March 9, 2021

There’s a window in east central London which often caught my eye when I worked in the area. It belonged to a swish co-working space, designed in the industrial-chic style: high ceilings, exposed piping, towering houseplants. “Welcome home,” said the lettering on the window. “Oops, we meant ‘Welcome to work’”.

Even before lockdown, the conflation of work and home was well-established. Companies call themselves “families”. Cubicles have been replaced by the supposedly more relaxed open-plan office. The suit, symbol of the 9-5 day, is on the way out. “Knowledge workers” curl up on their sofas.

Work has also supplanted the home in more fundamental ways. In the mid-18th century Samuel Johnson reckoned that the ultimate human ambition was “to be happy at home.” For many, it’s now the workplace that promises meaning and fulfilment. Even Amazon warehouse labourers look up to see signs reading “We love coming to work and miss it when we’re not here!”

Choose a job you feel passionate about — so a thousand gurus have advised us — and you’ll never work a day in your life. But as people are starting to notice, the language of “following your passion” is also a convenient way for employers to change the subject from, say, decent pay and conditions. Nobody is easier to exploit than someone working for love. If you want to build a prison without anyone noticing, make it look like a playground.

The homeliness of work, then, turns out to have a more sinister aspect. Home is a place of self-sacrifice; so it makes sense that gig platforms like Fiverr openly seek workers for whom “Sleep Deprivation Is Your Drug Of Choice.” At home, you expect to be known and seen; naturally, then, employers take ever more invasive steps to survey their employees, tracking each mouse-click or making workers’ health-insurance rates dependent on how much exercise their Fitbits record.

The two faces of modern work — one cheerful, one ruthless — are the subject of a couple of new books, Jamie K McCallum’s Worked Over and Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back. They tell similar stories, of stressed and burnt-out workers ruing the broken promises of the “Follow your passion” economy. Wealth, of course, has flowed upwards: in the last 30 years, according to the policy analyst Matt Bruenig, the US’s top 1% has increased its net worth by $21 trillion, while the bottom half has lost $900 billion and, once you factor in debt, literally owns less than nothing.

And power has flowed in the same direction. Welfare programmes force the destitute to choose work over childcare; low-wage employees are subject to algorithms which deprive them of predictable schedules, with severe consequences for mental health and family life. Even the most “flexible” workers have to meet tough standards: to maintain good status on the handyman platform TaskRabbit, for instance, you have to say yes to 85% of requests.

McCallum’s book is lucid and tightly argued, but Jaffe’s is in some ways more intriguing: it shows how the madness of modern work has opened the mainstream to radical thinking. In Jaffe’s case the radicalism has a Marxist flavour. Work Won’t Love You Back, which has been applauded everywhere from Marie Claire to the Financial Times, makes an unfashionably dogmatic argument. Wage labour under capitalism just is exploitation, Jaffe tells us. Your boss may seem like a decent person, but in the end “financial concerns will come first for them.” Jaffe doesn’t “believe in bosses”; or, for that matter, in the family, which has “developed as a mechanism of controlling and directing labour … The only option, as theorist Jordy Rosenberg wrote, is to ride ‘the supernova of the family’s destruction’ through to something new.” Jaffe doesn’t believe in charitable works, either (“a relationship of power”). Only some kind of revolution, she believes, can restore us to our true selves.

Anyone baffled by the enduring appeal of Marxism should read Jaffe’s final chapter, with its plaintive note of spiritual yearning. “It is true,” Jaffe concedes, “that there is no outside to capitalism, but it is also true that there are moments in our lives where we can see, briefly, beyond it.” Our nameless desires, she writes, come closest to making sense on a strike or protest march. “Solidarity doesn’t mean you have to like every person you’re fighting alongside. But in those moments where you stand shoulder to shoulder, you do love one another.” Here the reader catches the last glimmerings of the revolutionary dream, that hope which throughout the 20th century animated so many courageous and intelligent people — as well as quite a lot of psychopaths and moral monsters — to give their lives to it.

Besides, it isn’t just radical socialists who are rethinking work from the ground up. The New York Times’ Ezra Klein recently toyed with the idea that “there’s no natural dignity in work.” Prophets of a robot takeover, like the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, argue that we should reshape the welfare state to serve a mostly wageless society. The post-work movement actively hopes that the machines can be given our jobs while we find something better to do; proponents of “fully automated luxury communism” agree, only adding that the robots should be collectively owned.

These groups are right that too much time is currently spent on mindless wage-slavery instead of friendship, creativity and truth-seeking. But there are a couple of problems — even apart from the much-disputed question of whether a robot job apocalypse is really on the cards. The first is that, despite it all, many people (including the most eloquent critics of contemporary work culture) really do like or even love their jobs. Work can be demeaning, but it can sometimes be deeply fulfilling, whereas a utopia of round-the-clock poetry readings and community bake sales might at some point start to pall. The other problem with “post-work” is that it assumes a future which “we” as a society are all going to shape. But right now, there is hardly a functional “we” — there are workers and there are owners, and the owners have all the power.

Jamie McCallum’s book is especially acute on this point. He tells the story of Disneyland’s underground laundry service, where employees arrived one day “to find giant screens affixed around the workplace, with their names colour-coded like traffic lights blinking on and off.” If they failed to meet productivity targets, their names switched from green to amber and then red. Hidden away in an upstairs room, managers tweaked the system for maximum efficiency; anyone who understands power dynamics will not be surprised to learn that, before long, the injury rate rose, the break room and bathroom were deserted, morale plummeted and the workers began to turn on each other. Until, thanks to one determined leader, they banded together and came up with a pact to all work at a reasonable pace. It is the kind of collective action which unions once organised. But today, the worker often stands alone against a giant employer.

All of which gives extra significance to this month’s vote in Bessemer, Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers could become the first in the United States to form a union. The almost unbelievable tactics used to thwart them — reprogramming traffic lightsbombarding employees with anti-union messages — show that Amazon fears the tide is turning. After years of telling its workers what to think (“We love coming to work and miss it when we’re not here!”), the company seems appalled at the possibility of those workers speaking with their own collective voice. Is it any wonder that capitalism is going out of favour, when an astronomically wealthy corporation which employs 1.3 million people worldwide can’t abide the thought of negotiating with them? You don’t have to be sentimental about “solidarity” to hope fervently that, this month in Alabama, the workers win.

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