Toil and Trouble

What a way to make a living

Work isn’t working anymore. COVID‑19 has thrown off the machinery of twenty-first-century capitalism, and as it stalls and sputters, turning over on its side, the gears and wheels lie open and exposed. This virus has revealed just how far economic theory has diverged from the actual process of earning a living. The unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression, while the stock market has rallied well past pre-pandemic levels. The fortunes of America’s very richest have risen $406 billion (U.S.) since the outbreak, and as they spend their money on spaceship photo ops, the spectre of hunger stalks the ground they are so desperate to leave behind: 26 million American adults went without meals or relied on charity for groceries last fall, and at least 4.5 million Canadians have experienced food insecurity over the past year. COVID is a disease of the working poor. The failures of the political response, both nationally and internationally, have been failures to address the reality of their working lives.

The value of labour has never been in a more contradictory state. Working men and women — meat packers, farm workers, cashiers, care workers — have proven themselves to be essential as never before. They are the people the system runs on. They are also, apparently, disposable. COVID represents the end of a long road. Middle-class men and women as young as thirty have lived through multiple layoffs already. They know in their bones that their position in society is unrelated to their abilities or their efforts. The notion of lifting oneself up by the bootstraps is for rich kids and people living in the past. The political rhetoric of hard work is like the rhetoric of the family farm. It will not survive much contact with reality.

The question that follows is obvious: What’s next? Nobody knows what the future of work looks like in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic — maybe it will go right back to the way it was, or maybe the whole of office culture will evaporate like a tidal pool. But the course of the virus has already shown one obvious fact about how we organize our lives: the countries that were able to stop working, that were able to imagine a value other than the marketplace, had lower death rates than the countries that tried to stay open.

The larger implications of this moment are truly revolutionary. But are we ready for a full re‑evaluation of work’s place in society? Underlying that political question is a crisis that can be described only as spiritual. Everyone feels it, and for everyone it is personal. Can we learn to value ourselves without working like maniacs?

Donald Trump was the president of 20,000 lies. Barack Obama told two. But Obama’s lies mattered more because he is not a liar. Obama’s first lie was that America is more united than divided. It isn’t. The second was that “if you work hard and play by the rules, you will get ahead.” This campaign bromide, repeated dozens of times, was a classic piece of progressive nostalgia — Obama’s signature brand. He triangulated conservative and liberal impulses into a fantasy of opportunity. Both impulses were dreams of a world that had passed. Obama’s place in history is as the late-coming physician to the American economy. He worked furiously to cure a patient that was already dead.

The sickness had been long. John Maynard Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930, a moment similar to our own in several key respects. The Depression had arrived, but the memory of unprecedented growth was still alive. The glories of prosperity were fresh in the mind; the shadows of a dark future were looming. In that moment of peril, Keynes found hope against hope. “The disastrous mistakes we have made,” he wrote, “blind us to what is going on under the surface — to the true interpretation of the trend of things.” His prediction was beyond optimistic: in the long run, “mankind is solving its economic problem.”

Yet Keynes also knew that accepting the gift of prosperity would be harder than generating it. A world without work was utopian, not because of the material difficulties but because of the transcendent ones. “There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread,” he wrote. “For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

Our ancestors would find our modern work lives frantically overburdened. During periods of high prosperity, like the fourteenth century, peasants worked as little as 120 days a year. With mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks, their workdays were rarely longer than eight hours. “For 95 per cent of our species’ history,” the South African anthropologist James Suzman has recently written, “work did not occupy anything like the hallowed place in people’s lives that it does now.”

The cult of hard work that we know today arose with factories, but it traces its roots back even further. Published in 1905, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism described asceticism, not reason, as the foundation of capitalism. He described a society “dominated by the continually repeated, often almost passionate preaching of hard, continuous bodily or mental labour.” For Weber, there were two motives behind the celebration of work rather than its fruits: “Labour is, on the one hand, an approved ascetic technique,” connected to monasticism and the defence against sexual temptation. “But the most important thing was that even beyond that labour came to be considered in itself the end of life.” With work as an end in itself, capitalism took on a religious dimension: “Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.”

In our own time, the cult of hard work has increased as its validity has declined. There is a whole industry of books that will tell you how you or your children can get ahead: 10,000 hours of practice, or grit, or the ability to pass the marshmallow test, or some other conveniently within-reach mode of self-determination. None of them mention luck or rich parents.

In hindsight, the most risible example of this cult appeared in 2013, in the form of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which a tech executive argued that women needed to work harder and that their hard work would be rewarded by equality in the end. The myth of pluck and resolve — a world of girl bosses with side hustles — served as a replacement fantasy for necessary public policy. Family leave and mandated board parity are the solutions to women’s inequality, but the U.S. government, in particular, is too dysfunctional to enact anything so practical. So instead, the answer, as usual, is that everybody must work harder.

And what was Sheryl Sandberg working so hard for? All her talent, all her brilliance, all her dedication went to serve a company whose primary effect on society is to increase loneliness and depression, and whose political effects have contributed to the decline of democracy. Only a pathological society could promote such a life as a model.

By now, the pathology of pre-pandemic work culture is obvious. In 2016, Lyft actively promoted a story of one of its drivers picking up a fare on the way to give birth to her child. An ad campaign for Fiverr — a marketplace, remember, intended to advertise freelance labour in the way those workers want to be perceived — promoted the risk of mental illness through work: “Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice.” The modern exploitation of labour has devolved into outright theft. A 2017 study from the Economic Policy Institute found that, in ten states alone, 2.4 million workers had $8 billion (U.S.) taken from their wages each year. Wage theft within those states alone is roughly half of all property crime in America. Meanwhile, tax evasion, according to research into the Swiss Leaks and the Panama Papers, amounts to nearly 30 percent of the taxes owed by the top 0.01 percent.

Nonetheless the cult of hard work persists. Conspicuous consumption has been replaced by conspicuous labour. The perception of busyness is an elite human capital characteristic. It’s all a joke, and a thinning joke at that. The younger you are, the less funny it is. The difference among the outcomes of individuals’ lives is not mainly in how much one works. It’s mainly in how much one is given. Conspicuous labour is an all too transparent cover for the newly dominant rentier reality.

Everyone will have to come to an individual reckoning with the new futility. Already in Japan, during a long period of economic stagnation, there emerged a group of individuals, dubbed the “herbivore men,” who became famous as sexless introverts. Western media accounts, almost all brief and focused on the sex, missed the point of the herbivore lifestyle. Their refusal was more general and more widespread. They refused the life of the salaryman. They refused to participate in a system of achievement in which karoshi, or “death by overwork,” is a serious enough problem that the government long ago established a hotline to combat it. The herbivore men decided to vote with their lives and with their sperm. Japan now has the lowest number of births since record keeping began.

Again, COVID‑19 has been a revelation: after the onset of the disease, suicide rates in Japan declined by 20 percent, but then they surged past pre-COVID levels. The system doesn’t need indictment. It indicts itself. The culture of hard work is an exploitative practice of self-destruction. John Henry died with a hammer in his hand.

The pandemic has revealed the pathology of our work lives. It also offers a tantalizing opportunity to reformulate the value of labour, both in ourselves and in the public sphere. “The economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race,” Keynes wrote nine decades ago. “It will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”

The moment has come to ask what the point is — why we’re doing all this work. Policies are emerging that value humanity over the labour it can produce. These policies have not been formulated into a party or even a platform but are growing in strength, outside the boundaries of the traditional left or right. The solution to the future of industrial capitalism can be summarized in a phrase: the world needs a politics of laziness.

Countries across Europe have already begun implementing greatly reduced workweeks with stunning effects. France, in 2000, reduced weekly hours to thirty-five. In Holland, the average workweek is now twenty-nine hours. Sweden has begun to experiment with six-hour workdays. Companies report greater productivity. Workers report vastly improved well-being.

But paying the same for less labour is only a beginning. The real hope of the politics of laziness is the separation of work from its fruits altogether: money for nothing. Universal basic income is no longer a purely utopian concept. In many countries, it would be little more than an extension of what has already been put in place during COVID — easily accessible payment for people who stayed home. Canada has historically been a leader in universal basic income, going back to a social experiment in Manitoba in the 1970s. And now the idea is starting to take hold in hyper-capitalist places like Los Angeles. Recently the mayor, Eric Garcetti, outlined a proposal to give thousands of dollars in direct monthly payments to homeless people in his city. The program would be relatively small — $24 million (U.S.) — but it shows an unprecedented willingness to hand over cash to people who have done nothing to earn it.

These are teases, though — hints, suggestions, small-scale tests. Only radical policies have any hope of slowing down spiralling inequality. Those policies will require massive change. With Capital and Ideology, the French economist Thomas Piketty joins a long line of thinkers — stretching back through Keynes to Karl Marx himself — who have convinced themselves that the vast prosperity of exploitative capitalism can be redirected to the liberation of human potential. His plans include transnational government bodies to oversee taxation and “a capital endowment to be given to each young adult (at age 25, say), financed by a progressive tax on private wealth.” Literally, you’d get an inheritance for being a person. This policy is feasible on a fiscal level; the question is whether wealthy countries can find the will.

Embracing laziness goes against all of our most ingrained instincts, which is why it will be so difficult, perhaps impossible to actually achieve. The question of labour and its value transcends the grandest questions of political and economic organization. It amounts to a spiritual revaluation of value itself. Can we escape the myths we have built around money and self-worth?

The myths of labour will be hard to escape because they lie deep in ourselves. The cult of hard work offers individuals a profound and grounding myth of self-generation: the belief that, through inner forces, they may triumph over the world. This myth is so powerful, so innate, that anyone steeped in it cannot abandon it: Nobody gave me anything. I made my own life. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to think about yourself, but, if it was ever true, it was true only in the past.

The world, as it is coming to be, will require new ways to value ourselves, ways that are different from earning a living. In “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” Keynes quoted a traditional charwoman’s epitaph, which imagined paradise as permanent inactivity: “Don’t mourn for me, friends, don’t weep for me never / For I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.”

But there was a second part to the cleaning lady’s epitaph, which is perhaps sadder: “With psalms and sweet music the heavens’ll be ringing, / But I shall have nothing to do with the singing.”

The cult of hard work has destroyed, for the charwoman, any impulse to contribute. That would be the most terrible sacrifice to the ancient cult of labour for labour’s sake. We will need ways of shaping the earth other than vacillating between frenzy and emptiness. The world may not owe you a living, but you don’t owe the world your being either.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Max Weber
George Allen & Unwin Limited, 1930
Essays in Persuasion
John Maynard Keynes
Harcourt Brace, 1932
Capital and Ideology
Thomas Piketty
Harvard University Press, 2020