On the ‘great speedup’ and its reception

In case you missed it, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey, both of Mother Jones, wrote an article on what they’re calling “the great speedup.” I’ve been following the response to the article, which has been significant. The concept–longer hours, greater responsibilities, more stress, no more pay…–seems to have got people’s attention and to be catching on.

At The Grist, David Roberts has proposed that we breaking free from the “great speedup” by going in for “the medium chill.” We must, he writes, start “stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.”

After reading Roberts’s article, John Mark, at alternet.org, said “hear hear!” In what appears to be a title straight out of the 18th C. (and then dabbed with a 20th C. self-help subtitle), “Americans Work Too Much and Have Too Little Time for Play: Here’s How to Slow Down “The Great Speed-up,'” Mark suggests that we cut down the number of hours we work each week in order to devote more time to volunteering and to civic projects.

I’m–naturally, oh you guessed it–working on an a longer, weightier reply. I mean to argue that neither Roberts nor Mark sees the philosophical stakes behind the “great speedup.” So I write,

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Mark’s commitment to sustainable farming, I’m not entirely convinced that his approach is a winning one and this for two reasons. First, it seems to be based on some questionable assumptions. In the philosophical background is an Ur-scenario in which Mark presumes that the would-be agent is a Prime Mover who is unburdened by debts and responsibilities (both of which are untrue for many Americans), who has the capacity to choose between an entrée of decent alternatives (an assumption unwarranted by high rates of unemployment, the underreported rate of underemployment, the clamoring post-college students, and the rise of unpaid internships, all of which means that someone is ready and willing to take your place), who has the ability to turn down unfair offers and say “no” to too many requests (a position difficult to maintain in the current economic climate), and who is embedded in a business culture that truly honors outside commitments (something that is hardly true of the 60- to 80-hour workweek business culture common in creative professions, the norm at start-ups, and the unspeakable Koan at the top law firms). Rejecting these assumptions leads us to re-imagine agents as deeply enmeshed in their social settings, to appreciate more fully the incredibly high stakes involved in Mark’s proposal, and thus to see early 21st C. American worklife as a crushing social tragedy not unreminiscent of the works of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Dickens.

Second, it occurs to me that the “great speedup” is not an isolable issue that can be addressed in piecemeal fashion, on a case-by-case basis, or through a handful of self-help tips but is instead a symptom of the slow unraveling of a neoliberal framework. Under neoliberal doctrine, the organization aspires to gut itself, hollowing itself out by increasing the division of labor, outsourcing its responsibilities and projects, and reducing its costs—and then overpaying its managers and consultants. The absurdity of neoliberalism can be seen in the organization held together by a brand, a grand illusion, and an army of outsourced workers. And yet if this model for individual and social living is fundamentally unworkable, if it is in the midst of degradation and collapse, then how might we re-imagine more fulfilling lives on the other side of this “great transformation”?

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Leap of Faith or Stepping Stones”

—. “In These Unsettled Times: A Brief Case” (pun definitely intended)