Mindfulness mantras are the latest tool of corporate control. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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In praise of meaningless work

We are all alienated labour now.

The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself
Tim Leberecht
HarperBusiness, 320pp

Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out
David Gelles 
Profile, 305pp

The world of management has discovered the human soul. Each new dawn brings with it another survey, article, or TED Talk emphasising the need to restore meaning to work. Whether labouring at a bike shop, mounting hostile takeovers, or psychoanalysing house pets, older workers want it, and millennials demand it. No one can seem to clearly define what it is – feeling challenged? helping people? sweat equity? skill-building? – but we know the elusive quality when we see it, and we have registered its near-total absence from our work lives.1

Generations of employees have felt this emptiness, of course, but only recently has it become a matter of pressing concern for management types. This is not necessarily because the purposelessness and futility that defines life in an American office is killing their employees’ souls. It’s more that the malaise may also be keeping those same workers from attaining the utmost productivity. The research backing this abounds, but the most resonant contribution came in the form of Gallup’s much-cited, 2013 State of the American Workplace report, which found that companies whose employees are comparatively more engaged generate 147 percent higher earnings per share2.

Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime, and good hours.

More output at next to no cost. And thus did the word ring out: ours will no longer be a future of rote compliance with company objectives, pursued ceaselessly in a deadening, musty cubicle farm. Ours will be jobs bursting with meaning. Meaning and productivity. But especially productivity.

Our forebears didn’t have to look quite so far to find the point of their labour. For primitive man it was easy: you hunted; you ate what you killed; you spent the rest of your time trying not to get eaten by something else. The Puritans saw how hard God worked to create the world, and they toiled with comparable avidity in order to keep him happy. The blacksmith smithed, the farmer farmed, the tanner tanned, the pirate pirated.

It wasn’t until Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford effectively replaced the artisan economy with assembly lines and so-called scientific management in the early twentieth century that the tug of war between companies who treat workers like numbers and workers who insist on being treated like people began in earnest. Toiling under the stopwatch, workers began to complain of stress. Profits soared and antagonism bloomed. Marx’s theory of alienated labour, in which workers inevitably become commodities themselves, began to bear out.

Since then, it’s been a lopsided tug-of-war between the emotional needs of humanity and the imperatives of corporate profits. Profits generally win, providing fresh reminders of their supremacy every time a thriving company lays off employees to appease colicky shareholders, or installs a monitor on your computer to measure how much time you’ve spent at your desk, or hands its CEO a duffel bag of cash for running a company into the ground. For workers, this has taken a toll. We are all alienated labour now. The soul cries out for relief.

And the soul shall have it, at least according to two new books. Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, by New York Times business reporter David Gelles, looks at corporate America’s increasing interest in meditation to enhance productivity and ameliorate stress. And The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself, by marketing executive Tim Leberecht, urges ... well, just reread that subtitle.

Leberecht sees a tired, cynical labour force, and lays the blame for it on a working world so obsessed with metrics that it’s become closed off “to the delights, the mysteries, the moments of transcendence, and even the hard-won sorrows of an everyday life in business.” His “Rules of Enchantment” “prioritise joy over optimisation,” and he contends that workplaces that follow these dictums will be abloom with sensitivity, self-discovery, generosity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and “an appreciation for the sublime … and secretive.” In order to “engender an ‘institutionalised’ romance,” he has called on companies to marshal the neglected humanities – poetry, art, music – and establish themselves as “arbiters of meaning” (and also “maintain profit margins”).

But isn’t that asking a bit much from our jobs? Not at all, Leberecht explains. We don’t have an alternative: “Our lives are already so encroached upon by the normative values of capitalism, that our only choice is to reveal our fullest selves within this mainstream market culture.” Moreover, the consequences of disillusionment are dire: “When we disengage [from our jobs], we lock away our most private desires,” he writes. “Every time we disengage, a small part of our love dies.”3

Mindful Work, too, is a bit moony, but somewhat more practical. Gelles cites studies showing that meditation can reduce stress, increase compassion, and foster a healthier state of mind. He speculates that by institutionalising mindfulness, companies will become better, less polluting, less exploitative corporate citizens (a claim undermined somewhat by the fact that “hedge fund managers are using meditation to gain an edge in their training”).

Gelles reports on efforts by older firms, like General Mills, Ford, and Goldman Sachs, to harness the power of mindfulness, but pays special attention to the darlings of Silicon Valley, especially Google, where employees can enroll in a “course in mindfulness” called “Search Inside Yourself.” The man behind Search Inside Yourself is a senior Google executive named Chade-Meng Tan, who gave himself the title “Jolly Good Fellow.” During a seminar on the importance of self sacrifice, humility, and compassion in the workplace, Meng gets right to the heart of the matter: “There’s a false dichotomy between getting shit done and being loved,” he says. “But being loved is good for your career. When you are loved, people will work harder for you.”

And here we were thinking love had no practical applications. Turns out it’s useful after all. All you have to do is lash it to the wheel and make it sing its little heart out.

I don’t know how to make money. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this essay on a Sunday. I’d be fattening on my capital and disparaging Piketty like the rest of the global elite. But I have held many jobs – from gas station attendant, to hotel clerk, to magazine editor. I’ve managed staffs, and worked under many different bosses. I’ve liked most of the bosses, and loved a few – even the one who cracked my rib in a fight. I’ve liked most of the jobs, and loved some, too. I work hard. I believe that without the strictures of gainful employment, idleness – which I both require and adore – slides into sloth. I also come from a family of proud small business owners who do good by their employees and their customers. And I’ve now quit two fairly plum jobs to try my luck in the wilds of self-employment because I had come to feel off-kilter or uninspired.

All of which is to say: I am a meaningful work guy right down to the ground, and I fully support anyone’s quest to obtain work that matters to them. But when I see management types become giddy over the prospect of “scaling” meaning and purpose and “intervening” in the lives of their employees to foster compassion and improve outcomes, I see whole sweeping vistas of fresh bullshit opening up. I see employees who go to meditation class just because they don’t want the boss to think they’re not trying hard enough. I see job applicants being forced into the humiliating charade of having to pretend they’d do a job gratis, because it means so much, because to not do so would be to not get the job4.

I see the old team-building horrors of mandatory corporate fun morph into exercises of mandatory fulfillment, like when a former boss of mine made us write essays about how our jobs make us happy, or when an acquaintance’s manager had her use Legos to convey her perception of her job. (She made the boat from Apocalypse Now.) I see Leberecht’s advice for people who do not love their jobs, writ large across the land: “Pretend to be a Business Romantic,” he proposes, “fake it until you make it!”5

Is this advice anything more than corporate incentives dressed up in office emo? Will meaning-mongering be the new greenwashing?

Even if these efforts do make us more legitimately engaged, it’ll just serve to treat the symptoms and not the disease that’s inspired so many people to seek significance in their work in the first place. “Our lives are choked with work,” wrote Richard Donkin in his 2001 history of employment, Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work, and it’s only gotten worse since then. Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor argued that, by 2000, we were working five more weeks per year than we did in 1967. Americans work an average of 299 more hours per year than the French, and 400 more than Germans. (Germans? Who knew?) Productivity has grown 65 percent since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but wages have been stagnant. We’re among the most productive nations on earth, and the strain is showing. Gelles cites a report by Carnegie Mellon which found that stress levels have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men over the past 30 years. According to the Gallup workplace study, some 70 percent of Americans claim to be disengaged in their jobs. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the U.S. twenty-third out of 23 countries for work-life balance. We are spent – and yet we continue to produce.

Uncoincidentally, corporate profits are at record levels.

So maybe it’s this: Maybe the problem isn’t meaningless work. Most modern work, like it or not, is inherently meaningless beyond the paycheck. (Have you seen what people do for a living?) No, the problem is that work has so monopolised our lives that there are ever fewer opportunities to find meaning outside of the office.

In 2011, the philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote, “The workaholic colonises his own despair at the perceived emptiness of life – its non-productivity – by filling it in with work.” It’s not just individuals. The broader culture is hopelessly workaholic – not raging against the emptiness of life, but actively emptying it, and filling the hole with more work dressed up as life. The manic drive to make labour meaningful, at least on the part of management, is an acceleration of that process, ultimately less about unlocking human potential, one suspects, than hydrofracking it.

Perhaps it’s not meaning we want but relief, and we just lack the words to give voice to the dreaded heresy: This is too much work. I don’t want to do this anymore. (Where is our twenty-first-century Bartleby?) We may mock the French – and now, the Germans, apparently – and hold obnoxious dinner-table competitions boasting about how many hours we put in, how little we sleep – but I would kill ten men for a four-day workweek, and I’ll bet most of you would, too.

Yes, we should all hope – demand, even – that the workplace of the future will be governed more by respect and sensitivity than cupidity and the Peter Principle. But until that day comes, we should embrace not the meaningfulness of work, but its meaninglessness. The cold, unromantic transaction. The part that keeps food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. The part that, theoretically, gives us our nights and weekends. Let’s demand that recompense, first and foremost, and deal with the rest later. With unemployment falling to pre-recession levels, employees are hopefully gaining the leverage to say enough. The prayer is that the line will be drawn, and managers will then see that the way forward is actually very simple: Hire good people. Treat them well. Help them succeed. Compensate them fairly. Let them go home. 

 

***

 

1It should be noted that for present purposes, the “we” under discussion are white-collar workers, generally. For the working poor and some members of the workng class, the problem isn’t too many hours, but not enough. The working poor are no more permitted meaning than they are a living wage. But that’s a matter for a different polemic. 

2Gallup’s report says engaged employees – and this dovetails with others’ definition of meaning or purpose – have “well-defined roles in the organisation, make strong contributions, are actively connected to their larger team and organisation, and are continuously progressing.”

3Here I would like to indulge in a bit of light puppy-kicking and point out that Leberecht used to be the CMO of a multinational outsourcing firm. 

4I recently came upon an ad for a part-time customer service job at Verizon that promised to “fuel your passion” and “change the world.” 

5I also recall that Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class As Soulcraft (2010), defined authority in the American workplace as “smarmy and passive aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something cooperative and friendly; as volunteerism.” 

Joe Keohane has written for New York magazine, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.