Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism
By Mareile Pfannebecker and J.A. Smith
Zed Books (2020)
In this book, authors Pfannebecker and Smith summarize the current anti-work movement and literature. In view of rapid displacement of blue and white collar workers by robots and computers, coupled with the offshoring of most manufacturing jobs, there are growing calls for an end to waged work altogether.
The chorus has only increased following the 2008 global economic crisis, which has caused a large proportion of young people to face a lifetime of precarious low paid, part time, and temporary employment.
The economic shutdown accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic makes a examination of the role of work especially timely. With the forced closure of non-essential businesses – and resulting bankruptcies – many analysts are predicting unemployment levels as high as 33% – or higher.
The first half of Work Want Work looks at the big change in the nature of work over the past few decades. The authors start by providing numerous examples of the monetization of non-work activities (eg the collection and sale of our personal data by Facebook and Google to corporate advertisers). They also delineate how more and more workers are required to perform tasks outside their training and job description – for example teachers are asked to identify potential terrorists, university professors to guarantee jobs placements, and doctors to manage health promotion.
The book introduces new terminology to help explain categorize these changes in the nature of work:
malemployment – refers to work that fails to provide sufficient income to live on, precarious employment, work in healthy or unsafe environments, work falsely categorized as self-employment (eg the “gig economy”), and “workfare” (where recipients are forced to work at a sub-minimum wage to receive unemployment, sickness, and disability benefits).
disemployment – refers to workers expelled from the economy (and society) when they cease to qualify for benefits.
young-girlification – refers to the complex phenomenon enabling corporations to profit from the bigger-than-life persona people cultivate on social media and reality TV (eg YouTube and Instagram “influencers,” the Kardashians, and the Pope).
Examining what a post-work world might look like, the last third of the book asks what people will do with their new-found leisure time. Obviously we don’t want a system in which government and/or experts decide the best way for us to spend our time. At the same time nearly all have us have been conditioned by advertising and government/corporate propaganda to desire stuff that probably isn’t good for us.
As it bears no relation whatsoever to modern life, so-called “reality” TV is clearly a misnomer. Most of what passes for reality TV are highly scripted popularity contests for physically attractive white contestants.
Al Jazeera’s six-episode series Hard Earned, depicting the bitter struggle millions of Americans face to stay off the streets, is my kind of reality TV. Although I myself found it riveting, I am high skeptical that any US media provider will ever carry it.
Hard Earned follows five working class families as they struggle to meet basic survival needs with minimum wage jobs.
The families include an African American Chicago couple who work full time jobs at Walgreens to support two preschool kids; an Hispanic Iraq veteran in Montgomery Maryland who works a graveyard clerical shift at the courthouse, his school counselor girlfriend and his school aged son from a prior marriage; a Silicon Valley Hispanic man who works two full time jobs to pay $300 a month to live in a garage with his pregnant girlfriend; a 66/65-year-old African American Milwaukee couple who face working indefinitely at minimum wage jobs to keeping from losing their home; and a 50-year-old white Evergreen Park (Illinois) waitress who works two jobs and survives on credit cards to keep from losing the house she bought while making $80,000 a year as a construction worker.
We are introduced to the five families in Episode 1 and 2 (“The American Dream” and “Rock Bottom”). You are immediately struck by how exceptionally bright, hard working, resourceful and above all (for the most part) physically healthy they all are. This, despite working non-stop and getting very little sleep. They are also (for the most part) extremely adept at budgeting and managing their money.
This feature, which traces Trump’s rise as a reality TV star, asserts that he continues to view himself as the star of a reality TV show rather than the real-life president of the most powerful country in the world.
Prior to the launch of The Apprentice in 2004, no one in the New York business community took him seriously – viewing him as an unreliable has-been blowhard with a string of bankruptcies. Mark Burnett, the show’s director coached him how to create a new fictional narrative for himself, portraying a claw back from failure to fulfill the American Dream.
Reality TV is all about emoting, dumbing everything down and continually provoking conflict and outrage. Trump proved to be a master at provoking outrage during his battles with moderators during the election debates. Thanks to viewer ratings that shot through the roof, the networks loved him.
Because TV continues to filter reality for most Americans (especially older and blue collar Americans for whom TV is their only source of news), Trump’s apparent willingness to speak his mind and challenge hypocrisy and authority continues to resonate with a significant proportion of the US public.
Starsuckers is a disturbing British documentary about the deliberate creation of narcissistic personality by the corporate media as a marketing device. It explores scientific research showing that we (all of us) are hard wired to have an irresistible attraction to celebrity and how the media uses this to manipulate us.
The film particularly emphasizes the rise of reality TV over the last decade and its replacement of drama, comedy, variety and other formats. By endlessly making so-called “ordinary” people into celebrities, the corporate media convinces us (young people especially) that true happiness lies in the entertainment industry – but only if we purchase the right products.
Studies among teenagers show a clear increase in narcissistic traits that directly correlate with the amount of TV they watch. This has led a number of psychologists to call for a total ban on TV advertising to children under 12 and strict limits on advertising directed towards teenagers.
The filmmakers conclude that the best way to improve our mental health – and that of our kids – is to reduce or totally eliminate TV viewing.