“The economy is here to serve people”: on economies, work and meaning

In the course of writing Rest, I’ve come to realize that I need to talk about some issues regarding work. One section I’m now sketching out describes how we came to see overwork as a good thing, as a neoliberal version of Puritan virtue, and why that’s wrong.

Another point I’m trying to weave into the book is part semantic clarification, part cultural point. When I talk about “work”, and the relationship between work and rest, I’m not just talking about one’s day job: I’m talking about something closer to one’s “life’s work,” the labor you undertake that gives your life meaning. That could be your day job; but it could also be parenting; it could be the cabin or treehouse you’re building in the backyard; it could be your spiritual self; or it could be the novel or album or sculpture you work on while you bartend or review mortgage applications (do humans still do that?). I don’t want the book to sound like yet another catalog of life hacks for winning at the office.

At The Week, Jeff Spross has a good piece on American “nostalgia” for manufacturing that includes a really smart aside about the way we think about work. As he notes, we

tend to fall into the trap of thinking of the economy as some sort of free-floating phenomenon that exists to serve its own ends. We note that manufacturing output is not in decline, that productivity and GDP growth seem to be okay, and then we go on with our day. But that’s incomplete. The economy is here to serve people; to make their lives better; to do useful things for us and to give us something useful to do.

“Ultimately,” he concludes, “what people miss about manufacturing is the role it played in ensuring broadly shared prosperity.”

One of the implication of Spross’ argument is that seeing an economy as a “free-floating phenomenon that exists to serve its own ends” leads us to concede things that we shouldn’t: that local commitments have no place in economic decision-making, for example. At the same time, we’ve abandoned the moral economy of the Cold War, but not the emotional economy: employers want fidelity and loyalty while providing far less in return. It highlights a disconnect between the demand for emotional investment in the workplace on one hand, and the cold rationality and reality of outsourcing and contingent labor on the other. 

As someone who went through a Ph.D. program expecting to become an academic, I know first-hand how we come to treat our devotion to craft as both an essential part of our professional identities, and as a kind of talisman against bad luck: if we really love what we do, we’ll be rewarded with a job doing it. Unfortunately, though I went into the academic job market just as it was converting from a world that, like manufacturing, offered a life of stability to one that’s largely contingent.

Still, despite the far smaller returns, the academic world demands the same level of emotional investment, devotion, and a willingness to forsake income, defer marriage and family, and make other sacrifices. This is nuts, particularly since there are lots of academic subjects and research projects that you can pursue without an academic job, and with a minimum of scholarly infrastructure. (And because it’s abusive.)

Don’t get me wrong: you need a pretty high level of commitment to write a book. You just don’t need to direct that commitment at an institution that’s going to think nothing of abandoning you. You should direct it at the work itself, which is another way of saying that you should direct it at your self.

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