You work too much, and your free time really only functions as the recovery time you need in order to be productive at work. Worse, you don't complain because you're afraid of getting fired and you know you're replaceable. Worse still, you're aware that your employer is taking advantage of your insane work ethic, but your job is such a core part of your identity that you secretly derive pleasure from being such a selfless worker. You are your job, after all. It's not selfless if you're doing it for your own good.
If any of that rings true—and if your situation is even worse than all that—you'll find some refreshment in The Problem with Work, a newish book by Duke professor Kathi Weeks. In the book, and in general, Weeks helpfully uses feminist arguments to illuminate the many ways our employers take advantage of our labor.
Over the last week, she's spoken at a number of panels on the subject of work for Red May, the monthlong far-left festival of lectures and readings exploring different ways to organize ourselves as a people.
On Sunday, May 28, she'll join Chris O'Kane, Iyko Day, Anita Chari, and moderator Samir Gandesha for a noontime panel called "Time. Work. Domination.," which is all about the way work is coming to dominate all of life.
We talked about her upcoming panel over two free glasses of water at the Victrola on 15th Avenue.
Work is my life. If I didn't have my job, I would be a freeloader in society and I wouldn't have any sense of self.
When we think of ourselves without work, we imagine ourselves wandering around aimlessly, as if our only alternatives are life subordinated to work or chaos. I think that's a symptom of the way we've let work come to dominate our lives. We imagine it as this glue that's going to keep us connected to each other and keep order in the world, but I think it's a fantasy—a really strong fantasy.
I don't think we should eliminate work. Obviously, productive activity needs to happen. I'm just raising critical questions about why it is that we imagine our lives to be defined by work.
So what are you trying to do with these critical questions?
I want to demote work in our hierarchy of cultural values. I don't want to devalue it, I just want to kick it down a few notches.
How do you plan to do that?
It's a very difficult thing to do! Different kinds of movements at different points have tried to do this. One of the movements I'm interested in is this one in the 1970s in Europe and North America called Wages for Housework. It's a feminist movement, and it was organized around that slogan.
What were they about?
They talked about valuing all of the domestic work that women were doing that wasn't valued with wages. Rhetorically, they were trying to do something very difficult. By saying "housework" deserved a wage, they were calling it out as work. That is, raising children, taking care of the elderly, cooking, doing laundry—any socially necessary labor without which the wage economy would not and could not exist, either generationally or on a day-to-day basis. But at the same time, they were trying to say also, "but it's only work"—it's not something to revere or celebrate. So they wanted to recognize housework as work, but not overvalue it as work.
You'd like to see that idea applied more generally?
Yes. I'd like to recognize all the forms of productive activity that aren't being rewarded with wages, and at the same time demote work from the top place in our hierarchy of values.
Wait, what kind of "pro- ductive activity" are we not getting compensated for?
Think about all the things we do that the waged labor economy depends on but does not reward. In a contemporary, service-based economy, there are all of these forms of creativity and social networking: the creation of art, the maintenance of social networks, our ability cooperate with one another. Employers make use of all of that, but they don't calculate that into our salary.
You mean employers take advantage of our ability to make friends at work?
Yeah, this ability to work in teams and be pro-social and have all these capacities that employers are looking for today. You have to reproduce yourself as a caring, emotional, communicative individual every day. These are things you have to reproduce to make your work sellable during the working day.
So I should get paid for coming into work and not screaming at everyone?
Obviously it becomes nonsensical when we think about paying for one thing or another. The point is the accounting doesn't work anymore. In the factory, you could count what the worker was doing during the course of eight hours. They went home and they didn't do anything more except eat and come back the next day.
They made 17,000 sprockets and so they were paid X number of dollars.
Sure. But these accounting systems as they exist now are inadequate. They won't pay you for the emotional labor you reproduced last night, or your creative labor from the art exhibit you went to last night. Now that we can no longer make these calculations, something like a guaranteed basic income makes more rational sense than the wage system, which doesn't even cover all the productive activity that employers are making use of but not paying for.
Isn't the United States too large to institute something like a basic income? Aren't you being impractical and unrealistic?
The status quo is impractical and unrealistic. There aren't enough jobs at a living wage to go around. The system of waged work as the primary way you gain access to the means to live is not working. There are too many people left out and marginalized from that system. So I think it's time to start thinking of alternatives.
Wouldn't we all just roam the hills like flower children if we got a free check every month from the government?
People respond to the idea of a basic income by imagining that there would be mass unrest or complete sloth, that our sense of self would crumble without that organizing principle because we have this basic need to work.
So which is it? Do we have a need for work that's built into us, or do we need to be forced to work? In most cases, depending on where the level was set, I think most people would want to supplement the income with waged work. But I think it would put the workers in a stronger position to negotiate different work terms.
Where would you set the level?
I'm not going to say. That's what has to be negotiated. I think it's a really difficult political struggle. If the level is set too low, a basic income would just subsidize low-wage employers because it offers them a supplement. So I think it has to be set at some kind of minimal, livable level. And again, the vast majority of people would want to supplement that with waged work, so I don't imagine it would be set at some level where nobody would want to work again.
Taxes would pay for this? You'd have to tax corporations and enforce those taxes.
Yeah. And another struggle is about whether it would replace other kinds of social programs. And would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the most vulnerable among us?
What other policies are you considering?
I'm really interested in struggles for shorter hours and longer stretches of time away from waged work. I'm interested in trying to fight for these reforms, which will help us to make a life for ourselves outside of work, help us take back life from the clutches of work.
If I'm working at Arby's, shorter hours means less money.
I think it's shorter hours with no decrease in pay. Throughout its history, the labor movement argued for a 12-hour day, a 10-hour day, an 8-hour day, a 5-day week. They weren't asking for people to make less money. They were trying to say we need fewer hours without a decrease in pay. We have to make arguments about the need to sustain our lives outside of work, and we need work that's going to be able to sustain lives.
I've also defended a 30-hour workweek with no decrease in pay. All of a sudden, the standard of full-time labor stopped at 40 hours per week. Why has there been no progress since that moment? Is there something magical about 40? Given the level of social wealth that's being produced now, why would we stop at 40?
Because if your country goes down to 30 hours but my country stays at 40 hours, then I'll beat you at whatever the job is because we're the best.
Not if the regulatory system says you have to pay overtime after 30 hours.
But working so much leads to rapid innovation, which makes us more successful than other countries. Reducing those hours would make us less competitive.
Two things: First, studies show that productivity in the US on a per-hour basis is less than other countries, and some people suggest it's because Americans are overworked. The other thing is that the labor movement was confronted with the same argument when they said they wanted a 10-hour day. They said: "Ten hours a day? No, the economy would fall apart. Civilization would end." That's always the response they get, and I think there's reason to question it.