My new job is, in fact, as bad as I expected it. Actually worse, because I didn’t anticipate the crushing effect of lack of sleep on my ability to think clearly and work creatively. It’s partly because I live in an older house, which effectively transmits the footsteps of my upstairs neighbour every morning at 6am. It’s also because my efforts to cope properly – cook, exercise, socialize, meditate – take time that eight hours in an office and two hours’ commute have already spoken for. But it’s mainly the mental energy of a demanding job that leaves me a stooped-over, bleary shell by Wednesday’s end. Which still leaves two more days to shuffle through.
I turn 40 in a month. The fact that I’ve achieved such an advanced age is a victory in itself, because I’m still 22 in my head. But that’s also part of the problem. If I imagined myself at 40 at that age at all, it was a dim, fuzzy outline of someone with a home and a job that built on years of experience. (For some reason I also had a white clapboard house and dark hair – no idea which sitcom rerun that came from.) It was certainly not as part of the precariat.
Let’s get the self-pity stuff out of the way. I know other people have it worse off than I do. I know. The problem with capitalism is that a few people have it much, much better and refuse to share their ill-gotten gains with the rest of us. I write this in the expectation of empathy, not sympathy. If you can’t identify with what I’m faced with, you are very lucky. But chances are that you can.
I’m highly skeptical of the capitalist/Protestant work ethic – most work in capitalism is a waste of time, hence the appeal of unalienated labour through hobbies and sport. But as someone from a petty bourgeois background, since fallen into the working class, I did not sit on my hands for the last 10 years. I got a PhD, wrote academic and popular publications, edited, networked and poured hours into self-improvement and skills development. I lived on well-below poverty line wages, put up with substandard housing, didn’t take holidays or buy myself nice gadgets. I did so to discount my present into the future. Now I’ve been out of school for a year, and the payoff has yet to arrive. Like everyone else searching for that mythical meritocracy, I believed that if only I could get the qualifications, it would pay off in job satisfaction and savings. But millions of other people have tried this path, and now we’re all competing with each other for jobs that don’t exist, realising that we were actually just products for our schools’ own quest for profit.
This could go two ways. I can internalize it, blaming myself for not being saleable enough, not making the right decisions about career paths. Or I can get mad at a system that wastes the talents of most of humanity to keep a few multi-billionaires getting rich faster than a few other multi-billionaires. In typically measured fashion, I’m doing both.
I was asking my – quite sweet and gentle – coworker what’s his motivation for our job, and he said that was personal. So, let’s pull back the curtain on the hidden abode of production that no one ever talks about. The ‘problem’ is that the discipline of the work day has little to do with my internal life. I want time to think about life and politics; even accepting the reality that I have to be in an office for eight hours a day, I want time to calm myself down, to reflect on where I’ve been and convince myself this is temporary. I don’t have that time. Instead, nearly every minute of my day is geared towards reproducing my labour power: cooking, cleaning, sleeping.
What’s my motivation?
For workers, hard work is something to escape from. Workers experience work as awful, so they imagine being rich means not working. But rich people ‘work’ very hard. CEOs are happy to advertise their four hours’ a night sleep schedule as proof that they deserve their success. I don’t buy the biological explanation: I think they’re sleepless because they have meaningful work, and their decisions instantly set in motion hundreds of people. That power is addictive and fulfilling. Anyone with it would naturally love work. When rich people say the poor are lazy, they’re transposing their class experience onto another class. The poor experience work as more control, and the effects of constant alienation are exhausting. It’s why workers view wealth as a means to get nice things – holidays, houses, and cars, and most importantly to stop working – rather than as capital, a chance to re-enter the competitive accumulation process with a leg up.
This is best expressed in the subjective experience of work time. As a student, I would ease myself into blocks of writing and, as I warmed to the subject, lose track of time. At the office, I am time’s carcase, as Marx so aptly put it. I subdivide my time into smaller and smaller segments: the time till I can escape. 20 minutes till break, 45 minutes to lunch, 1.5 hours till 5pm. The worst is after lunch when I have 3-4 hours still to go, and the time just drags. Yet at the end of the week, the time seems to have flown and the days have bled into one another.
What is an adult?
I used to think that the main reason people have children is for company. Now I think it’s also an accomplishment outside of the work process. It holds out the promise of a non-commodified relationship that, like everything else, is commodified from the moment of conception. And even more importantly, they embody the frustrated hopes of their parents for escape from the ravages of time-discipline they were subjected to. Yet because children are the next generation of workers, they fail to escape capitalist discipline and invest their hopes in their children, over and over again so that a few people can enjoy a life of meaning and control.
The discourse of responsibility, maturity and adulthood needs unpacking. On the surface, it simply means delayed gratification: putting off your immediate needs to achieve a greater goal in the future. This is basic Self development. But like everything, capitalism has colonised it, so that being responsible now means ignoring your own needs in favour of the company’s. It means channeling your creativity towards an alien goal: creating something that the company ‘wants’ because it makes a profit, not something you want because it expresses and develops your inner drives and capacities. This is why capitalism has to keep people in a constant haze of distraction: too much knowledge of one’s potential wasted on rote tasks with no point to them, and you grind to a halt. It’s inefficient to have workers who read. And it’s why workers who have trouble conforming to the work process are considered churlish, or even childish.
Childish is a good adjective, because children are not yet assimilated to capitalist discipline. So in a sense, when worker daydream or make mistakes, they are repeating unalienated behaviour from their past, when activity was play and not work. As adults, that potential for creativity is sublimated and expressed in drinking, sabotage, lateness – all the things workers do to make the day go by. And in the heightened stress and tension of managers, as they make themselves believe that the company’s goals are their own, channelling their anger at not being able to express their unspoken, inchoate desires into the minutiae of meeting deadlines and enforcing discipline. That creativity never goes away, of course. Personally, I’m interested to see my tastes in film veering towards the absurd and apocalyptic, like the scene in Brazil where Sam Lowry destroys the pneumatic tube system in his office. My music at work now includes the different themes from LocoRoco. Somehow they capture perfectly the insanity of what I’m doing.
I’m tired of living perpetually in the future, waiting for a career that brings a glimmer of meaning and stability. I’m a trained educator and researcher and writer who’s never had a job teaching or researching or writing. Although I work with words, I won’t dignify what I do now with the moniker ‘writing’. As Hollywood screenwriters never cease to remind us, a midlife crisis is when you realize all your efforts to build a comfortable life haven’t made you happy. Agreed – not that we couldn’t see far fewer white male professionals finding themselves on screen. But I’ve reached that magical age and have never had a career to get tired of.
My circumstances are nothing special or remarkable. To reiterate, many people have it harder than I do. But somehow that makes it worse, because this doesn’t feel reasonable or middling at all.
Life is worthwhile. Love is beautiful. Friends are incredibly valuable. All these things remain true. For most of us, work remains something we have to eke out meaning in spite of. For those of us who manage to be at the center of capitalism and the margins of our own lives simultaneously, keep strong. We have to create our own meanings.
Jeon Tae-Il, martyr and founder of the modern Korean labour movement