Refusing Work-As-We-Know-It

by Tedd Siegel


The copies, the copies,” said I hurriedly.
We are going to examine them, there —
and I held towards him the fourth quadruplicate.
I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.

–The Lawyer, Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

Turn to the left
Now turn to the right
Sashay, shantay

RuPaul, Supermodel (You Better Work)

Something quite momentous is happening with respect to our collective experience of work — or what, following Peter Fleming, I like to call “work-as-we-know-it,” for reasons that will become clear later.

Septuagenarian baby boomers in all manner of leadership positions throughout American society continue to bray like asses, insisting that the present glorious ascendancy of unfettered neoliberal capitalism in all domains is in fact the very meaning of human freedom; but increasingly, larger and larger swaths of both GenX and Millennials/GenZ just know that something has gone terribly wrong. This is not something they know because they have become swayed by some slick re-packaging of an alternative economic and political ideology. They know it (somewhat differentially) in and through the direct effects of work-as-we-know-it. They know it as the flowering of a kind of generational truth. They know it in their bones.

For these GenXers (I am one) it is known first and foremost in and through a new and distinctive experience of debilitating burnout, becoming chronic long before the age of Medicare and social security (more on this later too).

For the Millennials/GenZers, on the other hand, it is known by way of growing doubts about even “signing on the bottom line” because, as blogger and researcher Nick Irving has pointed out, the deal being offered (work yourself to death for the next thirty years while you build your human capital) requires each of them to take out a mortgage on the self that they know can never be paid off. The deferral of most personal goals to an imagined future, in exchange for laboring continually for the goals of their employers, lies exposed as a rotten deal.

What if we (all of us) decided that we no longer have to accept work-as-we-know-it?

In this article, my overarching aim is to explore and unpack the following idea: that through the growing and multi-faceted refusal to accept “work-as-we-know-it,” GenXers and Millennials/GenZers, each for their different reasons, might be on the cusp of actually waking up from the structural fantasy known as capitalist realism, the underlying ideology that one might say is the DNA that “carries the instructions” for all the various possibilities found within the present neoliberal capitalist hegemony.

Prospectus for the Work-As-We-Know-It Series

Over this series of related articles, I plan to plumb the depths of my significant angst about “work-as-we-know-it,” in order to try to see some glimmers of light concerning “work-as-it-could-be.”

In the second article in this series, I continue to unpack the implications of “refusing work-as-we-know it,” but the focus changes from discursive/academic writing on this topic to exploration of the emergence of what I recognize to be a new cultural mood. Reading David Greif’s Against Everything, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, I reflect on their recent work-refusing invocations of Diogenes of Sinope, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and Thoreau’s Walden, and I argue that we may be seeing the cultural re-emergence of a full-blown philosophical cynicism.

There will also be an installment on Ivan Illich, whom I consider to be the contemporary father of the “refusal of work-as-we-know-it,” by stepping through key themes in The Right to Useful Unemployment (1978) in relation to capitalist realism. In another installment, I intend to consider various ideas about the difference between the concepts of labor and work. I also have plans to write about the challenge of self-renewal under condition of advanced capitalism, and, as part of an article on the plight of Millennials/GenZers, capitalist realism from the standpoint of developmental psychology. In the final part, I plan to write about Antonio Negri and the Italian “workerist” Autonomia movement from the 1970s.

My GenX Kitsch Melancholy

In the interest of full disclosure, as I write this, I am presently four weeks from embarking upon early retirement (whatever that means).

I’ve had three different careers over the last thirty years…

As Watcher Joe Dawson says in the opening voice over to the Highlander TV series, “for four hundred years, he’s been a warrior, a lover, a wanderer…”

Kidding, kidding. But it actually makes a kind of sense for me to invoke the Highlander series here, because, well, I’m an American, middle-class, white male from GenX, and our angst is always shot through with pop-culture ridiculousness.

When I talk to my fifty-something peers (many of whom are also leaving jobs, selling houses, and otherwise packing up early) I am struck by the kitschy melancholy we share. It’s a recognition that, in hitting the wall early, we are largely (as a generational cohort) a spent force. We have some personal and professional accomplishments, and maybe even a bit of a nest egg; but for the most part (and with some exceptions of course) we lived according to a set of given boomer assumptions, and just tried to be decent people. But we played by a set of rules that was too optimistic, too individualistic, and too lacking in urgency for change.

Now that the change is here, we are having to live with the future that we failed to give a properly human shape. When one considers the privilege of when and where we were born, you could say we behaved as if we were born to be kings; but Princes of the Universe? Sadly, these days, there’s not even a hint of that kind of preposterous braggadocio.

Cue Freddie Mercury: “What is this thing…that builds our dreams…but slips away from us?”

Bullshit Jobs, Private Government, Refusing Work

In this opening article, I propose to start by recognizing that there is already a burgeoning contemporary literature that attempts to describe the new American reality of work, and which seeks to situate this experience meaningfully in a broader historical and social and political context, with various angles of vision. It is my contention that there is a common thread of “refusing work-as-we-know-it” that runs through these books, and that each, in their own way, causes the enveloping capitalist realism supporting neoliberal hegemony, to tremble.

I’d like to begin this series of articles by considering a few examples:

Exhibit A: David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs

Consider, for example, David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, which struck quite a nerve when it first came out in 2018 due to the widespread shock of recognition that it caused: almost everybody, it seems, knew people who fit the descriptions in Graeber’s rogues’ gallery of human types inhabiting our office complexes (Flunkies, Goons, Duct Tapers, Box Tickers, and Taskmasters). But after the fun of these modern “Canterbury Tales” had begun to subside, the trade press discussion deepened, because of Graeber’s interesting way of framing things — a Bullshit Job, he writes, is one that even the person doing it secretly believes it need not, or should not, exist…[and] 40% of workers say their jobs make no difference.

In a 2018 interview in the Economist, Graeber says that the really radical thing about his book is that it proceeds on the assumption that the 40% are largely correct — ”their jobs really are as pointless as they think they are.” Graeber goes on to say that the thing that most surprised him was how hard it appears to be for so many people to adjust to boredom and purposelessness. Instead of reconciling themselves to getting something for nothing, “the overwhelming majority report themselves to be utterly miserable. They report depression, anxiety and psychosomatic illnesses that would magically disappear the moment they were given real work, and escaped awful sadomasochistic workplace dynamics.”

In framing things in this way, Graeber invites us to identify with the rather hopeless people working the bullshit jobs, rather than to point the finger at them as a parasitic class of people who “need to be made to pull their own weight.” He takes this approach, because he understands the people who occupy these proliferating roles as having done so due to something he wants to call “the yoke of managerial feudalism.”

To understand what is meant by managerial feudalism, one must turn to the rise of finance capitalism:

First, because bullshit jobs are especially concentrated in what is called the FIRE sector (finance/insurance/real estate), along with health and education among some others. The general rule of thumb is that the more a company’s profits are derived from finance rather than from actually making and selling anything, Graeber writes, the more the administrative and managerial ranks are padded with bullshit jobs.

Second, because an economy driven by finance capitalism, he claims, isn’t really capitalism anymore–at least not in any sense that would be recognizable to “Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman.” If Bullshit Jobs seem to defy the logic of capitalism, he adds, it’s because our present economic system is increasingly just an elaborate system of rent extraction — and in this it “most closely resembles medieval feudalism.” Bullshit jobs support the army of flunkies one would expect to find in such a system. See Michael Hudson, for a fuller account.

Oh God, Are All Jobs Bullshit Jobs?

Over a year after its first publication, new reviews of Bullshit jobs and follow-on interviews with David Graeber were still coming out in print, and for reasons other than the sluggishness of the publication cycle. In his July 2019 review in Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson wrote “…isn’t this a long time to wait to review it? To this we say that, “…if anything, Graeber’s book is even more relevant today than when it was first published, because the foul trends it examines have only grown stinkier since then.”

Along with the account of the proliferation of bullshit jobs, David Graeber had also invoked “the bullshitization of real jobs.” Trying to think through the difference between real jobs and bullshit ones, or what aspects of jobs were real and what bullshit, Nathan J. Robinson despairingly asks, “Oh God, are all jobs bullshit jobs?” “Should anyone be concerned if blockchain startups struggle to find software engineers to design their shitty apps?”

At the most basic level, however, Robinson was unnerved because “[the existence of] bullshit jobs invoke an “intense cognitive dissonance…they shouldn’t be able to exist under capitalism…companies with bloated advisory boards and expensively useless brand consultants should perish at the hands of their leaner rivals.”

Robinson had thus set about to review Bullshit Jobs in mid-2019 not just because the foul trends it described had grown stinkier — it was because he had begun asking himself some of the more troubling questions the final chapters of the book raised about the current phase of late capitalism. These include questioning after whether and in what way it makes sense to describe work as productive or unproductive. What is it that gives work considered to be useful its supposed value? Is it really correct to simply say that commodity market prices decide the degree to which goods or services satisfy a want/need? As Graeber commented, “Anyone who has a bullshit job…is aware that the market is not an infallible arbiter of value.”

If “work-as-we-know-it” is 40% bullshit, and we as a society suffer this growing bullshitization because capitalism is, strictly speaking, no longer capitalism, then how do we escape this predicament? Having felt compelled to start to question the value of work per se, Graeber does not then resort to moralizing about the virtue of work, etc. Instead, he eases down the road of refusing work-as-we-know-it. “If it is really true that as much as half the work we do could be eliminated without any significant effect on productivity,” he writes, “why not just re-distribute the remaining work so that everyone works four-hour days? Or four-day weeks? Why not shutter down the global work machine?”

Exhibit B: Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government

In summarizing aspects of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, my primary interest was to show how Graeber’s take on the nature and origins of contemporary bullshitization (and our apparent lack of concern about it) raised questions and led to recommendations that actually cause the matrix of capitalist realism to glitch. It does so, because by definition, capitalist realism is the naturalizing of a set of social and political economic structures in order to deny the possibility that there could be viable alternatives.

Something similar is also at work in Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government, from 2017. Like Graeber, Anderson is also asking questions which cause a significant cognitive dissonance about the contemporary experience of American capitalism. In Private Government, she asks, “Why do we talk as if workers are free at work, and that the only threats to individual liberty come from the state?” We have the “language of fairness and distributive justice to talk about low wages and inadequate benefits,” Anderson says, but “we don’t have good ways to talk about the way bosses rule workers’ lives.”

Walmart, Anderson tells us, prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft;” Apple inspects retail employees personal belongings upon arrival at the office, making them wait in line for up to a half hour of unpaid time; Tyson Foods prevents poultry workers from using the bathroom; and millions of workers nation-wide are made to take suspicion-less drug tests, and are pressured to support employer-favored causes and political candidates.

Despite all this going on, she writes, “American public discourse is also mostly silent about the regulations employers impose upon their workers.” For example, most workers are unaware that only about half of us enjoy even partial protection of off-duty speech from employer meddling. Anderson says that twenty-five percent of the population has a full and clear-eyed understanding that they are subject to dictatorship at work (including governance of their after-work activity).

It appears that the condition for a new public discourse about work thus really only emerges with the changing condition of work-as-we-know-it for another fifty-five percent, who have de facto enjoyed all manner of negative liberties for which they really have no legal entitlement. They have enjoyed these liberties, she says, because “market pressures, social norms, lack of interest, or simple decency keep most employers from exercising the full scope of their authority.”

It is the contractual relation between most employers and their employees that turns out to be the real center of Anderson’s book. Her primary intent is to find language that can expose this relation to be one of “private, arbitrary, and unaccountable government over the vast majority” and in so doing, also explain the ruling ideology that has continued to mask and downplay its importance.

As should be clear, her purpose is thus not to simply add something to the traditional Left discourses of the labor movement. Anderson is concerned instead with what I call “work-as-we-know-it.” It encompasses the experience of millions of people, most of whom have nothing to do with traditional, Fordist industrial production, or even with the broader, unionized services sector. Many of them work under post-Fordist conditions of precarity. Many of the people perform white collar, management-level work. It’s in this broader context of the experience of work that Anderson offers new language. “We need to revive the idea of private government,” she writes, “as a tool to discern relevant factors of our current workplace governance.”

The Authoritarianism of the Workplace

What then, does she mean by private government? Anderson is aware that for contemporary ears, it sounds like something of a contradiction. “Isn’t everything in the private sphere part of individual liberty, and everything subject to public… [government or state] …control a constraint on individual liberty?”

To begin with, she writes, the term government need not apply only to the State, and thus need not, as such, be associated with things public, as is the case under a republican democracy. “Government exists wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domain of life.”

Next there is the notion of what is private. What is private can be thought of in two senses–what is private to you (your business and no one else’s except or unless you say so), and what is private from you (not your business, even if it otherwise concerns you). So you are subject to private government whenever you are subordinate to authorities who can order you around and sanction you, and the authorities say it is none of your business what orders it issues and why it sanctions you (so that you have no standing to demand that anything be taken into account).

Private government is thus government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs. So, contrary to the position that says that government only applies to the State, and everything in the private sphere is about individual liberty, it is in fact the case that liberty can be constrained by private governors in domains kept private from the State.

nderson wants to describe “work-as-we-know-it” in these stark terms (she literally calls the terms of contemporary employment-at-will a communist dictatorship) in order to provide a counter-weight to some very deeply inscribed narratives about work that completely ignore the experience of most people in the workforce. “A large class of libertarian-leaning thinkers and politicians cannot perceive half the economy,” she writes. “The half that takes place after the employment contract is accepted.”

Why then are workers subject to dictatorship, and why does this condition persist, almost without comment? The inability/refusal to see the authoritarianism of the workplace, it turns out, rests on fundamental delusions about market capitalism that enables it and reinforces the willful blindness concerning work-as-we-know-it.

The narrative about the free market being more or less equal to human freedom writ large, Anderson explains, originated in a tradition of “free market progressivism” from the 17th century to the early 19th century. The political economists of that time assumed that free men operating in free markets would be independent artisans, merchants, and participants in small-scale manufacturing enterprises, rather than wage laborers. Thus, it made sense, she writes, to equate economic liberty, free markets, and things like autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence.

But the industrial revolution dramatically altered the assumptions on which this hopeful, “free market progressivism” rested. With the changed conditions that came with industrialization (significant numbers of people performing wage labor in large, capital-intensive organizations) we see the rise instead of widespread workplace authoritarianism under cover of the rhetoric of laissez-faire liberalism.

And yet, Anderson writes, the advocates of capitalism continue to speak as if their preferred system of production upholds individualism. Given our current reality, she counters, doing so is a “mis-deployment of a hopeful, pre-industrial vision of what market society would deliver.” As a result, “we are working with a model of our world that omits the relations between employers and employees within which most of us work.”

Freedom to Choose Your Own Leviathan?

The stubborn holdover of this early modern tradition of market progressivism, so long after its relevance, Anderson explains, occurs because of a fundamental delusion about market capitalism. The delusion, it turns out, is nothing other than a central tenet of economic liberalism, that there is a formal equivalence between the salaried worker and the employer, where both are seen as subjects free to dispose of their property, be it labor power on the one hand, or capital on the other, and to exchange it at its proper value in the market.

This “superficial symmetry” of the employment contract, as Anderson refers to it, lies increasingly exposed as such today, where neoliberalism increasingly withdraws the worker protections that used to be the hallmark of a liberal mixed economy.

In the central sections of her second essay, Anderson zeroes in on the crux of the matter by interrogating the liberal economists’ “Theory of the Firm.”

In the period immediately following WWI, a group of economists looking at transactional cost theory changed their focus from thinking about markets to thinking about organizations (corporate partnerships). Per Anderson, the theory of the firm purports to offer “politically neutral, technical, economic reasons why most production is undertaken by hierarchical organizations, with workers subordinate to bosses, rather than by autonomous individual workers.”

Although this theoretical project contained important insights into the organization of production in advanced economies (capital intensive economies of scale doomed the prior market egalitarianism) Anderson writes, “it fails to explain the sweeping scope of authority that employers have over workers,” and most important, it provided resources for denying it, in terms that “reflect and reinforce an illusion of workers’ freedom that also characterizes much of public discourse.”

While it is true that the existence of firms brought down the transaction costs associated with production, she says, it is also true that these efficiencies are established primarily through the centralized authority that comes with management hierarchy. As Anderson writes, “the key to the superior efficiency of hierarchy is the open-ended authority of managers” in the context of incomplete contracts that do not specify everything a worker must do.

So the theory of the firm explains why firms exist in hierarchies of authority, but it does not explain, Anderson says, the sweeping scope of that authority over workers’ off-duty lives, “given that their choice of sexual partner, political candidate, or Facebook posting has nothing to do with productive efficiency.”

Instead, these theorists soft-pedal and paper-over the issue at hand. Anderson references Ronald Coase, the founder of the “theory of the firm,” who says that the essence of the employment contract is that it should only state the limits to the power of the entrepreneur.” Anderson writes that this suggests that the limits of the employer’s powers are an object of negotiation and communication between the parties. But in the vast majority of cases, she points out, “outside collective bargaining or for higher-level employees, this is not true.”

But the award for shamelessness definitely goes to two other luminaries in this field of economics, Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz, who write, “the firm has no power of fiat, no authority, no disciplinary action any different in the slightest degree from ordinary market contracting between any two people…I can fire my grocer by stopping purchases from him or sue him for delivering faulty products.” In response to this dubious example, Anderson reminds us that “in the employment contract…workers cannot separate themselves from the labor they have sold; in purchasing command over labor, employers purchase command over people.”

It is indeed the case that, under employment-at-will, workers may quit for any or no reason, quitting is nonetheless not equivalent to firing your boss; and quitting often imposes greater costs on workers than being fired does. Despite what these theorists, and laissez-faire liberalism in general would have us believe, “the firm” is not merely a nexus of contracts among independent individuals.

“Let us not fool ourselves,” she writes, “into supposing that the competitive equilibrium of labor relations was ever established by politically neutral market forces mediated by pure freedom of contract…every competitive equilibrium is established against a background assignment of property rights and other rights established by the state.” Through the laws regulating corporations, labor laws, etc., the state establishes the default constitution of workplace governance, and it is a form of authoritarian private government where, “under employment-at-will, workers cede all their rights to their employer except those specifically reserve for them by law.” Workers under such free market conditions are free in a certain sense — but only free to choose their own Leviathan, she writes.

The evaporation of middle-class entitlement reveals the sham at the center of economic liberalism that presents a de facto equivalence between the capitalist and the wage laborer, or under neoliberalism, finance capital and human capital. If it turns out that as much as eighty percent of the population (who are not self-employed, or among the class of workplace dictators or would-be dictators) are subject to intolerable conditions by work-as-we-know it, then the potential exists to insist upon greater human freedom by making the private government under which they work “a public thing, accountable to the governed.”

Exhibit C: Peter Fleming’s Resisting Work

To complete this initial survey (designed to show that some idiosyncratic and pugnacious academics are picking up on the vibe) consider also Resisting Work, by Peter Fleming.

As with Graeber and Anderson, Fleming’s interest is situated in the gap between the experience of work-as-we-know-it, and the hegemonic ideology and rhetoric of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.

But where Graeber writes about the increasing purposelessness of workers under the conditions of finance capital, and Anderson writes about the authoritarianism of the at-will employment contract, Fleming is mostly concerned with how neoliberal capitalism’s reliance on our personal biopower (our very life energies from daily life and socio-cultural domains) is actually a feature, and not a bug.

Fleming frames the issue of how our jobs are increasingly sucking us dry (by erasing the distinction between work and private life in order to get us to exploit ourselves) in terms of the contemporary (Foucault-inspired) discourse of biopower and biopolitics. In so doing, Fleming opens up the space for explicit resistance, or what I like to call “the refusal of work-as-we-know-it.”

Within post-Fordism, Fleming explains, there has been a qualitative change in our relationship to our jobs. Our jobs are more intimate to us, more reliant on our interpersonal aptitudes and emotional intelligence. Neoliberal capitalism “has us constantly concerned with its problems, integrating them into our life problems in order to get things done.”

Life itself is now drawn into the logic of production, especially since the control logic of post-Fordist organizations augments supervisor management with horizontal forms like self-managed teams, etc. Another important takeaway is that in harvesting the social commons, Fleming says, employers leave us with “the burnt-out remains…tired bodies, permanently anxious people, and numb personalities.”

We know that overwork and precarity are largely manufactured, and that the rise of biopower in and around the workplace is “inexorably linked to the shifting tactics of capitalist regulation,” Fleming writes. But can the impossibility at the heart of contemporary capitalism somehow be politically activated to oppose and escape work?

By way of a conclusion to this first installment on “refusing work-as-we-know-it,” it is useful to see what he says.

First, there is the problem of what Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism calls “centerlessness.” For anyone who wants to oppose work as we know it, who is the target of opposition? “Is it the boss, the co-worker, or ourselves?” Given that the power of work over our lives today is so embodied and socialized, he writes, “it behooves us to partially revise what we mean by resistance, its target, and its objectives concerning the future and non-future of work.”

Resistance against work-as-we-know-it is no longer resistance against capitalism, in the sense of fighting for a better deal within its parameters, especially because there is a growing perception that “neoliberal capitalism is irrevocably bereft of future promise.”

Nor does refusal have do with work-life balance programs, which he says have always been a ruse to reconcile us to our own exploitation. Needless to say, it also does not mean advocating for lassitude, or for some sort of privileged, romanticism.

To refuse work-as-we-know-it, Fleming says, is to assert the radical autonomy of the commons — biopolitical workers are not seeking to withdraw into solitude, or bourgeois individualism, but rather to escape back into collective life, reclaiming the public labor that we already are.

This sort of autonomy, along with detachment, he writes, are central concepts for understanding emerging approaches to labor that are starting to be seen around the world. There is the beginning of a radical repossession movement among the disenfranchised working classes (which now includes almost everybody). The important thing to recognize, he concludes, is that these post-work worlds are not in some far-away inscrutable future.

In the next article in this series, I consider what it means to adopt an attitude of refusal as a strategy of resistance to the intensifying neoliberal cocktail of overwork, exploitation, and precarity. Where this article on “refusing work-as-we-know-it” emphasized the “work-as-we-know-it” part, this next installment is focused more on the “refusing” part.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”