a part of something.
radical love letter #71 || on (anti-)work
Pop-science Darling of NPR-types, Malcolm Gladwell, is trending today for a comment he made on a podcast arguing that working from home is bad for us. “What have you reduced your life to?” Gladwell asks of the strawman employee he constructs who checks email in their pjs from bed. “Don’t you want to feel part of something?” he asks tearfully. “I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees.”
People on Twitter are having a field day making jokes about this, which I think is warranted, but I’m left feeling very curious about what’s being latched onto as problematic. Response to the discourse of the moment will always be incoherent, but reactions to work discourse illuminate some fascinating truths, I think, about the wildly divergent views we on the Left (broadly defined) have about labor. In response to Gladwell– and the many other thinkpieces claiming that people actually want to be back at the office– I hear and read a lot of eye-rolling that obviously no one wants to be back at the office. Here we see a thread of anti-work politics, contemporarily theorized in collectives like Crimethinc and by scholars like Kathi Weeks. Here we also see the real lived experience of exploited workers who know that there are a million places we’d rather be than on the clock.
On the other hand, we have a particular type of Labor Leftist who glorifies the worker sometimes to the point of glorifying jobs. I know this type well, because I used to be one. When I was 22, for example, I got lyrics from the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” tattooed on my body. At that point I’d been immersed in anti-capitalist movements for over four years, solidly part of a group of anarchists and communists whose main organizing points of focus were around workers. We fought to get Coke kicked off campus through a campaign that highlighted the company’s role in the murder of Colombian union leaders, we regularly picketed with the hotel cleaners striking at the Congress hotel, we watched documentaries about coal miner battles on movie nights, and, of course, May Day (International Workers’ Day) was our favorite holiday. “The union makes us strong,” the song goes. And to have a union, you have to have a workplace. “What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?” the song (and my tattoo) asks rhetorically. There is strength in unity, of course, but must that collectivity be nourished at the factory (or the office, or the Uber lot)?
To view these sides as antithetical is missing some important nuance. It’s not as simple as ‘Gladwell is an idiot, no one wants to work,’ nor is it wise to center our liberation struggles in the confines of employment. The problem here is the focus on work and not on, what Gladwell rightly points out, the need for belonging. We do, I think, crave ‘being a part of something’; what he gets wrong is not that we do better getting out of bed and sharing space with people—I think this is actually good advice (if possible/and with consideration for different abilities)— but that he lands on getting that through capitalist relations. The bigger issue is that for many, many people, work is the only place they’ve ever felt any semblance of ‘community.’ Alienation is a problem for us as workers, but sometimes more painfully, for us as neighbors, as simply living beings.
My friend and brilliant journalist, Sara Jaffe, wrote a whole book on this premise. In Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to our Jobs Keep Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, she observes astutely: “Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity.” Gladwell thinks it is the office that breeds belonging, but people committed to liberation know that, really, we find that in each other. “The work itself only matters as a way to connect,” Jaffe writes.
“If we don’t feel like we’re part of something important, what’s the point?” That’s Gladwell again. I think his question is a good one; we shouldn’t be dismissive of his articulation of that longing. But we have to insist on other outlets, other possibilities.
“When we have no memory or little imagination of an alternative to a life centered on work, there are few incentives to reflect on why we work as we do and what we might wish to do instead,” Weeks writes in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.
Instead of mocking Gladwell for suggesting anyone would want to leave their home and hang out together, what if we shone a light more brightly on the spaces we can do that outside of our jobs? What if we built more of those spaces while also finding ways to support our lives and this planet without the requisite of selling our labor?
I don’t want to insist that no one wants to work. The world(s) I imagine includes the work of growing food, and caring for bodies, and making art. I also don’t want to insist that work, under capitalism, has any inherent dignity. The world(s) I imagine don’t include wages or profits.
Capitalism and the state are not helping us ‘be a part of something,’ they are the only things standing in the way of it. Solidarity forever, yes, but not just at our jobs— also in the garden, in the water, on our front stoops. We have the chance to offer new imaginaries and alternatives. This moment is begging for them.
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