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Why Work Doesn’t Work

The idea that we work because we want to, not because we need to, is a pernicious one that labor journalist Sarah Jaffe dissects in Work Won’t Love You Back.

Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone
Sarah Jaffe
Bold Type
January 2021

Sarah Jaffe, the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (2016), recently released a new book in her body of “class war” work: Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. In its ten chapters, with titles such as ‘We Strike Because We Care: Teachers’ and ‘Hoping for Work: Interns’ and ‘Proletarian Professionals: Academia’, Jaffe uses the language of love to query the assumptions we make about work and play. Her central argument is that such emotive language has been co-opted to efface or distort the realities of the modern workplace.

Jaffe is a freelance writer and journalist. A previous staff writer at AlterNet and In These Times, she has also written for several mainstream media outlets including The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The New York Times. In her new book, Jaffe is not only interested in how we define work but also in how these definitions evolve over time. Jaffe explores a variety of jobs, ranging from teaching to internships to factory work, via lengthy, detailed interviews and historical research.

The earliest proletarians were well aware that work was a burden, not a privilege. Their concerns were tied to working fewer hours and for better pay. Having the right to decent breaks, pensions, sick leave, and vacations were part of the terms and conditions that defined a worker’s self-respect. In the United States, many of these rights were secured in the period following the Great Depression.

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Now, with so many of these conditions rendered obsolete, it is increasingly the case that work is measured quantitatively, not qualitatively. The Fordist compromise, inspired by Henry Ford’s Motor Company, normalised the principle that in return for a sizable chunk of their time, workers were entitled to good pay and health care. As part of that compromise, workers were also given appropriate time away from work for rest and recreation. However, these changes were not borne out of humanitarian concern so much as out of a means of ensuring quality control: the product is compromised by a tired, hungry workforce.

By the 1970s, the ‘dynamism’ of early Fordism had all but collapsed under the pressure of systemic disaffection. It was also in the ’70s that companies started outsourcing en masse to countries where they could ‘squeeze labor harder’ at less cost. Although decades later some efforts have been made to save or implement manufacturing jobs in the Global North, Jaffe highlights the frequent arbitrariness of such efforts. As recently as a 2016 rally, Donald Trump used the soon-to-be shutdown Carrier plant as an opportunity to publicise his slogan: ‘Make America Great Again’. While Carrier was, indeed, spared the axe, the people down the road at Rexnord plant, Ohio, were not so lucky — namely because they ‘didn’t get a visit from the president.’

Jaffe refers to Joshua Glover, whose book Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016) draws attention to the affirmation gap: ‘a situation where labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival.’ The affirmation gap created by mass deindustrialization — a process greatly accelerated by the policies of US economist Paul Volcker, former US president Ronald Reagan, and former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher — meant that workers who previously went on strike to demand shorter hours, or better pay, began to plead for the right to work tout court.

Although Jaffe does not refer to Steven Bognar and Julia Recht’s 2019 documentary, American Factory (currently available on Netflix) their film highlights many of the questions raised in her book. Bognar and Recht filmed workers at Fuyao Glass Industry Group’s factory in Moraine near Dayton, Ohio, where the tension between fighting for better working rights and fighting to work at all, highlights one of the most significant consequences of the affirmation gap: the fear and rejection of unionism. But also, crucially, fear and rejection of one another.

Jaffe explains that she does not have an employer who pays for health insurance, a retirement fund, or time for vacations. Like a growing number of workers, she does not possess any of the traditional markers of ‘a stable adult life.’ In Communication and Capitalism: A Critical Theory (2020), Christian Fuchs argues that the rise of media and cultural and digital jobs in a neoliberal society has resulted in a new workforce of freelancers defined as: ‘people who do not employ others’. Often referred to as the ‘precariat’, their class position is similar to that of wage-workers.

Like wage-workers, freelancers are ‘compelled to sell their labour-power in order to survive.’ And yet the growing number of precarious workers is only beginning to resemble something like a solidarity movement, e.g., the growing momentum of an Anti-work Politics as addressed in Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work (2011). Such open criticism of how, why, and for whom we work, has been slow — not least because one of the unwritten rules of neoliberalism is anti-solidarity. Jaffe points out that by crushing unions and transforming ‘public housing into private condos’, Thatcherism: ‘offered the pleasures of cruelty [through] the negative solidarity of seeing others made even worse off than themselves.’

In this system, people who are unable to attain or hold a job are scapegoated as examples of a selfish or work-shy generation. Actually, a casual workforce is a precondition of neoliberalism. For many companies, the impermanence of labor is convenient: ‘just-in-time labor, easily hired and fired.’ Jaffe refers to Adam Kotsko — the American culture critic who coined the term blameworthiness, stating that in a culture of blameworthiness people who lose their jobs or struggle to find a job are held in contempt (even, or especially, by those in a similar economic predicament). The ever-growing phenomenon of the so-called underclass and their stigmatisation in their communities — or would-be communities — is evidence of this contempt. Fuchs posits the question: ‘are the unemployed a separate class?’ No, the unemployed are ‘a reserve of wageless workers-in-waiting who do not possess capital and therefore form a faction of the working class.’

In part two: Enjoy What You Do, Jaffe looks at art. Art has long-standing mythology as a ‘labor of love’, but how accurate is it? Jaffe draws on art-historical sources, recent interviews, and such critics as John Berger, to piece together what it means to work in art today. Jaffe looks at the evolution of the idea of ‘the artist’ and how it relates to other ‘workers’, if at all. Many of the notions we have about artists are the result of material and cultural changes resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of a new bourgeoisie. Artists like William Morris and John Ruskin critiqued the fact that modern civilization took the pleasure out of work, and urged a new emphasis on the value of craftsmanship.

The new bourgeoisie also introduced the idea of disposable income to be spent on art and decorations, thereby linking the idea of taste with material comfort. The ubiquity of mass production conferred importance on objects that were not created by machine-assisted means. Industrialisation also led to the romantic idea of bohemian artists living on the margins of society, away from the conventional means of production. This image fosters the notion that artists are individuals whose ‘needs and desires’ are essentially distinct from others.

This fetishization of the art object, and individual artist, leads to the commodification of art and artists that we know today. Sometimes, this emphasis on uniqueness has served the interests of the ruling majority. For example, Jaffe argues that Jackson Pollock was ‘the ideal American artist of the postwar period.’ Pollock’s ‘special genius’ was ‘held up as the epitome of freedom’ in a convenient antithesis to Soviet Realism.

Today, with most of the welfare state stripped away, publicly funded arts education almost non-existent, and elevated house prices in the very cities that were once known for artistic culture, that selfsame culture has become a tourist commodity. Jaffe points out that while tens of thousands of people flock to big-city museums, they inadvertently avoid ‘the outer boroughs where the working artists have been pushed.’ This process of commodification has turned the romantic image of ‘the artist’ into ‘the ideal worker’ for the neoliberal age, at the very same time as neoliberalism has made it quasi-impossible for artists to succeed.

Jaffe quotes at length a passage from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello‘s The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007) linking the image of the bohemian artist with the status quo of contemporary neoliberal employability: ‘a creative figure, a person of intuition, invention, contacts, chance encounters, someone who is always on the move, passing from one project to the next, one world to another.’ As Jaffe notes, this basically means that ‘stability’ — ‘never a hallmark of the artist’s condition’ — has ‘disintegrated under the guise of improving work’. For example, the WeWork company slogan: ‘Do What You Love’ is one such example of this principle — dangerously conflating the idea of individual creative freedom with job insecurity.

The idea that we work because we want to, not because we need to, is a pernicious one. And although the notion that work should be ‘fulfilling’ can seem commonsensical, Jaffe refers to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci as a reminder that ‘common sense itself is a product of history,’ determined by material forces. In her conclusion, ‘What is Love?’ Jaffe includes a touching epigraph from scholar Silvia Federici: ‘We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love.’ Although written in 1975, this sentiment rings as true as ever when words like ‘fun’ and ‘love’ have, through gamification, taken on entirely different meanings.

Jobs in Amazon warehouses have transformed the ‘deeply un-fun’ work of packing and distribution (often backbreaking labor) into a video-game themed competition. Such games as ‘PickInSpace’ and ‘Dragon Duel’ are primarily designed to increase productivity. In this way, the world’s biggest companies camouflage soul-destroying work as ‘play’. Although company spokespersons have claimed that such initiatives have improved the ‘happiness’ of their workers, one suspects that better pay and shorter hours might prove more effective.

When work becomes love, and we begin to see jobs, or joblessness, as markers of deservability, we underplay the need for specific legal protections. This paves the road for exploitation. Jaffe argues that the global pandemic of 2020 ‘just made the brutality of the workplace more visible.’ By dividing the workforce into one of two brackets: essential and non-essential, the language of love seems as superfluous as ever. Jaffe explains that, while she does not set out to vilify work, and that, ‘there are occasional pleasures’ to be had from it, she also believes that: ‘our desire for happiness at work is one that has been constructed for us, and the world that constructed that desire is falling apart around us.’ This book is an invitation to imagine what a different, better world could look like.

This could have been essential reading at any time in the last 40 years, but released in January 2021, at the start of a year filled with uncertainty, Work Won’t Love You Back offers an important, timely reminder of the meaning of work. Jaffe highlights the critical connection between the terms we use to describe work, and the conditions we are willing to accept for ourselves and others. The crisis surrounding the people who work for companies like Amazon and Target is only one of the latest manifestations of the humanitarian failures of late capitalism. In another example of the dangers of capitalist exploitation, Jaffe refers to the tragic accident at Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,132 people, and injured 2,500 more, when it collapsed in 2013.

The single most consistent argument in favour of perpetuating neoliberal capitalism is its perceived inevitability; this is an ingenious way to choke serious, critical discussion. Jaffe takes issue with this so-called inevitability by showing the concrete historical choices that shape working practices today. In the midst of a pandemic, the way we talk and think about work is as significant as ever.