The Language of Work
“The Great Recession of 2008 proved every anti-capitalist critic right.” Thus begins a wonderful essay by Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto in the July 2011, issue of Harper’s Magazine. He wrote the original essay for a book entitled, The Wage Slave’s Glossary. His piece caught my attention as I was meditating on the constant media calls for jobs and watching many of my neighbors without a job and the disquiet such status engenders. What is it about Americans and our addiction to work? Mark gives us some needed vocabulary to get at the back story behind unemployment and who’s to blame for it.
“The system was bloated and spectral,” Mark writes, “borrowing on its borrowing, insuring its insurance, and skimming profit on every transaction. The FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector had created the worst market bubble since the South Sea Company’s 1720 collapse, and nobody should have been surprised when the latest party balloon of capital burst. And yet everybody was.”
And then he adds a disturbing line, “Since then, new awareness of the system’s untenability has changed nothing. The role of gainful occupation in establishing or maintaining biological survival, social position, and, especially in American society, personal identity is undiminished.”
Capitalism is probably beyond large-scale change at this point, but we should not waste this opportunity to interrogate its most fundamental idea: work— Kingwell writes. The values of work are still dominant in far too much of life; indeed, these values have exercised their own kind of linguistic genius—creating a host of phrases, terms, and labels that bolster rather than challenge the dominance of work. Here Mark hits the mark!
The pervasive vocabulary naturalizes and so makes invisible some of the dubious, if not evil, assumptions of the work idea. First of all, what is work? To answer this question, Kingwell quotes Bertrand Russell who defined it in his essay in 1932, “In Praise of Idleness” this way: "Work is of two kinds. The first kind is altering the position of matter on or near the surface of the earth. The second kind is telling other people to do the first kind. The first is unpleasant and poorly paid. The second is pleasant and well paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension for there are those who give orders to those who give orders. A bureaucracy is composed of those who give the first order. If two opposite kinds of advice are given at the same time, then that is known as politics.”
Prof. Kingwell goes on to say that the greatest work of work is to disguise its essential nature. Work is the largest self-regulation system the universe has so far manufactured, subjecting each human to a panopticon under which we dare not do anything but work. When we submit to work we are guard and guarded at once.
Why has work as a tool of Capitalism spread so completely around the world and what purpose does it serve other than to create surplus profit for the taking? Even when we have become commodities to be bought and sold we do not stop to consider our squirrel cage plight.
Kingwell suggests that it is work that is the opiate of the people, rather than Marx’s religion. Work keeps the awareness of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of our daily lives from surfacing in our consciousness. If I’m working, I’m okay, we tell ourselves. Not to have a job or not to be working hard for the American dream is to be a loser! We never question where we got that idea.
Kingwell concludes with a quote from a French socialist, loosely translated to mean, “Beneath the pavement, see the beach!” Humans are not resources, we are not machines, we are not consumers, and the world is a site not of work but of play and delightful idleness.