It’s Not Going to Work Out

A Review of Post-Work Writing

By Rithika Ramamurthy

a computer keyboard escape key

Earlier this year, workers at a Burger King in Lincoln, Nebraska gave notice en masse on the restaurant’s pylon sign: “we all quit. sorry for the inconvenience.” In April, a record 4 million workers quit their jobs, soon to be surpassed by the 4.3 million who quit in August. This wave of mass resignations provoked outcry from conservative politicians and disgruntled employers looking for reasons to blame the nationwide “labor shortage” on workers. The  unemployment payments provided by the Cares Act, they complained, encouraged people to collect checks instead of working for a living. Accusing the unemployed of moral turpitude and individual laziness is a tactic as old as capitalism itself. And yet, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, after close to 800,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, many workers have had enough of insult as well as injury. 

Insufficient pay is only one problem among many for service workers. In the restaurant industry, for example, opening with limited capacity means fewer tips for workers who rely on them to bump their paychecks above minimum wage. Line cooks, who often work in poorly ventilated kitchens, are at the highest risk of dying from Covid-19 among restaurant workers. Faced with the prospect of returning to unsafe workplaces, surveillant bosses, and draining schedules, millions of American workers across industries — from shipping to delivery  — quit their jobs in search of something better.

“We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

But it is unclear whether there is anything better out there. The past four decades have witnessed CEO salaries skyrocket and worker wages stagnate. Exorbitant wealth inequality is now accompanied by top-down management: Due to draconian labor laws and the rise of contingent work, union membership density in the U.S. is down to around 10 percent, even though many see this decline as bad for working people. While businesses are trying to attract people back to work with signing bonuses and a few more dollars an hour, the crisis of the past 18 months has only clarified how little say most workers have over their jobs — especially in terms of who must work, why, and for how much. The idea of “essential” work, minted during the early days of pandemic lockdown, was a perfect example of how without collective decision-making, workers will always be subordinate  to the profit motive. While grocery store workers kept shelves stocked and sanitation workers kept cities clean, governments across the world refused to exert control over the pandemic, failing to test, trace, and implement lockdown measures, or delineate which kinds of work really needed to be done. As the months went by, management stepped in to exploit this situation by pushing to make all kinds of in-person jobs “essential” and pocketing record proceeds. 

Whose work is essential? Why should life be risked for work? Why work at all?

Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone and Amelia Horgan’s Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism, two books published this year, affirm what the underemployed and overworked have been saying all along: that work does, in fact, suck. Beginning with the fundamental insight that capitalist work is inherently distressing, these books provide accessible analysis of how work came to be so bad, why it hurts so much, and what needs to change. They offer various pathways into our current crisis: Capitalism threatens life itself, keeping the majority of the world impoverished and murdering the planet. Why do we work so hard, they ask, for so many of us to be so miserable? 

These sets of questions are not often asked in everyday life precisely because they disturb the idea that work is a social necessity. Casting doubt upon the work ethic, asking not only why labor is linked to survival but also why it has to be so dangerous and soul-crushing, reframes working conditions as political arrangements rather than perpetual givens. These books take everyday phenomena like misery or exhaustion and explain how these feelings are produced by capitalist arrangements that separate workers from what they make and do. They map, in other words, how work depends on emotional energy and produces psychic pain. 

Writing against work is popular again. In the midst of a pandemic that robs us of sustaining relationships and demands more hours on the job, workers want their time back. But caring for one another is work, too — how does life go on when we’re off the clock?   

Horgan’s Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism invites us to consider an ordinary experience: being bored on the job. In the Global North during the mid-twentieth century, many workers held mass manufacturing jobs in factories and on building sites. After years of struggle, workers were able to unionize and win stable employment and benefits, but their jobs became increasingly subject to intense technological management. Clocking in was an exercise in checking out and an invitation to engage in repetitive and stultifying labor with little control over the end product. Horgan explains that as work became increasingly timed and broken down into smaller parts, the “dominant emotional landscape of those involved in production is boredom.” The workers were not bored by laying bricks or assembling cars, but by the way the jobs were tailored to meet output goals engineered to squeeze every last drop of surplus value out of every shift.

If bad feelings at work are historically tied to bad management practices, then work must be wretched, not because of the fact of doing it, but because of the ways in which we are made to do it. To tell this story, Horgan moves from reporting on trade union meetings to philosophical exposition of the concept of alienation, from personal anecdotes about class consciousness to political analysis of the English labor market. She describes how the labor movement tried to solve the problem of overwork by demanding time off, eventually reducing the workday to eight hours and reserving two days a week for recuperation. But if workers in the middle of the twentieth century were working for the weekend, the contemporary working class does not even know when the working day is done. Horgan explains that the proponents of “new work” promise flexibility and excitement even as the psychically taxing and precarious nature of employment means that the reality is one of exhaustion and anxiety. Horgan’s point here is that the power dynamics of work have not changed — workers still have little to no control over how they are working, let alone why — but the affect of work has changed from one of assembly-line boredom to anxiety.

Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back grounds its argument in a feeling that can be uglier than it seems: love. Her book exposes the insidious motivations behind the clichéd imperative to “love what you do,” revealing how work has become an unrequited love story. Like Horgan, she traces a line from the Fordist compromise to the degraded and deindustrialized state of contemporary labor. But whereas Horgan surveys various aspects of financial attachments to capitalist work, Jaffe zeroes in on love as the hallmark of this new spirit of capitalism, a “labor-of-love” work ethic. The “you” in her title seems to refer to a stressed-out individual living in privatized and lonely times. When you are in a monogamous relationship with your job, Jaffe explains, “then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or try harder.”

While Lost in Work covers impressive ground with a broadly theoretical bent, the strength of Work Won’t Love You Back is in the details, synthesizing a sociological approach to specific work experiences with a historiography of work’s material transformations. As a labor journalist, Jaffe tends to approach structural issues through singular snapshots: Each of the 10 chapters opens on a personal narrative that demonstrates how attachment functions within a particular labor sector. All these anecdotes illustrate how “love” is wielded against workers in various fields, forcing them to accept abuse, stay late, or even forgo pay. 

In telling the stories of these victims of this new capitalist work ethic — and the industries that thrive off of employees internalizing it — Jaffe tries to show how the cult of modern labor coerces people into attaching to the source of their oppression by pushing workers to prioritize and perform passion at the expense of survival. She showcases underpaid teachers who shoulder all of the blame for the effects of crumbling school systems on their students, and nonprofit workers who put their own well-being aside in favor of struggles for justice. The book makes the case that most jobs in our current economy rely on emotional investment from workers that is not returned in material support. The work that society lulls most of us into, Jaffe implies, is a state of false consciousness that is nevertheless “cracking because work itself no longer works — stagnating wages give the lie to the decline of the middle class.” The recent rise in union support indicates that “promises made to a generation of hope laborers are being revealed for the lies they are.” This language exposes the imaginary relationship that many workers have to the real conditions of their existence — in other words, to the corporate-driven ideology that undergirds it. If we didn’t have to work, Jaffe writes, we could build our social bonds, intimate friendships, and political camaraderie, forms of collective flourishing made impossible by capitalism.

Both Jaffe and Horgan conclude their lucid diagnoses of overwork with arguments for a world less dependent on work, putting them in conversation with “anti-work politics,” a strand of anti-capitalist theory which broadly insists that labor is the source of human suffering in capitalist societies and should be abolished. Political theorist Kathi Weeks explains the founding principle of anti-work politics in her 2011 Marxist-feminist text The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries: Work is where we are the most unfree. It is where most people “experience the most immediate, unambiguous, and tangible relations of power,” and also where they go to realize their self-worth and secure their sense of well-being. As a powerful site of both domination and  identification, by necessity appearing as a conduit to freedom, work has become a tightly-constructed trap, one from which it is difficult to escape. In the past decade, anti-work theory by Weeks, Stanley Aronowitz, and others has given rise to a spate of more popular writing which tends to recommend radical solutions to resolve society’s dependence on labor altogether. Some champion universal basic income, such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, or rhapsodize about the promises of technological automation, like Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Others, like David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work, argue that real life is lived when we are not working, and fantasize about the human freedoms that could be explored in a work-free world. 

Social reproduction, especially care work, has always been a snag for anti-work advocates because it is a kind of non-waged labor that cannot simply be abolished. All human societies rely on some forms of labor to survive. Even under communism, meals will need to be cooked, homes will have to be built, and children and the elderly will require care. Jaffe and Horgan’s books acknowledge this, and offer possible futures for care work. Anti-work politics are a powerful imaginative tool but we must ask: What are the alternatives for work we must do but that, under capitalism, is often performed in miserable conditions? 

What is typically understood as “women’s work” is work we cannot live without.

In her 1981 book Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis approaches the conundrum of housework in struggles for women’s liberation, such as the Wages for Housework movement. Specifically, Davis takes issue with Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s idea that women are “a special class of workers exploited by capitalism,” and that the housewife is “a secret worker in the production process.” Davis disagrees with the claim that housewives deserve wages precisely because the gendering and subordination of domestic work was the precondition for the rise of industrial capitalism and the separation of the public and private spheres in the nineteenth century. Women’s work, in other words, is not part of the production process — it is what allows capitalism to exist. 

Women of certain races and classes — especially Black women — have always “carried the double burden of wage labour and housework.” This doesn’t make the work any less boring, belittling, or abusive. Like the boredom of the mid-century manufacturers, housewife malaise emerges because of how this work is done: alone, endlessly. Instead of striking from housework and exempting themselves from the workforce in order to demand wages for domestic labor, Davis argues, more women should enter the workforce and unite with their comrades to “challenge the capitalists at the point of production.” Rising numbers of working women must insist on the socialization of housework, for public programs that distribute domesticity. Only as workers can women have collective power.

Davis’s wish for a feminist worker’s movement was that working people would both understand that their work is indispensable and exercise power to transform how it was done. In their books, Jaffe and Horgan respectively take up Davis’s torch by insisting that what is typically understood as “women’s work” is work we cannot live without, and that putting pressure on this fact is key to changing the status of work altogether. Horgan observes that the demands of women trade unionists in the mid-1970s led to promising schemes of community nurseries and communal living, but that projects to ease domestic drudgery degenerated with the defeat of the left and the decline of organized labor in the late 1980s. Today, this labor is outsourced to an “army of cleaners, nannies and au pairs” who are forced to accept low wages and minimal protections due to their gender, race, and immigration status. 

Jaffe tells the story of a nanny named Seally, a waged care worker who understands both the collective power care workers have as workers and the absolute necessity of their labor. Jaffe writes, “the pandemic had underscored something that Seally already knew all too well: ‘If domestic workers don’t show up for work, then the majority of the workforce can’t show up for work,’ she said. ‘I love my work because my work is the silk thread that holds society together, making all other work possible.’” We will never rid society of the need for domestic work, but we are a long way from winning over the institutions capable of making this work financially and emotionally fulfilling for those who do it. Without this fight, all kinds of work will continue to be suffered through alone.

Writing, too, can be lonely labor. Writing against work grapples with the precarious nautre of intellectual labor, a kind of work that is central to imaginative pleasure and which will not end with capitalism. Intellectual labor, like other types of labor, is in a state of crisis. However, unlike other types of labor, it frequently theorizes the conditions of its own decline. Both authors of the books in this review belong to sectors that are crucial to critical thinking and theoretical writing, creative labor which needs a thriving culture of museums, universities, and magazines in order to flourish. 

In Work Won’t Love You Back Jaffe discusses intellectual labor, her role as a writer, and how she loves her work while feeling imprisoned by it. She writes about her experiences as a precarious freelance journalist and how she manages to sustain herself. She travels, reports, and lectures to make ends meet, but she gets to write most of the time. She writes, “I am today’s economy’s poster child. I’m flexible, working on the fly from a laptop in coffee shops around the country and occasionally the world. I don’t have health insurance, and I don’t have retirement benefits. Vacation? What’s that? I have none of the things that used to signify a stable adult life—no family, no property, just me and a dog. (On the upside, I don’t have a boss, either.)”

Jaffe recognizes that she is in a position similar to those of millions of people around the world lacking employment security. “We’re all exhausted, burned out, overworked, underpaid, and have no work-life balance (or just no life).” But she loves her work and wants to fight for it. She isn’t alone. We don’t know what kinds of pleasures might exist and what ideas we may generate outside of the incredible duress of capitalist work

In fighting for better conditions, intellectual workers are fighting to preserve creative joy. In journalism and media, workers are combating private equity buyouts and austerity measures such as layoffs and gigification. Unionizing in order to regain control is the pathway to not only preserve countless jobs but to reshape these institutions along entirely different lines. This is not a struggle to end work, per se, but it is a struggle over how work is organized. And though the problems within academia and media are not identical to the ones in foodservice, healthcare, or agriculture, the fact remains that most of these workers find it difficult to secure reliable contracts and benefits, that most of them work too long for too little, and that none of them control or own the colleges, newspapers, restaurants, hospitals, or farms where they spend most of their waking hours. The further casualization of intellectual work also endangers our ability to critique current social organization. Without it, how can we imagine an alternative?

Work has become an unrequited love story.

Union organizing is a labor of love. It is often unpaid and mostly difficult, but it stems from a place of community, where workers decide together that they care about each other too much to keep up the status quo. Unions succeed when supermajorities of members decide on collective demands and use material power to win them, undermining hierarchical management practices by boards of trustees and overpaid bosses. In academia, labor has become even more devalued as universities now make most of their money from high tuition costs and returns on questionable investments. Fewer unionized employees make it easier for management to cut budgets and lower standards of living. Man bosses bend or break the rules to prevent us from exercising our collective bargaining rights, or they count on us not even trying. As thousands of graduate student workers nationwide organize to oppose the neoliberal university model, the union fight is gaining strength. 

As a graduate student worker and the president of my union, the Graduate Labor Organization at Brown University (rifthp-aft Local 6516), I have witnessed firsthand the contradictions of a profession that internalizes unreasonable standards of productivity and whose members struggle to organize. And while graduate unions across the country are currently demanding better wages or more control over their time — measures that seek to lessen the burden of academic overwork — other radical and transformative outcomes have already been won by an engaged and militant membership acting in concert to challenge the way the university is run. It was thanks to collective action, for example, that grads at nyu (gsoc-uaw) were able to leverage a historic strike and tentative agreement last summer to mandate sanctuary protections from ICE and other government agencies for everyone at the university. It is thanks to supermajority participation that our union at Brown will soon secure a starting wage of $39,000 and pay parity across disciplines — amounting to a 50 percent raise over the course of eight years. Higher education, like any other industry, should be run by the people who do the work.

Anti-work writing is at its best when it inspires us to fight for a future that we can control and to organize towards that vision in the present. Without this double-pronged strategy, we will be left with short-term solutions and long-term immiseration. Jaffe and Horgan understand this, as they both insist that the only way forward is to organize the overworked sectors that do the difficult work of sustaining society. Their attention to care work in particular, and the feminized quality of the majority of modern work, is precisely what allows them to be clear-eyed about the capitalist tendency to turn even social reproduction into exploitable activity. Horgan’s proposed method of escaping capitalism is a “powerful and reinvigorated trade union movement,” while Jaffe declares that beyond stronger labor laws and workplace improvements, we need a “political understanding that our lives are ours to do with what we will.” Horgan identifies the current challenge in her observation that in England as elsewhere, “the economy seems only capable of sputtering out jobs in low-paid service work” — sectors that are the least likely to be unionized. We are at a point where a significant number of wealthy global economies are oriented around forms of underwaged labor, work that sustains or provides people with services that allow them to work even more. 

The experience of work under capitalism only changes, for better and for worse, through class struggle. Class struggle is not a simple conflict between workers demanding raises and bosses cutting jobs; it is the core antagonism emerging from capitalism’s endless exploitation of labor. Without anti-work politics, our horizon isn’t broad enough. But anti-work politics must recognize that organizing to end capitalist labor is a struggle to separate human activity from capitalist exploitation. This too is a kind of work, but it is undertaken in the service of realizing a future in which needs are met without suffering, where labor will be freed from the impositions of capital. The only way out is through.

Mass resignations are leading to higher wages and improved working conditions, to cultural shifts in the conversation around why we work and how much. More white-collar workers are talking about the four-day work week — even the New York Times is publishing articles and op-eds on the subject. This is a good thing. Workers have leverage right now, but without organizing democratic institutions for collective control, walking away from a job will only ever be a singular decision resulting in short-lived relief. We should look to the tens of thousands of workers in Hollywood and hospitals preparing to go on strike for inspiration. The end of labor as we know it will only be possible when how much we work is a question of how much we need. To realize a world outside the living nightmare of the capitalist authoritarian present, more people need to wield power in their workplaces, not just quit their jobs. So, let’s get to work.  

Rithika Ramamurthy lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she writes about capitalism, feelings, and work from the nineteenth century to the present. She is the first elected president of her union and loves the labor movement.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Original photograph courtesy of Girl With Red Hat and Thomas Millot.