By Becky Clark
On 2nd September 2020, the radical anthropologist David Graeber unexpectedly passed away. A self-proclaimed anarchist, the LSE professor played an instrumental role in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and wrote several books in his lifetime on topics ranging from bureaucratisation to debt crises. But he was perhaps best-known for his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, in which he argued that many of the jobs created in the past century (ranging from middle management to corporate law) have failed to meaningfully improve people’s lives. This claim clearly strikes a nerve: over a third of British working adults agree that their job makes no meaningful contribution to the world. According to Graeber, the proliferation of these ‘bullshit’ jobs has prevented us from realising a 15-hour working week (as was predicted by the economist Keynes back in 1930) despite huge advances in labour-saving technological innovation.
Regardless of whether one agrees with his assessment, Graeber’s contributions have been invaluable in urging us to critically reflect on the nature of work within contemporary society. Never has this seemed more relevant, amidst a global pandemic which is drastically transforming work as we know it. In sparking discussions about ‘key workers’, shifting the boundary between the workplace and the home, and temporarily decoupling work from income through furlough schemes, this crisis denaturalises work as an institution and offers us an opportunity to re-imagine alternative ways of organising our lives. If there ever was a time for a rethink, it is now.
What is work? On the face of it, this is an insultingly easy question – yet 'work' is a surprisingly nebulous term given how central it is to people’s lives. One way in which ‘work’ can be defined is as an “activity involving physical or mental effort and undertaken in order to achieve a result”. On this interpretation, ‘work’ refers to any strenuous activity undertaken to fulfil a purpose; yet this definition is far too broad to capture our everyday understanding of the term, which ordinarily does not consider playing tennis to keep fit, or reading a cookery book to learn a new recipe, to be work. A more standard view sees work as a paid activity. However, this is also not entirely satisfactory as it fails to incorporate unpaid work such as slavery and domestic labour. The very fact that we use the term housework as an umbrella for activities such as cleaning, childcare and cooking indicates that we intuitively do consider these activities to be work – yet they simultaneously do not qualify as ‘work’ in the colloquial sense.
The common usage of the term, then, is unclear. The philosopher Sally Haslanger contends that, for certain concepts such as ‘gender’ and ‘race’, we can instead adopt a so-called ameliorative approach to the question “What is X?”. According to this approach, we define ‘X’ in a way which best serves our purpose at hand, rather than simply in a way that best tracks its current usage. For instance, an ameliorative definition of gender with feminist objectives in mind would not stick rigidly to everyday usage of the term (which typically equates ‘woman’ with ‘a person with female genitalia’) on the basis that this excludes trans women as well as conflates sex and gender; instead, gender would be defined in terms of e.g. systematic discrimination on the basis of actual or imagined bodily features.
A similar case can be made for the term ‘work’. Defining an activity as work, far from being a purely theoretical exercise, is also a political act with real-world implications. Firstly, it alters our perception of the activity in question. Secondly, it can situate the activity within a legal framework of workers’ rights; for instance, the social theorist Sophie Lewis contends in Full Surrogacy Now that recognising gestational surrogacy (where the surrogate mother is not biologically related to the child) as work enables the formation of worker-led cooperatives who can demand better working conditions. Finally, it can change our understanding of work itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the multitude of ways in which our current relationship to work is deeply flawed. Firstly, it has illuminated how certain types of work are systematically undervalued, both in terms of remuneration and social recognition. In his now-famous 2013 essay for STRIKE! Magazine, Graeber wrote,
‘In our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it… even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be.’
Never has this insight seemed more obvious than during the first national lockdown, when it became evident that the ‘key workers’ were not those in ostentatious offices, but rather the bus drivers, plumbers, and supermarket staff. The pandemic has drawn attention to the recognition regimes which we have constructed whereby the work which is most essential to the functioning of society is also the most scorned and least well paid. Whilst the crisis has resulted in a short-term shift in this recognition hierarchy (think of the regular Thursday ‘Clap For Our Carers’), it remains to be seen whether this will lead to any long-lasting change.
The pandemic has also highlighted how certain forms of work are not even recognised as work at all. This is not a particularly novel discovery: in the 1970s (back when WFH didn’t stand for Working From Home), the Wages For Housework movement brought attention to the ways in which unpaid domestic labour underpins the capitalist economic system by providing unremunerated work and sustaining the labour power of waged workers. Indeed, it is often called ‘reproductive’ labour since it reproduces and maintains the conditions under which ‘productive’ labour is possible. As Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser succinctly put, capitalism’s ‘key move was to separate the making of people from the making of profit, to assign the first job to women, and to subordinate it to the second.’
The collision of the workplace and the home resulting from the COVID-19 crisis has brought this insight to the fore. In April 2020, 81% of workers worldwide had their workplace partially or fully closed; with schools shut, childcare services unavailable, and office workers catapulted into the home, the number of hours spent on domestic work rose dramatically for both men and women. In response, over 1 million people signed up to the NHS volunteer scheme within a few weeks of the first national lockdown – such an effort has not been seen on this scale since World War Two, with still more getting involved in grassroots community action. Within Oxford, for instance, a free online therapy service The Help Hub was launched for those struggling during self-isolation, and Oxford Mutual Aid was formed to help vulnerable people by supplying cooked meals, delivering prescriptions, organising shopping and much more. These spontaneous communities of care give us a brief glimpse into the radical possibility of collectivising reproductive labour, rather than treating it as a private affair.
Secondly, the pandemic has shone a light on poor working conditions and relations of domination in the workplace. Meat processing plants and garment factories have recently found themselves at the heart of COVID-19 outbreaks, a fact which has been linked to cramped working conditions, a lack of PPE, and low (or even non-existent) sick-pay entitlements for migrant workers. Multiple reports had previously documented the terrible working conditions in these factories; for instance, a 2010 Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry found that 20% of meat processing agency workers have been physically abused at work and that employees were frequently forced to work double-shifts when sick. However, these damning reports were largely ignored until the working conditions became a health risk to the wider public.
This crisis has similarly emphasised the precarity of sex workers, as well as the importance of recognising them as workers to afford them better protection. Lockdowns at both the national and local level have resulted in a significant decline in the demand for sex work, resulting in sex workers (of whom there are approximately 73,000 in the UK) taking on more risky clients to earn enough to get by; the charity Amber Chaplains reports that sex workers are now ‘at greater risk of assault.’ Despite sex work being legal in the UK, many sex workers have found it difficult to access the government’s self-employment income support scheme due to the stigma associated with declaring their line of work and the illegality of related practices such as kerb crawling. By contrast, in New Zealand, sex workers have by and large been able to access vital government wage subsidies during lockdown, thanks to its decriminalisation in 2003 as well as pro-active efforts by the government to engage with the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective.
For office workers, working from home for at least part of the week looks likely to become the new modus operandi. In her 2017 book Private Government, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that US employers have an almost dictatorial ability to control the private lives of their employees, ranging from the length of bathroom breaks to which political candidates they can endorse. The move to online working does not lessen the degree of intrusion in employee’s lives; rather, it is carried out in different ways. For instance, there has been a significant uptick in sales of employee monitoring software, which encompasses everything from a boss having access to an employee’s private messages on Slack to obtaining regular screenshots of an employee’s computer screen. Rather insidiously, this can all be done without the employee’s knowledge.
‘Abigail’ (who asked that neither she nor her employer be named, in case of retribution) works at a global management consulting firm based in the US. She told me that since the onset of remote working, ‘there has been a lot of pressure to always be instantly accessible. I once left my laptop for five minutes to make some coffee, and I came back to a barrage of messages from my manager accusing me of slacking off. Since then, I keep my laptop with me at all times – even on toilet breaks.’
It is unsurprising that firms are keen to ensure that employees do not shirk tasks. Yet ultimately such measures have proved counterproductive, undermining employee loyalty and engendering further suspicion on the part of managers. More importantly, these measures are highly invasive and ethically questionable. Greater privacy protection is needed: at a minimum, employees should have a right to know how they are being monitored, and any measures adopted should be proportionate and limited. For example, both Germany and France have banned keylogging, which captures an employee’s every keystroke (and hence can collect confidential information such as private passwords), apart from under exceptional circumstances. What is clear is that we should not leave such matters to bosses’ discretion.
Finally, the ongoing public health crisis has emphasised the link (and tension) between work as a source of meaning, and as a means to an income. By June 2020, more than 25% of workers found themselves on the UK government’s furlough scheme. This mass experiment in paid joblessness, far from a post-work utopia, has left many with a feeling of profound loss which has been likened to grief. This is not simply the result of anxiety over future income and job security; for many, work provides a sense of identity and purpose, without which they feel adrift. It is notable that a common punishment used in prisons is the deprivation of work, which points towards the indignity of being consigned to uselessness.
Yet for many others, work is meaningless drudgery. This is commonly the case with occupations involving tedious, repetitive tasks such as working in a call centre or delivering Amazon packages. However, it is also true of “bullshit” jobs, which are those which employees themselves regard as utterly pointless. For Graeber, the problem with such jobs is not so much the opportunity cost of lost leisure time, but rather the ‘spiritual violence’ associated with working in a meaningless job.
Why does this matter? For one thing, this inegalitarian distribution of meaningful work denies certain groups of people the means to flourish in their work, which seems not only regrettable but unfair. Moreover, we may soon find ourselves in a society with fewer jobs altogether: the economist Daniel Susskind contends in A World Without Work that automation will result in large-scale technological unemployment within decades. Of course, worries about machines stealing jobs date back centuries; yet Susskind argues that the advancement of artificial intelligence, which enables the automation of tasks without the need to replicate human intelligence, means that this time is different. If we take this claim seriously then, sooner or later, we will be confronted with the question of how to give our lives meaning in the absence of work.
In response to the structural problems with work which the pandemic has highlighted, an obvious solution would be to carry out tweaks to the system. This could take the form of paying key workers higher wages, recognising reproductive labour as work, introducing further regulation in the workplace, and creating more meaningful jobs. However, it is doubtful that such reforms would go far enough.
For one, a re-valuing of socially necessary work (be it cleaning or bin collecting) in terms of both remuneration and social status does little to change the fact that certain social groups would still be expected to bear the brunt of such work. The feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir famously remarked that ‘few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition’; if one agrees with this assessment, then an unequal distribution of socially necessary work remains an issue in need of addressing. While we cannot go as far as to claim that socially essential work is inherently onerous on account of its highly repetitive nature, it nevertheless is often experienced as such within our current society. Ideally, we would undertake essential labour in a far more equitable manner – and we can look to the mutual aid groups that have sprung up during the pandemic as inspiration.
The dominating influence of bosses over their workers will also only persist unless there is total democratisation of the workplace. Such a radical reform would understandably give rise to serious concerns over economic inefficiency – yet we ought to at least recognise that there is a prima facie trade-off between efficiency and non-domination, rather than immediately casting democratisation proposals aside as irrational nonsense.
Lastly, the idea that we should simply create more meaningful jobs fails to recognise that there are other ways to gain a sense of purpose outside of the workplace, such as through engaging in community action, nurturing relationships, and pursuing our passions – we just lack to time to fully explore those avenues at present. Our society remains in the grip of a Protestant work ethic, which places paid employment on a pedestal above all other human activities and constrains our ability to imagine alternatives to the work society; in Graeber’s words, ‘if there is anything that the Left and Right both seem to agree on, it’s that jobs are always good.’
It is precisely this assumption that we should call into question – and in any case, given current trends in automation, we may have little choice but to do so. As technological unemployment begins to rise and wealth increasingly accumulates in the pockets of technology giants, greater income redistribution will become necessary to ensure that citizens’ needs are met. One way of achieving this would be through the implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which has seen a marked increase in popularity since the start of the pandemic; a recent study found that a whopping 70% of Europeans are now in favour of a UBI post-pandemic, which reflects the normalisation of income transfers and the increasingly apparent cracks in government furlough schemes. Such a decoupling of work from income would provide the space to experiment with different ways of imbuing life with a sense of purpose.
In a recent interview, Nancy Fraser described the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘lightening flash’ which ‘lights up the skies’. If any silver-lining can be found in this crisis, it is that it offers us a rare glimpse of a collective reimagining of work. Pursuing radical proposals to transform the institution of work – whether that takes the form of individuals setting up mutual aid groups, or governments implementing a nationwide UBI – may very well alter the concept of “work” itself.
David Graeber, ‘Bullshit Jobs’, 2018
Sophie Lewis, ‘Full Surrogacy Now’, 2019
Elizabeth Anderson, ‘Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)’, 2017
BECKY CLARK reads a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College. In a pre-pandemic life, she played electric guitar in a funk band.
Art by Fred Seddon