Antiwork: Today’s Job Structure Doesn’t Work

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“I did not like driving a cab — I have to say. I did not find it colourful, interesting, or picturesque. I learned nothing from it, and I never want one of those jobs again.” In an interview with David Letterman, Fran Lebowitz, featured in her recent Netflix documentary, Pretend its a City, explains her sentiment towards her experience with mundane work. In her case, cab driving in New York in the 1970s. Her experience can be expanded outwards, towards not only cab driving, but towards all mundane, monotonous, and brutal work — or, as David Graeber aptly described this work as, Bullshit Jobs.

Graeber’s idea of bullshit work first arose in his 2013 essay in STRIKE! Magazine, and has since developed into a book of the same title published in 2018. His work has gained significant traction, becoming the foundation of what has been deemed the anti-work movement. The anti-work movement is complicated, with branches either advocating solely for shorter working days or weeks, and some are advocating for the total abolishment of work. The movement can be boiled down into three core components: we’re all working too hard, our work is meaningless, and our current conceptions of work are outdated.

Antiwork

According to Graeber in his essay, if you feel that your work is meaningless, then it most likely is pointless. He asserts that many jobs are created with no purpose other than to keep people productive. As he describes in his conception of Hell: “Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” This kind of situation, he explains, only serves to create resentment, but not towards those of authority in workplaces (although that does happen). Still, instead, it is aimed at those who seem to be getting more from supposedly doing less. It serves to create resentment against the unemployed as it creates the perception they are getting something you are not by working your meaningless, bullshit job.

What compounds the problem, as described by Graeber, is this sense of entrapment within these jobs. The fact that your life is not your own and will never be your own. Bob Black explains this sentiment in his irreverent but impactful essay, “The Abolition of Work.”

Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or-else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smaller details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent and disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing.

Work lays claim to your life by claiming your time. You are subjugated to constant supervision; you are told how to spend your time, dress, how to act, when to smile, what you can say, what is respectable, and what is not. Effectively, your life is not your own when you are at work. It’s a wildly dehumanizing process where your very life stops being your own once you step through the doors. Work is demeaning. As Black describes, totalitarian, ascribing to this process “factory fascism and office oligarchy,” Brian Dean is much more kind when describing this process, relegating it into the sphere of paternalism and misguided Protestant values.

While Black means to apply his assessment to all forms of work, it is especially pertinent regarding service and administrative jobs. Jobs Graeber has described it as markedly unnecessary. The bullshit jobs made just to make work with no larger purpose or meaning.

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.”

The emphasis placed on these jobs, these meaningless jobs, as Graeber describes, keeps the population busy so, they are not a threat. The moral quality of work and productivity is championed to preserve complacency and the status quo. An idle population is dangerous, so keep them busy.

Reevaluation of Work Today

There has been slow growth in the popularity of the antiwork movement within the past decade, and especially with the Covid-19 Pandemic. There is a subreddit community with nearly 300,000 members and within the past year, both Mia Mulder and Abigail Thorne of PhilosophyTube have released videos on the topic, garnering 73 thousand and 1 million views, respectively. While Thorne focuses mainly on the theory of antiwork and her own experiences in mundane jobs, Mulder, while doing similarly, touches upon movements that have been garnering attention recently to reevaluate and restructure our working lives.

Mulder explains the current phenomenon of being money-rich but time-poor. Effectively people may be earning a good, safe, and sustainable wage in a stable economy but cannot enjoy any of the benefits from such a position because they have no time. This leads to an argument against the 40-hour workweek.

Graeber argues that people already aren’t working full 8 hour days, let alone correctly working 40 hours a week. They may be at a place of work 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day, but are only really working 15 hours a week, 3–4 hours a day productively. He argues that the rest of the time is made up instead of pointless meetings and make-work projects, or simply nothing — updating Facebook, browsing the internet, or merely pretending to work. Thorne argues that this kind of pretending is exhausting, psychologically and physically. It makes one miserable to suffer from such extended periods of boredom while pretending that they are not. Which only leads to further resentment.

Structurally, Mulder explains that the system of working 8 hours a day is simply unfeasible in our current world. As she argues, the 8-hour workday came from the 19th century to improve productivity within workers. She explains that the 8-hour workday is also rooted in the idea of a one-income household. There was a homemaker who supported the long hours of the worker. This is no longer the case, however. Two worker households are the norm, and with long commutes, an 8-hour workday is no longer feasible. It is eating into the time of workers causing them to be time-poor. As Graeber states, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” Free time is seen as dangerous or superfluous. If you’re not working, then you’re not productive.

There has been a movement lately advocating for shorter workdays, ranging from 4 to 6 hours. An advocation that allows for better productivity and efficiency at work while combating the time-poor life workers experience today. As Bertrand Russell states, “Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.” We have progressively begun to see that this is not the case. Hard work doesn’t always lead to good work or happiness and has gradually become infeasible in our modern lives.

Many of these jobs are not colourful, picturesque, or impactful, and given the opportunity, we would never do these kinds of jobs again. It’s time we reevaluated how we want to work.

Based in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, NS. Writer of essays and fiction, a Gothic and creative in more ways than one. MA History, BA Contemporary Studies.