Marginalia 19: Four day weekend

Most people in Australia have been enjoying a four day weekend for Easter. You might be feeling relaxed, wondering “why can't every week be like this?” Why indeed.

Like hating the police, hating your job is one of the most beautiful and natural things you can do, which is why popular culture works so hard to convince us that cops are heroes and that jobs are actually good.

So sayeth Kassandra Vee in The New Inquiry. The rest of Vee's piece is just as direct, exploring how so many of us feel that whilst the current state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory, nevertheless we can't see a way out.

Because we are all working so hard and our world is nevertheless balanced over the precipice of apocalypse, when people imagine a reduction of work they imagine only collapse. Is it not possible that this edge of total crisis and the constant state of frantic work are not in contradiction but are, instead, mutually enforcing facts?

David Graeber (RIP) approached this question when he famously outlined a theory on Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine and then later in an expanded form as a book. Graeber was important to distinguish between “shit jobs” — jobs that are crappy because of the actual work involved, or the conditions in which people are required to do it — and “bullshit jobs”, where the “work”, as such, doesn't really need to be done. Cleaning the bathrooms in a hotel is a shit job. Being the parking valet is a bullshit job.

The feeling they have bullshit jobs is Why Chinese youngsters are embracing a philosophy of “slacking-off”.

The intense anxiety felt by younger people, and exacerbated by the pandemic, prompted a wider discussion on a once niche academic concept: neijuan. Translated as “involution,” the anthropological term was first applied to agriculture, and has come to describe conditions in which a society ceases to progress, and instead starts to stagnate internally. Neijuan has become a hot topic on the Chinese internet and in media reports this year as a word that “captures urban China’s unhappiness.” Complaints of their work becoming too “involuted”—more competitive with little corresponding rewards—are as likely to be discussed on Weibo by white-collar workers as food delivery drivers.

Remember to laugh heartily next time someone calls China a Communist country. Jamie McCallum has a lot to say about “the work ethic” that these Chinese youngsters are rejecting.

The work ethic is easily weaponised these days, because it has a great affinity with what it means to be successful in a capitalist society. But the fact that the work ethic is also based on practice, and requires a lot of upkeep, is evidence that it might not be as sturdy as it seems on the surface. It’s that vulnerability that offers us some hope of transcending it.

This aligns with Vee's assertion that the natural state for humans is to assume that doing work because someone else told us we have to is uh, undesirable. How come we keep putting up with it, even proudly embracing “the dignity of work” or a “strong work ethic”? McCallum quotes some findings from economist Juliet Schor, who

found that workers have adjusted their expectations as work hours increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours, despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up ‘wanting what they get’ rather than ‘getting what they want’. The work ethic, in other words, is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.

Devon Price, on the other hand, tells us that laziness does not exist:

If a person can’t get out of bed, something is making them exhausted. If a student isn’t writing papers, there’s some aspect of the assignment that they can’t do without help. If an employee misses deadlines constantly, something is making organization and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it — some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed.

People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.

Price is a neuro-atypical Psychology professor, and whilst he's mainly writing in the context of higher education, his point seems fairly common-sense and generally applicable. People won't “apply themselves” to travel hundreds of kilometres to your backbreaking temporary job that pays $20 an hour isolated from any help if it turns our you're an asshole boss? “There are always barriers. Look harder.”

Maybe it wouldn't suck so much if we could just work from home all the time, like we have this last year? Or is that living at work? As George Wylesol puts it in The New Republic, these times will be remembered by most middle class office workers as:

a semipermanent Zoom meeting with colleagues in AirPods and athleisure, interrupted by the occasional surprise of a pet or a child. Exile from the office has been cast as one of this plague’s few consolations—and, we are told, a transformation that is already set in semipermanence.

Wylesol is sceptical. We've seen the “telework” movie before, he reminds us. For all the alleged cost savings and conveniences, there will always be something deeply unsatisfying about remote work:

the world, not merely the corporation, needs “serendipitous interaction.” It is indispensable to how we choose what to eat and what to wear, to fashion, love, friendship, culture—all that is most valuable and lasting. And all of these spheres of life draw their energy from the tidal movement of cities, movements set by commutes. Frank Lloyd Wright obsessed over the unnatural time-tabling of these diurnal movements, how they confounded the ancient influence of the sun on life. But it was electric light, not the subway or motorcar, that made this influence wane. Shared circumstances can feel communal, not only something that stifles or dehumanizes.

For those interested in this last throwaway line, I highly recommend Jonathan Crary's 24/7: terminal capitalism and the ends of sleep. I don't know I agree with Wylesol that “fashion” should be included in “all that is most valuable and lasting”. I mean, by definition, it's not lasting. Graham Lee, in Your place or mine?, present a different, more cynical view. The people who own the biggest corporations can't bear to see their perpetual motion machine stop:

The ultra-rich are the people who own the office complexes in London and Zurich. They rent 60% of the space out as modern, luxurious work spaces; 30% as chic eateries and after-work bars; and the remaining 10% as artisanal bean-to-cup coffee experiences.

These people need bums on office chairs, because those bums pop out to Pret for a sandwich at lunchtime, Costa for a latte in their edgy walking meeting, and Wetherspoons for a pint before picking their car up from the valet and filling up with petrol before heading out to the motorway. Every one of those businesses is on their property, every one of them is paying ground rent, and they need you to go back to work so that ecosystem continues to turn a profit.

Enjoy heading back to the office this week.