as a moral good which, by the old Weberian account, is somewhere near the core of our worldview. In Andrea Komlosy’s gloss on the standard history in Work: The Last 1,000 Years, this tension gets traced back to the Dark Ages rise of “the Judaeo-Christian idea of work, a Janus-faced juxtaposition of burden and fulfilment.” Whereas Classical judgment supposedly split cleanly in two—labor bad, for slaves; art and politics good, for free men—the fall of Rome and the desultory inversion of values that was Christianity muddled things up. Graeber calls this muddle’s current form “the paradox of modern work.” According to a range of studies, he writes, two facts are reliably true about the way we feel about our labors: “1. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living,” and “2. Most people hate their jobs.”
Further confusing matters is the fact that by now we have in a certain sense done the work. Few of us have jobs related to the provision of life’s necessities, however abstractly considered. Yet most of us still have jobs. As Simone Weil wrote, taking the idea of work so seriously for so long “has brought about the emancipation of collective humanity with respect to nature. But this collective humanity has itself taken on with respect to the individual the oppressive function formerly exercised by nature.” Those vaunted robots haven’t set us free so much as joined in on our drudgery.
And maybe this is for the best? As Keynes notes in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the often-cited essay from 1930 in which he predicted that over the coming century the work week would shrink to fifteen hours (“three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”), “It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.” Sure, sitting in a cubicle playing Candy Crush all day is soul-killing—but what else am I gonna do, play Candy Crush all day at home alone? Stumbling toward the automatic future, haunted by what Richard Sennett has called “the specter of uselessness”—a future in which most of us don’t really need to do anything, in fact in which our only hope of sustaining planetary life entails most of us doing much less—we don’t seem to be clear on what we want, or want out of. Is work what will save us, or what we need to be saved from?
There have been few better evangelists for the hope of salvation through work than William Morris, whose discordant interests and accomplishments—in interior decorating, fantasy literature, ecological and historical conservation and revolutionary socialism, among others—render him a sort of pangolin to contemporary understanding: he breaks the categories. Morris took such joy in making nice things that he could not fail to notice how work for the majority was the very font of suffering. Deeply marked by the medievalist reformism of John Ruskin, he dreamed of a future in which the brutality and ugliness of industrial England would be superseded by a new sort of pastoral harmony. A version of this vision is offered in his 1890 novel News from Nowhere, in which a schleppy socialist is beamed forward to post-revolutionary Greater London. Wandering among its preternaturally healthful (and, in the case of women, weirdly sexualized) inhabitants, the protagonist marks the distance between the simple sanity he observes and the unreason of his own day. In the future, the land is again lush and green, the people sober and joyful, and Parliament is being used as a storehouse for manure. When one wants exercise, one goes to work on a road for a few hours; the harvest is a sweaty community festival; and everyone spends some time making beautiful things to share with each other, because to do so makes them feel good. “People would find,” Morris wrote in “How We Live and How We Might Live,”
as they advanced in their capacity for carrying on social order, that life so lived was much less expensive than we now can have any idea of, and that, after a little, people would rather be anxious to seek work than to avoid it; that our working hours would rather be merry parties of men and maids, young men and old enjoying themselves over their work, than the grumpy weariness it mostly is now.
Morris’s protagonist has found the utopia of work: it’s the civic work corps or the jobs guarantee extended out to infinity, well past the withering away of the state. Feudal England without the feudalism. There has in recent years been a rash of works in this vein, from Sennett’s The Craftsman to Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft to Andrew Langlands’s Craeft. The tone tends nostalgic, a longing for things (or Dinge) in the face of a human experience that for the wealthy grows daily more abstract. Maybe meaning, and even social well-being, is to be found in returning to a richer engagement with the material world. As Sennett writes, “The craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others.” Or, as he puts it more directly toward the end of the book, “Good craftsmanship implies socialism.” Good work → good world.
The liberation from work utopia mines a different past, looking back to classical glories and their attendant values. Of course these glories, produced for and by a tiny elite, were erected on a foundation of slavery. “Culturally,” Perry Anderson writes in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, “slavery rendered possible the elusive harmony of man and the natural universe that marked the art and philosophy of much of classical Antiquity: unquestioned exemption from labour was one of the preconditions of its serene absence of tension with nature.” But in the no-work futureworld, everyone gets to be a citizen, spending their days lounging in the baths or playing VR games or writing poetry or conducting pharmaceutical research, because robots have taken the place of slaves.
The tone of this tradition lists anarchic and heretical; touchstones include Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy, Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” and Ivan Illich’s The Right to Useful Unemployment. Today the dream is gaining imaginative ground under brands like accelerationism, fully automated luxury communism and post-work. Vibes are futury, shiny: the more references to Star Trek, the better. Universal basic income, which Graeber spends the final pages of his book endorsing, is often put forward as the transitional policy. “If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all,” he writes, “how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have?” Good world → good work.
Their premises and moods are distinct, but at the horizon the two dreams get tough to distinguish. Presumably at both limits, people spend their days in ways they find satisfying—call it work or leisure. The realms of necessity and freedom have been blended into one beverage, salutary and delicious. Everyone’s got something worth doing.
But what is it that makes something worth doing? In a lecture delivered in 1900, meekly titled “What Makes a Life Significant?,” William James tries to find the line between ennobling, purposeful activity and its enervating opposite. He has just spent a week at Chautauqua—a kind of fin-de-siècle TED-talk vacation colony—and is left sickened by the buffet of intellectual delicacies on offer. His internal pendulum swings hard to the opposite extreme: under the sign of Tolstoy in his peasant phase, he tries on a sort of worker-worship, a hallowing of all that’s rough and rugged. But soon this too fails him, as he is unable to ignore the fact that most of the workers around him seem more or less miserable, degraded, directionless. “If it is idiotic in romanticism to recognize the heroic only when it sees it labelled and dressed-up in books,” he writes, “it is really just as idiotic to see it only in the dirty boots and sweaty shirt of some one in the fields.”
Characteristically, James tries to split the difference. Meaning, he proposes, must be a product of two factors: effort and ideal. Heavy toil without some explanatory framework is misery, but so is a life of ease and intellectual thrill without struggle. It’s their combination that produces stable purpose: a struggle against some worldly resistance, for some socially shared goal. Both the content of the activity and the way it’s understood in the culture, the what and the why, matter. “Ideal aspirations are not enough,” he writes, “when uncombined with pluck and will. But neither are pluck and will, dogged endurance and insensibility to danger enough, when taken all alone. There must be some sort of fusion, some chemical combination among these principles, for a life objectively and thoroughly significant to result.”
Objectively and thoroughly significant! In Graeber’s story, the sort of work that meets James’s requirements is precisely what’s cut out of the present arrangement. It’s the hole at the center of the wheel. Hard but necessary labor (like cleaning) lacks the valorization and rewards that might make it bearable, while the sorts of large-scale undertakings which by their nature combine effort and ideal—projects aimed at reducing general suffering, like building affordable housing, adequately staffing schools or greening the power grid—are not being done, or only in small defensive formations. Between James and Graeber, we get an image not only of a busted material economy, but of an economy of meaning that’s weirdly warped as well: a wide base of important jobs denied social recognition, a thick middle of pointless or destructive feudal make-work, and a little penthouse on top full of tenured professors, superstar artists and NGO executives, the one-percenters of purpose, munching hors d’oeuvres and talking in hushed voices about the dire state of the world.
More and more of those hard and undervalued jobs involve taking care of people. Robots, we hear, will soon build the cars, drive the cars, load and unload the things from the cars; but it’s much harder to make robots that can maintain things, particularly humans; and there are more humans than ever, especially older ones, who need maintenance. Such work—what feminist writers like Silvia Federici have called “reproductive labor,” the tasks of cleaning and feeding and birthing and caring without which the “productive” workforce would cease to exist—has historically been assigned to women, either as paid domestic labor or unpaid family duty. (As Graeber is keen to point out, even at the height of the factory era in England, there were far more people employed in the domestic services than on the shop floor.) Today, it’s often noted, jobs like home-health aide are among the fastest growing in the country.
Yet at the same time, years of austerity have triggered what the political philosopher Nancy Fraser calls a “crisis of care.” As she puts it in a recent interview in Dissent, “When a society simultaneously withdraws public support for social reproduction and conscripts the chief providers of it into long and grueling hours of paid work, it depletes the very social capacities on which it depends.” Maybe no situation better expresses our present than that of the woman who must work overtime at an understaffed retirement home to pay for her own children’s daycare, or the woman who immigrates to America to work as a nanny so she can send enough dollars home to keep her own kids, or parents, afloat. In its darkest realization, this system might work something like a universal contract-labor kibbutz, replacing family bonds with an open market of attachment that shuffles people around the world at random.
The alternative to this dystopia has sometimes been imagined, by thinkers like Sennett and Jean Tronto, as a sort of transvaluation: in place of the relentless pursuit of more and newer, a societal shift toward care for what currently exists, and to caring about that care. Some have seen revolutionary potential in the growth of the care sector, noting the prevalence of care workers at Occupy Wall Street, the British student protests and among the gilets jaunes. Graeber finds hope in the possibility of this “revolt of the caring classes … a labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.” And presumably in caring for non-people, too. A kind of planetary nursing home. Palliative care for Mother Earth.
But, as Graeber notes as well, care work is in some essential sense conservative; included in “what currently exists” are broken social arrangements and institutions which must be maintained in the name of the stability on which care depends. It’s also exhausting. A limper narrative arc seems at least as likely: a long rearguard action against social and environmental entropy—trying to keep what we’ve got together as long as we can while growing increasingly tired in the process. We might even perversely hope that this fatigue amounts to a force in its own right, to the point where we can’t find the energy to keep ruining everything so fervently. One must imagine Sisyphus napping.
A few years ago my grandfather fell and broke his leg. The trauma from the accident and resulting surgery triggered a series of small strokes. His faculties were greatly reduced, and in the rehab facility he often grew agitated and upset, confused about where he was and why he was there. When he returned to the retirement home, the family hired a number of health aides to help care for him, all immigrant women from the Caribbean and West Africa. My mom and her siblings came as often as they could, but had to plan around work and other family obligations. I, at the time unemployed, joined the rotation, coming in a few days a week to help, under the tutelage of the aides, with the calming and cleaning and feeding and readying for bed.
My grandfather had been an oral surgeon by profession, and to me was the embodiment of old-timey physical acumen. He’d spent his retirement cooking and gardening; his house was full of things he’d fixed with wire and twine. (My only analogous skill was being reliably capable of connecting the DVD player to the right TV input, which he did find gratifyingly miraculous.) A first-generation American, his life in many ways had been a storybook version of Golden Age middle-classification: from semi-rural poverty to World War II service and then, via the GI Bill, college and dental school, four kids and two cars, a house in the suburbs. Now he was in a wheelchair and had lost a good deal of motor control. Sometimes we’d try cooking, but the old familiar motions were a challenge. He’d tire quickly and return to the couch, where I’d find the tennis channel to keep him occupied. Sitting next to him, I’d try to read, but usually just followed the endless volleys until dozing off. Every so often the sound of his voice would jerk me awake. “What are you doing for work these days?” he’d ask, supposing I was in for a visit. Seeing how sleepy I was, he must have guessed it was something hard.
Art credit: Elizabeth Fox