Attitudes to Work

‘Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’
– Proverb.

As well as maintaining our position as workers through our dispossession there are also a whole host of myths and attitudes that go towards strengthening the ideology of work.

One view is that there’s virtue in labour in itself. We’re encouraged to keep a strong work ethic, ask one another what we do for a living, and are expected to look down on people who are “workshy”. Anyone without employment isn’t just lazy, but is somehow wrong for refusing to take part in pointless jobs that provide poor pay. At work we can be complaining about how stupid a task is one minute, then complaining about a “lazy” colleague who is trying to avoid it the next. The question of whether the unemployed person or the “lazy” colleague would otherwise be doing something valuable to society is conveniently avoided to make people feel that doing anything at all for money is more noble than doing nothing. It is never mentioned that our work provides the employer with far more money than we’ll ever see in our pay packets. In light of these facts, we should reject looking down on people who shirk some pointless task, and should instead figure out ways to take back our lives together.

We often hear that the boss is the wealth creator, an entrepreneur, and that they are taking all the risk when starting a business. This is a lie. Even if the boss works their ass off, which much of the time they don’t, they do so in the hope of being able to live off the backs of others at a later date. Their only real risk is losing the business they control, leaving them (at worst) in the same position as any other person being put out of work. On the other hand the workers do all the labour that creates the profits yet have just enough to live on at the end of each month. They can be put out of work at any time, not just when the company goes belly-up.

Another common myth is that our jobs should be an “expression of our own self-actualisation”, needed to make us whole. They are presented as the medium by which we express our own values or creativity. The platitude often applied here is “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, though “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life” is also used, in spite of the very different implications. Either way, the onus is on the worker to get into a position where the labour they’re performing is effortlessly enjoyable to them. If not, maybe they picked the wrong job, maybe they don’t really enjoy what they thought they enjoyed, maybe they haven’t worked hard enough to attain the level of privilege and independence that gives them room for self-expression, or maybe they just don’t have the “right” attitude.

The idea that turning something you enjoy into a job will lead to a fulfilling life ignores the mechanisms by which taking money for something fundamentally changes the nature of the activity, as making money becomes the goal, while any other possible benefits become incidental. This problem is exposed in discussions on at what point an artist has “sold out”, as their vision of what they would like to produce clashes with the pressure of market forces. In fact the predicament exists throughout the work and is a constant burden on an artist’s creativity and authenticity which is felt to a greater or lesser extent depending on the circumstances. The gap between what you should be doing and what you want to be doing is the breeding ground for alienation.

A particularly stark illustration of the absurdity of this myth is in society’s attitudes to sex and sex work. In our highly sexualised culture sex is something everyone is expected to want. It is assumed to be everyone’s default hobby. Having sex is automatically expected to be a fun activity as well as an indication of one’s worth. In contrast, sex work is considered to be disgusting and demeaning, and obviously a last resort which no one would actually want. People claiming this will often correctly be able to explain how the work aspect of sex work might make it unpleasant. In spite of society’s expectation that we should want as much sex as possible, people know that what makes sex good is being able to choose what you do and who you do it with, which is a liberty that the necessity of following the money will impact on and often completely override.

Any valid arguments against the existence of sex work are arguments against the existence of all work, narrowly applied to a single industry. On the other hand, many arguments in favour of the existence of sex work justify libertarian capitalist ideology, and would easily be recognised as such if applied to work in general. In these discussions the inherent alienation of work is only brought into focus when it comes to the sex industry. This is to the detriment of sex workers as it demands that they should convince people that they’re just as able to “love what they do” (as is expected of all work under middle class idealism), before people will consider supporting them to make their work safer. This is a major hurdle to improving conditions.

The expectation that we should enjoy our work impacts on our ability to organise in a more direct way too. If we consider our jobs a form of self-expression, or we convince other people that they are, then we undermine our demand to work less for more money. People working as teachers or nurses are shamed for demanding better pay and conditions. Striking transport workers and firefighters are made out to be selfish. Actors, musicians, and designers are expected to put in many hours of free labour to prove they are passionate enough about their craft. Not only is it harder to make a case for overtime pay or a smaller workload when the job is presented as a labour of love, it also devalues work that is clearly only done for money. This is because the aspiration to “do what you love” puts pressure on us to instead settle for trying to “love what we do” so we can also achieve the idealised position of not being there for the money. Belief that we are working out of a love for the job, and not just to have our needs met, makes us easier to exploit. In fact, any enjoyment or sense of purpose we manage to experience at work is a bonus, but our survival and comfort are paramount.