Work & Our Hegemonic Common Sense About It
What keeps you bound to the job you hate and keeps you from truly commanding your own daily work
Let’s start with a quote.
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery, because according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
― Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
The above is taken from Fuller’s final work, the autobiographical Critical Path. His view is that technological advancement should be for the benefit of all people and not just the privileged few. The benefits and advantages of efficiencies in production should improve the lives of everyone, but it does not. In the good old protestant ethic, we continue to insist on work as virtuous, and through it, we justify our existence under the gaze of God. But I think most people are not buying that nonsense anymore. The reality is that most are so desperate for a living that they’ll work jobs they hate for small money. Either that or they just don’t believe life can be any different.
We work for stuff and for holidays away from work. And in this, work and life in general, have become so abstract that it has lost all meaning and purpose. What meaning and purpose do exist, is merely a thin veil complete with sufficient flashing lights and loud noises to keep us entertained and distracted from life’s true reality. It is the product of a mind so desperate to justify and validate itself in the face of irrelevance and oppression, that it is willing to accept imprisonment as freedom. We are not free to work out of our curiosity and interest. We bind ourselves to meaningless work and this way of life.
The Slavery of Work
In his 2021 lecture on the slavery of work, Noam Chomsky speaks of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci who wrote that societies tend to develop ideas and beliefs supporting the prevailing power structure. They create an internal framework that becomes what he called hegemonic common sense. It is something we don’t question–we just take it for granted. And so it is with work. We don’t question the legitimacy of its structure, the nature of the relationships associated with it, the limits to income derived from it, or the demands it places upon our freedom for autonomous thought and action. Paraphrasing Erich Fromm from the 1941 book, Escape from Freedom;
"Modern human lives under the illusion that they know 'what they want,' while they actually want what they are supposed to want. In order to accept this, it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own."
Erich Fromm, Escape Form Freedom
Gramsci’s view was not necessarily new, though. Philosopher David Hume wrote in the 18th-century essay titled On the First Principles of Government that, “appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governours have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
Chomsky goes on to say that it’s “useful” to consider what we take for granted as unquestionable common sense, to what we consent without question, and what we often go on to regard as the highest goal of life. One of those major life goals, he says, is getting a job. The best advice we give to young people is to get a good education that qualifies them for a good job. That is, Chomsky says, to prepare oneself for a life spent in servitude to a master. You will be told what to learn, what to say, what time to come in and what time to go home. Your breaks will be dictated to you and you will be assigned a limit to annual leave. For some workers, trips to the toilet are deducted from wages. Chomsky compares this to a regime under the likes of Stalin who had enormous control over his subjects, but not enough control over their bathroom breaks.
In contemporary jobs, people are often told what to wear, how to behave when a customer is rude, and almost always, told how much they are entitled to earn. This is how many of us live our lives and we do it for most of our waking hours. It’s what’s called having a job and we give over the best years of our lives to it. If you can find the time to stop and think about this arrangement, it is likely that you will come to the same realisation that I have; that modern work is an insane situation.
“Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”
- Noam Chomsky
We rent our bodies out to corporations and while we do their work, they dictate to us like masters to slaves. We have little or no say in what work is done or how it’s done. We speak their message like it is our own and we sell their wares as if they are ours to sell. Write an essay for someone, for example, and they’ll tell you how it should be written and often the price they are willing to pay for it. And if all of that wasn’t insult enough, they sell on your labour at ten times what they bought it from you. This is all fair game in the profiteering world of corporates.
The way we work may be hegemonic common sense today, Chomsky says, but this is not how it was considered in the past. From classical antiquity and through the 19th century, being dependent on the will and say-so of others was considered an intolerable attack on human dignity and basic rights. The hegemonic common sense of today is a very recent development, he says. Dependence on a master was so intolerable that Lincoln‘s Republican party regarded wage labour as different from slavery insofar as it was a temporary state until the person could gain freedom. The journal of the Knights of Labor, a multiracial union of 19th century America, held this main slogan; “when a man is placed in a position where he is compelled to provide the benefits of his labour to another he is in a condition of slavery.”
The American labour press promoted and extended these ideas and condemned, “the blasting influence of monarchical principles on democratic soil” referring to the wage contract. Workers recognised that waged slavery’s assault on basic human rights would not be overcome until “those who work in the mills will own them” and sovereignty returns to producers. The labour press continued; “working people will no longer be menials or the humble subjects of a foreign despot, an absentee owner so that they will be slaves in the strictest sense of the word who toil for their masters rather they will regain their rights and status as free American citizens.”
In Europe, the message was the same. Chomsky cites Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the founding figures of classical liberalism and the founder of the Humboldt University Berlin. Humboldt wrote that “freedom is the necessary condition without which even the most soul-satisfying occupation cannot produce any wholesome effects. Whatever task is not chosen by a man’s free will, whatever constraints or even guides him, does not become part of his nature, it remains forever alien to him. If he performs it, he does it not with true humane energy but with mere mechanical skill.”
What To Do About It
So this was the thinking of the time, and despite the labour movement’s best efforts, capitalist ideas took over and workers were eventually converted to walking dead consumers. Today, we are not in command of our work, and the majority are so far away from realising that there is an alternative, that they are imprisoned by their own thoughts about it. This is so completely obvious it’s hard to believe that others can’t see it. But they don’t, not really. If you have a job, you are not secure despite what you might think. You are as far from security as the Deliveroo cyclist who rips around your city for pennies taking their life in their hands to deliver you the food you were too lazy to cook.
The concept of job security is nonsense cooked up by a system that wishes always to lull workers into that false sense of things. Your work is not secure–get that straight. If you work for yourself, selling your time for money, for example, your work is not secure either. But you probably know that anyway. Self-employment is notoriously precarious especially if you are a freelancer. However, I favour that any day over working under direct employment.
There is good news, though. You can do something about it. The bad news is that it’s likely to be difficult. In fact, it’s likely to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done, but if you want to work free you have no choice.
What we are talking about here is the development and realisation of self as something other than a tool of industry.
We don’t need to make this change happen, it happens of itself once the environment is suitable. Like a plant when the soil and air and moisture are right, we grow when the right conditions are met. Unlike plants, we have legs, so the first step is to walk ourselves in the right conditions.
Some try to create these conditions in organisations forcibly, despite the toxic culture that exists. But their work is often more about window dressing than really trying to resolve our conflict with work. The people who hire them to improve conditions do so not to improve conditions but to increase productivity and reduce turnover, for example. Work is, for many many people, an assault on their dignity and humanity. We take living breathing organisms and place them in fake plastic environments and expect them to flourish, or at least do ok. And when they don’t, management and their consultants come up with all kinds of clever initiatives to manipulate the situation to get the outcomes we want. Despite its fundamental flaws, we insist on working how we always have. This is the hegemony of our common sense about it.
What I propose is a different approach. Don’t quit your job just yet (as I did. Trust me, it’s too disruptive). Instead, decide first that you wish to break from hegemonic common sense and be in charge of your own work. This will immediately change your relationship with your job. Then take the next step towards commanding your own work.