I was provided this copy in advance by Dr. Price themself and as such my page citations may differ from your own. As well, any errors in quotes or differences from your copy of the book should be seen as my own error or due to my different version and not the fault of Dr. Price, thanks!
In preparing for this book review I dedicated myself to reading for an hour while also taking notes. There were multiple sessions of reading where I either went over this hour, shamed myself for not pushing myself harder when I didn’t do that, or otherwise thought I wasn’t doing enough.
Originally, this book review was supposed to debut in early January, but due to my constant daily schedule of meditating, exercise and preparing for the two D&D sessions that I dungeon master every week, I often made underwhelming weekly progress towards this review.
It was frustrating and I felt like I was letting Dr. Price down for not having the review out sooner and my audience who I hadn’t written anything for in a long time, not to mention my few loyal patrons who are still donating money to me on a monthly basis.
If it’s not clear already: I am not immune from The Laziness Lie, as Dr. Price calls it:
Deep down I’m lazy and worthless.
I must work incredibly hard, all the time, to overcome my inner laziness.
My worth is earned through my productivity.
Work is the center of life.
Anyone who isn’t accomplished and driven is immoral.
These are the myths The Laziness Lie tells us and they’re ones I’ve absorbed over the course of my life just like everyone else. Some of these I am better at rejecting consciously while still reinforcing unconsciously and others I’ve shrugged off, as Dr. Price suggests in their book to do.
For instance, I do have self-esteem issues and some of that comes from my lack of interest in working. But most of it comes from my past relationships and the mistakes I made in them. On the other hand I don’t think I have an “inner laziness”, I have an outer laziness that I’m, at times, proud of and, other times, frustrates me. There are days where I want to exercise because I think I weigh too much (230 pounds at 5’10) but I just don’t have the energy and feel bad.
Let’s look at these others myths then, one at a time.
Recently, I did a speedrun of Kingdom Hearts 2, one of my favorite video games of all time. It took me approximately 5 1/2 hours to beat on Beginner (the easiest mode) in game time. I felt a swell of pride in this accomplishment as I hadn’t run the game in a long time and felt good about that time. It also felt odd to have serious pride about something I’ve done as it’s not a sensation I feel a lot. I do feel good about the sessions I dungeon master, but I can’t ever say it rises to full-on pride.
The third part of The Laziness Lie is perhaps one of the most damaging, dangerous and hard to ignore. I try to tell myself that I’ve largely shrugged off the idea that my worth is tied up in how productive I am in a day. But if that’s the case why do I make a schedule for myself every day? And why does it always revolve around getting meditating, writing and exercise done before video games, TV and other “lazy” activities where I’m not actively producing anything?
That said, I can feel confident about the last two myths. I do not think work is the center of my life, the center of my life is those around me who love me and support me. It is my friends, my loved ones, my hobbies, my interests and those who are kind enough to stick with me, despite my flaws and problems. The center of my life hasn’t been work in a long time, if it ever was.
There’s a problem with this argument however: I certainly view schoolwork as a major part of my life and I remember pushing myself so hard last semester with my senior thesis. To the point that I hit burnout and then kept going because I knew it needed to be done. I often try to segment my work (as Dr. Price suggests) but in some cases it seemed impossible, especially as the semester came to an end. This isn’t counting all of the other papers I had to work on either.
In this context, I do see schoolwork as closer to the center of my life, but usually I don’t push myself to the extent I did with my senior thesis last semester. Even when I lost my job back in September of 2020 (a story for another time), I cried not because I thought I was worthless but because I knew I would miss the dogs I worked with. I was scared of financial insecurity and the future suddenly seemed even more uncertain than it already did thanks to the pandemic.
And that brings us to the last lie that our culture tells us. That we should judge addicts, homeless people, or the unemployed more harshly than those who have part-time and especially full-time jobs. I can safely say I’ve rejected this myth but at the same time my comfort levels around the homeless are not what they would be for someone who was dressed in a suit and tie.
All of this is to say what I said at the beginning: I’m not immune to The Laziness Lie and furthermore, neither is anyone reading this. We are all flawed, imperfect beings to varying extents and we all would like to think we have (consciously and subconsciously) rejected the harmful ideas this society has tried to instill in us about work. But Dr. Price’s book proves to us that this isn’t as easy as we wish it was, it’s never going to be that easy, unfortunately.
But there are ways to make it better! There are ways to resist The Laziness Lie at every turn of your life whether that is relationships, school, work, or just about anything else. That doesn’t mean everything is going to be perfect once you start resisting it. Learning is a long road formed often from the mistakes you’ve made along the way, that’s something I’ve had to accept as I get older.
This doesn’t mean we can’t get better though and accept ourselves more and more, practicing self-compassion along the way as Dr. Price advocates.
At this point it’s worth explicitly stating that I recommend this book to any anti-work advocate who wants to take better care of themselves in this messed up capitalist society we are forced to live under. I will warn my readers it is largely a self-help book and Dr. Price is themself a psychologist who uses accessible but scientific language and citations to get their point across.
Personally, I appreciated and enjoyed those aspects of Laziness Does Not Exist, but some may be expecting a political manifesto and wind up disappointed. I will admit that my “major” criticism is that the book moves so tangentially from what I’d consider The Laziness Lie majorly affecting that I started to long for the conclusion, which thankfully soon came.
Not because this book is poorly written (far from it!) but because at that point in the book (nearly 150 pages in) I had said to myself, “OK, I understand your thesis and I think you’ve argued it well, I don’t think these last couple of chapters are strictly speaking necessary.” That doesn’t mean they aren’t good or that I didn’t appreciate them! But I could definitely see some trimming in this book to knock it down closer to the 150 page mark instead of the 180ish mark it reaches.
Again, this is a weak criticism on my part. Even the sections where I squinted and wasn’t sure how directly related it was to The Laziness Lie were well-written, helpful and agreeable. Dr. Price has written a masterful book on a subject that all anti-work advocates should bring their attention to.
I just hope Dr. Price took some time for themselves while writing it.
Oh hey, it’s been a while!
Feel free to check out my older posts and keep in mind this book review is a one-off before I head back for my final semester at (online) school, so I won’t be writing again till May, if not later. As you may be able to tell a lot has happened in my life since my last post but thanks to the (paltry and sporadic) stimulus checks and upcoming tax return I’m hanging in there.
When I told y’all about exoskeletons keeping the elderly working past when they should I figured that’d be the most horrific thing I’d talk about this month. It’s pretty hard to outdo making use of genuinely useful and needed technological advancements in such exploitative ways but I think I’ve found a story that does just that and then some.
Not that this is a suffering contest, both of these issues matter and are worth our attention and criticism. But I think it’s safe to say that this story may hit a little harder, affect more folks generally speaking and may be even less known than the exoskeletons.
Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery or CAAIR is about as bad as it sounds. It’s a “rehab” program for “addicts” or more concretely criminals who don’t want to go to prison. Most people would do just about anything than go to prison (myself included) so it’s a Good thing to give alternatives to the prison system! Well, that would be the case normally…
But in this case, the alternative may be just as bad, if not worse:
People called it “the Chicken Farm,” a rural retreat where defendants stayed for a year, got addiction treatment and learned to live more productive lives. Most were sent there by courts from across Oklahoma and neighboring states, part of the nationwide push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.
A few weeks later, McGahey stood in front of a speeding conveyor belt inside a frigid poultry plant, pulling guts and stray feathers from slaughtered chickens destined for major fast food restaurants and grocery stores.
There wasn’t much substance abuse treatment at CAAIR. It was mostly factory work for one of America’s top poultry companies. If McGahey got hurt or worked too slowly, his bosses threatened him with prison.
And he worked for free. CAAIR pocketed the pay.
“It was a slave camp,” McGahey said. “I can’t believe the court sent me there.”
Of course, I can believe it. If you know anything about the way prisons work (and I’m not blaming McGahey here) then you probably know about the 13th amendment and how prisons undermine this important part of the constitution. It says (in brief) that slavery is abolished except as a punishment for being convicted of a crime. This opened the door to all kinds of exploitative work “opportunities” happening in prisons with prisoners being paid next to nothing.
You can also see this in shows like Orange is the New Black where the characters are constantly working for pitiful wages in sometimes dangerous jobs with minimum supervision. They do this so they can buy things like deodorant or ramen, etc. So the fact that judges would send people to a place like this and then have their “softer” option as CAAIR doesn’t surprise me one iota.
The situation at this chicken farm doesn’t sound much different. The sad thing is that although McGahey is correct about the chicken farm being a slave camp he wouldn’t have been much better off at prison. Though, I don’t know that for a fact. And as it turns out, he got released from prison when he failed the program later after a couple of months…due to overcrowding.
Perhaps the saddest part is that these factories have become, “…the bedrock of criminal justice reform, aiming to transform lives and ease overcrowded prisons.” But instead they’ve transformed an already exploited population into an arguably more exploited population:
[They are] little more than lucrative work camps for private industry, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
The programs promise freedom from addiction. Instead, they’ve turned thousands of men and women into indentured servants.
Perhaps no rehab better exemplifies this allegiance to big business than CAAIR. It was started in 2007 by chicken company executives struggling to find workers. By forming a Christian rehab, they could supply plants with a cheap and captive labor force while helping men overcome their addictions.
The allure of a “captive work force” shouldn’t be new to any of my anti-capitalist readers. But just in case, capitalists have a long history of wanting to make use of the easiest and most vulnerable working population. Why? Easier wages. It’s why immigrants are so often hired in terrible work environments and industries, because capitalists know they can pay them less and get away with more and especially if those immigrants are undocumented. Then you can just threaten them with deportation or ICE and that gets people to work on the cheap very easily.
Besides this bosses also tend to love it, especially historically, when workers will decide to scab (or work in place of striking workers) and then work for less. Speculation on my part but I’m betting that’s often how bosses can get scabs to begin with, promise them a solid wage to replace people who are striking against workplace injustices and then eventually get their wages up to normal.
Lastly, we can go even further back to look at the history of feudalism and pre-industrial revolution and how often landlords and capitalists loved using peasants who were dispossessed of their lands, often by the feudal lords themselves. No matter what part of history you’re looking at there’s a long line of people in power taking advantage of the vulnerable, especially in work.
By the way, just so you know, try to steer clear of these brands:
They slaughter and process chickens for some of America’s largest retailers and restaurants, including Walmart, KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. They also make pet food for PetSmart and Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand.
Just giving y’all some places to avoid, think of it makings your choice paralysis minimize by taking out the extremely shitty brands and making way for the only moderately shitty ones!
There’s discussion in this article about how dangerous chicken farms can be, but y’all could’ve figured that out. A place like that where the countless slaughter of animals happen (I’m not vegan, but when they’re right, they’re right) keeping a place like that safe and sanitary is a huge job pretty much no one is well-equipped to deal with.
Here’s another quote about captive workers:
“They work you to death. They work you every single day,” said Nate Turner, who graduated from CAAIR in 2015. “It’s a work camp. They know people are desperate to get out of jail, and they’ll do whatever they can do to stay out of prison.”
Desperation breeds injustice is a great slogan I just thought of but has probably been said by someone better than me before and in a more succinct way. In any case, it’s true. I’ve been in desperate situations myself and they’ve often culminated in great harm befalling either myself or others, sometimes with myself as the person harmed and sometimes I’m the person harming.
As noted anarcha-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre said, “The hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act-desperately!” And in desperation these workers will take just about any job they can get their hands on instead of going to prison. There’s a supposed dignity in work that cannot be said about prison. Even if you say things like “I did my time” people won’t exactly be handing you medals and saying congrats. But saying you worked your butt off in horrible conditions?
Well that’s a recipe to get a polite smile, more than you’ll likely get from saying you did time. It’s also worth noting that the shame I noted last week that people feel when they aren’t working (even when they’re “retired”) coalesces “nicely” with the shame people feel for going to prison. If we can do something our culture looks kindly on instead of one that is heavily punished (felons still have to fight for their right to vote) then it seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean CAAIR is a good choice:
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Noah Zatz, a professor specializing in labor law at UCLA, said when presented with Reveal’s findings. “That’s a very strong 13th Amendment violation case.”
Instead of paychecks, the men get bunk beds, meals and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If there’s time between work shifts, they can meet with a counselor or attend classes on anger management and parenting. Weekly Bible study is mandatory. For the first four months, so is church. Most days revolve around the work.
Now, to be the most generous I can be, this program has helped some addicts. There’s a few people in the article who either speak up or are mentioned as being genuinely helped by the program and gotten away from their addictions. But even in those cases the way forward shouldn’t involve dangerous, no-pay and exploitative work to get clean. There should be a far better treatment path for addicts who committed crime in the name of their addiction.
That doesn’t mean I’m not happy for those that felt helped by the program and got themselves into a better state of mind and living. Just that I think there can be better ways forward for those people. Having support programs without the work component is a good start.
There’s also some disgusting defenses that I don’t think this article does enough to tear apart, so I’m gonna do it instead. I’m not writing journalism, it’s all about those polemics!
“Money is an obstacle for so many of these men,” said Janet Wilkerson, CAAIR’s founder and CEO. “We’re not going to charge them to come here, but they’re going to have to work. That’s a part of recovery, getting up like you and I do every day and going to a job.”
Part of recovery, for many people, is having a support system and work doesn’t always facilitate that for non-addicts, let alone for people struggling with drugs and alcohol. Work often gives us the opposite of support systems in the form of abusive bosses, temporary co-workers who are gone as soon as we get to know them or live long enough to become the villain (the boss).
And just because “you and I” do something every day doesn’t mean it should be considered part of a healthy routine. Plenty of people hate what they do every day or at the very least wish it was something different. Something that inspires them, pays them more, treats them better, gives them more hope in the world or whatever else. Yes, we all get up to our jobs and that’s bad.
Seeing “recovery” as a form of assimilation is exactly what’s wrong with huge corporations dictating what “recovery” means to begin with. Sure, it’s possible this program may (and has) helped some people with their addiction. But it’s even more likely it’s left many people injured, isolated, pressured and falling off the wagon once they leave. I doubt CAAIR gives those statistics.
But Donny Epp, a spokesman for Simmons Foods, said the company does not depend on CAAIR to fill a labor shortage.
“It’s about building relationships with our community and supporting the opportunity to help people become productive citizens,” he said.
Building relationships isn’t the same as employing people! I can’t believe this needs to be explained to someone who claims to be smart enough to manage corporations. On the other hand I suppose it’s entirely believable. Employment is seen as a relationship starter with communities instead of what it really is: A toxic and abusive relationship that’s often a non-starter.
Employing people doesn’t make people necessarily productive either. Many folks will tell you that they pull out every trick in the (anti-work) book to make sure they can slack off. Some of them take micro naps, others gossip, some people re-fold the same pile of clothes for a few minutes.
Whatever the case may be, being productive is overrated. Productivity isn’t all there is to life, it’s just enough to be and not have to deal with the constant pressures of modernity. That doesn’t mean we should go back to a bygone era but it does mean there are some serious issues when society starts to conflate the words “recovery” and “productivity” in the workplace.
Let’s get a little bit into how CAAIR started, per the article:
[Janet Wilkerson’s] brother had died from alcoholism, and her husband’s drinking had nearly destroyed their marriage. She had long wanted to help others like them. The economics also made sense. The chicken plants needed workers, and Jones’ program was bringing in revenue of more than $2 million a year.
This was after a meth dealer came to Wilkerson offering her the use of his men as they’d be cheap and easily available. But I don’t need to elaborate for you to guess that some of these “sensible” premises and economics contributed to brutality towards workers both in the short-run and especially in the long-run. And not only did that but it deepened the pockets of the higher ups:
By 2010, hundreds of men poured into CAAIR from courts across Oklahoma. So did the money, allowing the Wilkersons – Janet as CEO and her husband, Don, as vice president of operations – to draw combined salaries of $168,000 a year, nearly four times the median household income in their area.
How bad were these places? The article details McGahey’s experiences which, while I won’t fully detail here, I’ll leave up to your imagination. Read the article if you want the full picture, but just imagine someone who is familiar with dead animals nearly vomiting after first stepping into one of the chicken plants. And then to have nearly lost the use of his arm only three months later.
Wilkerson said she doesn’t remember the specifics of McGahey’s case but acknowledged that CAAIR has given such ultimatums before.
“You can either work or you can go to prison,” McGahey remembered administrators telling him. “It’s up to you.”
He already had made up his mind.
“I’ll take prison over this place,” he said. “Anywhere is better than here.”
McGahey’s story doesn’t get any happier from there, but read the article for yourself if you want all of the details. It’s a sad story about a building pill addiction due to pain, CAAIR being financially irresponsible (to say the least) and another example of how our perceptions around work in this country are fundamentally damaged and need to be re-examined.
Abolishing capitalism means abolishing CAAIR, it means abolishing work.
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Remember when folks used to retire? You know, that pesky thing that makes work finally end for maybe 10-20 years (the latter if you’re lucky) and then you die. Cool, right?
You’ve spent just about 3/4 of your life and now you can finally relax and enjoy your life! Except you’ve still got rent to pay, bills to pay and the retirement money isn’t as good as it used to be. But lucky for you there are opportunities out there for industrious seniors like yourself!
Does it suck that work has left you somewhat crippled or handicapped in your advanced age? Doesn’t it blow that you need ibuprofen all of the time, so much that you need to get a prescription from your doctor? You’ve likely lost the ability to safely drive due to some of your cells decaying and dying over the years, maybe faster due to work, so you’ll need to take the bus.
Or, maybe you’ll need to be reliant on Uber or a friends good graces. Maybe you’re lucky and only need to be partially taken care of and haven’t been left to rot in a nursing home like so many other people. You’re independent after all! No one can slow you down now that you’ve got more time to spend on yourself. But time isn’t money, not unless you’re working for that time. And even with social security finally doing something meaningful (however slight) you still feel pressured to be productive and a fully-engaged member of your larger community. How grand!
Thank goodness Amazon makes that easy:
They’ve got these warehouses, which they call “fulfillment centers,” which to me sounds like Orwellian jargon, all over the country. And when you place an order, it goes through to whichever one is near you and has it. And these warehouses are essentially just huge input/output machines. … Amazon markets this kind of work to old people as a positive thing, using language about freedom and flexibility. But why even worry about optics when they’re dealing with people who are kind of desperate?
Predictably, it doesn’t go well for them. Amazon markets their wages, flexibility, etc. while ignoring the awful fact that this is necessary to begin with. Shouldn’t these people be spending their twilight years away from “flexibility and high wages”. They should be getting money for nothing even if you’re the most die-hard conservative? These people put decades into providing society value and their bodies only for society go, “Yeah, but about how a little more? You know, for fun?” And seniors often feel pressured into it due to the way shame and leisure intersect.
As Bruder writes,
So what I see out there is a lot of people don’t want to say to other people, “Yeah, I’m going to work at Amazon this winter because I’m broke, and I need money.” It’s a lot easier to say, “I’m going to stay active, I’m going to make friends, I’m going for some camaraderie, and, yeah, maybe I’ve gotta take a lot of ibuprofen, but that’s really a weight loss program, the 15 miles a day of walking I have to do.”
People don’t want to say to their friends or family, “Oh I still need a job because the economy sucks!” They want their families to know they’re still worthwhile and in this culture being “worthy” often means you’re producing something. Even for myself, someone who prides herself on being lazy and taking my time with things it’s hard to deny that writing these articles makes me feel good. Or that it gives me a positive boost in my mood, especially when I’m having a tough day.
Part of that is just me loving to write. It’s something I really enjoy because it gives me the chance to better formulate my opinions, emotions and preferences to a larger audience. Even if that audience is just one other person, that’s at least one more person I can connect with. But another part is the feeling that I need to write. I need to be productive or otherwise my day will be a waste! To be clear, the money I get from Patreon is appreciated but never makes me feel like I need to write. It’s the boss in my head that does that, not my lovely patrons.
One of my favorite sayings about writing comes from the anarchist Benjamin Tucker who once said, “[Liberty] will be edited to suit its editor, not its readers. He hopes that what suits him will suit them; but, if not, it will make no difference.” My hope is that when I write, it’ll both elevate myself and others around me, but ultimately as long as I get something out of it, I’m satisfied.
One of the most horrifying aspects of this articles come in here:
…So what do you replace this unskilled labor with that’s easier on the body?
Did I tell you what’s happening in Japan with exoskeletons? This is fucking crazy.
The population is aging in Japan, and there are some employers whose workers have heavy lifting jobs—and they’ve started giving them these exoskeletons so that they can lift heavier loads.
In a weird a way, I kind of think this hybridization is what we’re going to see in the immediate future. Some people look at it as positive, like, “Oh, it makes things easier on your body,” and maybe I’m a bit more cyclical because I think, Oh, wow, you can squeeze even more exertion out of this human piece of meat.
It’s not cynical (which I think is what was meant here?) at all! It’s 100% realistic to call out this capitalistic exploitation for what it is. It doesn’t matter, as Bruder points out, whether automation happens or not but who controls that automation. I’ve been saying this for a while and to see a normal(ish) website have something like that made me smile. Not that it’s a happy thing to reflect on but as I’ve stated before, it’s nice to see your opinion validated every now and then.
I told my partner about the exoskeleton while we were having dinner. She looked at me and went, “What?” I’m not sure she believed me at first, hell, I almost couldn’t believe it myself. There’s something so insidious and destructive about capitalism and I’ve only become more and more convinced about that as I get older, not less. Trying to draw as much labor time from human beings who are old and retired is especially cruel when they should be living their life.
And, as always, our lives are very different from work. The way we act, the things we do and say, I often think about all of the things I’d rather do than go to work. And by the way, I’ve got a pretty cushy overnight shift that doesn’t require much from me. Well, you know besides wrecking my sense of time more than 2020 has already done and my sleep schedule as well. Making my timing with friends and my partner more difficult than it would be otherwise, no big deal though, right?
One last thing on this:
I don’t think that universal basic income without something that allows for social mobility is a solution. If it creates a subsistence level where people are alive and sheltered and whatever, but there’s still no way to better their lot, then that’s not good enough.
I loved seeing this as well. Bruder seems to have a good head on her shoulder about the way capitalism works and the ways it has fundamentally failed our elderly. The same goes for Conti and her pointed questions and responses to what Bruder says.
It’s a great interview and comes highly recommended to my readers!
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The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics.
There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a person thinking their job is pointless. I can think of quite a few such factors … class, education, gender, the entitlement these things bring, cultural expectations of reward for effort or meaningfulness…
When I read this first part I said aloud, “Yes, thank you!” We’ll get to that bit about “contingent cultural … factors” later on in my discussion. For now, it’s worth noting that it’s always nice to be validated by other folks. Of course, Irving’s validation of my own opinions isn’t consistent (nor should it). There are plenty of places in the article where I think Irving is off base.
For example, Irving says of Graeber’s methodology that:
[it] seems like a canny attempt to capitalize on the article of faith among young leftists on the internet that the victim who speaks should always be believed.
First, Graeber just taking people at their word doesn’t necessarily have to mean he’s capitalizing on any particular branch of identity politics. Taking folks at their own word about their own experiences has been a common thing folks do before #MeToo happened and women came forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of powerful men.
There’s something to be said for taking people at their word. If I go up to my friend and ask him how work was and he says, “It kinda sucked” I’m not gonna sneer and reply, “Well what about all of that cultural baggage and expectations you’re carrying around? Maybe that is what made it suck so much?” And he’d be right to say, “What? No, it just sucked.” Maybe he does have cultural expectations that are unfair, but as I’ll discuss later that says less about him than society at large.
By the way, I say “sneer” because the term “article of faith” is meant to denigrate a solid foundational epistemic claim: That people are often the best judges of their own situations and contexts. Yes, it’s possible people have false memories or that bad expectations lead to bad results, but does it happen often? No, the false reports percentage has always been low and when survivors (not victims) speak up, they should be believed unless there’s strong reason not to.
That isn’t an “article of faith” so much as it’s the right thing to do and something that makes the most sense. If someone calls you out and you say, “Well, yeah, but are people supposed to just take you at your word?” Then folks are gonna quickly take grievance, cause unless you got a great alibi or a terrific personal history, there’s reason to take your response as itself very telling.
I know this is all besides the (anti-work) point but it irked me that Irving would put the idea that survivors should be believed down and it’d be irresponsible of me to say nothing about it.
That said, let’s back up and start from the top
Three days ago, I changed my job title on LinkedIn. The title change was part of a broader restructure at work and was accompanied by a new role description that was really just a superficial tweak to the old one. There was no real increase in responsibility and no extra money.
Irving goes on to say he got congratulations despite the lack of increase in his financial security or role in the company. That felt like bullshit to him and it leads him to discussing Graeber later on.
In the meantime however, he notes how LinkedIn was completely incapable of not sending his “promotion” to all of his friends online. That also seems like bullshit to me (not his story, but LinkedIn) but it isn’t surprising given how social media tends to handle our personal data. I jest but perhaps Linkedin isn’t at fault, but rather Irving’s own bad expectations of social media?
Before Graeber however, Irving mentions other writers named Dardot and Laval who wrote on how our culture’s obsession with self-improvement can lead to dystopian times. Here, Irving mentions the concept of a “Marxian capitalist” and I had to re-read this sentence a few times:
They argue that we relate to ourselves now as a Marxian capitalist is assumed to relate to capital: We want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else, so we can remain competitive.
I skimmed the articles in question and specifically went to the concepts that are supposed to explain this passage but came up empty. I’m not sure what “Marxian capitalist” is supposed to mean without further explanation from Irving, which he doesn’t provide. Perhaps I missed something pertinent within Irving’s articles or the linked ones? Apologies if so.
Regardless, I think our personal relations to the self under capitalists are damaged as Irving and co. argue. We constantly want to “improve” even if there’s no tangible improvement to be made to ourselves or we’re just doing it due to Fear of Missing Out. There’s a pressure for gamers, for example, to have the latest hardware like the PS5 that’s coming out and then those who don’t are implicitly looked down upon by some in the community which only ratchets up FOMO.
Getting the PS5 is “self-improvement” because it means your life is more hi-tech, that you’re more “in touch” with the current state of technology and “up to date” with the world. For gamers it means there’s up to date on the latest games and fastest loading times which means they’re not “behind” on the big news of the day. But when do you actually get ahead of such news?
It’s a never-ending quest for “betterment” at the cost of finances and perhaps even your financial security if it goes far enough. You drive yourself mad trying to keep up the world and that’s why I try to keep my time on Twitter and Facebook rather limited. The world can be a horrible place, we can be horrible people and social media often flocks to the negative more than the positive.
[The bullshitter] does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Funnily enough, I own this book and, like so many of my books, have yet to get around to it.
Irving compares LinkedIn to a parody app named Binky which has you “like” useless photos that do not modify what you see later on. Binky is an app where you can’t socialize with anyone else and you’re only able to scroll to your hearts content. The app is non-responsive to you in ways that corporations tend to be non-responsive to the needs of their workers, how apt!
This conversation about bullshit leads us back to Graeber and his book/article on Bullshit Jobs.
Here’s Irving’s takeaway:
Rather than assuming that an ephemeral but hegemonic system has created pointless job descriptions because it can’t figure out how to make a universal basic income work, I think it’s possible to read the anger as a response to work that doesn’t live up to a system of meaning shared by Graeber’s Twitter followers.
This goes back to Irving’s title Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic where the faults of the system come down more to cultural expectations rather than a “ephemeral but hegemonic system”.
However, it’s difficult to know what the upshot of all of this is.
Does this mean we (or at least Graeber’s Twitter followers) are to blame for the faults of capitalism? Do Graeber’s criticisms of capitalism come off as reifying an economic system to Irving? Does he not see capitalism as centrally at fault but something else?
It’s tough to tell so we need to dive deeper:
It’s fairly common to say that that much of the anger and resentment felt by this group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings is because what was implicitly promised has been placed beyond their grasp by a volatile labor market in the throes of apparently permanent and traumatic change. The world they were promised, in short, is now impossible. The skills they have attained are useless. The goalposts never stop moving.
Just a note here: I am a follower of Graeber on Twitter (though I didn’t participate in the book) and I am also a twenty-to-thirty-something. So I’m the exact demographic for Irving’s thesis. Of course, generalizations only work for individuals within the groups being generalized about so well. I could tell you that there’s many gamers who are toxic in one way or another but also find communities that are (on the whole) much better.
Point being, there are always individuals deviating and flying closer to the norm. Sometimes that norm is a flame for moths, and sometimes it’s a good norm to replicate.
Irving sees Graeber’s result and the demographic he cites as revealing a “cultural logic of work” that invites disappointment within millennials. We were supposed to get homes, have full-time jobs, the university was supposed to be our gateway to Better Things. Instead, many of us have to live with roommates in unkempt apartments, live with our parents/family, or live in college dorms and hope that ramen supply doesn’t run out.
This experience is such a wake up call for millennial when they get out of college. I remember dropping out around 10(!) years ago and only recently coming back. College didn’t get me the dream I wanted (professor of philosophy) nor did going out into the “real world”. I had lived in several unhealthy/abusive situations because of my poor financial status. Some of those relationships I made worse, but in all of them I felt disempowered to make my life better.
Irving goes on to list several of Graeber’s categories for bullshit jobs, we’ve talked about them before so no need to go over them again. Instead, here’s Irving on those types of BS Jobs:
I’m not saying these people’s jobs are good.
The experiences they describe sound as awful as Graeber says they are. But there are reasons to suspect that this testimony doesn’t do what Graeber says it does.
The thing that leaps out at me isn’t that these jobs are bullshit—even if the people in them resent the fact that the job feels pointless and fails to excite them or fill their paid hours of employment. … What leaps out at me is that some of the people in these jobs have a radically different set of ideas about what a job should be to the people who write those job descriptions.
This last part may be true. The folks who want these jobs want some level of satisfaction, a decent pay, benefits and to feel a sense of…purpose? Wait a second, these just seem like pretty basic expectations from something you’re going to spend a lot of your life doing, right?
Am I missing something here? Because it seems like the folks who write the descriptions have the messed up priorities and expectations here, not the folks applying!
Again, this comes off as victim-blaming to me.
The fault of capitalism doesn’t lie with the people who write and facilitate these boring, pointless jobs but with the expectations we have because of “do what you love”.
Now, I’ve written on that fallacious idea before and I agree it sets bad precedent for our expectations. Most people can’t afford to work at something they love because of the way capitalism is set up (notably nothing to do with our own expectations). And to instill that idea into young folks that you should reach for something you love and do it 40+ hours a week is a dangerous idea because it can quickly burn you out or even make you hate it.
But again, maybe I’ve got Irving all wrong and famed philosopher Hannah Arnedt will convince me that “Bullshit is just another word for labor”
Arendt’s notion is that labor—the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption—has colonized and supplanted work—the realm of craft, fabrication, and use. Arendt describes the work of labor as both futile, in that it will never end, and necessary, because to be without its products is to die.
The logic of the market that Neoliberalism extends to all spheres of human activity essentially makes everything into labor. I think it’s possible to read Graeber’s sources as reports of people who expected to be working, but found themselves laboring instead.
I read some of Irving’s article on Arnedt’s and her definition of labor, but it came off as too ambiguous, though Irving claimed that as a strength for it. To be fair, conceptual ambiguity can be a strength in some cases as it can encourage conceptual flexibility as Irving argues. But this flexibility should not come at the cost of overall conceptual clarity. We need some sense of what the upshot for her definition and what Irving’s own take on what labor vs. work is. What does this difference in wording get us? What makes labor reducible to “metabolism, maintenance and consumption” while work is “the realm of craft, fabrication, and use”?
I’ll admit it sounds intuitive but I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance behind that intuition. For example, if I labor in my backyard and get hungry but I go to my job and get hungry (thus relating both to metabolism) which is work and which is labor? If I make something at a craft fair for myself with no intention but to hang it up on my wall does this display work or labor?
I’m also unconvinced that labor is “futile” simply because it never ends.
Firstly, as of now transhumanism has not won (not even close) so our lives will inevitably end which means our labor will as well. But, generally speaking, things lacking an “end” does not mean those things are then meaningless, fruitless or can’t contain meaning for those engaged with it. The process of learning has often been called futile because we are all human and therefore fallible and thus will make mistakes. But that doesn’t make our efforts useless or lacking purpose, it just means we have to accept an amount of “two steps forward, one step back” in our lives.
I’m not sure that the logic of “the market” and capitalism are the same, but that’s another conversation so I’ll skip over this second passage for sake of dialogue. I don’t usually look at the last passages of articles as I like to keep some of the original article a mystery for anyone kind enough to read my articles. But in this case it seems too important to Irving’s thesis to omit:
I think many of the people who supplied testimonies for Graeber’s book had looked forward to being engaged in paid activity that produced something lasting, but found themselves in a service or knowledge economy that cares more about the soft skills of maintaining the metabolism or life process of a network of relationships than the hard skills of fabrication.
I’ll be blunt here: This last piece of writing makes very little sense to me. It reads like an academic trying to over-complicate reality with overly-grandiose terminology. And keep in mind, I say this as someone who likes academia and wants to be in academia. I’m not unsympathetic to the plights of having to make philosophical words sound meaningful and intuitive to readers.
Despite my sympathies to Irving’s academic framing here, I can’t help but reaffirm my belief that it amounts to little more than thinly-veiled victim blaming. Make no mistake, Irving has his share of criticisms for capitalism both in this article and on his Twitter page and so I’m not about to begin calling him a pseudo-leftist. But, as far as I can tell, his argument amounts to, “These people had bad expectations and it isn’t the fault of capitalism for failing people with bad expectations“.
At least, that’s the takeaway I’m getting from all of this, I could be wrong.
But given I’ve reached the “this sounds a whole lot like victim-blaming” coupled with Irving’s bizarre taken on the “article of faith” around believing survivors, I doubt it.
In an early letter to Mary McCarthy she says something like, ‘Simone de Beauvoir’s not really worth engaging with. One should just flirt with her instead.’ Arendt was not a feminist…
My point here isn’t that you need to cite feminist authors to make your argument persuasive (though by and large it doesn’t hurt, pending which feminist), but I find the connection here between dismissing the “article of faith” and citing Arnedt compelling given what I know of her.
By that definition, calling LinkedIn the opposite of work doesn’t quite capture the keen sense of drudgery in maintaining a LinkedIn account. The platform is a wonderful metaphor for the failed promise made to millennials.
It only reinforces the anxiety-inducing need to be a productive member of the economy while endlessly increasing one’s market value. It promises both meaning and money, and it delivers neither. It only contributes to the processes of automation and precarity that make work murkier and more tiring.
Is bullshit the opposite of work? My understanding is that Graeber was saying most work is bullshit when it comes to corporate work. Unless Irving is saying this more generally about his own framing? Again, it’s unclear to me exactly what Irving is getting at here or what the upshot of his theory here is. I agree with him about his criticisms concerning LinkedIn and I also agree there were promises made to us millennials that were, to say the least, not delivered on.
But my problems of work don’t begin and end with the expectations I was given by the society I grew up in. The television shows that showed me people generally happy with their jobs, the parental figures (teachers, actual family members, authority figures) who said I could be anything or the media that constantly talks about how the “unemployment rate” means so much.
And neither do Graeber’s for that matter. His problems (as with mine) come not just from the bullshit that work has largely become synonymous from (after all I grew up in the 90s, the decade of Office Space) but also the “ephemeral but hegemonic system” that it comes from.
Sure, you can see the description of capitalism at times as vague (which I think Irving is getting at here with the word “ephemeral”?) but hey, there’s strength in conceptual ambiguity, right?
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Remember when I wrote that article about how capitalism justifies itself with bogus studies that seems plausible enough or make it sound like capitalism has done a good job? Right, of course you do, because that was literally the last article. Luckily, I totally planned for this next article to be an excellent display of that very phenomenon that I was just discussing! What a genius I am!
In all seriousness, a friend of mine sent me this article from HumanProgress.org by Marian Tupy a while ago and as mentioned, it lines up with what I discussed last time. Serendipity! The article goes over how markets have achieved what Karl Marx wanted: Less work (or labor if you prefer).
Let’s put to the side that Marxism’s (a popular form of communism) main goal is a classless and stateless society where money is abolished and the means of production are collectively owned instead of privately owned. But if you really think about it all Marx wanted was…less labor? Sure.
For the sake of argument let’s grant that reductive perception of Marxism and get to the article itself which proudly compares modern America to the Industrial Revolution:
In 1830, the workweek in the industrializing West averaged about 70 hours or, Sundays excluded, 11.6 hours of work per day. By 1890 that fell to 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. Thirty years later, the workweek in advanced societies stood at 50 hours or 8.3 hours per day. Today, people in advanced societies work less than 40 hours per week. That still amounts to roughly 8 hours per day, because workers typically don’t work on Saturdays. The “weekend” was born.
It’s worth noting, from the start, that this was only achieved not because capitalists wanted it to happen but because society at large forced them through cultural osmosis or because workers literally died for their right to work fewer hours. Whether it’s the radical unions, the reformist ones or individuals striking, these changes didn’t happen without the blood, sweat, and tears from just about everyone except the supposedly noble capitalists in charge.
In fact, these same capitalists often stood in the way of progress. The only reason we have the 40 hour work week is because workers fought for it in the first place. And even when capitalists such as Henry Ford started instituting an 8 hour work day at their own factories it was often in response to the long and desperate pleas from workers for an easier life not because of their generosity.
“That happened more than 60 years after workers, through their unions, began organizing for an eight-hour day in the 1860s,” said David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. “When Ford adopted the eight-hour day for his factory, he was responding to a working force that had been demanding the eight-hour day for a long time.” (Source)
And so change had to come from the bottom up through unions, workers, protests, riots much like any other significant societal change throughout history and across cultures. The capitalists were not the ones largely clamoring for these changes to the worker hours and even when they did these were (as the source I linked states) policies now laws which could be,
…yanked away whenever the cost exceeded profits,” said Robert Bruno, a professor with the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.
Companies that operated this way, Bruno said, often revoked these policies when the Great Depression hit.
So even if we admit the studies findings (more on this in a moment), the changes didn’t happen neutrally or without great amounts of conflict from the bottom to the top. Capitalism is then, at best, highly resistant to the positive change that Tupy is trying to establish here. And so even if capitalism was responsible for less hours (it isn’t, unions are) this is “responsibility” where your friend threw your basketball in the net and you somehow take credit, it just doesn’t add up.
Another problem with these studies is that in this article and where it was originally written there are almost no citations for this data or where it comes from. The article hand waves its limitations more than once by saying that “scholars estimate”, “Data for developing countries is difficult to come by”, ” International comparisons are difficult” and “Whether the United States is representative of a broader trend is unclear”, etc.
The only source given is the American Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Americans enjoyed, on average, 5.24 hours of leisure and sports per day in 2017. That was 2.5 percent more than when the survey started in 2003.
When it comes to this survey there’s many problems with it and you can find that just by looking it up with the words “leisure” or just American UseSurvey without any qualifiers:
Even if we did have more leisure time, how it’s measured matters. What counts as leisure when women are still doing most of the housework?
What about conflicting data that show that women in particular are working more? Even if we are overall working less (that’s a big if), women aren’t.
What are we doing with that leisure time anyways? Less reading and more sleep doesn’t seem like a glowing recommendation of the American way of life.
And these are just a few problems with using a study that doesn’t count commute time as your work. Nor does it count household work as work (because it’s unpaid). It also doesn’t count the time the unemployed spend frantically looking for new jobs either. Again, because that’s unpaid labor and therefore doesn’t count as non-leisure time. In short, the methodology is very flawed.
I don’t know about any of y’all but I don’t consider time that I dry and put away the dishes to be leisure time. Heck, I don’t even consider exercise to be “leisure” since it actively tests your body against itself. If I’m watching TV, taking a nap/sleeping, going somewhere with my partner, reading, writing or playing video games then that is leisure time because my body is (generally) at rest and I don’t often feel stressed, nor am I being paid, though that’s hardly the main qualifier.
There’s also a simple explanation for that incredibly mild increase in leisure time besides bad measurements: more participants. It’s likely that when you get more people to respond to a survey, get the survey better known and have better technology from which to access and distribute the survey itself, you’ll get more people involved! And that is going to make it so that certain percentages necessarily get bumped up over time. That doesn’t mean capitalism is great!
Lastly, at this point, it’s hardly, “…undeniable that people have more free time than they used to – at least since our nomadic days.” as Tupy claims. It’s only undeniable if you rely on faulty data, a misguided notion of what constitutes progress and an ideology that’s rotten to its core.
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