This essay should be read as a work of science fiction or as speculative rumination. The idea, in what follows, is to push the envelope with regard to my thinking about the place and value of work in modern life. Whether many of the claims contained herein are true I really couldn’t say.
A Day of Thinking
I’m trying to gather together a series of insights that occurred to me yesterday, so bear with me here. I had a philosophical conversation with a young Swedish man who realized that he had never found meaning through work and nor, as I suggest, could he because “meaningful work” is impossible. I had a second philosophical conversation with an Argentine man, a COO who observed that the very wealthy, successful, and high-status businessmen he knew, those who put work first, were unhappy. I also read some remarkable essays yesterday. Three are worth mentioning. Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” reveals a journalist who can’t climb outside the bounds of total work and for this reason is perpetuating some delusions (about which more below). More carefully and provocatively, Marshall Sahlins, in his seminal “The Original Affluent Society,” makes a case for the easy subsistence and relative abundance of hunter-gatherers during the paleolithic period (a view seconded, I think, in some of the pages of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.) Sahlins’s proposal contradicts the commonsensical view that human civilization was an unqualified good and one that surely brought about immense progress in culture as well as human happiness. The most profound of the three, I think, is Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work,” a stirring anarchist essay published in 1985 and one that remains both important and prescient today. To round things off, I had a great call with the writer Michael Coren who made me think that the trouble with total work may very well extend back farther than the Protestant Reformation (as Weber seems to have thought). His prodding spurred me to think further.
How can I begin to make sense of all these things? My tentative thesis is that homo sapiens has accepted two Faustian bargains. One occurs at the outset of the Agricultural Revolution, the other at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.
I’ll start with the present context and then tack my way backward.
Total Work Is Everywhere
Total work is everywhere. To work on yourself, you can work out, work through your troubled relationships, or complete Byron Katie’s program of self-inquiry aptly called The Work. All of which would, as it is so often said, be hard work. Weekends are said to be good in virtue of your having gotten a lot done, time off is filled with endless tasks and To-Do Lists, and meditation, itself yet again hard work, is said to make you more productive at work. What’s more, countless apps, time management gurus, and courses in life hacking promise to make you more efficient. Even taking drugs is now work: no longer done just to get fucked up or to have non-ordinary experiences but, as some would say, because ayahuasca or LSD is “the work.” What is going on here?
A lesser-known twentieth century German philosopher named Josef Pieper turned out to be a prophet. Just after World War II, he observed that what could come to pass would be a period of “total work,” a time when the center of our lives would be work, everything else turning around it while slowly, almost imperceptibly turning into it. He noted the dramatic historical reversal evident in the movement from Aristotle’s view that we work in order to embrace contemplative leisure to Weber’s bourgeois view that we live in order to fulfill a “secular calling.”
In the twenty-first century, Pieper’s omen has come true: we live in a time of total work, and we are on the verge of becoming total workers. Each day I speak with people from Scandinavia to Wall Street, from Central America to Silicon Valley who are not overworked but total worked and are suffering deeply as a result. Those 60-100 hours individuals I speak with log each week in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street are, by my lights, not the thing itself, are not just instances of overwork in need of “moderation” but are rather, and more emphatically, symptoms of the hegemony of total work. It’s a deep predicament into which we’ve fallen as well as a historical development I seek to challenge.
1. The First Noble Truth, according to the Buddha, is that human life insofar as we ordinarily experience it is suffering (dukkha).
2. The Second Noble Truth, as I construe it, is that the cause of human suffering is mental confusion.
3. I used to think that doing the wrong kind of work caused suffering, the right sort of work bringing enjoyment, but in this I now realize that I was deeply mistaken.
4. We are extraordinarily confused about the place and value of work in human life. As I’m now beginning to see, the chief (but not sole) cause of human suffering is work itself, regardless of the kind of work one does. This doesn’t mean that some work isn’t better than others (surely it is), but it does mean that no work is exempt from at least some modicum of suffering and all work requires sacrifice, however small or large. I’ll come to our sacrifices below when I discuss our Faustian bargains.
What Is Work?
Work is doing whatever I (or we) need to do in order to survive and to continue to survive. Period. Nothing more and nothing less. Storing and saving will begin to be human inventions after the Agricultural Revolution (which is dated to 10,000-12,000 years ago), and, for us in civilization, it is one way in which we continue to survive. In The Protestant Work Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, Max Weber observes that a “person does not ‘by nature’ want to make more and more money, but simply to live–to live in a manner in which he is accustomed to live, and to earn as much as is necessary for this.” This he terms traditionalism, and here I wish to draw a generalization based on his vital observation. It is that a human being does not “by nature” want to work more and more just in order to survive (or to accumulate and thereafter invest capital); he simply wants to live “in a manner in which he is accustomed to live” and so to do just enough in order to make this happen.
How did this traditionalist view, this sensible intuition get radically overturned?
The First Faustian Bargain
A Faustian bargain, as I’ll use the term in what follows, means accepting a deal that seems really good to you at the time but turns out, often much later on, to be the kind of raw deal that carries massive unintended, harmful consequences. It seemed like a good idea for Faust to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly power, but it turned out to be a very raw deal indeed.
The Myth of the Fall, as it’s beautifully detailed in Genesis, can be interpreted as humankind’s first Faustian bargain, the one that tracks our moving into an agrarian society some 10,000-12,000 years ago. It seemed like a good idea for human beings to (a) gain consciousness of themselves (upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, “the eyes of both of them were opened” [Gen 3:7]) and for humankind to (b) have dominion over all other sentient beings. Yet in exchange for consciousness and dominion, homo sapiens had to work, women henceforth being engaged in “painful labor” to reproduce the species and men henceforth bound to “painful toil” in the fields.
We have enough evidence now to determine that the early neolithic period must have been brutal. As Harari describes it, farming, unlike hunting and gathering, was back-breathing and anxiety-producing. Sickness surely reared up as humans formed settlements, lived in close quarters, lacked proper sanitation, and died young. Agrarian work has caused humankind immense human suffering since.
What seems clear, though, is that this Faustian bargain could be the way in which humankind could achieve dominion over the rest of the world. Perhaps not just the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps not just homo sapiens’ capacity to cooperate, perhaps not just our ingenuity when it comes to making and using tools (homo sapiens as homo faber), perhaps not just these and other revolutions but work itself could enable us to remake the world. We know from reading Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction that humankind has grown from a small, unremarkable band to 7.1 billion people at present and, while expanding thusly, has caused animal extinctions and ecological degradation of all kinds while remaking the world. As I see it, this Faustian bargain says, “Thou shalt inherit the earth, remaking it in thy image, yet thy great sacrifice shalt be the extent to which thou shalt suffer in and through thy work. Thou shalt be like gods and like slaves both.” Imagine that: like gods and slaves both. What a strange fate!
The Second Faustian Bargain
What’s encoded in the first Faustian bargain are a few basic ideas about the nature of work. (1) Work is “toil and trouble,” as Adam Smith once wrote, and (2) work is a tolerable necessity. We’re familiar with the first, but only listen to people today for a few precious moments and you’ll very soon hear them say, upon your questioning the value of work, “Dammit, man, but you’ve got to work! You have to work! What are you–some damn hippie?” They are encoding in their knee-jerk statements the idea that work is a necessity. But is it? Must we? And: did it have to be this way?
In any event, up until modernity most cultures reasonably relegated work to the slaves, the serfs, the peasants, and the artisans. Those of noble birth, those in positions of power, and those occupying the priestly class usually saw work as something that was beneath them. In an aristocratic culture, for instance, work was regarded as worthy of contempt. “Let slaves and slavish types work; we would not deign to lower ourselves to do that!” Human suffering through work could be “solved” by distinguishing between those classes of people exempt from work and those not so exempt. Only some bore the brunt of the raw deal while others enjoyed the fruits of the labor, and some such metaphysical beliefs about the precarity of the cosmic order ensured that slave revolts weren’t live options.
The reason Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic strikes me as such a profound treatise is that it can be interpreted as containing, as a seed within itself, a novel Faustian bargain, the second one, a bargain that is much more radical and far-reaching than the first. Remember that the first Faustian bargain goes like this: in exchange for consciousness (what Zen might critically call subject-object dualism) as well as, and more emphatically, dominion over the world you shall work. Yet still work was slavish, and no one in his right mind would want to work. It is simply understood that some class of people would need to work for the sake of the rest of us. Capiche?
Something uncanny happens on the road to modernity. Oh, holy of holies, it comes to pass that everyone from rich to poor comes to want to work! Isn’t that a marvel? Is it even fathomable? As I read Weber’s treatise, homo sapiens made a dramatic, and perhaps irreversible (?), turn as we accepted a second Faustian bargain. This one states, “In exchange for (a) greater scientific and then technological domination of the earth (cf. the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions) and for (b) the justification of human existence, you shall put work front and center in your daily life and in human culture, according work near-infinite value.” Work was no longer slavish; work was divinized. Somehow.
I want to dwell on point (b). What I believe is undeniably mind-blowing is that work could come, in modernity, to seem as if it were a justification for a particular human life as well as for humankind. As one five-year-old American child very recently put it, “I was born to work.” If someone were to ask, “Why is humankind here? Why do we exist? What would enable us to overcome our existential Angst, our anomie, our acedia, our creeping nihilism?,” the second Faustian bargain would seem a great blessing since it would do away with our existential doubts, assuring us that we were born to work.
Let me be candid. What makes this brief contrarian history of work of the kind I’ve begun here a dangerous endeavor is that it flies in the face of what we’ve come to learn and to believe. We moderns believe that work is at least a necessity. Is it? But we believe much more than this! Going much, much further, we moderns also believe that work (a) brings us fulfillment and (b) enables us to find, or create, meaning. Does it bring fulfillment? Is meaning through work even possible? Indeed, more than this, we believe that it is our very reason for being.
Our delusions about the place of work in human life and modern culture run very deep. We do not know that work itself, not just this kind or that, is causing us suffering, immense, often unspoken suffering. We should at least ask whether the whole thing has been worth it.
Was All This Worth It?
Was either Faustian bargain worth it? I’m not so sure. In “The Abolition of Work,” Bob Black writes at the outset, “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost all the evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work.” Was the domination of the earth in exchange for supreme human suffering worth it? I don’t know. Was being able to have a justification for human existence (I’m “born to work,” you “live to work,” we worship work) in exchange for the unfolding of the Geist of total work worth it? I doubt it. Or has the ever-unfolding, possibly inexorable logic of the Geist of total work on the backs of human lives been too high a cost for homo sapiens to pay? I’m beginning to think so. Slaves to work, we suffer mightily our ideas.