The hope of past liberal and socialist thinkers was that humans would transcend work. Karl Marx envisioned a communist society in which one could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. In his 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes predicted that rising living standards and technological advancements would enable a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century.
Yet in the era of Covid-19, work feels more central to our lives than ever. Rather than “working from home”, millions now live at work. Others – through necessity or choice – have commuted daily despite the risks posed by the pandemic. In her new book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, the US journalist Sarah Jaffe dissects this social phenomenon.
“I had a lot of crappy jobs and I think this book was brewing in my head when I was waiting tables and I was expected not only to perform for the customers but for my boss too,” Jaffe, 40, who lives in Philadelphia, said when we recently spoke. Journalism, which she entered in 2009, provided little consolation: “We had no money, we were a shoestring operation, we were all broke and we were all struggling,” she recalled of her time as a senior writer on The Laura Flanders Show. Looming over this was what Jaffe calls “the labour of love myth”, the notion that “work itself is supposed to bring us fulfilment, pleasure, meaning, even joy”. The “stress, anxiety and loneliness” that often results is then framed as an individual rather than a collective failure.
In her deeply reported book, Jaffe tells this story through a cast that includes alienated academics, tortured tech workers and subjugated shelf-stackers. But what of those who insist they genuinely love their jobs? Are they simply suffering from false consciousness? “They might have a great time but I would still say that work does not love you back because work cannot actually love you… This is the point that Marx made: there’s a limit to what an individual capitalist can do to go against the system because the system is always ratcheting down on everyone.”
There has long been a tension on the left between those who romanticise work – the Stakhanovite labourer of Soviet propaganda – and those who yearn to overcome it. In their 2015 book Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams declared: “The classic social democratic demand for full employment should be replaced with the future-oriented demand for full unemployment” – a slogan unlikely to appear on a Labour Party banner.
“We get tripped up with this idea of the ‘dignity of work’,” Jaffe told me. “The miners don’t have dignity because they’re miners, they have dignity because they’re human… If you tell people that the only thing that gives them dignity is their work, well, when we have millions of people applying for benefits what the hell have we just done to those people if we tell them their only worth is working?”
Jaffe, who describes herself with justification as a “labour journo before it was cool”, said that she was politicised by “punk rock and shitty jobs”. She spoke of the influence of her late Jewish father, who owned restaurants and a bicycle shop (“he was very clear that no one would hire him”) and quipped: “Who wants to have a boss anyway?”
“He didn’t quite accept that I was going to take that politically in the direction that I did,” Jaffe reflected. “I’m trying to abolish everyone’s boss.”
Is she hopeful, as some commentators are, that the pandemic could lead to progressive change? “Moments of revelation aren’t enough, they have to actually spark action, and so it’s been interesting on that front to see where the action is.” Jaffe cited the General Electric workers who demanded to make ventilators rather than military aircraft parts and the Amazon employee who declared: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? No.” (“After ten months of lockdown some of us might argue with that,” Jaffe riposted.)
The climate crisis, she said, “necessitates that we produce less and consume less as a point of species survival; we really could use this conversation about essential work to rethink all of this”.
The tension at the heart of Jaffe’s book is that which exists between work and love. Rather than ending with a traditional list of leftist demands, it concludes with a moving reflection on the latter. “What I believe, and want you to believe, too, is that love is too big and beautiful and grand and messy and human a thing to be wasted on a temporary fact of life like work,” she writes.
Though some on the left treat love as an unwelcome distraction from the revolution, Jaffe invokes those thinkers, such as the US anarchist Emma Goldman and Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, for whom it was central.
How hopeful is she for the future? “Hope is a discipline, as my friend Mariame Kaba, who is also a brilliant [prison] abolitionist organiser, said. I think about that a lot. I also think back to the question of community care, that hope is produced in communities. It’s very, very easy to be hopeless when you’re alone; we make hope possible by acting.”
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation