Work Sucks. But What Could Replace It?

There’s a line in one of my favorite songs that’s been tripping me up recently. “We Take Care of Our Own” kicks off Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 album, “Wrecking Ball,” a late-career masterpiece that sifts through the rubble of the Great Recession. After a few verses lamenting the American political system’s abandonment of the working class, “from Chicago to New Orleans,” Springsteen launches into the bridge. “Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see?” he thunders. “Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy? / Where’s the love that has not forsaken me?” And then the stumbling block: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?”

I’m not sure when this line first began to bother me—certainly not in 2012. Unemployment averaged just more than eight per cent that year, and the urgency of putting people back to work seemed evident to me, like it did to many. And we got our wish: unemployment plummeted in the course of the twenty-tens, bottoming out below four per cent on the eve of the pandemic. I suppose that’s when the trouble started. As the economic recovery from COVID progressed, the nation went back to work, and all the familiar complaints still held true: the pay was bad, the hours were long, the bosses were abusive. Neither hands nor soul were set free––and, come to think of it, wasn’t the idea of work setting people free a little, well, ominous?

Intellectuals and activists on the left thought so, in increasing numbers. In 2015, the writer and art scholar Miya Tokumitsu debunked the notion in “Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness.” “No More Work,” the historian James Livingston demanded, in 2016, in a book explaining “Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea.” Perhaps most influentially, the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber fired off a best-selling salvo in 2018 against the “Bullshit Jobs” that, he argued, were ubiquitous in the twenty-first century. The concept that work was necessary to our flourishing had tricked us into forswearing the increased leisure that nearly two centuries of mounting economic productivity made available to us, Graeber said. Instead, we acquiesced to the schemes of capital to stuff our hours full of pointless and often pernicious work. This view gained even more traction when COVID struck, and millions of people found out firsthand just how “inessential” their jobs really were. The “anti-work” forum became one of the most active communities on Reddit; the New York Times announced an “Age of Anti-Ambition”; New York Review Books reissued Paul Lafargue’s nineteenth-century pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy.” And I cringed when I got to the bridge on “We Take Care of Our Own.”

Some on the left still defend the idea that work is, or could be, an important site of self-realization. Leading the charge is Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan and a leading scholar and critic of workplace politics. In her 2017 book, “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It)”—in my view, one of this century’s most important works of political philosophy—Anderson argued that Americans have essentially outsourced totalitarianism to the private sector. For all our talk about the sacrosanct values of freedom and democracy, she pointed out, most of us spend our days toiling in subordination to bosses who wield control over many aspects of our lives.

Yet Anderson believes that it’s possible to redeem work from managerial autocracy. In her new book, “Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back,” she contends that demands for freedom at work should go hand in hand with efforts to make work morally valuable. Workers deserve liberation, Anderson thinks, because working is, or ought to be, intrinsically good. That’s the message of the intellectual tradition that she approvingly calls the “progressive work ethic,” a lineage that connects mid-century European social democracy, Marxism, and the classical political economists who came before both. It originates, in Anderson’s construction, with the Puritans, who railed against the idle rich (as well as the idle poor) for shirking their divinely imposed obligation to find a calling and keep at it.

The Puritans, of course, get a bad rap these days—the Protestant work ethic makes us think less of Marx’s “associations of free and equal producers” and more of ulcers and back pain and Willy Loman’s spiritual disintegration. Anderson says that this is because the work ethic has been, as her title puts it, hijacked. Conservatives in the early days of industrial capitalism—Anderson’s culprits include Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, Joseph Priestley, and Edmund Burke—perverted the principle into a gospel of uncomplaining submission to bosses, even when they failed to demonstrate their own commitment to productive effort. Work didn’t need to be made good, the argument went; it was always and already good, so the poor should be forced to perform it by whatever means necessary.

As Anderson tells it, these two visions of the work ethic “developed in parallel.” The progressive one expanded the Puritans’ disdain for the idle rich into a more systematic critique of economic inequality, ultimately inspiring the creation of the modern European welfare states, and the conservative one, co-opted by capitalists, animated the contempt for the poor we see at the heart of social policymaking in the U.S. today. The work ethic, in this account, starts to feel a bit like the Force in “Star Wars”: there’s a light side and a dark side, and you have to choose one because its power is so irresistible. For Anderson, the stakes are really that high. Confronting global issues such as inequality, democratic decay, and climate change will require a great deal of work, she notes, so today’s progressives should reclaim the idea that work can be redemptive.

But are the two sides really so easily disentangled? Anderson acknowledges that, from the start, the work ethic “contained the seeds of its own corruption,” and that some of the unsavory coercive impulses she associates with the conservative work ethic also crop up in the œuvres of her progressive standard-bearers, including John Locke and John Stuart Mill. She criticizes Mill, for instance, for his paternalistic belief that we should judge policies and institutions for their ability to instill dispositions, such as thrift and diligence, that make praiseworthy workers. But it’s not clear to me that any work ethic worth the name could do without such a tenet. If human flourishing requires devotion to productive work, as the work ethic insists, surely we ought to instead frown on institutional arrangements that encourage loafing around.

I suspect that one could jettison the work-ethic framework altogether and yet agree with much of what Anderson finds attractive in the vision of her favored thinkers. Readers with an allergy to Puritanism can still appreciate these critics’ anger at the exploitation they saw running rampant in their societies––ills that, as Anderson has argued persuasively throughout her career, afflict the U.S. today just as they did the Britain of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Consider the examples with which Anderson opens “Private Government”: Walmart’s crackdowns on employee small talk; Apple’s invasive searches of its retail workers’ belongings; suspicionless drug tests; pressures to support bosses’ preferred political candidates. Even––perhaps especially––the slackers among us can view this state of affairs with dismay.

The case against the dictatorship of bosses is, in fact, so ironclad that some business leaders have adopted it as a talking point. Their solution, however, is not union power or collective worker ownership of the means of production but, rather, self-employment. Benjamin C. Waterhouse, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a deft chronicler of executive-class escapades, tells the history of this clever ideological maneuver in his new book, “One Day I’ll Work for Myself: The Dream and Delusion That Conquered America.” The rise of neoliberal policymaking in the U.S. channelled the conservative work ethic––preaching submission to higher-ups and the embrace of drudgery––and, as Waterhouse shows, it also channelled what I call the entrepreneurial work ethic, the idealization of the self-employed and self-actualizing job creator as a model for much of the workforce to emulate.

Contrary to popular belief, the aspiration to self-employment is not intrinsic to the American character—it has a history. In Waterhouse’s telling, it is a product of the late twentieth century, particularly the economic crises of the seventies and eighties. During the prosperous decades after the Second World War, Waterhouse states, working for oneself wasn’t particularly appealing. Large corporations could afford to be relatively generous, at least to those workers (mostly white, mostly male) who executives felt were entitled to a decent standard of living. Workers desired, above all, a piece of this pie, which meant they often dreamed about “working for someone else.” In the March on Washington, Waterhouse writes, poor Black workers demanded not only “freedom” but “jobs,” a slogan which he contrasts with Richard Nixon’s program, a few years later, for “minority business enterprise.” At the other end of the class hierarchy, the young élites featured by William Whyte in “The Organization Man” evinced little interest in going into business by themselves, focussing their energies instead on climbing the corporate ladder.

Then, in the seventies, things fell apart: stagflation, oil shocks, jobless recoveries, financial turmoil. “The big, hierarchical corporations that had bestrode the business landscape in the 1950s and 1960s looked like outdated relics,” Waterhouse writes. The nation began to hearken to a new generation of business gurus and management experts who claimed that “the road to renewed growth would be paved by those brave risk-takers who embraced change and started their own companies.” The M.I.T. economist David Birch produced widely cited statistics popularizing the idea that small businesses were responsible for the vast majority of job creation in the U.S.––as high as eighty per cent. Birch’s studies had major methodological issues, as critics soon pointed out, and his findings were difficult to replicate, but the basic idea still rang true for a lot of Americans. “When upward promotion at a traditional job became out of reach for so many people,” as Waterhouse explains, the American Dream seemed to require “building a business yourself (or buying one), and reaping the rewards.”

Major corporations in industries like fast food and direct selling adopted organizational schemes such as franchising and independent contracting to depict themselves as engines of small-business creation, even when they continued to exert significant control over the working conditions and decision-making of their ostensibly “entrepreneurial” workforce. (The parallels to today’s gig-economy platforms are impossible to miss.) People who actually gave self-employment a try often found more of the same toil and precarity from which they hoped business ownership would allow them to escape. Waterhouse introduces a Mexican immigrant named Antonio Perez, who graduated from selling merchandise on the street to owning his own grocery store, in Chicago. Sales were so inconsistent that he sometimes found himself driving a truck around the city, peddling products on the street in his spare time.

Perhaps inevitably, many independent business owners turned into the bad bosses they were trying to get away from, or at least became their political allies. Waterhouse describes the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the most influential small-business lobbying groups, joining corporate Goliaths in a “full-court press against regulations and worker protections.” Ultimately, he contends, repudiating the organization-man paradigm of the postwar corporate world didn’t actually make the American economic landscape any less corporate; it just made corporate dominance harder to see.

Does that mean we should turn back the cultural clock? Waterhouse is a bit reticent on this question. At the end of the book, he bemoans the message trumpeted on a billboard he recently saw: “Working for other people sucks and you should stop it.” The paradox is that this billboard sounds like an ad for some sort of gig-economy scam, or maybe a libertarian propaganda mill, but it’s also true: working for other people does suck, and it would be nice to not have to do it. But, as Waterhouse points out, we often don’t have a choice. His parting call to “try something new” in our “national culture” of work seems to assume that collective attitudes determine the structure of economic life, but the narrative of the book teaches us the opposite lesson.

It’s no wonder that anti-work thought has gained such traction in recent years. As Anderson herself notes, the idea that the good life occurs mostly outside the workplace has a long history, including among figures who were sympathetic in other ways to work-ethic thinking. “Advocates of the progressive work ethic from [Adam] Smith forward always look beyond the work ethic to a broader vision of life,” she writes, and their political vision is richer for it. John Stuart Mill, for instance, maintained that societies could attain a kind of “stationary state” in which the material benefits of additional economic growth would no longer be worth the toil required. Instead, those energies could be released to foster “all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress.”

But, as the eminent Penn State cultural historian Gary S. Cross observes in his latest book, “Free Time: The History of an Elusive Ideal,” abundant and meaningful leisure time remains a distant fantasy, especially in the United States. Free time is a scarce resource, and the way we use it often belies its preciousness. We drive ourselves insane on our phones, or spend hours watching garbage on Netflix, or drive ourselves insane by fighting on our phones about the garbage we watch on Netflix. For many women, “free time” is still, in practice, a second shift, consumed with household tasks that the men in their lives expect them to take on, whether they have full-time jobs or not. Freedom remains evasive, even off the clock.

Cross argues that the quality and quantity of free time are inseparably intertwined. It’s easier to devote our dwindling leisure hours to buying stuff than it is to pursue deeper forms of sociality and personal exploration. But when our free time is dominated by consumption, Cross states, that time becomes less precious. This calculus applies to salaried professionals—say, a lawyer who balances seventy-hour weeks at the firm with sips of expensive Scotch—but it’s also relevant to low-wage hourly workers. If you never have enough time to really relax, why not agree to your boss’s request to pick up an extra shift? At least you can buy yourself something nice the next time you get a break.

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