Alienated Labor

When I was teaching Marx last year, I joked with my students that a job was such a terrible fate that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It wasn’t only a joke, though — until I got my academic job, I always hated having a job. I know that no one likes doing a job that is solely to make ends meet, but my hatred was particularly implacable. I hated “getting hours.” I hated the carefully defined little breaks. I hated that my boss could come along and interrupt me when I was absorbed in a task and force me to do something else before I’d finished. I hated being given make-work projects so that my pay would seem justified for a given time period. If I was ever given the choice between either standing around killing time so that I could get my “hours” or just going home, I always unfailingly chose going home. (This is surely an important part of the backstory of my adventures in credit card debt….)

This is not to say that I was a bad worker. Far from it! In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always been the most efficient worker imaginable, because I want to get it over with. Partly this is an autobiographical quirk — for various reasons, in my youth I hit on the strategy of always doing my chores and homework as promptly as possible so as to free up as much unstructured time as possible. And that was because I always had real work to do. Sometimes that was dumb stuff like video games or catching a particular TV show, but it was more often reading and studying and trying to figure out computer programming and whatever else I wanted to do.

I love working. I’m constantly working, and when I’m not working, I hardly ever fully relax because it mentally feels like procrastination (hence part of the work process). What I hate about jobs is that they keep me from my work. And that’s why my academic jobs have been different. First, they allow autonomy — I’m not being micromanaged. Second, my work is mainly something I view as intrinsically worthwhile, and the remainder consists of things that are necessary to maintain the space to do that intrinsically worthwhile work. It’s all a lot of work, probably more than a full-time job all things considered, but I have control over when I work and at what pace.

Obviously I’m fortunate in today’s world to have this kind of work, but I resist viewing it as “privilege.” I understand what that language is trying to do, but to me calling a decent standard of living and dignified work “privilege” assumes that the deprivation is the norm. I want to reverse it — being able to have the relationship to work that I do is how things should be, for everyone. And I even believe that it’s possible, in terms of physical and technological resources.

It would be hard to figure out how to implement it, and of course some level of alienated labor is probably inevitable — and it’s present in my work situation, in the form of the administrative work that’s purely a means to an end that we’d all probably rather not do in our ideal world — but it’s possible. There are many obstacles, in short, but surely one of the biggest is that we’re all killing so much time to get in our hours.

Hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.

30 thoughts on “Alienated Labor

  1. I could have written this. I used to temp in the summers, and was always both ultra-efficient and the first one out the door when the option was available. Being paid by-the-hour made this tendency in me that much worse; in every case I’d gladly lose $8 or $9 to be able to leave an hour earlier…

  2. I actually once lost a temp job because I asked for reduced hours during the semester — they figured I must not need it as much as the people who were asking for as many hours as possible. In reality, I needed precisely that amount and not a penny more.

  3. Ok I’ll bite… What about toilets that need to be cleaned? The rubbish that needs to be emptied, the surfaces that need to be wiped down etc…

  4. Self-assembly is reversible…the dirt will realize that it’s getting nothing out of clinging to these boring surfaces…don’t worry. And @Minto: don’t worry about me I have my own toilet to deterritorialize: going to make some art out of it #Duchamp

  5. I have always had to support myself, generally doing low-level clerical jobs like the one I have now, or by working in retail. The jobs always entail more work than can possibly be done. Nonetheless, I find moments to let my mind fly free and time to jot down ideas for the poetry I write. I was happy to learn that this is a common practice among working people all over the world.
    Michele De Certeau writes about this in his book–The Practice of Everyday Life. He calls it a “diversionary practice” and gives us the term common among the French. They call this practice “la perruque.”

  6. I clean toilets as part of my part-time janitorial job, and let me tell you, it’s far from the worst part of my work. Like Adam was saying, time plays a big role in this, and when it comes down to it the stretched-out monotony of vacuuming a sanctuary (I work in a church) is far worse than dealing with a little bit of shit that takes a fraction of the time.

  7. We should take inventory of the shitty jobs that we’ve had. Here’s my list:

    • Church janitor
    • Grocery bagger (including bathroom cleaning and recyclable can sorting)
    • Lawn mower
    • Data entry
    • Receptionist/bookkeeper
    • Briefly, all at the same place: waiter, delivery driver, cook, dishwasher
  8. Landscaper
    Merchandiser for Coca Cola (paid relatively well, killed my back)
    Substitute math teacher
    Indescribable job at Market Research company
    Grunt at a telecom consultant

    It just dawned on me that since I was 13, the only time I haven’t been employed was when I was a full time student and two weeks between graduating from college and finding my first “real” job. I’m sure most would say I’m lucky to be able to say that. Looking at that list – which I’m sure is nowhere near as bad as many’s – I’m not so sure. I thoroughly and completely hated every single one of those jobs when I left.

  9. Theme park carnival game booth worker
    Cashier at a bookstore
    Setup guy for university chapel
    Delivery driver/cashier/prep cook at a small pizzeria
    Online shoeseller (listed shoes on ebay and amazon, inventoried a warehouse of shoes)
    Admin assistant
    Math/English Tutor

  10. Adam, perhaps it will be possible at some point in history for everyone to have the same relation to work that you do, but what about in the interim?

    Until those robots roll off the assembly line and start cleaning our toilets, bussing our tables, cooking our food and processing our Amazon orders, real people will still have to do those jobs. I know plenty of people who are fine with a lifetime of doing menial work, as long as they would be paid well enough to have a decent standard of living, provide for their families, etc. And there are those of us who have taken an accepted path that will have us occasionally working shitty part time jobs in order to support our other efforts, like making art or studying. Some of us even feel that the work is not a complete imposition on our talents or inclinations, that the work is keeping us in a place that might not taint the kinds of things we do; it reminds us that no one is truly justified in not being willing or able to clean a toilet now and then.

    But, under “full communism”, by what structures and by whose decisions would these jobs be parsed out? Who would get to choose between library work or farm work, depending on where they were planning on heading in their career? Until one is qualified to teach college, should they get their choice of shitty jobs or have them handed out to them like jury duty? A Shitty Job Lotto? Volunteer structures complete with communal brownie-points scoring?

    Basically I’m wondering if this Full Communism would be a Communism where we still have janitors or a Communism where the Humanities Department of a university just collectively keep their facilities clean themselves without the help of someone whose job it is to do it for them. Or if we’ll still have restaurants with full service, or if all the car wash joints will be self-service? What’s the incentive to do a shitty job if everyone has the ability to relate to their work as something that fulfills their potential?

    Reminds me of Kafka’s ‘Josephine the Singer’, in which we learn (rightly or wrongly?) that the gifted, talented, or extraordinarily intelligent are not excluded from the grunt work that keeps the collective going based on the nature or strength of their gift.

  11. I did say that some degree of alienated labor is unavoidable. My gut instinct would be to say that everyone has to do at least some of the undesirable work and that no one should be constrained to do nothing but. I don’t know what the distribution mechanism would look like or who would be in charge of it. I’m also not sure what should be done in the meantime, though I share your belief that being treated with dignity and provided with security can make even the shittiest job much more tolerable, insofar as it would at least open up a space for a life. Under our current system, it seems like we’re headed in the opposite direction — the illusion of “meritocracy” wants to make us think that people in less desirable jobs are losers who deserve to suffer. Nothing pisses off an upwardly mobile urban Democrat like the idea that a working class person should have a decent standard of living! And I don’t know what the fuck to do about that, honestly.

  12. service station attendant
    record store clerk
    janitor at university
    kitchen manager
    t-shirt shop screen printer
    Oklahoma Poet-in-the-Schools
    edited school poetry anthology
    substitute teacher
    assistant manager of a mall bookstore (B Dalton)
    after-school childcare
    medical insurance clerk
    deputy court clerk (currently)

  13. Thanks for pointing out the problem with talking about academic work as a “privilege.” I needed that.

    An anecdote about toilets and communism: Marx was once asked by a woman who would clean the toilets when communism happened. He said, well, since *you* care about it ….

    My list:
    Wal-mart shelf stocker (night shift, senior year of college)
    gas station attendant
    farm worker
    bee keeper
    insulation installer
    grunt for arborist co.
    grunt for a concrete co.
    grunt for electrician
    Taco Bell drone
    landscaper (x7)

  14. Great post Adam. I still like to think that what drives humans to do good work are three things (which you hint at): autonomy, mastery and ability to make a difference. With the economic, top down structure we have, though, autonomy is really hard to come by, also the making a difference part. Like you, that has been a huge issue for me. Wouldn’t a real solution to having to do those menial jobs be making the work place more democratic? The small group at the top in the board room having as much say over business decisions as the janitor. Then, on top of that, add in a nice cyclical job rotation. Take off your suit and vacuum the floor for a few months.

    Worker owned!

    Worst jobs:
    – Metal Fabrication Shop, sweeping floors (was seriously like Dante’s vision of hell)
    – Cleaning Printing Presses; breathed in enough solvent to kill a dog

  15. so being able to do the thing that few people are in a position enough to do if not privilege, i.e. a special right–as it currently stands, then what is it ? other than minimalising privilege…. it is important to me to be able to call it that since we, are NOT privileged

  16. I understand why people use the privilege language, and I’m not trying to tell you to stop doing so. I’m trying to point out a problem I see with it. For instance, let’s say that we recognize that my ability to walk down the street, virtually anywhere, without worrying about being stopped by the police is part of my privilege. And it’s true! Yet the problem with the word “privilege” is that it implies that I have something unjustified that should be taken away — so that for us all to be equal, I too should be stopped and frisked! In reality, of course, everyone should have the right to be free from the fear of police harrassment.

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