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Workaday Woes

The end of work and the problem of leisure

In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell describes advertising firms as “the fungi . . . that sprout from a decaying capitalism.” The same might well be said for American equity funds, 90 percent of which underperformed the market last year.

And yet, for most people then and now, gainful employment in utterly useless professions is considered a worthwhile aspiration, not least because it demonstrates a hearty work ethic, and thus strong moral fiber. As Orwell’s protagonist laments, his family

saw everything in terms of “good” jobs. Young Smith had got such a “good” job at the bank, and young Jones had got such a “good job” in an insurance office . . . They seemed to want to see every young man in England nailed down in the coffin of a “good” job.

In his 1974 minor classic, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, historian Daniel T. Rodgers describes the Western productivist creed that emerged out of the nineteenth century—an ideological confection of Protestant asceticism and artisan creativity. It was also a contradiction in terms: it glorified all forms of work, no matter how demeaning, and yet it encouraged everyone to “work their way up,” thus acknowledging the ignobility of most labor.

Western civilization before then—dating back at least to ancient Athens—prized leisure above all else, and saw the work necessary to sustain basic human needs as a slave’s job. In fact, according to philosopher C.D.C. Reeve, “The Greeks had no word for what we call work; they called it ascholia—un-leisure.” Thus, when the idea of “work as the core of moral life” first emerged from a strain of “sectarian dogma” in the pre-industrial American North, Rodgers writes, it was a “revolutionary notion” that has since lost its shock value through constant repetition.

In No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, Rutgers University historian Jim Livingston’s injunction to “fuck work” also tends to lose its shock value through repetition. In one hundred pages of spirited, sometimes febrile prose (one sentence reads, in full: “And yet, and yet.”), Livingston has made an earnest contribution to the eschatology of employment.

Livingston’s tone belies the far-reaching implications of his argument, which is that we’ve already reached productivity levels sufficient to provide the “aristocratic privilege of leisure” for everyone. The problem, he says, is in how society’s wealth and work are distributed: “There’s not enough work to employ most adults at a living wage because we’ve become so productive that the relationship between work and income is arbitrary in any case.” A quarter of all employed adults makes less than a living wage, half are eligible for food stamps, and “the fastest-growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from the government.”

The logical conclusion, Livingston says, is to tax corporate profits—which are never invested in anything but destructive financial bubbles anyway—and institute a guaranteed “minimum annual income for every citizen,” an idea which has regained popularity in recent years on both the left and right, with even Charles “Bell Curve” Murray endorsing it.

Livingston’s injunction that we all “fuck work” also tends to lose its shock value through repetition.

Livingston is right about artificial scarcity in developed countries, and about the injustice of bankers collecting bonuses after wrecking the economy, while teachers live hand-to-mouth. The occupational gap between social function and remuneration has been widening for decades, and Livingston argues that it’s past time to “decouple” income and work.

But even if most of the working public is superfluous, we haven’t yet reached the stage of a fully automated, artificial-intelligence-administered society where a guaranteed income for everyone becomes inevitable. Someone still has to provide food, water, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs. Moreover, as the French philosopher Dominique Méda has warned, basic-income schemes “contain the seeds of a process of polarization . . . leading in all likelihood . . . to a second-rate existence [for most people] compared with that led by the managers of the established productive system. A life with less security, fewer rights, and lower status.”

Cubicle Commitment

Proponents of a guaranteed income often marshal Milton Friedman’s proposal for a negative income tax to demonstrate the idea’s bipartisan provenance. In No More Work, Livingston details how, a decade after Friedman first ventured the idea, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (of all people) helped make a guaranteed-income program the centerpiece of the Nixon administration’s welfare-reform effort, the Family Assistance Plan.

At the time, Rumsfeld and Cheney oversaw the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had conducted a large study to determine whether “work effort” changes under supplemental guaranteed-income conditions. The study, as well as subsequent investigations, found that it did not, thus allaying fears that a public dole would explode the moral heart of American life.

Livingston points out a forgotten fact that was once widely understood, at least in policy circles: Man has already lost the “race with the machine.” Sooner or later, we are going to need to find something to replace the day job as the central feature of modern adult lives.

According to the University of Iowa historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, in Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, the labor movement prior to the Depression had long considered reduced work hours to be the obvious goal of material prosperity. With continued productivity growth, fewer man hours were needed to yield the same amount of goods and services, and workers stood to reap the rewards in the form of increased free time. What’s more, by working fewer hours they could shrink the overall man-hour supply, and demand higher wages, too.

However, labor eventually embraced FDR’s full-time, full-employment program of “salvation by work,” which began during the Depression and has remained a policy goal for every administration ever since. With the “ideology of work” imposed from on high, the virtue of leisure was not only forgotten but reconstituted as a vice. Reprising the nineteenth-century moralism that helped turn a society of task-oriented farmers into industrial wage slaves, business leaders and politicians insisted on the inherent nobility of work, and on the cravenness of idle hands.

Today, as professions ranging from taxi driving to equity-fund managing are being replaced by automation and algorithms, displaced workers are instructed to undergo skills training so that they can fill in the post-industrial jobs of the future that, against all evidence, will pay well.[*] This view persists, Livingston writes, because the doctrine of “full employment” forecloses any conversation about a guaranteed income.

That’s a nice way of saying that most jobs are miserable, and a generation of workers who grew up watching cable reruns of Office Space aren’t governed by an ethic powerful enough to render meaning from drudgery.

Which is to say, “the romance of work” is still such a cultural touchstone that we “love to work, and we prove it every day by showing up at shitty jobs, where we can demonstrate that we’re willing to make our own way in this cruel world. It’s not just external, economic necessity that drives us. Something else is at stake” (emphasis his).

Do most of us really “love to work”? Livingston doesn’t include any survey findings to support this claim. According to the General Social Survey, overall job satisfaction has remained consistently high since at least the 1970s; and according to a Pew Research Center survey of work-ethic attitudes across countries, 73 percent of Americans believe that hard work is important for success in life. However, over the past few years Gallup has reported that 70 percent of Americans are not “engaged” at work, with millennial workers and “employees in manufacturing or production jobs” the least engaged of all.

When most people have no choice but to work—not least for the health insurance most full-time jobs provide—it isn’t surprising that they would accept their cubicled life, be thankful they aren’t cleaning toilets, and report baseline satisfaction in the GSS. Pew confirms the widely held cultural assumption Livingston is out to deconstruct, but the Gallup report may be the most telling of all. Gallup attributes its findings of widespread disenchantment to poor management and a scarcity of jobs that allow workers to “use their talents and strengths.” That’s a nice way of saying that most jobs are miserable, and a generation of workers who grew up watching cable reruns of Office Space aren’t governed by an ethic powerful enough to render meaning from drudgery. While it’s just one data point, Gallup’s finding challenges the claim that Americans are still flocking to the office every day because they’re smitten with work.

All Work and No Play

Any discussion about the end of work needs to focus on basic moneymaking: mandatory labor-market participation or any function performed in exchange for the income necessary to sustain a dignified survival. The central objection to work, so defined, is that it expropriates our precious time and denies us the opportunity to pursue avenues of self-fulfillment outside of the market.

Ideally, under the conditions of a social contract that secures the “pursuit of happiness” for all, anyone who wants to enter into any activity or non-activity (barring activities that harm others), in accordance with their own personal vision of the good life, should be able to do so. Practically, such a system poses challenges, because it often introduces a free-rider problem. However, scholars such as Andrew Levine and Julia Maskivker have made credible cases that the free-rider problem, in a setting of true abundance, is not really a problem at all. (Plus, idlers on a dole aren’t riding any freer than rent-seekers reaping rewards for nothing but property ownership; and as Suzanne Mettler’s The Submerged State suggests, the latter are far worse offenders than the former.)

Livingston rightly would replace today’s workaday system with one that provides more opportunities for personal fulfillment than mere careerism. However, he doesn’t explain how a guaranteed income will achieve his goal of decoupling work and income. A guaranteed income is a safety net that plenty of people will use as a trampoline. One of Murray’s selling points for his own proposal is that, with a guaranteed income, “taking a job is pure profit.”

So, while a guaranteed income would restore some dignity to the most downtrodden in our current system, it doesn’t address monetary or Veblenian status-seeking among that 73 percent of Americans reflected in Pew’s survey. The price of college will continue to skyrocket, and new species of capitalist fungi will sprout up to separate people from their government-furnished money. Much of this will be propelled by what sociologist Juliet Schor calls commercial societies’ “positional treadmill,” powered by an endless cycle of envy as consumers seek parity with their friends, neighbors, and the Kardashians.

The best way to make credible demands for reduced work time—not in an abstract future but right now—is with full employment in the near term and minimum-wage movements like Fight for $15.

Schor’s 2011 book True Wealth proposes a few policies that could begin to slow the treadmill down, including higher taxes on consumption (which would only kick in progressively, after a certain level of spending), stricter regulation of advertising, more cultural shame for companies that exploit labor abroad—and for customers who shrug and buy their wares anyway—and limits on work hours to create more time for leisure.

Scholars studying work and leisure generally define leisure as any activity entered into voluntarily and for its own sake. The “problem” of leisure, once described by John Maynard Keynes, is the difficulty of meaningfully occupying one’s time in a state of absolute freedom.[**]

Our current productivist framework has been in force for so long that most people cannot conceive of any alternatives. Self-fulfilling activities outside the market usually take time and effort, whether it’s playing Clash of Clans, volunteering, or writing epic poetry. The “problem of leisure” is obviously preferable to the challenge of imbuing absurd work with meaning; however, most people won’t be convinced of this unless they can explore non-workaday activities for themselves. As Livingston points out himself, decoupling income from activity demands nothing less than a change in human nature; but for that to be possible, we must provide alternate ways of being.

For Love Or Money

The best way to afford people new lifestyles—without falling into the overlord-underling dichotomy that Méda warns of—is to return to the original labor project of shorter hours for all, or what Bertrand Russell called an “organized diminution of work,” and Josef Pieper called “deproletarianization.” And the best way to make credible demands for reduced work time—not in an abstract future but right now—is with full employment in the near term and minimum-wage movements like Fight for $15.

Livingston acknowledges the “moral significance” of Fight for $15, but dismisses it because at $15 per hour, people still won’t be making a living wage. However, $15 per hour is an initial demand; it need not be final. Livingston rejects progressive efforts to “restor[e] the dignity of work” because they play into the very system he would overthrow. These include full-employment advocacy, organized labor, worker co-ops, and independent craftsmanship modeled after ancient artisans and freeholders, whose work “went by the name of poiesis, as in ‘making’ or ‘composition’—as in poetry.”

Among these, Livingston subjects (“infantile”) craftsmanship to special obloquy; however, he overreaches in his terminology. Livingston uses poiêsis to comprise the work of ancient skilled laborers who produced material goods of some kind from start to finish—rather than in the alienated form Marx was concerned with—but another appropriate term would be techne, which described the art or science someone such as a doctor performed. According to Reeve, free craftsmen were called technitês, and “poiêsis covers things that we do as work, but other things that we do not [do as work]. Writing, playing music, etc. would be leisurely activities, not work; but for professionals who did them for pay, they were work.” That means poiêsis could be work, or it could be leisure, depending on whether one has a choice in the matter.[***]

Any post-work system will have to accommodate these conceptual distinctions. In his broad swipe at work, Livingston indicts categories of activity that could successfully lure people away from the work-to-consume dogma. He is right that there is no good liberal-egalitarian argument against idleness, but rather than deconstruct the work ethic, we’d be better off repurposing it. Otherwise, we risk creating a culture that forecloses on socially beneficial or personally rewarding activity. We shouldn’t want, say, a physician volunteering in a refugee camp to abandon his “work ethic,” limitedly defined.

Similarly, Livingston singles out Hannah Arendt for valorizing work (poiesis) and defending “an ancient work ethic against its modern alternatives” in The Human Condition. This is an odd interpretation of Arendt, who begins The Human Condition with a caveat that, “this book does not offer an answer” to the problem of “a society of laborers without labor.” Arendt’s gnomic text offers no definitive policy endorsement. It is merely an exploration of the distinctions between “labor,” “work,” and “action” (praxis)—the exercise of human agency in the context of human plurality.

Arendt is no apologist for work for its own sake, but rather for activity that is productive insofar as it creates the material and institutional conditions for politics and culture to exist and thrive. In fact, she agrees with Livingston’s own rational critique that neither labor nor work is the “measure of all things,” and she offers a prudent suggestion for how we should navigate a “new and yet unknown” post-work future: “What I propose . . . is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” As we’ve seen, what one does—whether it is work, leisure, or something in between—largely depends on why one does it.

If we do ever want to move beyond work, we need to spend more time outside the market entirely, as the early labor movement understood.

Arendt’s book, written in 1958, was also a boom-years excoriation of mass commercial society—what she called the “waste economy,” and what the Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen has deemed the Consumers’ Republic. Unbridled consumption goes hand-in-hand with the dogma of full-time full employment, and as Cohen writes, “new desires fed by new mass venues for popularizing consumer fantasies—such as advertising, popular magazines and motion pictures—have made mass consumption as influential over the American psyche as the American salary.”

Livingston’s previous book, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul, was a contrarian defense of mass consumption in which he described “saving for a rainy day—treating this life as austere probation for another” as “a soul-crushing emotional trap as well as an economic dead end.” As in No More Work, he pointed out the injustice and senselessness of corporations hoarding profits that could be put to much better use through progressive redistribution. On strictly moral grounds, Livingston is persuasive when he questions the hierarchizing of “meaningful work” over “indolent leisure and the consumption of goods.” However, on practical grounds, we’re going to be better off if we salvage some part of the Protestant work ethic, namely consumptive restraint.

This isn’t to say we should deprive ourselves of material comforts out of some variation of Protestant ecumenicist asceticism. But gluttonous acquisitiveness has little to recommend it on a warming planet with finite resources. Schor, channeling the craft movement, advocates more home gardens and other DIY measures that suddenly become feasible with more free time.

If we do ever want to move beyond work, we need to spend more time outside the market entirely, as the early labor movement understood. The alternative to lives centered on consumption or work is lives centered on experiences and activities entered into for their own sake—which is to say, higher forms of leisure, as it was once understood. Simply transforming everyone from compulsory producers to a hypertrophied harried leisure class of consumers will only continue the cycle of material status seeking and environmental depletion.

By all means, fuck work; but don’t fuck everyone else.


[*] Google search results for “future of work”: 47,400,000; for “future of leisure”: 311,000.

[**] Or, as Beckett’s Molloy asks himself, “Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom, in the long run?”

[***] In the Republic, Plato has Socrates draw a clear distinction between different crafts. The craft of medicine need not coincide with the craft of moneymaking (techne mistharnetike); in today’s society, all crafts have been subordinated to moneymaking, the one craft to rule them all.