A while ago, I checked in with you with a dispatch from a growing genre of books: let’s call it the postwork genre. As I put it there in describing the genre,
It’s the contention of many in the faith and work movement that the best way to fulfill God’s plan for the world is for everyone to work, or more properly for everyone to see what they do as work. But there is a growing push in other arenas to argue that the best thing for the world is exactly the opposite: we need a postwork world, perhaps one with a universal basic income, in order for human dignity to be achieved.
No More Work is a short, angry, and comic take on this problem by James Livingston, an economic and cultural historian at Rutgers. (If you need a language warning, it will perhaps help you to know that the original working title for the book – as you’ll see in his bio – was F%^* Work.) According to Livingston, although much work remains socially beneficial to do it is not socially necessary. That is, “it doesn’t pay. The labor market is broken, and it can’t be fixed.” He goes on:
You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities: you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.
He further contends that work does not build character, “getting something for nothing has no measurable effect on the character of the recipients,” and
once upon a time, going or getting to work was a way of discovering and developing your capacities. By now it’s become a way to avoid yourself.
And that’s all in the first 12 pages.
The rest of the book clarifies and expands this argument. Livingston believes:
- Economic growth used to be based on actual physical growth (the expansion of physical plant, equipment, and workers to power it) but is now untethered from that because, having established the infrastructure, we don’t actually need to grow as fast anymore.
- The market does not build character, allocate people and resources efficiently, or give us purpose. It probably never did, but the Great Recession has made sure that it certainly won’t in the future.
- The new reality we should center our purpose-finding on is leisure. This could be done if we all had a universal basic income (he has an economic argument for where we’d find the funds for this, and a historical discussion of when and how it’s been tried before.)
- This new reality “raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human” because we’ve focused our meaning and purpose on work for so long.
- Full employment will never be an answer because there simply aren’t enough things anymore, especially in an increasingly automated society, to keep us busy making and doing. Information is one of the main things we’re producing, and most of us are producing and consuming it essentially for free.
- The Reformation established a new approach to work that honored the average person, later to reach its flower in the “Protestant work ethic” (here it seems to me he agrees with many FAW theorists), but both left and right are still trying to work within that framework, and it’s broken. This goes for both labor unions on the left and those who extol “craftsmanship” on the right.
Livingston spoke to over 200 people about why they went to work. While they acknowledged income as a reason, most said they primarily did so to give themselves meaning and purpose (knowledge workers and academics were particularly prone to this answer, but they weren’t the only ones):
Their regulative desire was to become somebody else, to find a future that wasn’t already determined by their social origins or inscribed in their own bad decisions….We work, we engage in social labor, for the same reasons we try to love each other as ourselves – we think it will make a difference. At this historical juncture, though, the labor of love has finally become the only work available.
Why, he asks, doesn’t this “emotional labor” pay a living wage? This is a question he admits people have been asking about the unpaid labor women have been doing for a very long time now. (And, very near the end of the book, he drops twin cultural bombs I wish he’d spent much more time unpacking: we are held back from getting beyond our dedication to work a) by the recent eager entry of women into the workforce to claim the kind of meaning they see available there and b) by the ongoing conclusion of those who consider themselves “thrifty, hardworking, rule-bound…white folks” that only persons of color get entitlements; to be white is by definition to work and to deserve the results.)
In the absence of work, he concludes, all we have is love. (Trying not to hum the Beatles in the background here…) And only when we’ve given everyone a guaranteed annual income can we begin to ask the
real questions. Like, why should I love God better than this day? What do I want to be when I grow up? Where’s the remote?
There is much to ponder in this book. I am not qualified to evaluate Livingston’s economic arguments, though I hope that some of the rest of you who are can read the book and help me out here. I am, however, qualified to evaluate theological arguments. And from that perspective, if you ever wanted to read a book that gets down among the specific “thorns and thistles” that people daily experience, as we like to call the painful aspects of work in the FAW movement, this is the book. It is a book which painfully wants the world to have meaning, and sees absolutely nothing in the modern landscape of work which will help that meaning come forth.
Now, as I said when I wrote about this before, I think there is a story of a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill (name that quote, just for fun) that might help us out here. But this book is a good reminder that platitudes are never a good response to thorns and thistles, and that when the real questions get asked, we need to be ready with real answers.