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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.