I’ve gone viral, or Scattered Thoughts on Workism

Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

I’ve gone viral

…on TikTok. So I spend a lot of time on TikTok, for, um, research purposes.

This is supposed to be embarrassing. Our cultural obsession with work, or workism, as Derek Thompson calls it, means all leisure is automatically suspect, and certain forms of vapid leisure (like scrolling through social media) is especially so.

Overworked Americans are not an economic failure: labor productivity has increased and it is rich men who work the longest hours. Workism is a sociocultural failure: the Protestant work ethic without the religion.

Everyone knows the “who’s busier?” game, a display of virtue in today’s developed world, where being occupied with work, extracurriculars, and ‘mandatory’ social activities is worn like a badge of honor. As Thompson writes, “The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.”

(For others, the workplace is the new church because they are strapped with student debt.)

But things needn’t be this way. We can work less and live the same quality of life (that’s the beauty of capitalism). Keynes predicted that we could have 15-hour workweeks by now. But we’ve bungled the job. As Bertrand Russell illustrates:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. 

Russell thinks it’s a shame that we’ve chosen to overwork ourselves instead of having meaningful leisure time. He writes:

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be...Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.

Keynes thought we’d abandon workism and call out greed for what it really is:

The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

What are those social customs and economic practices of which he writes? Some are obvious: slavery, forced labor, inhumane work conditions. There’s also the benign by-products: the “who’s busier” game, the identical influencer posts depicting glamorous and extreme lives that fill our social media feeds (even Russell noticed “Young writers…obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity”).

Perhaps it is not the need for profit that births these ills, but classism. Money moralizes: the poor are lazy, greed is good, charity is good (even if you inherited all your money), you should love what you do. We eat up the oppressor’s tools, the Big Classist Lies. Russell says about work (“moving matter about”):

The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth's surface.

There is something noble about work, but Russell’s point is that it has been overstated. You’d rather be doing more meaningful things with your time, but cognitive dissonance (and the Big Lies) mean you’ll start thinking of work as your calling, your passion, your purpose.

I’d much rather have time to do what I love — spend time with family, read interesting books, develop close friendships, play tennis, and, yes, even scroll on TikTok — than work from dawn ’til dusk. But maybe that’s just me.

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