The Meaning of Work

Essays

There is a famous anecdote in which a man, after death, wakes up surrounded by all the pleasures of life: food, sex, and leisure. An angel approaches him and says “Welcome, enjoy all the pleasures you have ever wanted.” The man basks in all the pleasures available, but after a few weeks of uninterrupted ecstasy, he grows bored. So, the man approaches the angel and says “Is there anything I can do, any work?”

There is a famous anecdote in which a man, after death, wakes up surrounded by all the pleasures of life: food, sex, and leisure. An angel approaches him and says “Welcome, enjoy all the pleasures you have ever wanted.” The man basks in all the pleasures available, but after a few weeks of uninterrupted ecstasy, he grows bored. So, the man approaches the angel and says “Is there anything I can do, any work?” The angel laughs at him, “Work, there is no work here. Here, there is only pleasure and leisure.” In disbelief, the man exclaims “I’d rather be in hell!” The angel smiles, “Well, where do you think you are?”

There is mythology, inherited from religion, that the end of work is the beginning of paradise. The argument, according to Marx, is that eventually our economy will be efficient to enable most of us to stop working and pursue other interests and our own development. Work is viewed as a necessary obstacle to propel toward an idyllic future of leisure. Given Marx’s context, during the industrial revolution in England, it makes sense why Marx might have imagined utopia in this way: the working conditions in industrial factories was dehumanizing, treating human beings like machines. The same kind of argument is made today as well. David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, describes the dehumanizing nature of modern work, also using the handy motif of hell:

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

Graeber’s critique is different than Marx’s critique. It’s not that work is brutally-dehumanizing, but rather that it is a farce and an illusion to keep us busy. These jobs are not necessary. Graeber continues on to describe exactly the kind of work that he deems as meaningless: corporate law.

Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist. There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit.

There are a few things wrong with what Graeber is saying here. First, two of my favorite tv shows lately are Suits and Homeland. One is set in a corporate law firm and the other in the dark world of the CIA. These are probably the two easiest institutions for leftists to pick on in our society. One common theme in both shows is the inability of the main character to maintain a social life with the heavy demands of their work life. They constantly sacrifice family, friends and their own mental health in order to keep up with their work. How do we explain this? In my mind, there are three options to explain this and they parallel C.S. Lewis’ options for explaining Jesus Christ. Lewis famously argued that either Jesus Christ was a lunatic, liar, or the Lord. He may have believed, but it was not true. Or he did not believe, but claimed it for his own gain. Or, finally, he was who he said he was (of course, this leaves out the option that Jesus never really claimed to be Lord, but that does not really help us in our analogy). If we apply this to Suits and Homeland, I think it is fair to argue that their work is not objectively meaningful: it does not contribute much to our society for the betterment of others. These characters then are deluded or deceptive. I do not know how to argue that they are deluded without making an unfounded claim about their intelligence and I do not see why they would lie about their work being meaningful. This is why there needs to be a fourth option: their belief in the meaningfulness of the work makes the work meaningful. In the same way that regardless of whether Jesus is the actual “Lord,” his fervent belief has resulted in many people throughout time making him their Lord, our minds can transform seemingly meaningless work into our life’s vocation and the devotion of most our time. In other words, people like Graeber are missing the more important point that it matters little whether the work has objective meaning: if our minds determine that it is a source of meaning, it has meaning.

The movement toward mind control in the workplace is most evident for me in the development of positive psychology. Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage articulates this most clearly. In it, Achor describes how he uses concepts and practices of religious traditions, like meditation and an abstract sense of gratitude, to encourage the happiness of depressed corporate employees. From the perspective of someone on the left, this sounds like a terrifying cynical use of religious traditions and psychology to maintain the status quo. Achor himself even says “Positivity is such a high predictor of success rates,” as if gently reminding corporations not to forget to give the masses their opiates.

This is our predicament. Our bullshit jobs have become meaningful. We believe that they deserve our devotion. We have already bought the narrative. That is why I think it is naive for people like Graeber to suggest that our jobs are bullshit. Because they are not! They are meaningful! It is fair though to say that there is a danger in not encouraging our friends to question the work that gives us so much meaning. We need challenge our assumptions about work and pursue other sources of meaning, not looking toward an end of work, but a creative transformation. It is a spiritual journey toward a new vision of the world and our place in it.

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