Two years ago, I left my academic career and got a ‘real job’. That transition has been difficult in a number of ways. Increasingly, the shift from a career I deeply loved and identified strongly with to one that I’m grateful to have but that feels like work has left me with one insistent question.
Why do we work?
Why do we aim, from an early age, to spend a third of our days doing something for someone else? What the hell is a job, anyway? Why do we all put up with having jobs, and why do we so swiftly come to be defined by them? How the hell did we get here?
These are the questions I’ve used as a departure point for the research project I’ve just embarked on, which is an attempt to write a Foucauldian history of present anxieties about the future of work.
Horrible working title, I know. Let’s break this down.
What am I trying to do?
At heart, my project is not to write another history of work, or another set of predictions about the future of work. Plenty of more experienced and better-equipped people are already working on both of these topics.
Instead of work itself, I want to take anxieties about work as my subject. I want to try and figure out why we care so much about the disruptions to the world of work, chiefly through automation. Automation has been a recurrent theme in debates about work since at least 1950, and probably for far longer, but every time it rears its head again it’s like we’ve never faced it before.
If one examines these anxieties about automation, one quickly discovers that the ‘real’ stresses result not from the advent of machines, but from historically specific uncertainties about which jobs are safe and which ones aren’t. Contemporary stresses about migration play into this uncertainty when they absolutely should not, and stresses about climate change don’t, when they absolutely should.
The more I play with the idea of job security, the more I realise the question is about what gets to count as work – that is, what sorts of activity can be used to justify large-scale wealth transfer between people over time.
Viewed dispassionately, it’s curious to me how quickly a threat to one’s livelihood becomes a threat to one’s selfhood. Anyone reading this would recognise the threat of financial annihilation as an existential one. But on top of that, how did we get to a point where it was expected that one’s identity was so bound up in one’s job that losing it wasn’t just about not being able to eat or pay rent, but also about not being able to explain who you were to other people?
On this note, one thing I’m trying to achieve is a way of talking about work-as-identity without sliding into the structural vocabulary of Marxism. The problem with Marxism for this sort of inquiry is that it reduces all individuals to subjects of something large, abstract, and impersonal. One loses sight of individual people, but it also makes a ‘way out’ harder to identify or articulate.
How am I going to do it?
The methodology I’m keen on is a ‘History of the Present’. Very simply put, a history of the present is an attempt to reveal the contingency of some aspect of the contemporary world. Note the word contingency, rather than origins. The idea is not to point to the idea of ‘work’ and detail its emergence as a concept that helps to govern out lives. That doesn’t give us a way out.
The idea is to tease out the ways in which the concept of work is constructed, and has changed over time. Int his way a History of the Present reveals the possibility of change. By showing that work itself has a history, that it is contingent, rather than natural or immutable, perhaps work’s stranglehold on our lives can be worried, if not loosened.
A History of the Present is always already a political project. I’m interested, if I can, in providing myself and others with a different way of thinking about the world of work. The ultimate goal (even if probably beyond my reach or capability) is to make our current way of thinking about work impossible, because I think it’s destructive and limiting.
What sort of things am I going to look at?
The best history of the present I’ve ever seen (and the most exciting intellectual project I’ve ever been involved with) was the War and Peace course I taught into while working at Macquarie University. Each week it stepped through some foundational assumption about war – the state, sovereignty, the nation, empire/colonialism, gender, sexuality, trauma, memory – and revealed just how historically fluid that idea was. The aim (as I saw it) was to leave the students thoroughly disrupted; to make the assemblage of ideas about war that students walked into class with impossible to maintain. The course wanted to show students their part in war, and make war unintelligible to them. It made war seem alien, foolish, unthinkable, queer or peculiar. It achieved this more often than you’d think.
So what might a similar inquiry into work look like?
As a very early, very provisional structure, I propose the following:
1) The contemporary malady – work in the neoliberal present.
- What is work?
- How does neoliberalism as a way of thinking/seeing the world shape our understandings of work?
- How might we usefully talk about work without just investing our inquiry with the same assumptions that already govern it? How do we avoid falling into a Marxist or Liberal frame?
2) Problematising work – making the contingency of our assumptions visible.
A very provisional list. This will probably be reassessed many, many times
- Work is drudgery
- Work is slavery
- Work is meaningful
- Work makes the worker worthy
- Your boss is not your equal
- (Whatever else I can think of that fits here)
3) Why are we so anxious about work? – what is it about our imagined future that worries us so much?
- Automation, rampant and permanent inequality, ‘bullshit jobs’ and ‘luxury communism’
- Automation, jobs of the future, and ‘skills’
- Why doesn’t the relationship between work and climate change worry us more?
4) Will we ever have a world without work? Is that desirable? What does that even mean?
What is this blog for then?
I’m not trying to write a proper academic work. I’m trying to retrain myself to write something erudite but accessible, well-informed but not exhaustive, and explicitly political.
I’m also not as engaged with the infrastructure of intellectual work as I used to be – with colleagues’ work, with conferences, with teaching, or more importantly, with the network of sympathetic, informed, and critical readers that make up any written project.
So this blog is an attempt to do two things:
First, to keep me writing. I’ll be doing my research mainly on mornings and weekends, and mainly through ‘peer-pressured productivity’ sessions like this one. But I personally think best while articulating my ideas, so I’m going to try and force myself to do it at my weekly ‘Write Club’ – sessions where a group of use write for an uninterrupted hour. So aim one is to just get some output, out. To practice thinking and writing in a voice that is accessible, but also to ‘work through’ things I’m reading – to digest the theory, and to try arguments out. Sometimes they’ll work, sometimes they’ll fall flat. I won’t know until I’ve tried to write them.
Second, to try and test my ideas, solicit comment on whether what I’m writing is readable and intelligible or not, and to furnish me with the web of further reading suggestions so necessary to any intellectual project.
So hopefully I’ll be updating every Tuesday or Wednesday, although a warning that the quality of the content will vary dramatically, and there may be repeat attempts to cover the same idea as new information comes to light!
Let’s see how this goes.