Back to Work (again)

I've been thinking a lot about and wanted to share in full something I wrote in September 2017 - before 99D found it’s current home on Substack.

That blog is no longer publicly accessible so some of the links don’t work anymore and I’m too lazy to deal with that. Sue me.

I’m sharing it again in part because it now seems quaint but also (hopefully) prescient, at least insofar as I was thinking about the the blurring of “work” and “life” in our self-conception and actualization. We’ve never had a good or healthy conception of “balance” but anything we had seems like heaven compared to the purgatory of working from our kitchens forever…

I was also moved to revisit this after reading Jomayra Harrera’s fantastic essay on The Empowered Economy, which provides some ideas for how the “market self” (in my words) can bolster the cause of fulfillment, flourishing, and non-market social participation. I highly recommend you check that out.

Back to Work!

Summer is over and the Fall grind begins, making this a good time to continue some thinking about the nature of work and our working lives. I’ve written before about the conflicts and idiosyncrasies between work and life, and the shortcomings of the putative work/life balance. “But First, Let Me Apologize,” the argument that the two are not separate and the zero-sum-game of “balance” is inadequate to describe the complex nature of our selves in and outside of work. I wrote:

If your work and life are separate, and you are separate within them, them then when and where are you yourself? And with whom? Given how much more time we spend at our jobs than we do anywhere else, there’s a reasonable case that who we are at work is who really are. Left to its own devices, the work self will overrun the supposedly separate and true self. (It’s all very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Where once hours and working locations were regular and fixed, the internet has eroded clearly delineated borders between what/when/where is and is not work. I emphasized mutual permeability over simple “balance” because it is holistic compatibility, not the mere allocation of time, that really matters. 

Rather than balance, mix is a better term to describe the optimal relationship. In “Status Update” I wrote about the consequences of letting work become the core of an identity:

Today, we pride ourselves on always being busy, always working longer hours, always running a sleep deficit. The people who work regular hours or don’t work at all? Lazy and worthless! In a near future where a larger and larger portion of labor has been automated away, just having a job will be a sign that you are a “big brain.” Work and work-related stress have become indelible markers of status and success. We love to trade horror stories of not having a personal life. It’s a badge of honor, signifying that we’re important and our skills are in demand. This is completely toxic.

A culture prizing work above everything else isolates us from one another. It strips the richness out of life and distorts our perception of personal (not financial) worth. As US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said, the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation. We find meaning and divine our place in the world through our work, at any cost to ourselves. We’ve so deeply internalized these problems as normal that even admitting them is tantamount to failure, admitting that you’re a loser. Socializing has been socialized out of us.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. The increasing primacy of work over every other aspect of our lives is one part of a much larger, longer, and deeper shift in the basic organizing principles of our society: the subsumption of our non-market lives/selves by our market lives/selves. Not only have the parts of lives/selves participating in commerce and the market taken over a greater share of the whole, commerce and the market itself have increasingly encroached on all aspects of our lives and turned them into commercial rather than social endeavors. 

It’s important to add some historical context here. First, the concept of a work self and a life self is a relatively recent invention. It didn’t really exist in the western world before the wide adoption of wage labor, which only began to become the dominant form of labor (excepting slavery) in the US in the early 19th century. And then the two selves were mostly understood with respect to slavery, industrialism, and the decline in artisanship - a trade that was a personal identity.

In The Half Has Never Been Told, Eric Foner juxtaposes the simultaneous advents of wage labor and slavery. He cites the widespread acceptance of wage labor as an essential outgrowth of and development in the expansion of a capitalist market system. There was a marked disdain for wage labor, which was popularly viewed as a form of “dependence.” Moralizing slave owners went so far as to portray slavery as a kinder institution than “wage slavery,” – working for a paycheck. So the idea of a profession separate from the core identity of a person is a new one. It should be obvious why. It requires a sufficiently productive and industrialized society, one which has accounted for or begun to account for, the lower portions of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to begin to debate the nature of the self in any meaningful way.

Second, it’s a myth that the market and non-market aspects of a person were ever fully divided. Nor were there ever was fully market or fully non-market transactions; the two realms always bleed into one another and always have. In Commerce Before Capitalism, historian Martha Howell chronicles how since the 13th century and before the dawn of anything remotely recognizable to us as a market system in the West, social/non-market institutions and relationships (the church, country fairs, gift exchange) laid the groundwork for commerce and modern capitalism. 

The shape has changed - a public ledger of church donations became a rotary club became a networking happy hour became a personal brand - but the idea stayed the same. Business is and always was personal.

I do not mean to brush aside the significance of the changes being wrought. Though the encroachment of the market sphere is not new, we are nevertheless experiencing a tremendous change as the market system is voraciously incorporating and taking over non-market areas of our lives and selves. (With respect to traditionally non-market transactions previously governed over by/transacted with the state, this is what people call neoliberalism - at least when they use the term correctly, which they mostly don’t). This shift in our social and relational norms is not unrelated to Amazon and cities, dating apps, social networks, etc. I wrote about eCommerce:

Going to the grocery store or the downtown shopping center or the farmers market isn’t just a market experience; it is the quintessential urban experience. According to Laura Seidman, an energy efficiency consultant who also teaches at the University of San Francisco, “The downfall of humanity is the invention of the refrigerator. When I was living in Brooklyn, the infrastructure existed from the earlier days, and on my way home I would pass a green grocer, a fruit seller, a fishmonger, the bagel place, the pizza place. That would get you out in the community.” (Link) When you don’t have to go to the store for bread - and in doing so interact with people, run into acquaintances, see other modes of life and ways of being - you’re functionally not living in a city any more. Just a more densely packed suburb.

So as I said at top, the changing dynamics of work are emblematic of the larger trend: the commodification of non-market areas of life. When the mixed market and non-market transactions (like buying bread from a local grocery) become pushed further and further towards being purely market transactions, we gain new efficiency and productivity but we do risk losing something.