Peter Fleming examines how neoliberal society uses the ritual of work (and the threat of its denial) to maintain the late capitalist class order. Working from the themes in his book The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself, Fleming paints a bleak picture of neoliberal capitalism in which the economic and emotional dysfunctions of a society of wage slaves greatly outweigh its professed benefits.
According to a recent study, the average worker in England spends 36 days a year writing emails. London workers in particular receive around 9000 emails each year. This tells us much about the ritual of work in late capitalist societies. Only neoliberal capitalism could subvert the clever labor saving possibilities of an invention like email and use it to extend the working day ad infinitum. The tyranny of the workplace email is now so out of control that even the multinational corporation is starting to have second thoughts about its utility. Some French companies, for example, have banned its employees logging on in the evening. Similarly, a number of German firms automatically erase incoming emails when its employees are on holiday. And for good reason. Those last few days of vacation are often ruined by dark thoughts of the overflowing inbox awaiting us at the office. Capitalism understands its own contradictions here – the human body’s inability to fulfill the glorified ideal of homo oeconomicus without breaking down or making errors that hurt the bottom line. Hence it tries to moderate the 24-hour work ethic it has unleashed with the rise of neoliberal (un)reason; a task it often struggles with, as the death of Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt, demonstrated in 2013 – Erhardt died after working 72 straight hours.
The survey inadvertently raises another set of questions about exactly what our jobs are demanding from us today. There is no doubt that post-industrial employment systems have led to labour intensification for some and widening unemployment or precarity for others. We are now working more than ever or worrying about it if not employed. But another story is lurking in the background: it would be impossible to fill every minute on email with only productive work. And the same is true for the long hours put in at the office. Apart from getting the actual task done, which is typically completed in short bursts, there is also a good deal of messing about, chatting, paying the bills, surfing the net, daydreaming and waiting. As a result we are obliged to look like a worker as much as actually be one. For example, a recent study of management consultants in the US found that 35% employed in this occupation actually ‘faked’ an 80-hour workweek. These individuals pretended to sacrifice themselves on the altar of work in order to be left alone. In this respect, entire occupations might be considered bullshit jobs, as David Graeber’s recently argued in a compelling essay. And considerable amounts of empty labour rests behind paid clocked in time, as Roland Paulsen suggests.
Graeber and Paulsen are right to decry this frenetic dormancy as a sign that something is very wrong. It reveals the sheer needlessness that drives our society’s obsession with work. We could all be doing something much more interesting and worthwhile with our time, relaxing, meeting friends, anything but sitting in an office staring at a screen all day. But these arguments have also caught the attention of right-wing commentators too. In its review of Paulsen’s Empty Labour (2014), The Economist quickly overlooked the author’s condemnation of neoliberal capitalism and instead confirmed its suspicion that workers are really a lazy lot: ‘policymakers bemoan the epidemic of overwork. But as [Paulsen] explains … innumerable studies suggest that the average worker devotes between one-and-a-half and three hours a day loafing’.
The reviewer suggests that workers are probably skiving far too much and we should quit complaining about labor intensification and work saturated lives. In a similar fashion, it is easy to imagine some sadistic technocrat coming across the bullshit jobs thesis and nodding with approval as they size up the next round of nurses to be axed from the National Health Service. Debunking the mythology of work clearly requires a degree of caution in order to cancel out those implicit points of sympathy with right-wing dogma.
I got the idea for my new book The Mythology of Work after a conversation with a woman who has struggled to find employment in the media industry. She told me that her current part-time job paradoxically allows her (and many others in a similar position) to escape real work, which she defined as the gruelling labor of justifying oneself before the gaze of a punitive state apparatus. The sentiment seemed counter-intuitive since work is supposed to be the epicentre of class exploitation and control in capitalist societies, not a space of escape. But I started to see her point. Many jobs are indefensible under crisis capitalism – often pointless, commonly soul destroying and sometimes dangerous to the social good. However, for the majority who do not own the means of production, jobs provide cover or an alibi to evade the egregious harassment of the neoliberal state complex, job centres, domestic chaos caused by poverty and the capitalist marketplace more generally (according to micro-economists, work organisations are a frustrating ‘exception’ to the marketplace and hence their mission to crack open and expose this so-called black box to the market forces via subcontracting, zero-hour contracts, etc.). Our job might be superfluous and sometimes unpleasant but it provides a useful story to keep the authorities at bay.
This weird ‘job as alibi’ attitude is particularly evident among young interns, whose free labour within the neoliberal paradigm is nothing but a scandal. When I ask them about what they get out working for a magazine company or media firm the answer is fairly straight forward. Useful industry experience? No, they mostly do photocopying. Networking opportunities? No, they are told to keep away from important clients. A path to a full-time job with the firm? No, they are let go after 6 months to make room for the next intern. So what? Protection from the state and an ugly open market. Sure, they are broke, living with mum and dad or worse. But the placement at least buys some time before they enter the state run (and increasingly privatised) hell called the unemployment industry.
It would be funny if The Economist was right, that bullshit jobs, pointless bureaucracy and empty labour turned out to be a secret kind of work refusal movement designed to undermine capitalist rationality from the inside! However, using ‘a job’ to escape the tyranny of the marketplace and the Department of Work and Pensions is not rebellious since the neoliberal state is in favour of such behaviour. This is why it threatens (and sometimes taunts) the working multitude with the prospect of joining the reserve army of the unemployed, perhaps our own version of the gulag. And that particular motivator is deeply connected to the near suicidal ‘culture of danger’ that Foucault argued defined the neoliberal ethos. So why is the capitalist state so amenable to this pointless ritualisation of work if it has little social or economic worth? I believe there are a number of reasons.
First, it makes axing jobs much easier to justify when the need arises, as argued earlier.
Second, one of the key victories of the capitalist ruling class was to pervert the function of work, changing it from a discernible input (where we collectively decide how and where our efforts are directed) to a characterless output, jobs that are nothing more than a forgettable number on a spreadsheet. We see this shift in perspective when politicians and business leaders celebrate a (minor) drop in unemployment or a rise in self-employment. The number of jobs is all that matter, not their quality or social purpose. Approaching employment as a quantified figure diverts attention away from the travesty that work has become today following years of deskilling, degradation of pay and conditions, unfair part-time contracts, blind managerialism and so-forth. Numbers hide the reality, even when they are bad or unfavourable numbers.
And third, if everyone is acting as if they are workers – including the unemployed toiling for nothing at Poundland, disabled people who would rather be registered as self-employed than endure another humiliating cross-examination at the local job centre – it helps maintain the illusion that all those freedoms we forsake in the name of paid (or unpaid) employment is unavoidable because it is based on biological survival and self-preservation. And who can question that? Indeed, the charade is rendered even more convincing if a little bit of material insecurity and manufactured scarcity is added to the mix, a neat trick that neoliberal policymakers have perfected. It makes it seem like work and nature are closely bound. But they are not, despite the return of Victorian-era maladies like rickets in contemporary London. In a society like ours, we simply do not require this immense theatre of labor in order to live well. Indeed, I am constantly amazed by how reluctant even left-wing commentators, newspapers and intellectuals are about questioning the so-called sanctitiy of work.
None of this is to say that there are not real jobs where people do real things with concrete outcomes. Cleaners, scientists, airline pilots, surgeons, publishers, farmers and factory workers around the world clearly attest to this. And let’s face it, things need to get done. But when framed within a purely self-referential economic paradigm (growth for growth’s sake, profit for profit’s sake, etc.) work is decoupled from the original purpose of labor, which ought to be about securing our collective needs so that we can get on with other things, like relaxing, inventing, and thinking. Instead, jobs have been separated from the life of the community and transformed into crude political artefacts, even the ones that really matter such as brain surgeons and midwives. Ironically, it is only in this secondary role that work is able to colonise all parts of society and become the be-all and end-all of living as such, and painfully so.
How has it come to this? I try to figure out this question in my book The Mythology of Work. It is tempting to blame yet again the runaway excesses of modernity or humanity’s collective insanity (as some authors have done), but the source is much more modest and closer to home. Work is an ideology designed to lock in a particular class relationship, to naturalise the private ownership of the means of production by falsely evoking the necessity of life (even if, ironically, nature is being killed off today on scale never before seen). And this disingenuous business ontology has been replicated throughout the public sector as well. Indeed, if we are to understand what has happened to work today we need a very robust theory of the state.
The word ‘mythology’ is a bit misleading here. It sound like the pervasive ideology of work is somehow imaginary and all we need to do is think differently. Unfortunately, its power is very real and very concrete, as anyone who fails to pay their rent on time will verify. Is there anything we can do to fight back given its hold over our lives? There is hope.’
Peter Fleming is Professor of Business and Society at Cass Business School, City University London. He researches the changing politics of capitalist employment relations, and has a Guardian column on this topic. He is the author of The Death of Homo Economicus (Pluto, 2017).
The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself is available to buy from Pluto Press.